There’s nothing quite as bleak as a city street the morning after Mardi Gras. The steam of the humidity rises silently over asphalt riddled with forgotten doubloons, broken bottles, littered cigarettes, used condoms, clotted blood, and mangled vomit. This sight was, for some of the convictional Evangelicals in my hometown, a parable of what was wrong with Roman Catholicism. I wasn’t so sure.
I am a product of “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” By that I don’t mean the 1994 statement of cultural co-belligerency led by Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus. I mean that since my father was the son of a Southern Baptist preacher and my mother was a Roman Catholic, I am, quite literally, the product of an Evangelical and a Catholic, together. Half my family was Southern Baptist and the other half Roman Catholic, and my family divide perfectly summed up the larger community around us.
Biloxi, my quirky little strip of home on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, was discovered by the French, and supplemented in that heritage with an influx of immigrants drawn to work in the seafood industry. “Vuyovich,” “Stanovich,” and “Nguyen” were as common of names on my class roles as “Smith” and “Jones.” This meant that my hometown was an outpost of a Catholic majority situated right at the bottom of the Bible Belt of the old Confederacy.
Being situated just over the state line from the Big Easy, we were more New Orleans than Tupelo, and I lived in the worlds of both southern Evangelicalism and southern European Catholicism. I could see the best side of either and the dark sides of both. I saw Catholic casino-night fundraisers and contentious Baptist business meetings, and neither seemed to look much like the Book of Acts.
When it came to the ecclesial divide between the Catholics and Evangelicals all around me, I was sure there must be some big differences that resulted in something as historic as the Protestant Reformation. But I never heard the names of any of the Reformers in my Baptist Sunday school, let alone the so-called solas at the heart of the sixteenth-century controversies. We were told that Catholics didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus and that they paid too much attention to Mary, but neither of those things seemed to describe my devout Catholic relatives.
Day to day, the differences between the Catholics and the Evangelicals were less theological than cultural. To my friends and me, they seemed to amount to little more than who had a black spot on his forehead once a year, and whose parents drank beer right out in the open. For the grown-ups—or at least for the grown-ups outside my mixed-together family—these differences seemed to matter a lot. And they could be summed up in Mardi Gras.
Those who grew up outside the orbit of New Orleans probably think of the holiday simply in terms of the debauchery they’ve seen on television, but the broadcast carnality (although certainly part of it) doesn’t tell the whole story. I loved (and love) Mardi Gras, although I used to feel guilty about that. What I saw of Mardi Gras were the traditions and rituals—king cakes and parades and candy and days off school—rather than the full Bourbon Street experience.
Drunkenness and immorality are, of course, indefensible in a Christian ordering of the world, but at its most innocent level, Mardi Gras is a dramatic presentation of some important biblical themes. It is rooted in, among other things, God’s provision for the prophet Elijah who, like Jesus, went out into the wilderness to fast for forty days. Before the prophet went out, the angels gave him “a cake baked on hot stones,” and he survived his fasting on the strength of that sustenance (1 Kings 19:6–8). Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” is the day before Ash Wednesday, the onset of Lent, the forty days of fasting rooted in Jesus’ time without food in the wilderness.
Some of the older Baptists at my church hated the whole idea of Mardi Gras, and saw this party as a kind of blasphemy that exposed everything they rejected about the culturally acclimated Catholicism all around them. “Those Catholics,” I remember hearing one neo-Puritan critic lament, “They just go out and get as drunk as they want to, they eat until they vomit. They’re just getting it all out of their system before they have to get all somber and holy for Lent.”
I could see his point. I never saw any of my devout Catholic friends or family behaving that way. But it made sense to me that gorging and getting drunk the day before Lent probably wasn’t what the Lord meant when he said to “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”
As the years have gone by, though, I’m realizing that perhaps the naysayers pegged something accurately about some of the Catholicism around me. But I’m convinced they missed the truth that we Baptists had a Mardi Gras, too. The Mardi Gras of Protestantism didn’t celebrate the day on just a yearly calendar, though, but, much more importantly, on the calendar of a lifespan.
The typical cycle went something like this. You were born, and reared up in Sunday school until you were old enough to raise your hand when the teacher asked who believed in Jesus and wanted to go to heaven. At that point, you were baptized—usually long before the first pimple of puberty—and shortly thereafter, you had your first spaghetti-dinner fundraiser to raise money to go to summer youth camp. And then, sometime between the ages of 15 and 20, you’d go completely wild.
Our view of 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, start having kids, and then be back in church, just in time to get those kids into Sunday school, and start the cycle all over again. If you didn’t get divorced or indicted, you’d be chairman of deacons or head of the women’s missionary auxiliary 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. But you know, I never could find that in the Book of Acts, either.
I never really went through the wild stage. But years later, having externally lived a fairly upstanding life, I found myself envying a Christian leader as he gave his “testimony.” This man described his life of mind-blowing drugs, manic sex, and nonstop partying in such detail that, before I knew it, I was wistfully thinking: “Wouldn’t that be the best of both worlds? All that, and heaven too.” I’d embraced the dark side of Mardi Gras, in my own mind. As much as I thought I was superior to both the drunken partiers on the streets and the dour cranks condemning the revelry, I had internalized the hidden hedonism of it all. I was under the lordship of Christ, but, if only for that moment, wishing for the lordship of my own fallen appetite.
Flannery O’Connor believed her insight into the human condition came, at least partially, from being a Catholic in the Protestant South. Seeing humanity, in all its glory and grotesquery, in the “Christ-haunted” region equipped her to recognize freakishness when she saw it. In a somewhat similar way, I think my story as an Evangelical child in a Catholic place that was itself engulfed in a larger Evangelical region immunized me from what surely would have been a temptation to either lionize or demonize my own tradition, and to look at an alien Catholicism as either an ecclesial utopia or the Whore of Babylon.
My life in the Catholic Bible Belt, though, taught me to love both those who pass out tracts and those who say the rosary. I never had to give up the Virgin Mary for Lottie Moon (the missionary saint of the Southern Baptists). But I also recognize in both traditions a temptation, a temptation that is rooted not in the particularities of the communions but in the soul-sickness of fallen humanity.
Do many Catholics follow their appetites and “sin that grace may abound,” hoping that confession and the last rites will even it all out before God? Sure. And do many Evangelicals do the same, hoping that a repeated prayer or an altar-call response will deliver them in the Day of Judgment? Yes. Both paths lead to the same place: to hell.
The fact that both our traditions wrestle with this temptation ought to signal to us the power of the first stage of Satanism. In the beginning, the Tempter led our ancestors astray with the promise of food (Gen. 3). In the desert, he provoked grumbling in the fathers because of their longing for food. And in the Judean wilderness, he sought to entrap Jesus with the growling of his stomach. It is easy to substitute the satisfaction of our urges and drives for the way of Christ, and we can easily find religious rituals to build around our doing so. It is easy to become one of those for whom the belly is god (Phil. 3:19).
This is the reason why self-control is a fruit of the Spirit rather than an achievement of the flesh (Gal. 5:23). We want what we want. But the discipline of God teaches us, slowly, to put old appetites to death and to whet new ones. Through the Spirit, we learn to crucify “the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). That’s hard. It usually means hunger or economic want or sexual frustration or familial longing.
But through it we learn to see that life is about more than acquisition—whether acquisition of possessions or sexual sensations or pleasant memories. A cross-shaped Christianity might leave behind those seeking a civil religious cover for their wild Bacchus worship or their rigid Stoic legalism. But it might prompt a world gorged on riotous living to seek the more permanent things instead.
On the morning after Carnival, it’s easy to feel the queasiness of stomach, the pounding of the hangover, or the throbbing of the conscience. It’s much harder to feel the futility of a whole life lived under the tyranny of the appetites. That’s especially true when, as with most of us, we see the sovereignty of our appetites as “normal.” We live among a people, let’s be honest, whose stomachs are full but who are vomiting it all up, with an Esau-like disgust. We live in a culture of craving that is never satisfied, in a world where it is always Mardi Gras and never Easter.