I grew up in a quirky little strip of south Mississippi, more New Orleans than Tupelo, at the bottom of the Bible Belt. With a Baptist church in a Catholic majority culture, and with half my family on both sides of that religious divide, I saw the best sides of either, and the dark sides of both.
Around me I saw Catholic casino night fundraisers and Baptist business meetings and neither looked much like the Book of Acts. When it came to the divide between Catholics and evangelicals, we knew there were some big differences which resulted in the Protestant Reformation and all, but, day to day those differences seemed to my friends and me to amount to little more than who had a black spot on the their foreheads once a year and whose parents drank beer right out in the open. For the grown-ups though (at least the grown-ups outside of my mixed together extended family), the differences mattered a lot. And much of it was summed up in Mardi Gras.
I loved (and love!) Mardi Gras. I suppose that’s because all I saw were the warm traditions and rituals, king cakes and parades and candy, rather than the full Bourbon Street experience. Some of the older Baptists in my community downright hated the whole idea of Fat Tuesday. They knew that Mardi Gras was the day before Ash Wednesday. After Mardi Gras was the beginning of Lent, the forty days of fasting rooted in Jesus’ time without food in the wilderness temptations. And they saw this party as blasphemy.
“Those Catholics, they just go out and get as drunk as they want to, eat till they vomit,” I remember one neo-Puritan naysayer lamenting. “They’re just getting it all out of their system before they have to get all somber and holy for Lent.” This never made an anti-Catholic out of me because I never saw any of my devout Catholic relatives or friend behaving that way. But it certainly was true, out there in the larger culture.
As the years have gone by, I’ve concluded that we Baptists had Mardi Gras too. This phenomenon was seen in Baptist churches dotted all over the South. Mardi Gras Protestantism didn’t celebrate a day on the yearly calendar, but on the calendar of the lifespan.
The cycle went something like this. You were born, then reared up in Sunday school until you were old enough to raise your hand when the teacher asked who believes in Jesus and wants to go to heaven. At this point you were baptized, usually long before the first pimple of puberty, and shortly thereafter you had your first spaghetti dinner fund-raise to go to summer youth camp. And then sometime between fifteen and twenty you’d go completely wild.
In many Baptist churches, the “College and Career” Sunday school class was somewhat like our view of purgatory. It might be there, technically, but there was no one in it. After a few years of carnality, you’d settle down, get married, start having kids, and you’d be back in church, just in time to get those kids into Sunday school and start that cycle all over again. If you didn’t get divorced or indicted, you’d be chairman of deacons or head of the Woman’s Missionary Union by the time your own kids were going completely wild.
It was just kind of expected. You were going to get things out of your system before you settled down. You know, I never could find that in the Book of Acts either.
In both our culturally captive Catholic culture and in our culturally captive Baptist culture, the appetites were seen, far too often, as gods to be appeased, rather than flesh to be crucified. The flesh was gotten control of, no doubt, but by sating it rather than by conforming it to the gospel.
The end result of this kind of “Christianity” is as bleak as the morning after Mardi Gras. Settling down isn’t the same as repentance. Giving up one appetite for another isn’t the same as grace.
This Tuesday I plan to eat King Cake, and I’ll listen to the festive music of my homefolk. But I will also pray for my kids, and for myself, to follow a Christ who refuses to follow the belly and who promises to feed us with his own inheritance. That’s hard to see for a world in which the appetites rule, a world in which it’s always Mardi Gras and never Easter.
Dr. Russell D. Moore is the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.