Burning the Temple

BM Temple _ Kevin Rolly

The following post is the introductory chapter to the in process book Burning Religion: navigating the impossible space between the church and the world. Thanks for checking in. If you like what see, follow this site and watch the progress.

The Temple burned. Twenty thousand people stood in silence around the holy place as the flames leaped into the star dotted heavens. The fire climbed the walls, engulfing the pagoda-like roof, and licked the night sky. Tears streamed in the quiet crowd. An occasional gasp broke the silence.

No one fought the fire. The temple’s complete destruction was a foregone conclusion. As the fire grew, the flames reached hundreds of feet like grasping hands into the dark night. This had been the only temple the city had ever known, and its burning marked the end of their existence as a cohesive community. It held their dreams, and their fears. Years of loss and struggle were etched in the walls now consumed by flames. Lost loved ones had been dedicated to eternity here. Addictions had been surrendered here. Hopes clung stubbornly to the burning walls. Long held dreams rehearsed themselves in the smoldering thoughts of the silent crowd, and the people watched those stubborn hopes billow upward choking heaven with its thick smoke.

The temple had been one of the first structures erected. During the life of the city, it was the tallest building, and helped to serve as a navigational guide in the network of communities – perhaps as a premonition of the central place it would hold in the lives of the people. Already the once strong city of over 50,000 had begun to scatter. Fire and destruction had engulfed much of the city in the previous days. These 20,000 souls were the last holdouts – perhaps they were those who had the greatest emotional and physical investment in the community. Perhaps they were merely those who were afraid to leave. The silence was dark, dense and awesome. Vocal expression beyond the occasional gasp and sob was an invasion to this moment of dark holy crisis.

The blaze eventually consumed the walls. Roofs collapsed in leaping pillars of smoke, and when the main tower fell, the flames jumped high into the dark sky. The scattering embers joined the stars on the black canvas of the night, and dying fell back to earth.

I was there when the temple fell. Emotion swept over the city folk with the waves of pulsing heat.

The crowd broke the silence with a cheer. And I cheered with them.


This was Burning Man 2011. The week long festival on the barren Black Rock Playa of the northern Nevada desert is a city-sized carnival of art, fire, lights, explosions, music, hedonism, spiritual pursuit, protest, and just about anything almost anyone might be looking for in an environment only the wildest dare to enter. During the week of its existence, it is Nevada’s fourth largest city.

Burning Man is where Mad Max meets the Metropolitan Museum of Art meets the Fourth of July. Apocalyptic images and anarchy crash together with art and fire.

2011 marked the first time the temple was taller than the primary art structure of the event – the Man.

Burning Man began as beach party in San Francisco, California. That first year, in 1986, an 8′ tall human-shaped structure was burned on the beach among friends, and it began this wild twenty-five year ride of experimental community and artistic expression. Each year, a newly erected Man, now five-stories tall burns among blaring sound systems, performance artists, and dance parties. But since 1999, a temple has been erected, and now the week concludes with the burning of the temple. The sound systems are quieted, and the last of the previously partying crowds stay to express something emotional, transformative, and somehow quietly celebratory as the temple burns in the final act of this absurd theater that is Burning Man.

The temporary temple serves as a catharsis for the participants of Burning Man, a type of postmodern non-religious evangelical altar. Pictures of loved ones who have died are hung on the walls. Permanent markers stain the temple with holy graffiti: words of release, words of pain, words of victory over addiction, words of surrender, words of grief, words of joy, words of dreams to come, words of pop wisdom, words of praise to the divine, words of blasphemy, words of confession, words of anger, and words of love. The burning of the temple becomes the release point for many of the hopes and frustrations of those who have decorated and violated its walls. The tears, which streamed from faces during the burning flowed from both the sense of life’s impermanence created by this temporary temple, and the release of the dreams and sorrows with the rising smoke.

Could it be that each year this temporary community of wild artists, hedonists, and subculture prophets are creating prescient moments speaking to the cultures and the religions in these days in which we live? Could the burning of the temple speak both to the potential power and the simultaneous impotence of spirituality in the 21st Century?

I came to Burning Man as a cultural missionary and a participating artist in 2011. The burning of the temple spoke like a mad prophet, and gave me a glimpse into my own religion from the perspective of those who usually look uncomfortably at it from the outside.

I wear a rough homemade copper Burning Man necklace around my neck sometimes. I do not wear jewelry of any kind typically, but this piece was “gifted” to me during the first year I attended Burning Man. It is a reminder to me of things all the crazy places like Burning Man have taught me.

I’ve lived most all my Christian life as a missional adventurer. I don’t recommend this life to everyone. The price is high. Angels take out insurance policies for themselves while following adventurers. But, the lessons are deep for those who will brave the environments, which are so unlike the staid church world many people live within.

It is in these places we find the greatest critiques of Christianity: critiques both accurate and intelligent, as well as those birthed out the angry responses of pop-culture, and the politics of power. We would be remiss to dismiss these critiques, even when they are in many ways misdirected.

The little burning man around my neck reminds me of the impotent religion our society simultaneously cheers and mourns every time they see it fall. It reminds me of priests and preachers who have harmed honestly seeking people with the abuse of power and the sticky fingers of lust and greed. Yet, it also reminds me of a religion whose potential power in this temporary world reaches towards the eternal heights of heaven, and of a fire that still burns in the hearts of those who seek to express God in simple, honest and consequently radical ways.

Religion burns.

This is both an indictment and a hopeful expectation. Marxist Philosopher and atheist Slavoj Zizek recently wrote about the Spanish anarchist Buenaventura Durutti who was quoted as saying that “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.” “He was right,” said Zizek, “though not in the anti-clerical sense his remark was intended to have. Religion only arrives at its truth through its self-cancellation.”[1]

Self-cancellation was the act of God at the crucifixion of Christ. It is the continuing act of the church, while it learns to walk in “the fellowship of His sufferings.”[2] Unlike Zizek anticipates, I see this self-cancellation of the church as more than a Hegelian synthesis into some(socialist)thing better.[3] Rather, I see radical renewal into the miraculous in every generation of a church re-birthed as the Phoenix from the ashes.

Perhaps both Durutti and Zizek are correct. The burning of the church is positive. It is a sign of our capacity to disconnect from this broken world. It is the fiery crucifixion[4] Zizek envisions. It may also be the loss of an oppressive human authority within religion, as Durutti celebrated.

The tensions of a burning religion are both a terrible loss and a hopeful expectation. That is what these stories, and musings are all about.

The little copper man around my neck reminds me of the fallen temple at Burning Man. It reminds me that people are simultaneously mourning and celebrating the falling of the temple of my faith. This copper man also calls me to apologize for, to respond to, to encourage, and to create a burning religion.

[1] Slavoj Zizek, Religion & Ethics: Content from Across the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Company) The only church that illuminates is a burning church – Slavoj Zizek ABC Religion and Ethics 8 Aug 2011, Also: Slavoj Zizek; John Milbank. The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (Kindle Locations 4756-4757). Kindle Edition.
[2] Philippians 3:10
[3] Slavoj Zizek re-imagines the death of Christ on the cross as the loss of “the Big Other” – as the death of God. To Zizek, the crucifixion event marks the moment when we are completely alone in the universe, but consequently fully free. The liberating result is that we are called to become the community of the Holy Ghost, which he interprets as the ultimate egalitarian expression – people filled with love and serving one another. Zizek sees Christianity as a paradigm describing a philosophically materialist Gospel of human potential enacting justice and equality, “An egalitarian community outside of social hierarchy is possible. That is the good news.” (God in Pain: inversions on apocalypse, with Boris Gunevic) Quote from LA Library dialogue with Slavoj Zizek.
[4] Just in case this connection between death by burning and the crucifixion is misunderstood, let me be clear. This illustration has no connection to the Scottish rite of burning a cross on a hill to call people to war, nor to the obscene adoption by the KKK of the burning cross. If anything, this is a sacred inversion of such militaristic perspectives of the cross. It represents an intellectual and existential death through our own struggles, and the resultant loss of trust in corporate Christianity. The only warlike features to this “fiery crucifixion” are the internal war against the violent elements we hold within ourselves.

You can read more about my interaction with, and thoughts about the Burning Man Festival and its Ten Principles here. The Christianity Today article published in July 2012 can be found here.

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