Thursday, February 07, 2008

As Seen On TV (Not)

(Children on ladders: a typical shocking Mardi Gras parade sight)

Everything on TV is not real.

I think most people know this, but some people apparently do not.

Now, there is the unreality of animation vs. live actors, the unreality of fiction vs. documentary, and then there's the unreality of the way the media distorts and presents its own version of reality either for the purposes of some agenda, or (more often) in order to sell tennis shoes and soft drinks.

It is the latter part that I want to focus on.

On Ash Wednesday, one of my parishioners came to me irate. He showed me a devotion that someone (a pastor) had written for February 5. This year, February 5 was the day before Ash Wednesday. In many parts of the country, it's called Shrove Tuesday, and there is often the custom of eating pancakes as a last indulgence in a feast before the fasting of Lent. Owing to the French heritage of people in South Louisiana, in my community, Shrove Tuesday is called Mardi Gras - which is French for Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras is the pinnacle of a mini-season called Carnival (from the Latin: carni vale, or "farewell of meat"). We don't have pancake breakfasts, but rather have parades. In fact, in New Orleans, the parades run throughout the Carnival season - which begins on Epiphany (January 6) and runs until Mardi Gras.

Parades in New Orleans are in some ways similar to other parades - like the Parade of Roses in Pasadena, or the Macy's Parade in New York. However, they are different in a few ways too. For one thing, the float riders often wear masks and throw things to the crowds - candy, stuffed animals, plastic cups, toys of various kinds, and strings of beads. On St. Patrick's Day, the riders toss out cabbages, potatoes, onions, and carrots. On the Feast of St. Patrick, you can actually make soup from parade "throws".

New Orleans Carnival parades are entirely run and funded by private clubs - called "krewes." Many of them have tongue-in-cheek names that sound like secret societies. Families have been involved in the krewes for generations. The last two weeks of Carnival feature parades and balls all over New Orleans and the surrounding communities (there were 59 parades this year!). Typically, schools shut down the entire week of Mardi Gras (though Salem Lutheran School only had Monday through Wednesday off this year). This is a huge time of tourism and goodwill for our community. Hundreds of thousands of guests from all over the world stream into New Orleans and vicinity for the Carnival events.

Mardi Gras is fun, and overwhelmingly family-oriented. It is a Christian festival, as it is tied to the Church calendar, and is a part of the cycle of feast and fast (even the colors of Mardi Gras are the liturgical colors of Epiphany, Lent, and Easter). Families and friends gather to watch the parades, to talk, to sing, to dance, to eat scrumptious foods, to enjoy one another's company, and to just plain have a good time. This seems foreign to a lot of people who live "up north" (of course, to us, "up north" can mean Southern Mississippi...).

Of course, much of the country hears "Mardi Gras" and they think of something entirely different. In the French Quarter, and more specifically on Bourbon Street (where, incidentally, there are no parades), you will indeed find activities that are not "family friendly" - just as you will find pretty much anywhere in the country. And that's the specific place you have to go in order to find the off-color stuff. However, the Mardi Gras parades (only two of which even go through the Quarter at all, and one of them is a parade for dogs), have nothing to do with indecency.

In fact, children are everywhere lining the parade routes - many in homemade boxes mounted to ladders so they can be seen high above the crowds to catch toys, candies, and beads (instructions here). Thousands of children and their families look forward to Carnival every year. Some families even camp out on the "neutral ground" (the median to the rest of the county) overnight in order to get a good spot. Very few children (and very few adults, for that matter) in New Orleans don't participate in the parades - at least to some degree. They are good clean fun, and are part of our unique culture.

However, the pastor who authored the devotion, who obviously has never actually seen a Mardi Gras parade in his life, who has likely never set foot in New Orleans, probably has never eaten crawfish, boudin, or alligator, may think a "po boy" is a young man who lacks money, and who admits that his only understanding of Mardi Gras comes from TV and the Internet - decided to use us as an object lesson about sin. He writes: "Now it's time to get serious about sin. As if."

Thanks a lot, guy.

He writes: "Today is Fat Tuesday. Maybe I'm just a young curmudgeon, but the celebration leaves me cold. Every year, news broadcasts show the Mardi Gras parties and carnival parades, but they're hardly family fare."

At this point, some of my parishioners are reading this, rolling on the floor and laughing at the silly stereotypical Yankee know-it-all who believes everything he sees on TV. Others are really insulted, not exactly thrilled to be denounced by a bloviating outsider whose ignorance is fueled by the idiot box, yet who has been published in a popular devotional booklet.

I would love this pastor to tell me exactly which parade is "hardly family fare." Which one? Can he even name one of the parades? What qualifies this pastor to make this pronouncement?

I wrote to my brother pastor. I sent him a good natured note, explained to him where he was wrong, and even invited him and his family to come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras in the future so he could experience it for himself.

His response was a big disappointment. It was snotty. He addressed me stiffly as "Pastor Beane" (there's an unwritten rule that the clergy are on a first name basis with each other). He stands by his "research."

Research. Goodness! We actually live here! But he has been doing "research" from two thousand miles away. Right. And what is this research? He cites "news broadcasts" and "various media." Uh-huh. He explains, "research indicates that Mardi Gras/Carnival are 'popular as a way to feast and act wild before the somber days of Lent,' in the words of one website." Yes. "In the words of one website." One website. He really said this! O Lord, have mercy! A website. Various media. Research. Enough expertly-mined data to condemn everyone in my congregation - not to mention in our community. I guess he knows what he's talking about. And thanks to his published writing, a lot of other "experts" on Mardi Gras are sure to crop up like termites on a shotgun (which in this context is a house, not a weapon).

He opines: "The 'farewell to the flesh' is not penitence, but is usually portrayed to the world as an indulgence in lust, drunkenness, and revelry. Personally, I cannot reconcile that to Romans 13:13-14; and perhaps it is only my concience [sic], but I cannot reconcile Carnival's 'farewell to the flesh' with the Lord's means of grace, where the Old Adam is bade farewell and the new creation raised up." Uh, Padre, "farewell to the flesh" ("das Fleisch" auf Deutsch) means we're preparing to say goodbye to eating meat. It's called "fasting."

This from a guy that's been in New Orleans as much as I have been in Indonesia. But he did see it on TV - the same venue where one can learn about Ron Popeel's Pocket Fisherman and catch a special about UFOs. Amazing.

What I'm having a problem reconciling is this pastor's misinformed opinion and devotional pontification that is at odds with the eighth commandment. He owes us an apology for hurting our reputation. I asked for one, but was rebuffed. I'm sorry, but the vast majority who catch beads at parades are simply not involved in: "indulgence in lust, drunkenness, and revelry" (his words) - even if a website and a TV reporter told him so. Huge numbers are children. Most are there with their families. That's just reality.

He then masked his insulting e-mail by peppering it with the usual blah-blah-blah of Lutheran jargon: "weaker brother... Christian freedom... bind their consciences..." This all sounds very pious and Sufficiently Lutheran, but it is a damnable lie just the same. We are not a bunch of drunks and whores. We enjoy food, drink, dancing, friends, family, pageantry, beautiful weather, fellowship with others, and the joyful expression of the Christian concept of feasting and celebrating God's good creation. That is not sinful.

But all of these things are repugnant to a particular strain of Christianity known as Pietism, which equates the Christian faith with a dour and joyless view of the Christian life. Pietism condemns drinking, dancing, card playing, and anything that tastes good as somehow sinful. Pietism was a movement that originated within Lutheranism in the 17th century which (on the good side) sought to repudiate lawlessness and taking the Gospel for granted, but (on the bad side) became Pharisaical, self-righteous, joyless, oppressive, and drab. It downplayed the sacraments by spiritualizing the faith - which leads to a dualistic (and Gnostic) condemnation of the physical world. Pietism brought the world the plain cross and prohibition. Pietists do not approve of Mardi Gras.

However, there is nothing wrong with taking pleasure in God's physical creation. The Christian life is meant to be joyful and celebratory - especially in the times of year that are festival in nature.

Of course, we alternate between festival and penitential seasons. And in the French Quarter at midnight on Mardi Gras, sirens blow, the police clear the streets, and the festival comes to an abrupt end out of respect for the Christian tradition of Ash Wednesday. The next morning, you'll see New Orleanians far and wide covered with the ashen crosses on their foreheads - something you probably won't see on Entertainment Tonight.

The fasting of Lent stands in abject contrast to the feasting of Carnival. The somber gray of Ash Wednesday is the other side of the coin to the garish colors of Fat Tuesday. Feast and Fast. Celebration and sackcloth. To everything there is a season...

The world doesn't get it. Apparently some Christians (and even pastors) don't get it either. Apparently some folks can't discern that reality is a whole lot bigger than what's on TV.

If you want to learn about the Christian faith, TBN is not representative - even though it speaks with the authority of "as seen on TV." Benny Hinn does not epitomize Christian preachers. And a few coeds and tourists pulling up their shirts don't define the Christian time of year known as Carnival. If someone wants to learn about New Orleans and our customs, there are plenty of us you can ask. Those Girls Gone Wild videos were never intended to be an objective and all-inclusive look at one of the greatest cities in North America any more than the Sopranos is a genuine snapshot into what being an Italian-American is. Just because something is on TV...

Hopefully, this pastor will repent of his prejudice, bias, and trashing of our reputation as a form of "devotion." Lent is a good time for repentance. And so is any time. But then when Easter comes, we will once more feast and celebrate, and will not be ashamed for doing so.

In honor of our Blessed Lord's resurrection, we will recite the ancient liturgical verse anew: "Laissez les bons temps rouler!" even as we look forward to bons temps without end.

Typical Mardi Gras paraders, obviously an "indulgence in lust, drunkenness, and revelry"

25 comments:

Jeff said...

I'll confess.

Until this post, I too have had a misinformed and incorrect view of Mardi Gras.

In fact, your earlier posts about Mardi Gras had made me semi-uncomfortable and curious why a Pastor (of all people) would carry on about it as you have.

Thanks for shedding light on what it really is for those of us who've been influenced by TV and Girls gone Wild rather than through experience and any real research on the subject.

It's appreciated. :)

Benjamin J. Ulledalen said...

Thank you, Fr. Beane! You have no idea how refreshing your blog is.

There are some pastors who I wish would just stick to theology and open their mouthes neither about culture nor politics.

It is suprising (and unfortunately not uncommon) to see some gifted theologians of the cross duped into thinking there is anything at all credible about the Republican Party.


But I guess the insanity sported by Dubya, John McCain, et al. is something we ought to embrace. Afterall, according to the experts on TV, it is perfectly sensable, not to mention moral, to ship thousands of our men (and women; let's not forget your post from a few days back) to the deserts of Iraq to die and totaly destabalize a nation allowing more chaos, death, persecution of Christians, and evil to play out than other wise would have. (Didn't Augustine have something to say about a war causing more evil than would have happened otherwise being unjust? No matter; the experts on TV clearly disagree.)

I know you probably won't comment on the specifics about the Republicans. I can appreciate that. Your post got me going and I had some ranting I needed to let out.

Pax Christi,

Benjamin J. Ulledalen

Jim Roemke said...

Man, what is it about writing brother pastors letters? Bunch of little pansies who can't take any criticism! And these are the same fools who will scream from the rooftops "Matthew 18! Matthew 18! (unless you are trying it on me!)" Way to go on the letter, may this jackass turn from his arrogance and condescending ways.

Father Hollywood said...

Jeff:

Ego te absolvo ;-). As your penance, just remember New Orleans when the time comes when you're able to take a vacation with the family. I live here, and this is where I take my vacations. ;-)

Father Hollywood said...

Benjamin:

Thanks for the kind words. I see you're a Chronicles reader too (and for the sake of Dr. Gard, I'm referring to the magazine in this context, not the sacred book...).

I'm not going to comment publicly about specific political candidates and parties (as much as I would love to), but I will say this: there is a disturbing trend among "confessional Lutherans" to equate the Republican Party and the promotion of war as a solution to our problems as the only Christian choice.

I routinely get e-mail that simply presumes that I am a gung-ho supporter of the current police action in the Middle East. I must be in favor of it, because 1) I'm a Christian, 2) I'm a pastor, and 3) I am a theological conservative.

One of my former professors, upon meeting my son for the first time (he was about a year old) commented something along the lines of: "Make sure you raise him to be a good Republican." I should have expected advice along the lines of: "Make sure you teach him the catechism" or "make sure he learns the liturgy" or "teach that boy he is forgiven for Christ's sake through the Gospel" or some such.

There are some false dichotomies at work. Political conservatism doesn't necessarily mean theological conservatism. Furthermore, political conservatives don't necessarily believe in things like sacraments. Also, political conservatism comes in many stripes - and is hardly a monolithic "neo-conservative" model.

In the South, one sometimes finds an election between a liberal pro-abortion candidate and a conservative pro-life candidate - with the twist that the former is the Republican and the latter is the Democrat. Sometimes, there won't even be a Republican on the ballot at all. That's simply the reality here.

I do think a lot of Republicans and conservatives are starting (only starting, mind you) to accept the reality that the Imperium Americanum can't be sustained. Just as we cannot afford to house, feed, educate, and provide health care for everybody through aggressive taxation, neither can we provide military and police protection for six billion people - as well as force-feed them a governmental system at odds with their own cultural paradigms. There is no Utopia, O Democrat and O Republican.

I just don't see big government and/or the state being a solution to most of what ails us. I'm not a big fan of either the welfare or the warfare state. I do think we should be promoting self-sufficiency and minding our own business, at home and abroad, following the Constitution and trading in real currency. Others are certainly free to disagree - but no-one has the right to impose one party or the other on Christians as a matter of dogma.

Thanks again for your thought-provoking post!

Benjamin J. Ulledalen said...

Pr. Roemke-

I have heard the Matthew 18 charge against Dr. Horton(from whatever that Calvanist Seminary is) when he spoke out against Benny Hinn on national TV! I guess its kinda like the racism card, only for the Kingdom of the Right Hand...

Fr. Beane-

The false dichotomy is what gets me. We Lutherans often reject "either or" dichotomies in favor of a "both and" approach in theology.

So it baffles me that the same people hold and either Democrat or Republican mind set, when it seems so obvious that it is a "neither nor."

Pax Christi,

Benjamin J. Ulledalen.

P.S.- it isn't just pastors. It is the laity also.

Benjamin J. Ulledalen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fr. J. Sollberger said...

Larry,

I'm learning much about your community and its rich, catholic (all times/all places) heritage. This is a great thing; very appreciated. I wish I hadn't been so typically "American Lutheran" when we were at seminary together. I would have indeed learned a lot from you, and a richer friendship would have come of it, I am sure. I enjoy getting to know you better via your good and wise posts.

Blessed Lent, Brother.

Jon

Past Elder said...

Being from Pancake Land -- my exposure to anything French came from French lessons from a very old lady in the 1950s who was Russian and whose family had been forced out after the October Revolution and who earned her living as a translator afterwards, French having been the language of the court, meaning I am the only person I know who speaks limited French with a Russian accent -- pancakes were used as a great way to dispose of the sugars and other sweets and toppings one wouldn't use during Lent.

Reminds me of the search for leaven before Passover.

On the other subject that has come up, I too wish some of the clergy -- including unfortunately some of our own -- would stop behaving as if Jesus had founded the Republican Party rather than the church.

As for my vacations or relocations, it would probably be Miami or San Juan, where I can speak Spanish, having been "adopted" by the PR contingent at university.

saxoniae said...

Yeah, the Confessional Lutherans have gone back to attacking each other. Welcome to the LCMS.

Rev. Beane, sheltering one's children and self from the ills of post-modern society is not pietism.

I think you should cut Rev. Pauls some slack. His Advent devotions at scholia.net, which we used at my church this year instead of the disappointing LHM devotions, were wonderful.

Tim S.

Jeff said...

"Yeah, the Confessional Lutherans have gone back to attacking each other. Welcome to the LCMS."

And the Apostolic Church!
Mark 9:33-34, 10:41, Galatians 2:11, etc.

Father Hollywood said...

Tim:

I'm not attacking anyone, I'm defending the truth. I know this breaks the Eleventh Commandment ("Thou shalt not criticize a fellow confessional Lutheran") but I can't even keep the ten so well, so I'm not going to worry about that one.

Attacking people's reputations for having a good time is not sheltering "one's children and self from the ills of post modern society" - no, that is Pietism - plain and simple.

I realize the fellow is a long way from New Orleans. He admits that he is operating under what he has read on the internet and seen on the news. I don't blame him for reaching a wrong conclusion based on wrong information. He put his foot in his mouth. Where he went wrong was having corrected information and not acting on it - and worse yet, not caring. The illustration fit his metaphor, so the hell with whether or not it is factually correct. Never let reality get in the way of a good story, right?

I'm glad his devotions at Scholia were good (my church also uses a lot of Scholia stuff). But this one was not.

It was hurtful to people in my parish. But I'm supposed to just shrug and tell my congregants that their being insulted is the price they must pay for me to keep the Eleventh Commandment?

I don't think so. The eighth trumps the eleventh. How about cutting the people of New Orleans some slack?

I don't think his devotions will fly with my parish. One of my elders (a very taciturn fella) told me today he just read the devotion in question. He quietly shook his head and said: "Idiot." Too bad the Eleventh Commandment only goes one way.

Father Hollywood said...

Past Elder:

Yes, you raise a good point. Before refrigeration, you HAD to use up your meat and butter (and syrup), etc. before Ash Wednesday. Perhaps our severance from the land and from the cycles of nature has impacted the cycles of feast and fast that have been part of our culture as God's people for millennia.

Father Hollywood said...

Jim:

At least I'm too old to be brushed aside because of my youth. ;-)

Father Hollywood said...

Jon:

I do wish I had gotten to know more of my brothers while at the seminary. I did enjoy the little time we did hang out while in Kantorei. Now THAT was one of the greatest experiences of seminary life. I still can't believe I got in.

Seminary life is so busy - especially for guys like us who were married and lived off campus. I often think about this brother or that brother, and wonder how he's doing - and to my shame, I almost never call or write them.

Similarly, I have gotten to know several brothers later on - over the internet for example - and now regret that I didn't hang out with them while we were at seminary.

I guess it was just such a crazy existence. But I would counsel seminarians to get to know as many of the men as you can. You never know where you'll end up. Some of the friendships you'll make there will last a lifetime - and unto eternity.

So, Jon, hopefully our paths will cross again. Of course, you are always more than welcome to spend some vacation time here. It may have gotten up to 80 degrees today, it was sunny, and I still have a whole crop of oranges and lemons hanging on the trees. You can always find jazz, shrimp, and a cold Lutheran beverage - and there's always a party or a parade going on somewhere. So please do consider yourself and your family to have an open invitation.

Jim Roemke said...

So, what would your reaction be if I wrote a devotion bemoaning the ills of the idolatry and debauchery that is professional sports? What if I wrote or said that the Super Bowl is nothing than a lame excuse to eat, drink and be merry, all to excess? What if I went so far as to say anyone who celebrated Super Bowl parties are ignorant of the Gospel and are not interested in living sanctified lives? I personally HATE football, but there is nothing wrong with it. Sure, many people take it way to seriously. Many people have sinful obsessions with football and all sports, but would a devotion shutting down this worldly past-time fly in middle America? I doubt it. The Fr. is right, it's ok to not agree with a confessional Lutheran who is being a jackass. We should all remember to take the football out of our own eyes before removing the beads from our southern neighbors.

Go ahead, brush me aside because of my youth! I can handle it ;)

Brian P Westgate said...

80 degrees? It's a mere 4 degrees (with a big wind chill I'm sure) at the Fort. *seminarian whimpers*

Past Elder said...

It's 2130 hours CST, 7 degrees in Omaha, 71 in Miami, 75 in San Juan, and 6 below where I grew up in Minnesota.

I used to think, how could anyone build a city below sea level. But I also ask myself, how could anyone have a block party in subzero weather like we did growing up and thought nothing of it. It wasn't a snow unless measured in feet; you might grab a light jacket once it hits freezing.

I'm 57 and not likely to be brushed aside because of my youth. However, there are many other ways to be brushed aside. I'm also not likely to be in sem and end up starting my first call when other guys are finishing their last. I'll be doing good to get elected Elder in LCMS (I was an elder in a WELS congregation).

If you wanna see football in ones eyes, come visit Big Red, and I'm a fan, a convert by total immersion (ie went to a home game my first year here). Our new head coach came from LSU, although had we had our heads out and offered him the job when he was here before, he never would have gone there. I'm also a member of Red Sox Nation living in the Diaspora. Every area has its thing. BTW, it's 26 in Boston right now.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I had to convince quite a few people that God did not specifically send Katrina to strike NO as a punishment for it's sins. . . and the fact that the French Quarter was one of the lesser damaged parts should be some evidence (if any is needed - unless there is a clear word of God, you can't argue why God allows something to occur).

Remember too, the most experience most people get with Mardi Gras is the idea of the wild and crazy college road trip to party on Bourbon Street. In fact - I doubt most people can tell you anything about NO besides Bourbon street, French Quarter, and the Superdome.

Vegas gets painted with the same brush - but off the strip it supposed to be a rather fine place for families.

Father Hollywood said...

Eric:

I've heard that about Las Vegas - much to the consternation of people who are looking for a "red light" vacation. New York has also really given itself a "makeover" - especially 42nd Street/Times Square.

When I lived in NY some 15 years ago, I remember walking around 42nd Street at night shooting pictures. A drug dealer put his hands over my lens and said: "Hey man, you can't take pictures here. We're selling crack." Somehow, I don't think that same experience is possible at today's Times Square!

Father Hollywood said...

Brian:

4 Degrees in February? From what I remember about Fort Wayne, we called that a "heat wave." ;-)

Father Hollywood said...

Elder:

More wise words, sir. Thank you.

When I was at seminary, a tornado ripped through our campus. It was horrific. I could not believe my eyes.

Most of New Orleans is actually not below sea level. Some parts are, though, and those parts were not populated a century ago. It was probably unwise to develop those areas, but then again, we can learn a thing or two from the Netherlands. They really are below sea level, and their levee system is a technological marvel.

The Mississippi River is such an important means of transportation, there is no way not to have a port city at its mouth.

And yes, I know about the football craze (this is "Geaux Tigers" Country after all), and I was raised on the legend of Woody Hayes and the Ohio State Buckeyes. In the South, the SEC is seen as a kind of religious denomination, and Sunday morning is as much Gridiron Day as it is the Lord's.

A great quote from the Georgia columnist and satirist, the late Lewis Grizzard: "Anyone who puts sugar in cornbread does not love the Lord - let alone Southeastern Conference football."

Of course, you adapt to your surroundings. We find it normal to evacuate for a hurricane with the chance that your house will be nothing more than a slab when you get back, while finding it crazy that people would live where you have to shovel snow and scrape ice off of windshields (and again, I grew up in Ohio and my wife grew up in Ottawa, Canada).

MJ said...

Hey... I linked to you from my Christdot journal. Maybe you'll get some traffic from over there. I really enjoyed your post! In fact, I also sent a link to the friend I told you about who thought Mardi Gras was the Cleavage for Beads festival. Uh-oh... I hope she doesn't see this when she comes by. hehe

(Don't worry, S.T.... I haven't revealed any names!)

Past Elder said...

One guy who lived in Savannah GA told me once he's be scared to death to live in Nebraksa. Hurricanes you see coming for days, tornadoes you get a few minutes! But to me, if you're going to face the prospect of having nothing but a slab left of your home, some minutes in the basement and it's over one way or the other beat the heck out of hitting the Interstate out of town! Which reminds me, a slab wouldn't be what's left as we HAVE basements, but you get the idea.

My introduction to football mania was Bud Grant and the Fearsome Foursome, Scramblin Fran and the whole deal. I used to think how odd to actually care about college football other than on Saturday as a warm up for the real thing on Sunday!

Which reminds me of a billboard I saw last season. It read: Let's meet at my house after the game -- God.

Friend of the Predigtamt said...

When my husband was pastor at a church in New Orleans, he did NOT see any GGW monkey business. Various parishioners were from the Pegasus Krewe. In fact, I have a bracelet made by Wayne's late wife, with the krewe coins that she attached to the bracelet.

From what the Prediger told me, Mardi Gras was family-oriented, with food and beer. Unless one is there, those pietists should not speak where they are not qualified.

Remember: TV is a Weapon of Mass Distraction.