There’s nothing quite as bleak as a city street the morning after Mardi Gras. The steam of the morning humidity rises silently over asphalt, riddled with forgotten doubloons, broken bottles, littered cigarettes, used condoms, clotted blood, and mangled vomit. This sight was, where I grew up in my coastal Mississippi town, a parable for the more committed evangelicals about what was wrong with a culturally accommodated Christianity. I wasn’t so sure.
My quirky little strip of home, Biloxi, was an outpost of a Catholic majority situated right at the bottom of the Bible belt of the old Confederacy. We were more New Orleans than Tupelo, and I lived in both worlds. Half my family was Southern Baptist and the other half Roman Catholic. I could see the best sides of either and the dark sides of both. I saw Catholic casino night fund-raisers and Baptist business meetings, and neither seemed to look much like the book of Acts. When it came to the ecclesial divide between Catholics and evangelicals, I was sure there must be some big differences that resulted in something as historic as the Protestant Reformation, but day to day those differences seemed to my friends and me to amount to little more than who had a black spot on their foreheads once a year and whose parents drank beer right out in the open. For the grown-ups, though, at least for the grown-ups outside my mixed-together family, these differences seemed to matter a lot. Much of that was summed up in Mardi Gras.
I loved (and love) Mardi Gras. I suppose that’s because all I saw were the traditions and rituals—king cakes and parades and candy—rather than the full Bourbon Street experience. Drunkenness and immorality are indefensible, of course, but at its most innocent level, Mardi Gras replays something of God’s provision for the prophet Elijah who, like Jesus, went out into the wilderness to fast for forty days. Before he went, the angels gave him “a cake baked on hot stones.” After his feast, the prophet “went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights” (1 Kings 19:6–8).
But some of the older Baptists at my church downright hated the whole idea of Fat Tuesday. They knew that Mardi Gras was the day before the beginning of Lent, the forty days of fasting rooted, in part, 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.” It never made an anti-Catholic out of me because I never saw any of my devout Catholic relatives or friends behaving that way. But it made sense to me that gorging and getting drunk the day before Ash Wednesday 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 we Baptists had a Mardi Gras, too. Mardi Gras Protestantism didn’t celebrate the day just on a yearly calendar, though, but, much more importantly, on the calendar of a lifespan. The typical 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 that point you were baptized, usually long before the first pimple of puberty, and shortly thereafter you had your first spaghetti dinner fund-raiser to go to summer youth camp. And then sometime between fifteen and twenty 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 you’d 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. 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 lived a fairly upstanding life externally, I found myself envying a Christian leader giving 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 it, 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.
The first temptation of Christ is all about this. When Jesus walked out from his baptism into the desert, the Bible tells us he was tracked down by the Devil, the old serpent of Eden. And, just as in Eden, Satan offered Jesus food. “If you are the Son of God,” the Devil said, “command these stones to become loaves of bread” (Matt. 4:3). What Satan prompted Jesus to do was to provide for himself, to feed himself, or, rather, to use the power of the Spirit to feed himself. It was the pull to consumption, to self-provision.
Russell D. Moore, Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011).
This article excerpted from Tempted and Tried.
This service is like Netflix for Bible Lessons. You pay a low monthly, quarterly or annual fee and get access to all the lessons. New lessons that correspond with three of Lifeway’s outlines are automatically included, as well as a backlog of thousands of lessons. Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking, as well as answers from well-known authors such as Charles Swindoll and Max Lucado. For more information, or to sign up, click here.