Once upon a time there was this strange religious phenomenon in American life -- especially in mass media -- that was known as the New Age Movement. Does anyone remember all of that? I read lots of horrid books about the stuff and one really good one, by one of the best religion-beat professionals of all time (click here for info).
Anyway, as a reporter who worked in that era, I ultimate decided that the so-called New Age Movement was a lot of things.
One one level it was simply the Old Age Movement in new clothes, in that it put a fresh, hip, media-friendly face on a lot of alternative forms of religion that had been around for centuries. Some people insisted that it was the first sign of mass public acceptance of watered-down elements from Neopaganism (an opinion that I have heard some pagans accept and others angrily reject).
I kind of thought the New Age materials that worked best with ordinary Americans were those that blended elements of Eastern religion, the '60s, environmentalism and liberal Christianity into a form that sold well on Oprah. Some called it Americanized Buddhism, which I think is an insult to Buddhism.
However, this pop spirituality was the part of the New Age wave that washed up on the beach called Middle America, and then soaked into the sand.
But whatever the New Age Movement was, it was clear that the annual Burning Man Festival was its Super Bowl -- at least for those seeking a masculine face for this alleged movement. It was the sort of photo op that worked well in the New York Times in PG-13 form, yet also was natural R-rated material for Rolling Stone.
I seem to remember, however, that there were plenty of people who honestly thought that the Burning Man had something to do with spirituality or emerging forms of religion. You know, liberating the mind and the spirit and what not. Maybe it was spirits, plural. Sorry, but I'm getting old.
Anyway, this brings me to the very strange feature story that ran in the Style section at the Washington Post the other day, with the headline: "Burning Man: A countercultural experiment goes mainstream." Clearly, the goal of this piece was to parade the usual Burning Man cliches and then slap a cynical smile on the whole scene. Here's the thesis, after the usual blitz of naked wackos:
The most radical and countercultural aspect of this famously radical and countercultural gathering is now this: Burning Man has gone mainstream.
For the first time in its 25-year history, the art festival once known as a free-spirited sex-and-drugs romp in the desert sold out all of its tickets (most costing several hundred dollars) -- including to investment bankers, CEOs and government employees with security clearances who are no longer embarrassed to show up at work this week and tell their co-workers where they’ve been.
This year, the event -- formed around a giant neon-covered statue of The Man and dedicated to promoting anti-commercialism -- has undergone an organizational restructuring that could allow its founders to cash out as multimillionaires.
“It’s no longer considered a freak-fest in the business world. It is kind of a weirdly normal thing in a lot of circles now,” said Matt Cheney, 56, chief executive of an energy investment fund in San Francisco, who has attended for five years and is no longer surprised to run into his employees and fellow top corporate executives. “Burning Man has gone from carrying a stigma to having a cachet in the business community.”
OK, raise your hand if this surprises you. It sure didn't surprise me.
What did surprise me is that this story is stunningly spirituality free. There are references to old idealistic principles, free seminars, radical inclusion and unconditional giving -- but that's about as deep as things get. Oh, and those idealistic scraps are not where the real action is these days. That's the point.
So what is left? After the Burning Man burns down, what's left (other than ashes)?
This seems to be the heart of the matter, in terms of religious rituals:
Call it Disneyland for adults, a giant carnival, Mad Max meets an art festival or a glimpse of Tatooine, but no description quite encapsulates the fact that standing in the middle of a barren desert, you could stumble upon nearly any scene imaginable.
A giant neon chicken carrying a few dozen passengers will drive through the dust, while nearby two women in corsets fight each other in a huge steel cage called the Thunder Dome. Giant raves with some of the best-known DJs in the world play until dawn as a 30-ton, 50-foot-tall Trojan horse that cost $80,000 to build is shot at with flaming arrows until it burns to the ground. You also might walk past a giant orgy, and you almost certainly will see people ingesting just about every type of narcotic known to man.
You can’t help but think: Is this really happening?
So what's left of the New Age? Frankly that sounds very, very old age to me -- if you're looking for religion. What did I miss?