The Common Good

Theophony: A Theremin, a Yurt and a Band of Holy Fools

Theremin, Yurt, Holy Fool, Burning Man. Collage by Cathleen Falsani.
Theremin, Yurt, Holy Fool, Burning Man. Collage by Cathleen Falsani.

Last year, Phil Wyman, pastor of The Gathering church in Salem, Mass., trekked across the country with five adventurous friends to Burning Man — a week-long event described by its attendees as "an experiment in community, art, radical self-expression, and radical self-reliance" in the Black Rock desert of Nevada.

At the 2011 Burning Man, Wyman and his merry band of "crazy friends" built an art installation called "The Pillars of the Saints" — three meditation towers constructed of wood in the desert, asked people to sit on top of them, listen for a voice (presumably of the Holy), and write what they heard on the walls of the pillars.

"We entered the event with the assumption that Yesterday's madmen have become today's seers, and prophets, and saints; and that it was similarly likely that some of today's madmen will become tomorrow's seers, and prophets, and saints," Wyman wrote of the Pillars experience on his blog last year. "Of course, not all voices people hear are beneficial, but we believed that many of those voices have the potential for transformation and good. As Christians, we came with the assumption that Spirit of God desires to speak to people today, just as the stories of the scriptures tell us happened then. This was the art we hoped God might ride on and whisper through."

Thousands came to see and to meditate (and listen) upon the pillars. In typical Burning Man fashion, Wyman and company burned the pillars to the ground when the event drew to a close.

This year, Wyman (who you might recognize from photos at the Wild Goose Festival last month where he played the "Holy Fool" in a Sunday morning worship service),  has invited more than 15 friends to join him in the Nevada desert at the end of August for Burning Man 2012 where the group plans to build another art installation — this one even more ambitious and whimsical than the last.

Wyman & Co., have christened it "Theophony: The Mighty Interactive Faux Theremin." It involves an enormous, specially-built  theremin placed at the center of a 32-foot canvas-and-wood yurt, with walls comprised of a series of 22 four-by-eight-foot murals with themes reflecting the "success and failures of spiritual pursuit."

"The participant will feel a sense of dissonance while trying to 'play' the theremin," in tune with the chants and ambient music piped through the yurt, Wyman explains. The idea of Theophony is "to illustrate that spiritual pursuit is a discipline, but that even the imperfect attempt is both holy and fun."

I'll let Phil and friends explain their project in more detail in the video below:

Wyman's team hopes to raise the $15,000 or so needed to construct and transport Theophony to Burning man next month via Kickstart.

So ... why  are they doing this?

"Most of us are Jesus followers," Wyman says, "and we believe in a gentle and wonderful revolution of God that can happen in the carnivals and the festivals of our world today."

Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl.

Collage images: Member of the Polyphonic Spree band playing a theremin in concert by Jim Dyson/Getty Images. A Mongolian yurt by  withGod /Shutterstock. The Rev. Phil Wyman (as "The Holy Fool") at the 2012 Wild Goose Festival by Cathleen Falsani/Sojourners. And  Black Rock City, Nev. and the Burning Man installation by Manamana/Shutterstock. Image of "Pillars of the Saints" via Wyman's blog, Square No More.

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