Mardi Gras, The World, And The Christian’s Response

Recently I wrote an article on Mardi Gras that elicited a lot of comment. Some of the remarks can be read at the end of that article on our website, at Three of the responses started me on a whole new line of thought.

First, two of my good friends, Donna and Larry, more or less defended the Mardi Gras parades. While she does not approve of everything that goes on, Donna enjoys attending some of the early parades–before the tourists arrive and everything gets crazy–especially those that run near her house and on St. Charles Avenue. She and her teenage daughters join another family and stake out a spot about 5 am, and they spend the day eating Popeye’s fried chicken and biscuits and king cake while trying to catch as much “stuff” as they can. They donate the beads to a charitable organization which cleans and recycles them and makes a little money for their ministries.

Larry rode in the Endymion parade, and admits to spending $800 for the beads and paraphernalia he threw to the crowds. He wanted us to know that not everyone riding in the parades is a pervert or an alcoholic. “My float had a bunch of great guys,” he said. Larry invited a client of his to ride with him. The man professes to believe in the Lord, although his language and actions say otherwise. Larry had an opportunity to talk with him and discuss his faith. The man was receptive and even said he would like to visit Larry’s church, having grown disillusioned with the church of his youth.

Both Larry and Donna, I need to point out, are “good Baptists” and active in their respective churches here in the city.

Now, another friend, Thompson, responded with a slightly different view. He admits to not being a believer and has a lot of issues with churches and the clergy. He and I often go around and around on these things, although good naturedly. Here is part of his response to the Mardi Gras article.

“This was one of your best articles ever, maybe because it relates to me. My father was a good hard-working man, a successful business type who traveled the country years ago. His two favorite cities to visit were New Orleans and San Francisco. He loved the restaurants and bars and music. With Dixieland music playing and a drink in his hand, he was in heaven. For a number of years he went to Mardi Gras, sometimes taking my mother along. They brought back all kinds of souvenirs and pictures, and I was raised with this glamour of drinking and celebrating. He took me with him to New Orleans once–not for Mardi Gras–and we went to all the famous places. Everywhere we went, we had to have a drink. By the time I was on my fourth or fifth, I was crocked–and he was macho man high. I was maybe 23 years old. The next day I had a hangover; he didn’t. Alcoholics don’t get hangovers. Anyway, you’re right. That place lures in the suckers and takes away their souls. New Orleans is a wonderful tourist place if you leave the booze to a minimum.”

Now what we have here, friends, is an interesting situation–and my friends Larry and Donna will let me say this–in that the Christians are defending Mardi Gras and the non-Christian is dissing it. Fascinating.

For serious believers, it brings up an issue we often struggle with: how far into the world should we go in order to bear an effective witness? A generation ago, Professor Langdon Gilkey wrote a book with the fascinating title, “How the Church can Minister to the World without Losing Itself.” That’s the problem–stay aloof from the world and it will not hear you; join the world and you lose yourself. Where is the middle?

My late friend Jerry Clower, the Mississippi humorist, once rode as King or Grand Marshall of one of the Mardi Gras parades and took a lot of criticism from Christians for it. He said to me, “I can bear a witness to a lot of people this way who will never darken the doors of your church.” And knowing him, he did.

It still begs the question: how far do we go?

Historically, Christians have had to struggle to keep their balance, avoiding the extremes and staying in the road. In the Middle Ages, devout disciples of Jesus would sometimes rebel against the decadence of the world by withdrawing into a monastery or retreating to the backside of the desert. They may not have saved the world by their action but they saved themselves, in a manner of speaking, and spoke eloquently to their generation of the judgement of God on ungodliness.

Christians today who retreat into gated Christians-only communities and conduct business with no one but believers are exercising a similar kind of withdrawal from the world, presumably to save themselves and their family, but withdrawal nonetheless.

At the other extreme may be found those churches–almost always theologically liberal–who open their doors so wide they throw away all standards, accept any behavior no matter how bizarre or deviant, and no longer stand for anything. Far from saving the world, they have joined it. Naming names would be pointless, but most observant adults can quickly point out one or two churches or even entire denominations in their city that have bought into this wholesale abandonment of the Christian faith in the name of inclusiveness.

Since Professor Gilkey wrote an entire book to help churches stay in the road and out of the ditches, I will not resolve the matter in a paragraph or two here. But I do have a couple of contributions to the discussion.

One, there is no one formula that will fit all situations. May Christians participate in Mardi Gras if they don’t drink? May we ride the floats if our intent is to bear a witness? May we stay on the sidewalks and catch the throws if it’s simply a family outing? And while we’re at it, should believers attend office parties at Christmas? Work in stores that sell liquor? Let their children play in community ball games on Sunday? There is no simple answer.

Second, there is however an infallible resource believers are given that will resolve all these and other issues: The Indwelling Holy Spirit will guide us. No book, not even one as rich and profound as the Bible, could give us enough rules to meet every situation in life. That’s why the Lord, in addition to giving us the written Word, went that extra step–He came to live inside each believer.

Is a certain matter right or wrong? To find the answer, the believer does two things: he reads the Word and consults the Holy Spirit within him. When the two line up–as they always will, always–the matter is settled and the way is clear.

Some issues are easy and settled quickly. “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” No sense in praying about it or even asking the Lord. It’s settled. “No murder. No stealing. No lying. No coveting.” The same.

Some issues are not dealt with in Scripture as such. That does not make the Bible irrelevant or obsolete, not by a long shot. In these cases, we look for the principles of Scripture which pertain. As a rule, the Holy Spirit will bring those to the attention of honest seekers.

For example, the Bible does not deal with the issue of abortion except in a couple of oblique passages. However, the Scriptural principle that may be found from one end of the Bible to the other is “the sacredness of life.” And since some passages make it plain that the unborn is already known by the Father (see Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1), the issue is settled for those who honestly take the Bible seriously and not try to superimpose on it their own conclusions. In fact, unable to find the first Scriptural instance in support of abortion, many of us would say there are no two sides to this issue for followers of Jesus Christ.

So what does that principle of the sacredness of life do to the Christian’s view of the death penalty? Many would say that consistency demands the believer oppose capital punishment if he is going to appose abortion. And a lot of faithful believers agree. On the other hand, other believers say our consistency is with the Scripture not our own positions, and Scripture has a great deal of evidence of wholesale executions. Too many in fact. I don’t know of any modern believers who hold that just because God told Israel to kill entire cities in the Old Testament days we have a license or even a mandate to kill another human.

One more point. Even for Bible believers–and I count myself as one–we must always be careful not to divorce the Word of God from the Holy Spirit. Separating the two results in two more extremes, ditches we must avoid. Without the Spirit, our interpretation of the Bible will be “the letter of the law.” And without the written Word, those who “rely on the Spirit only, will frequently find themselves following their feelings, doing as some did throughout the book of Judges. We read that, “In those days there was no king in Israel, and everyone did what was right in his own sight.” The result was chaos.

No one rule fits every situation. We have the Bible and we have the Holy Spirit to interpret it. By a firm reliance on both, we walk in the truth. Not in the ditches.