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Sound and Silence

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November 2007

a baptism of joyful fire : Afrika Burns synchroblog

Part of the Afrika Burns synchroblog, (for all participants see below).

Triple BypassA friend of mine who lives between San Francisco and Durban first told me about Burning Man in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert about 10 years ago. It sounded fascinating, but a little beyond my mien. Too dirty, too hedonistic, too hot, too freaky, too fiery; maybe these were my thoughts. But Steve’s recommendations have on a number of occasions proved to be significant dwell points on my journey (big up for Matthew Fox, Jay Bakker and Easy Star All Stars for starters).

When I first heard that BM was incarnating as Afrika Burns, I sensed an opportunity. Together with a few others, I started to investigate the culture. We went to a planning session for one of the “themed camps” and met several decidedly alternative people who were ecologically aware, spiritually seeking, largely vegetarian, and holistically creative.

All this has gone hand in hand with my own exploration of various aspects of spiritual life, largely reflected on this blog, see for example Ecclesia as Sacred Tribe, in which I have come to my own thoughts about what constitutes being a Jesus-follower and a human in this time of change. Read it if you want, for background.

So when I studied the Core principles(communal effort, participation, civic responsibility, immediacy, decommodification, gifting, leave no trace, radical inclusion, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression), I thought, Hmm – I can embrace that. The Liturgist in me went into overdrive; I saw all sorts of possibilities. Long story short; I dumped the plans and went with the flow. A wise move.

Because the flow was dusty, hot, festive and loud. Anything too contemplative was bound to be drowned. Besides, my greatest desire was to connect and build trust. Opportunities for expressed worship would come in their time. This was a time to celebrate.

Friday
5 dusty hours out of Cape Town, we rolled off the R355 into Stonehenge “Farm”, a lunar landscape of rock and sand, pans and bults(rocky hills) and a huge sky. We were greeted by a hostess with a clipboard and a pamphleteer festooned with nowt but a scarf. We headed into the “temporary autonomous zone” Tankwa Town and found a spot near “4ish street” at the edge of the scrub. A howling gale and 6 inches of sand before bedrock made tent erection a major challenge. In the end we tied the guy ropes to the wheels of our vehicle.

Tribute to John GongAt sunset we attended a Mayan Sundown Ritual. Besides the incessant wind, a wine bottle clutching, howling/growling participant all but drowned out the subtleties of the offerings. Inclusion was being put to the test. But we did manage to dance to djembe rhythms for about 10 minutes.

That evening we mosied on down to “partycipation”, hosted by the friends we had met 3 weeks earlier. A Bedouin-style community tent gave some shelter against the elements, and the resident DJ battled with dust but managed to put out some fine trance tracks. I did an AVJ Twinstar VJ set against a VW combi, and the sheer volume of dust was apparent for all to see in the projectors glare. We filmed and projected the full moon and energetic dancing; people loved it. But after an hour I was beat back by the elements, gills stuffed full with sand, (not to mention my new Sony Vaio).

Afterwards we went across the plain to “Camp Vuvuzela” (Vuvuzela– soccer trumpet) who were doing a balkan-mediteranean set. There were hundreds stomping up dust to the beats and the most incredible atmosphere. Burners spewed flame into the night sky; a 3M high “white man” danced with lasers in front and moon behind. Bedtime: between 2 and 4.

Saturday am
Maybe it’s in the genes: my brother, my brother-in-law and I decided to do a skyclad saunter around the binnekring (inside circle). That’s a slo-mo “streak” of about 20-25 minutes, with hats and shoes on of course. It was unashamed promenading, pre-fall Adam style; and we were met with nothing but admiration and support, and many a comment about having used enough sunblock. Half way along we heard a yell behind saying “Wait, wait, wait for moi” and were joined by a REAL (and female) nudist, our Eve, for the rest of the walk. She seemed to think we were the real thing, little did she suspect how much the imposter we were playing.

Flock of BalloonsSo having reclothed we took in the sites : a flock of balloons tethered to the ground, major construction on 4 story high burn works, a scorpion sculpture made of old car tyres, a blender powered by a bicycle for make-your-own smoothies, a fully functional snailmail post office. A series of dust devils started passing through, some sucking the contents of entire villages high into the sky. I just had to; and successfully got into the path of 2 and lived to tell the dusty tale.

At the hot point of the day, 3 pm, we had a sweat lodge in our tent, a blank canvas for meditation and cleansing. We received a word, too: “Freely give and you will be clean on the inside and the outside.” This was followed by the luxury of a shower gifted us by our highly evolved neighbours (4 families with about 12 kids). Later afternoon was spent chilling at partycipation and playing djembes and once more being gifted with icepacks to the face and neck.

Sunset was one of the most amazing co-incidences I have witnessed, and for which I praise the Creator. A group of dancers and drummers gathered around the fine “Sand pendulum” installation to watch the sundown. Not 5 minutes later, directly behind and due east, a huge full moon rose. People turned and fell to their knees. We all had a good howl, and saw one of the most beautiful moons I have even witnessed. We blessed babes in arms and a profound sense of Awe prevailed.

Saturday ce soir
Hoola hooping at Camp VuvuzelasFinally, it was time to give my new portable VJ screen a run. We headed for Camp Vuvuzela, and got set up. The vibe was quite electro/psytrance this time, but still the feeling of goodwill and celebration predominated. But as we got the projections going, the highpoint of festivity was upon us: partytime with luminous hoola hoops and sumptuous dancers. The whirling, the riot of colour, the primal energy, was palpable.

The only announcement of the entire weekend, (such was the sheer positive anarchy of the event), was that the main burn was postponed due to high winds, but a less dangerous immolation was going to happen at 12 midnight. So we packed up a mess of metal, plastic and dust and headed out west across the vlaktes (flat ground) to “Temple”. About 200 people stood expectantly around while “officials” kept order.

In a somewhat South African way, there were chants of “burn! burn! burn!” which I found distasteful – it seemed like sheer reactionary pyromania rather than reflective spirituality. The organisers had asked us to be reverent, but some people didn’t seem to take this admonition seriously. You can take the rugby nation into the wilderness but you can’t take the rugby spirit of bliksem-ming (vigorously deconstructing whatever comes to hand) out of the nation, it seems.

Fire PitThe temple burn was far slower than I had imagined it – it was not an instant fireworks-like thrill, but an opportunity to collectively gaze at the flames over about an hour. We missed the other burns, and the one I would have loved to see in addition to the man, was the “Turbine” by the Upsetters, possibly the most impressive work on display.

I reflected upon Christendom’s use of fire in times past, and felt a deep revulsion at its cruelty, its fear of the primal, its repression of festivity and creativity, and its arrogance. A time of repentance, for me, as a part of the ecclesia.

Sunday

The desert bloomsSunday morning we packed up but not before doing a lot of gifting. I placed my “Middle of it All” CD on sleeper’s pillows, and handed it out to those I had connected with over the previous days while my brother handed out postcards of his art … commerce-free, unmediated transactions of giving.

As we drove back towards civilisation, we listened to the Shamen’s “Axis Mutatis” and Stephen Micus’ “Desert Poems”, and began to reflect on how we had been transformed in our various ways, by the inaugural Afrika Burns.

Afrika Burns Synchroblog participants:

Other writings of note:

Get Down Tankwa Town

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Psychedelic Apocalypse – Terence McKenna’s Re:Evolution revisited

[Note : This is transcribed verbatim from The Shamen’s “Boss Drum” album (1994), and does not necessarily reflect my actual beliefs. However, it contains significant alternative prophetic content and is well worth noting. Emphases mine.]

Terence McKenna by Robert Venosa (www.venosa.com/terence_mckenna.jpg)If the truth can be told so as to be understood, it will be believed. Human history represents such a radical break with the natural systems of biological organization that preceded it, that it must be the response to a kind of attractor, or dwell point that lies ahead in the temporal dimension. Persistently, western religions have integrated into their theologies the notion of a kind of end of the world, and I think that a lot of psychedelic experimentation sort of confirms this intuition, I mean, it isn’t going to happen according to any of the scenarios of orthodox religion,

but the basic intuition, that the universe seeks closure in a kind of omega point of transcendence, is confirmed, it’s almost as though this object in hyperspace, glittering in hyperspace, throws off reflections of itself, which actually ricochet into the past, illuminating this mystic, inspiring that saint or visionary,

and that out of these fragmentary glimpses of eternity we can build a kind of map, of not only the past of the universe, and the evolutionary progression into novelty, but a kind of map of the future, this is what shamanism is always been about, a shaman is someone who has been to the end, it’s someone who knows how the world really works,

and knowing how the world really works means to have risen outside, above, beyond the dimensions of ordinary space, time, and [sic] causality, and actually seen the wiring under the board, stepped outside the confines of learned culture and learned and embedded language, into the domain of what Wittgenstein called “the unspeakable”,

the transcendental presence of the other, which can be absanctioned, in various ways, to yield systems of knowledge which can be brought back into ordinary social space for the good of the community, so in the context of ninety percent of human culture, the shaman has been the agent of evolution, because the shaman learns the techniques to go between ordinary reality and the domain of the ideas,

this higher dimensional continuum that is somehow parallel to us, available to us, and yet ordinarily occluded by cultural convention out of fear of the mystery I believe, and what shamans are, are people who have been able to de-condition themselves from the community’s instinctual distrust of the mystery,

and to go into it, to go into this bewildering higher dimension, and gain knowledge, recover the jewel lost at the beginning of time, to save souls, cure, commune with the ancestors and so forth and so on.

Shamanism is not a religion, it’s a set of techniques, and the principal technique is the use of psychedelic plants. What psychedelics do is they dissolve boundaries, and in the presence of dissolved boundaries, one cannot continue to close one’s eyes to the ruination of the earth, the poisoning of the seas, and the consequences of two thousand years of unchallenged dominator culture, based on monotheism, hatred of nature, suppression of the female, and so forth and so on.

So, what shamans have to do is act as exemplars, by … making this cosmic journey to the domain of the Gaian ideas, and then bringing them back in the form of art to the struggle to save the world. The planet has a kind of intelligence, that it can actually open a channel of communication with an individual human being.

The message that nature sends is, transform your language through a synergy between electronic culture and the psychedelic imagination, a synergy between dance and idea, a synergy between understanding and intuition, and dissolve the boundaries that your culture has sanctioned between you, to become part of this Gaian supermind, I mean I think

it’s fairly profound, it’s fairly apocalyptic. History is ending. I mean, we are to be the generation that witnesses the revelation of the purpose of the cosmos. History is the shock wave of the eschaton. History is the shock wave of eschatology, and what this means for those of us who will live through this transition into hyperspace, is that we will be privileged to see the greatest release of compressed change probably since the birth of the universe.

The twentieth century is the shudder that announces the approaching cataracts of time over which our species and the destiny of this planet is about to be swept.

If the truth can be told so as to be understood, it will be believed.

The emphasis in house music and rave culture on physiologically compatible rhythms and this sort of thing is really the rediscovery of the art of natural magic with sound, that sound, properly understood, especially percussive sound, can actually change neurological states, and

large groups of people getting together in the presence of this kind of music are creating a telepathic community of bonding that hopefully will be strong enough that it can carry the vision out into the mainstream of society. I think that the youth culture that is emerging in the nineties is an end of the millennium culture that is actually summing up Western civilization and pointing us in an entirely different direction, that

we’re going to arrive in the third millennium, in the middle of an archaic revival, which will mean a revival of these physiologically empowering rhythm signatures, a new art, a new social vision, a new relationship to nature, to feminism, to ego.

All of these things are taking hold, and not a moment too soon.

baptised – a journey

into air 61
into manhood 74
into music 75

into christ son of g-d 79
into spirit and water 80
into fire 82

into justice 85
into matrimony 89

into shadow 94
into mammon 95

into fatherhood 99
into cosmos 06
into jesus son of man 07

baptised
into fullness of life
incarnate, re-incarnate
into a festive g-d
immersed and re-immersed

baptised, rebaptised
towards completeness
towards celebration

towards that abiding joy

AfterBurn – a Karoo flowering, upcoming synchroblog.

triple bypass photo by Rob MillsA group of 5 intrepid journeymen headed for the desert heartland and the Afrika Burns festival at Stonehenge farm, near the Tankwa Karoo National Park this last weekend. About 6-800 others from well organised families to student slackers to trance party vets to die hard hippies to spiritual seekers to hedonists to Gaian survivalists, all thrown together for a few days of celebration of life, diversity, and giving.

It was dustily comforting, scintillatingly bleak, hilariously shocking, gloriously inventive, primally experimental, unconditionally festive, profoundly challenging. More than that, much more. In short, we felt like we have been through a transformation, an affirmation, a validation, a rite of passage. This is what some of us have been seeking in 25 years of (largely church based) conferences/camps/festivals.

upsetters turbine photo by Rob MillsThat’s enough for now; we are going to synchroblog the experience and/or for those who didn’t make it, just the ideas, on Thursday 29th. So if you didn’t make it but would like to contribute to the debate, or even just ask questions about what it might be, you are invited.

Each synchroblog will contain your main thoughts followed by the list of synchrobloggers. The cut-off is Wednesday 28th; send your article URL in a comment here. I will publish Wednesday evening and you can cut and paste the list bit for your articles from me.

camp vuvuzela photo by Rob Mills

Ecclesia as Sacred Tribe.

Ecclesia – (lat. from Greek ekklesia [εκκλησία]): a “gathering” of citizens, in an ancient Greek city-state; a “gathering of the called out ones”, gathering of those summoned”.  [britannica.com]

Tribe – A socially, ethnically, and politically cohesive group of people. [wiktionary]

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. [1 Peter 2:9]

Written with a view towards “Afrika Burns” with the theme “tribe” (November 2007), the South African version of Burning Man.

I have no real training in social theory, anthropology or ecclesiology, but I’m not going to let that get in the way: I’d like to take a non-expert, common sense, imaginative foray into the idea that G-ds people, the ecclesia (more commonly but more problematically known as “the church”), might be imagined as a Sacred Tribe.

Firstly, I like to explore my own myths (as at least somewhat representative of my culture), to unpack the key terms. What do I mean, and not mean, by “ecclesia”, and by “tribe”?

Ecclesia is not

  • a building or place where Christians meet.
  • any organisation based on certain doctrines.
  • the moral authority.
  • a time of the week.

Rather, the ecclesia is the community of believers who seek to follow Jesus, the mystical “Body of Christ”. It includes people of all cultures, ages, subcultural affiliations, denominations, and doctrinal persuasions. It has a time dimension, and exists through history, as well as into the future. As to who is actually included, only G-d ultimately knows.

What about “Tribe”, or “Tribal”? Here are some of the thoughts that come to mind:

  • non-Western – e.g. “The social structure of African Tribes”.
  • non-Urban or Pagan – “The Tribal customs of the countryside”.
  • primitive – “In earlier, tribal days”.
  • an ironic anachronism: (re-using an ancient term to describe contemporary subcultures), as in “The Modern Tribes of Britain”.
  • having a similar ethos : “We have like this rapport, y’know, we’re the same tribe”.

So why would one bring the concept “ecclesia” together with the term “tribe”?

As we see in the above definition, the ecclesia are “called out”, and there is a sense in which they need to forge an identity different to the default identity of their culture. Generalising, the “Western” culture which I for one find myself in, is essentially individualist, materialist consumerism.

Inside this culture, people identify with brands or economic classes before other things – ethnicity, culture or nationality. Globalisation is about the homogenisation of world culture around consumer values and technology. Whereas the Catholic Church may have been the overarching authority for a millennium and a half, and nationality thereafter, it is now the superbrands who call the shots. I wear Nike, I use a Mac, I drink Coke.

In my western, 21st century context, this global consumer culture is what is rejected by Jesus when he says, “My kingdom is not of this world”. [John 18:36]. This culture stands diametrically opposed to the “Kingdom of God”. To my ears there are more than a few echoes of the Roman Empire, the dominant political power of his milieu, in the current consumerist age.

One of the key features of Empire is its veneration of the City as the seat of authority. Empire is essentially urban rather than rural. As such, many fundamental values of life – connectedness to the soil, closeness with nature, and simplicity, are superseded by market economies, abstraction from nature, artifice, and increasing sophistication.

As an aside, I am not dispensing entirely with the hope that “City” might represent more than this negative picture, note its uses in Augustine (“The City of God against the Pagans”) and the book of Revelation (The New Jerusalem). Additionally most of the apostolic writings are letters to churches in urban centres, and there is no direct suggestion that living in an urban setting was of itself unethical.

Also, it is important to realise that the “pagan”, so often demonised by christian theology, means both “rustic” as well as (in the Roman context, according to Steve Hayes) “civilian, not in the imperial army”. I have been discussing the prophetic nature of the pagan in recent posts.

But I feel that it is now appropriate to re-examine our assumptions about the urban, especially insofar as we are living in an advanced state of spiritual dis-ease. The unchecked trend towards urbanisation has a cost, and we need to count this.

To the extent that it represents the Kingdom of G-d, the ecclesia will find itself at odds with the Empire of Materialist Consumerism. The called out ones are “called out” precisely to live a life different to this, where the values of G-d are both respected and enacted: community rather than individualism, spiritual rather than materialist progress, serventhood rather than mastery, obedience rather than autonomy, creating rather than consuming, nature rather than artifice.

As far as I understand, before Cities and City-States, community took place in a different way: The Way of the Tribe. I need to acknowledge that any elevation of Tribe (even using a capital “T”) is open to the romantic. But since this is not social science, but rather an exercise in re-envisioning, I am not going to be afraid of skirting ideal and dream. Obviously if we go too far we end up with something no-one can practice, and I am interested in changing the way I live rather than simply playing with ideas.

Clearly, the tribal is not without problems. Warfare between Iraqi tribal groups has derailed the nation; intertribal fighting almost derailed the South African transformation process. And as David Ronfeldt points out : “Continuing to view Al Qaeda mainly as a cutting–edge, post–modern phenomenon of the information age misses a crucial point: Al Qaeda is using the information age to revitalize and project ancient patterns of tribalism on a global scale.”

Obviously we need to radically rework any concept of the tribal with a view to values such as peace, compassion and inclusion. Despite notions of hospitality and care of the stranger in many bona fide tribal cultures, most models of tribe seem to have had strong delineators defining who was in and who was out. If we have a view of the world informed by G-d’s Kingdom, then we cannot define belonging based on hard borders and bounded sets.

I have increasingly found that looking backwards is a good way to move forward. We are not trying to romanticise the past, or become something archaic or premodern, but rather to understand and distil principles we see having merit and reapplying them in our context.

The Way of the Tribe seems to me to represent a viable alternative to the domination of the urban, as well as offering a worthy expression of the ecclesia and the Kingdom of G-d.

So we can not accept the idea of the tribe uncritically. But neither can we reject it without proper understanding; we need to recognise that modernity has not in fact superseded tribalism, but rather sublimated it. Many aspects of the tribal have simply been repressed; as such they are still present but unacknowledged. This repression results in, for example:

  • gang mentality – banding together to survive, especially in a ghettoised situation.
  • an unearthed spirituality – spirit-matter dualism, whereby the shamanic or nature based aspects of religion are demonised. We are left with spirituality unconnected with creation.
  • unnatural and impotent social alignments – birds of a feather still flock together, but over things like economic status/aspiration, branding, racial identity, nationalism leading to xenophobia, sporting allegiances, hobbies, and a variety of other factors which do not have the power to build true community.

I would like to present a few ways in which I find a tribal paradigm helpful, especially as a metaphor for the ecclesia:

  • Common Good: In a tribal ethic, the common good comes before the individual good. Acts 4:34 records that “there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.”. And 2 Cor 8:15, “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”
  • Honour Motivation: As opposed to the profit motivation of the City, Tribes according to David Ronfeldt “… behave more like balance–of–honor than balance–of–power systems.” If we remind ourselves of the purpose of the ecclesia, which according to N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, are to “be Gods agents in the putting the world to rights”. The means of this are the placing of the creator on the throne, in worship. An honour motivation, in honouring G-d the creator as the central presence within the tribe, appears to be a credible alternative to the profit motivation of this current age.
  • Connected to the earth: “Treat the earth well, it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children”, says an American Native proverb. The tribe lives close to the earth, lives off the soil, is deeply aware of season, climate and its place in things. Rather than the land belonging to us, we belong to the land. One of the most devastating effects of western colonial expansion was the annihilation of native and tribal peoples in their deeply misguided belief that they could “own” what ever land or resources they wanted to. In so doing, the real custodians of the creation were systematically wiped out, their millennia-old wisdom disappearing in the process. Not only are the effects of this western attitude are now being felt, but the genocide and ecocide of the last 2 centuries has been a corporate sin of immense proportions.
  • Bound in Ritual: The rituals and icons commonplace in tribal culture are, like the tribal itself, sublimated in western urbanism. This sublimation creates lifeless habits from healthy ritual, and idols from icons. The empty informalism and lack of imagination of our way of life robs us of a sense of the sacred, the creative and the communal. Many westerners are starting to acknowledge that the rites of passage practiced in earlier times – coming of age, birth, death – have gone missing at great cost.

The 21st Century Tribe

What might this new Tribe look like in practice?

  • New or creatively reappropriated Rituals and Liturgy appropriate to our situation.
  • More dance and rhythm : “I praise the dance, for it frees people from the heaviness of matter and binds the isolated to community.” [St Augustine]
  • Eldership over Celebrity. We need to acknowledge the wisdom of the wise and root out our need for gossip and celebrity as sources of affirmation.
  • An ethic of gifting and servanthood over acquiring and self-preservation.
  • An economic of sharing over profiteering.
  • An economic of barter, wherein we exchange things and skills based on what we do, make or already own, rather than buy into the cult of the new, the cool or the industrially manufactured.
  • The decommodifying of our exchanges. Friendship and kinship over sales and “client” interaction.
  • An active ecology: care of the earth, and efforts to live more in tune with it, political action with existing efforts. More time spent in the open, walking, camping, gardening.
  • A new agriculture: Growing our own, or supporting organic farmers, and going directly to the source rather than via the repackaging supply chain of the market process.
  • A vibrant spirituality which acknowledges the untamed, rediscovering the shamanic arts. Aligning to nature based approaches such as the Wheel of the Year, over more artificial or “scientific” calendars; rediscovering the totemic.
  • A living mythology which feeds the imagination, in which narratives are told and retold, directly and intimately rather than via the products of industrial mythmakers like Disney.
  • Technology in its right place. Always question the increasing ubiquity of computers, entertainment devices and impersonal systems instead of passively accepting it. Says Adbusters Kalle Lasn: “When the TV malfunctions, don’t fix it; decide to suffer through the withdrawal. Fight your way out of the consumerist cage.”
  • Creativity in all things, to combat our industrial alienation from the processes of production. Buying less, making more.
  • Holding our place in the created order, and holding the Creator as the “Honour Centrepiece” of all that the Ecclesial Tribe does.

praise of the dance

carol_cropped.jpgI praise the dance, for it frees people from the heaviness of matter and binds the isolated to community.

I praise the dance, which demands everything: health and a clear spirit and a buoyant soul.

Dance is a transformation of space, of time, of people, who are in constant danger of becoming all brain, will, or feeling.

Dancing demands a whole person, one who is firmly anchored in the center of his life, who is not obsessed by lust for people and things and the demon of isolation in his own ego.

Dancing demands a freed person, one who vibrates with the equipoise of all his powers.

I praise the dance.

O man, learn to dance, or else the angels in heaven will not know what to do with you.
 
Saint Augustine (A.D. 354 … 430) 

(from  the website of Heiner Fischle)

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