Burning Man, Green Acre, and Ritual in U.S. Religious History

By Michael J. Altman

This morning I came across an interview with Lee Gilmore at Religion Dispatches where she discusses her new book Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man (UC Press).  The full interview deserves a read, especially the story of how she came upon the books title, but what jumped out to me were the following portions:

This decadent ritualism, which can be both sincere and satirical, casts the festival as a semi-religious cultural happening. Furthermore, many participants describe Burning Man as a “spiritual” experience, but deny that it constitutes a new religious movement as such. Organizers too explicitly hope  that the event will “produce positive spiritual change in the world,” even while they also stop short of characterizing the event as “religious.” My work sought to explore the tension between “spirituality” and “religion” in the narratives of Burning Man participants in order to better understand how religio-cultural systems operate and adapt.
The popular term “spiritual but not religious” only goes so far in describing an event like this. I think Burning Man shows us the enduring importance of ritual as a vehicle through which humans connect with one another and as well as with a mysterious “more,” while also showing us how these expressions are increasingly displaced outside the bounds of the dominant Western cultural concepts of “religion.” Burning Man is on the vanguard of contemporary religious movements that resist easy classification by favoring eclecticism and hybridity. Yet in articulating a clear ethos  that places a core emphasis on building and supporting community—both inside and outside the confines of the week-long event—Burning Man manages to be individualistic and idiosyncratic without being solipsistic.

I haven't read Gilmore's book, though I'm really excited about it after reading the interview, but it did remind me of something I had just finished re-reading.  I'm in the midst of that wonderful summertime project known as "studying for comprehensive exams" and I just finished going back through Leigh Eric Schmidt's Restless Souls: The Birth of American Spirituality.  In that book, Schmidt has a great chapter on the Green Acre community founded by Sarah Farmer in Eliot, Maine.  But when reading the chapter recently I was struck by what little material Schmidt gives on the ritual practice of the community  There are a few mentions of morning walks on the dewy grass and meditation and a great narrative of the history of the community and its participants but I never got a picture of what life was like on daily basis within the commnunity.  Perhaps that information just isn't in the record and I don't mean to take pot shots at an important book.  Rather, I merely want to speculate that the same ritual life represented by Burning Man has antecedents in Green Acre.  I bet Schmidt would grant that, as well. 

But to push it further, as Lee makes the point above, certain rituals associated with the "spiritual not religious" challenge the notion of what counts as "religion" in American culture and, I would argue, push historians of religion to reconsider ritual as the central category for these post-non-Protestant forms of the sacred in America.  The point that belief has been central to narratives of American religious history is worn out, but I think that as we begin to reconsider and write the history of religion in America during the latter half of the 20th century into the 21st we may have shift our consideration to ritual.  Many people have done this and continue to do this.  But the challenge is not to simply adopt existing definitions of ritual and write them into our histories, but rather to use the diversity of sacred phenomenon in American history to reconsider the category of ritual and its relationship w/ things like belief, myth, identity, etc. 

Look out for more on this when I get my hands on Lee's book.


Christopher said…
Nice post, Michael. I'll have to check out Gilmore's book. And I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one around here spending the summer studying for comps.
lee said…
Thanks much for the shout out. I, for one, will be *thrilled* if my book prompts historians to "to reconsider ritual as the central category for these post-non-Protestant forms of the sacred in America," and so glad to see you got that take-away.