Category Archives: Culture

Like a Rolling Beatle

 I.  Not Choosing is Un-American

Sue me, America: I like both Italian and Mexican food.  Sometimes I’m in the mood for a the bright flavors of tomatillo, cilantro, and jalapeño, while at other times I find myself craving the deep hues of red gravy, pungent cheese, and beef, veal, and pork pressed into roughly spherical forms.  Regularly I’ll want bread to start my meal, but just as often I’ll itch for chips and salsa.

Why must you press me to choose the best cuisine?  Well, because the Founding Fathers made us to be better than that; you’ve decide.  As George Washington once said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

And so for decades, the Beatles and Rolling Stones have stood before us as the twin titans of the British Invasion, but only one band can set upon the Iron Throne.

Bucking with musical partisanship, however, is March 28’s 1st Annual Beatles/Stones Invitational at Collingswood Music, a benefit to raise money for free music instruction to deserving children.  I’m not connected to the fine folks that are putting on this event––although I’ll be there, and the people producing are truly fine––but I love how all of the 30 performers have been asked to perform one Beatles and Stones song each.  Let the gyre of who’s better be unbroken.

But yeah, the Beatles won.  They’re the better band.

II. Why the Beatles Won

This is the easy part.  Sure, they could occasionally be psychedelic, country, and soulful, but the Stones were one trick wild horses.  They loved them some 1950’s Chess Records, and loved them hard.  In the Stones best music, you can hear a lot of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf, but you can’t always hear a lot else.  Mick, Keef, and company rocked harder than their foppish foes, but a one-speed car can’t get you everywhere you need to go on time.

Similarly, if you dig into the Stones’ ‘60s LP’s, you find those blues-based chargers shining in a murky soup of what’s dogged the long-playing record since Colonel Tom needed extra material to pad two, long sides: filler.  Ask an average music aficionado what’s on not just heavyweights like Sgt. Pepper’s or Revolver but also on lesser lights like Beatles for Sale or Help!, and she’ll probably be able to fill out most of the track listing.  But inquire after the same thing for the Stones beyond perhaps Exile on Main Street or Let It Bleed––Aftermath, anyone?––and you’ll be greeted a Keith Richards-like stupor.  There’s no shame in being one of the best singles bands of all time, and that’s basically what the Rolling Stones are.  (Is it a crime if Hot Rocks, an early compilation of Rolling Stones hits, is one of my desert island discs?)

And realistically, even at the time, the Beatles and Stones were in different conversations.  During 1966-7, for example, the Beatles were lapping up Beach Boys and Dylan records as they plotted musical ripostes that would preserve their reigning place of supremacy in the pop pantheon.  John and Paul never bothered to ask, “What have the Stones been up to?”  Instead, the Beatles were following different constellations; John and Paul continually sharpened the musical impulses of the other, and clearly they had a wider record collection that stretched beyond Chicago.  Liverpool, New Orleans (Fats Domino), and Lubbock, Texas (Buddy Holly), had never before triangulated.  And so the breadth and multiformity of their songs plus the depth and consistency of their albums matched the vertiginous sweep of the roaring 1960s itself.  People liked it, but in contrast the Stones were just a rock and roll band.

III. What Was Lost

Let’s face it, however.  If the Beatles were in Collingswood, they’d be Italian restaurants.  To be clear, there’s not an Italian place in town that I don’t enjoy, but do we perpetually need another one?  The Beatles suffer in that their victory not only over the Rolling Stones but over everyone else was too complete.

For one thing, American rock and roll didn’t quit when Elvis entered the army (nor did Elvis, contra Lennon’s famous aphorism).  Regional scenes in the 1960‘s like Detroit (e.g., Mitch Ryder), Seattle (the Wailers), the deep South (Allmans), Texas (Sir Douglas Quintet), and the Northeast (lots) were all pumping out innovative rock that unfortunately got swallowed up both at the time and in retrospect by the British Invasion.    (To say nothing of both Northern and Southern soul music!  Sock it to me.)  The Beatles may have played Shea Stadium, but the Remains opened for them.  The latter didn’t remain, even though they deserved to.

Not only that, but over time hasn’t the “British Invasion” come to mean the “Beatlish Invasion”?  We recognize the Beatles as Invasion Army Number One, and possibly the Stones were a lieutenant, maybe the Who were an army base mascot, and that’s about it.  Why would a radio DJ play something from the Yardbirds, the Small Faces, the Kinks, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clarke Five, the Animals, Herman’s Hermits, and Wayne Fontana when “Hey Jude” hasn’t yet finished fading out?  Yes, we’ll always have “Yellow Submarine,” but wouldn’t an Ethiopian restaurant on Haddon Ave. be killer?

IV.  Why the Beatles Really Won

Don’t listen to what the others say.  The Beatles won because of what happens when we look in the mirror.  Theirs was the perfect story: is it American or simply human that we centripetally glom towards an artist, businessperson, or politician that possesses ambition beyond any rational scale and then fulfills it?  Truly, the only musical apples to the Beatles’ Apple are Elvis Presley and just maybe Michael Jackson.  Even if dimly, they alone beheld pop music via X-ray, mastered its firmaments, and perceived its throbbing connection to our cultural central nervous system, only to set the whole damn thing on fire.

And only the perfect heroes fall perfectly.  Elvis pulled the hat trick of a triple death, namely the army, the soundtrack, and the toilet.  We understand, however, that his declivity was the sole coda that properly backgrounded and even confirmed his previous rise.  For the Beatles, then, it was metaphysically necessary that they expired along with the 1960s.  For the band greater than which no other could be conceived, ne plus ultra is bone literal.

When last call comes around, few of us would consider Eros a worthy opponent to Thanatos.  Here’s the reason why in comparison to the Beatles, we say that the Stones suck: the latter didn’t die.  When today we watch 71 year old Mick Jagger louche around the stage, we’re reminded that we’ve now grown old; when we listen to the Beatles, we remember that we once were young.

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Bruce in the Box

As with any musical artist who has been big enough for long enough, Bruce Springsteen has become his own musical context. It’s not just Springsteen songs—it’s Broooce. The context blocks the reception; his music invariably suffers for it.


And to make matters worse, we live in New Jersey. You don’t just think of “Thunder Road,” how you can picture Mary twirling weightlessly across the porch and gliding into the front seat. Instead, you remember the drunk guy at Connie Mac’s who stood on the table and shouted every word in “Thunder Road” until he started bawling two-thirds of the way through, after which he pounded a shot and a beer with a deep and vaguely menacing rue.


As long as you’re not that guy, take notice that Springsteen’s first seven albums are now being reissued in a single box, available in CD or LP formats, as The Album Collection Vol. 1: 1973-1984.


All of the albums have been re-mastered; five of the seven for the first time. People, this is your chance to make things right with the Boss.


The best way to begins with 1973’s double shot of Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle. The best way to dive in is to forget the Ghost of Springsteen Future and instead commune with the Ghosts of Rock n’ Roll Past.


Consider 1973, if you’re able: the first wave of American rock and roll in the ’50’s was long gone, as were the British Invasion (thank Altamont), and Dylan albums like Self Portrait and Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid showed that he was uneasy beneath the crown.


What you did have, crucially, by the early ’70’s, was almost a full decade of soul and funk in full flower. But even as those sounds were folded back into rock, Otis Redding was dead and Sly Stone was broken (thank LSD). Add to that a Civil Rights movement that, for all its progress, felt like it led straight to Vietnam, and the stakes for pop music seemed simultaneously to have raised and fallen. Correspondingly, rock had retained its swagger but lost the confidence of previous generations.


Take the Broooce goggles off, and you’ll discover that Greetings is a great first album and Shuffle an early career masterpiece. Ironically, even at the very beginning, Springsteen had a context problem, since Columbia, his record label, touted him as the latest entry in the “new Dylan” sweepstakes.


Still, Greetings could never have been a Dylan album, and it’s everything that you could ask of an early ’70’s rock record, and more. It’s streetwise, slyly funky, and world-weary all at the same time. Bruce effortlessly positions himself as a Lou Reed figure who a) strikes less affected poses, b) possesses less book learning, and c) is not an alien life form.


Springsteen would go on to rock harder than on Greetings, but never with more swing. Compare later live recordings of “Spirit in the Night” to the studio original, and all the groove in the gaps is lost. There was magic in those early E Street nights.


The Wild, the Innocent… leans into looser song structures and sharper songwriting, and with spectacular results. (You can find my favorite treatment of it here.) The guitars are turned up, strings are brought in, and the boardwalk is shining bright. In particular, its second side of “Incident of 57th Street” into “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” into “New York City Serenade” is as breathtaking a slab of vinyl as you’ll ever hear. These are songs of innocence just before the cool breeze becomes a cold wind.


The next album, 1975’s Born to Run was Springsteen’s first hit record, and the one that made him a national star. It’s also the point at which Bruce becomes Broooce, which is a problem.


Throughout the two-year recording process of Born to Run, Springsteen and new manager Jon Landau (a former rock critic whose previous fame derived from producing an MC5 album to great opprobrium) spent hundreds of hours discussing rock and roll past, present, and future, including what place they might come to hold within it.


Such are heady thoughts for rock-and-roll punks, and, for better or for worse, Born to Run unfolds, sweating from the weight of its own perceived narrative.


On one hand, it couldn’t have happened any other way: Springsteen became a recording artist just in that sliver of time when rock artists became fully self-aware of their legacies for the first time. (One could argue that bands like The Doors, Velvet Underground, and, in their own way, The Band, were likewise cognizant of their own places in the story, but I’d contend that they were more reflexively reactive than self-locating.)


By that measure, of course, you can see the veins bulging on Born to Run, but by recreating Phil Spector’s wall of sound, explicitly mentioning “redemption” in a redemption song, and recording “She’s the One” in mono, Springsteen was inviting critics and listeners not only to love the album, but also to know why they did.


Beginning with Born to Run, then, this will be the suspension of disbelief that Springsteen requires of his audience: when he belts in the title song, “I want to know if love is wild/I want to know if love is real,” you must understand that Bruce is as serious as the hellhounds on his trail. But also know that he for damn sure didn’t miss Elvis and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Springsteen fans buy into that demand, and Springsteen haters don’t or can’t.


None of which makes Born to Run a bad album. Just because the chefs want you to know how skilled they are in the kitchen, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get a bad meal. At the time, the august critic Greil Marcus in the original Rolling Stone review of the record observed that “it is a magnificent album that pays off on every bet ever placed on [Springsteen].


“No, you’ve never heard anything like this before,” Marcus wrote, “but you understand it instantly, because this music is what rock and roll is supposed to sound like.”


I dare you to listen to Born to Run and prove him wrong.


1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town whittles Born to Run down to the bones. It’s a record that’s leaner, meaner, louder, and more harrowing––a redux of Born to Run after the guy loses his girl, his car, and his job. The characters in Darkness are meeting the devil at the midnight crossroads, armed only with amplifiers. This may be Bruce’s best album.

Darkness as an album forms the perfect chiasm: the LP is bookended by defiance (“Badlands,” the title song), followed by rage (“Adam Raised a Cain,” “Prove it All Night”), then desperation (“Something in the Night,” “Streets of Fire”), and penultimately hurt (“Candy’s Room,” “Factory”).  Darkness’s center is the side one closing “Racing in the Street” and the side two opening “The Promised Land.”  “Promised Land” may be the album’s weakest song, as it trades writerly detail for declamation, but “Racing” is the strongest.  Quiet and ruminative, this piano-led track––which may be the finest E Street keyboard showcase on record, from the stately piano intro to the double keyboard coda that fades the song out––is a murder ballad without the homicide.  Instead each character slowly and internally ceases to live.  And for all of the ridicule Springsteen has received for relying too heavily on images of cars and highways, “Racing in the Street” is the apex of the effective deployment of those tropes.  Driving nowhere has never felt so universal, and so terrifying.  (Listen to the lyrics of the bridge and last verse of “Racing in the Street” to hear hat Flannery O’Connor would have sounded like if she came from Jersey and put short stories to guitar.)


The new Springsteen box rounds out with three albums from the early-to-mid-’80’s, namely 1980’s The River, 1982’s Nebraska, and 1984’s mega-seller, Born in the USA. At the turn of that decade, Springsteen began to read more American history, including Nevins and Commagers’ A Pocket History of the United States and Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July (which would later directly inspire Born in the USA’s title song).


The book regimen plus ongoing conversations with Landau molded Springsteen’s progressive ethos into an articulated liberal credo, and his 1980’s albums reflect a deepening political consciousness that doubles down on the activist underpinnings of the and folk traditions. Together, from the garage rock of The River, to the bleak and desperate whisperings of the acoustic Nebraska, and finally culminating in the anthemic USA, Springsteen has written a shadow social history of the early years of the Reagan administration––most of which was drowned out in the hype surrounding Born in the USA.


And that’s a shame. The two albums in this collection that would most benefit from critical reappraisal are The River and Born in the USA. (Nebraska, in contrast, has always rightfully been acknowledged one of the best and most important records of the decade.) At the time, The River’s sprawling, double-album length, plus its emotional range––the title track and “I’ve Got a Crush on You” (chorus: “ooh, ooh, I’ve got a crush on you!”) on the same record?––bewildered critics, while “Hungry Heart,” Springsteen’s first top-ten single, gained the LP legions of new fans, if not careful listeners.


During a period when Bruce’s songwriting would reach the apex of its literary nuance, the rock audience was increasingly less inclined to listen. In retrospect, nearly 35 years after its debut, it’s difficult to keep The River from the short list of best double albums in rock and roll history.


And finally there’s Born in the USA. George Will loved it, Courtney Cox danced to it, everyone bought it, and no one heard it.


Two things, both related to the context problem, were at work. Musically speaking, as the 1980’s trundled its stonewashed and high-waisted jeans into the 90’s, the advent of grunge made 80’s rock look bloated and cheesy. 1980’s Broooce was crushed under the scratchy weight of Kurt Cobain’s scruff, although that’s always the way of rock and roll. You couldn’t mosh, thrash, or slam to Springsteen.


From there, however, as the memory of Springsteen, the Top 40 Artist has faded, and synthesizers and electronica have re-entered the pop vernacular, the now 30-year-old Born in the USA strangely sounds much fresher today than it did 20 years ago. The years have taken it from a place of nostalgia to one of longing.


We can hear with fresh ears the desolation tucked into the cracks of the Springsteen pop sheen. In “Glory Days,” the joke isn’t just on Bruce anymore, and when at the 2014 Concert for Valor on Veterans’ Day, Springsteen followed up an angry, bluesy performance of “Born in the USA” with “Dancing in the Dark,” the latter didn’t feel out of place. People used to say that Bruce is old, but now we are.


Next time I’ll try to get through all of “Thunder Road” at Connie Mac’s without breaking down.

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A Fest of Jazz

Our Man in Lou’sana

Next year, I hope to take a Spring missions trip to South Sudan, where the liberti network partners with local Christians and government officials to do things like dig fresh water wells and support churches.

This year, the liberti network sent your intrepid blogger on a missions trip to my hometown of New Orleans for the annual Jazz and Heritage Festival, so that I might in this very space give a report on the natives in their indigenous surroundings.  (Unlike the other liberti blokes that blog, the sheer comparative quality and quantity of my writing has garnered for me a generous travel budget.)

(Most of the previous sentence is untrue.)

And truthfully, the sentence before that one may not be entirely true either, at least the missions trip part.  Substitute “missions trip” for “vacation,” however, and we’re on the right track.

I counted, and although I haven’t lived in NOLA since high school, I’ve managed to make it back for Jazz Fest about eight times since 2004, despite all the hassle and expense involved in making the jaunt.

But I love Jazz Fest.  Typically I’ll arrive in the city on a Thursday evening and have a great New Orleans meal.  I’ll try and get to bed early, because Friday is beignets at Café Du Monde at 9am, park and get to the (outdoor) Fest by 11am, enjoy awesome music of all kinds at ten different stages while eating scrumptious food (for instance, see until 7pm, stumble to a restaurant for a fantastic dinner, and finally regroup in time to catch an act at a local music club until 1am or so.  Saturday is the same, ditto Sunday.  (And boy howdy, was I tired when I flew back to Philly last Monday, although my wife Emily, who was sick along with two of our kids while I was gone, may not have lent me a fully sympathetic ear.)

What’s a good little Christian boy like me doing in Sin City at festival time?  A couple things.  Sometimes, if we live in an unhelpful Christian bubble, folks can forget life is really messed up.  Our art needs to reflect all dimensions of reality, not just the pretty ones.  I may be listening to the wrong bands, but to my ears a lot of contemporary Christian music isn’t honest about the ugliness of the world (or, the average CCM song is only honest about it until the uplifting bridge, after which everything is all better just in time for the anthemic reprise of the chorus).  Philip Ryken in his book Art for God’s Sake: A Call to Recover the Arts has written, “So-called Christian art tends. . . to show beauty without admitting the truth about sin, and to that extent it is false—dishonest about the tragic implications of our own depravity.  Think of all the bright, sentimental landscapes that portray an ideal world unaffected by the Fall. . . Such a world may be nice to imagine, but it is not the world that God sent his Son to save.”  There are a ton of non-Christian musicians (and, of course, some Christian ones) who get this right.  At Jazz Fest a couple weeks ago, I probably heard ten different versions of “St. James Infirmary,” and I loved every one of them, each rendition so cold, so sweet, so fair.  (I remember in 2006 when I walked to Jazz Fest past houses still boarded up from Hurricane Katrina the previous Fall, many of which were branded with spray-painted death tolls that rescue workers attached to every property they entered.  It was heavy music at that particular Fest.)

Because our world is broken, beauty without any pathos is facile.  There is true beauty at Jazz Fest, too.  From brass bands to trad jazz, to bop, to funk, to Cajun, to rock, to country, I hear more musical beauty in that one weekend in New Orleans than the rest of the year combined.  Our souls shrink if we’re missing beauty.  And the best part about experiencing beauty is that because of what Jesus has done, all beauty, no matter how satisfying in itself, is merely anticipatory of what’s to come.  In Simply Christian, N. T. Wright has observed, “God has promised that, through his Spirit, he will remake the creation so that it becomes what it is straining and yearning to be. All the beauty of the present world will be enhanced, ennobled, set free from that which at present corrupts and defaces it. Then there will appear that greater beauty for which the beauty we already know is simply an advance signpost.”  (“liberti” may mean “free people,” but in Christ we look forward to more than that.  As the lyrics of “When the Saints” proclaim, there will be a new world revealed.  Mundus itself will one day be libertus, not to mention cosmos.)

At the culmination of the ages, beauty will triumph over evil and ugliness.  In the meantime, we’ll always have Jazz Fest.


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I Do Not Want to Fight the Culture Wars

The issue of how the church interacts with culture has perennially energized and dogged Jesus’ church throughout the centuries.  While most Christians, and Christian movements, would seek to positively influence culture, we’ll disagree about how best to achieve that goal.  Many of us will also cringe as we see some Christians doing (hopefully well intentioned but) dumb things in the name of Christ, and we’ll agree with many skeptical and secular approbations of them.  Still, to paraphrase an old phrase from church history, What hath Jerusalem to do with Washington and Hollywood, Main Street and Wal-Mart?

A recent and helpful book that provides needed critique to much of the church’s forays into Christ-and-culture territory and points a way forward is James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World.  For starters, the volume amounts to a massive critique of Christians’ efforts to do what the title suggests.

Hunter is a Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia.  One of the real strengths of To Change the World is that it takes a historical-sociological perspective on how cultures actually transform over time.  In other words, while we may talk a lot about culture change, how does, and has, that really happened?  Are churches seeking to transform culture for Christ employing means that will achieve that end?  Hunter contends that many Christian efforts to change the world for Christ not only fail to hit the mark but may also do more harm than good.

Marshaling a vast array of voices from Christendom, Hunter observes that the contemporary church employs three primary strategies in order to alter culture—converting hearts through evangelism, populist civil/social movements, and political activism.  While he would allow that Christians should seek to share their faith with others and peacefully to engage in the socio-political process, Hunter demonstrates from every period in Western Civilization since the Roman Empire that cultures have never changed through those means.  Hunter writes:
The evidence of history and sociology demonstrates that this theory of culture and cultural change is simply wrong and for this reason, every initiative based on this perspective will fail to achieve the goals it hopes to meet. . . The hearts and minds of ordinary people are. . . relatively insignificant to change cultures at their deepest level.
As an alternative view of how cultures shift, Hunter claims,
Cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production.  In light of this, the cultural economy of contemporary Christianity has been strongest, in the main, where cultural leverage is weakest—on the social periphery rather than the cultural center and in tastes that run to the lower-middle and middle brow rather than to the high brow. . . Thus, for all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it, the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.
These are heady words from Hunter, and the case he builds is persuasive to me.

There’s one other aspect to his critique of the church that bears repeating.  He notes that while many typical Christian causes may have some limited merit (although not always), the means by which these causes are put forward are never neutral.  In fact, Hunter argues, the occasional vehemence of Christian advocacy, which he documents exhaustively, can be interpreted as simply another will to power that seeks to establish its own claims by vilification of the “other” and by aspiration to dominance:
The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians. . . unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry.  By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through the discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.
Yowzers!  This certainly isn’t liberti’s way.  Thankfully, I don’t know any Christians personally that are “corrosive” by any stretch, but are they out there somewhere?  What would youtube, or our skeptical friends and neighbors, observe?  (And don’t forget: Mr. T says, “I pity the fool that pursues functional Nietzscheanism under the guise of Christian witness.”)

So how, on the other hand, ought our people and churches to engage with culture?  There are more questions here than there is space to answer, but we begin with the cross, where Jesus turned the very idea of power on its head and demonstrated by his crucifixion and resurrection a way of victory through service, weakness, sacrifice, and faithful presence.  As ones freed to be truly human through the grace of Jesus, we dream of a better world and seek it by the Spirit of Jesus.

In a short story collection by Edna O’Brien called Saints and Sinners, a sexually abused woman wonders, “How beautiful it would be if one of us could step forward and volunteer to become the warrior for the others. What a firmament of love ours would be.” There was this man named Jesus; he was also God himself. Jesus possessed memory, courage, and love for us, bringing good news of a new city and for cities full of broken people. Jesus for the joy set before him recognized the dream of a city as a promise, and for the cross set upon him recognized the promise of a city as a dream. As our warrior-deliverer, Jesus brings peace, a peace that recalls God’s original intention for creation and witnesses to God’s good future that has already begun. Now God’s shalom—his kingdom peace of beauty, forgiveness, healing, and harmony—has been unleashed upon the world, as surely as the last book in the Bible, the Revelation of St. John, tells us of a garden city yet to come that will envelop the world.

Jesus beckons that people follow him, and his followers that they seek the peace of the city.  This is culture change at its most audacious.  The Lord Christ gives his people every resource for his mission, and we receive the courage to remember, the audacity to dream, and the resolve to serve. Jesus’ grace operates in our world to repeal the fall, overturning the broken spiritual, psychological, relational, and social dimensions of our world. Including where are congregations have been planted: as the kingdom comes to bear upon our region, what a firmament of love ours would be.

The mission of all of the liberti churches is to live, speak, and serve as the very presence of Jesus in our areas.  To that end, lives of worship, community, and mercy are the are the sine qua non of what Jesus calls us to do, and by God’s grace the heartbeat of the liberti churches. We believe that this type of life is the one that truly fulfills the longings of the human soul, brings flourishing to a broken world, and unites people as no other message can. We do not pursue a different world, but a freer one.

(FYI: this article will have appeared as a post in liberti’s new app.  I’ve cross posted here, and I hope that you enjoyed my savvy deployment of the future perfect tense in the previous sentence.)


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Somewhere, Tuesday is Fat

Mardi Gras made me hate New Orleans.

I was born in the Crescent City, and growing up there, the holiday got worse every year.

As a young boy, I didn’t understand the allure when, on Mardi Gras morning, my parents would wake me up before dawn, pile us into the van, drive to a parade route, curse about the lack of parking, finally park miles away from the parade, walk miles to the parade with folding chairs and full ice chests, set up, and then sit there.

My brother and I perched, freezing, at the top of a sitting ladder—do they make those any more?—and halfheartedly shouted, “Throw me something mister!” for beads and trinkets that I didn’t care to take home.

We’d wrap up after lunch, pack everything away, and fight traffic back to the suburbs. I always received my folks’ postgame “wasn’t that fun?” as an ironic taunt.

Elementary school opened my eyes to how thoroughly parents could embarrass their children on Mardi Gras. Most of them (not mine, thankfully) treated Fat Tuesday as the one day where they could do everything they told us not to. The phonies.

News broke one year that the city was forcing Mardi Gras krewes—the year-round clubs that build floats and put on the parades—to integrate. What dismayed me most is that I hadn’t realized until then that the krewes had been segregated! Which century did this town live in?

Natives always spoke of the Old World flavor of New Orleans, and apparently they meant it. The greens, golds and purples of the season couldn’t mix, and a city with many horribly ugly racist moments in its past had continued to institutionalize what it disavowed. The hypocrites.

Skipping town

In middle school and high school, Mardi Gras moderately reined in my hostility toward my parents annually humiliating their children; now it was our turn. At best, though, Mardi Gras ran like an ongoing loop of Adam Sandler’s “I’m So Wasted” sketch; crossing lines just to say that you did is empty calories.

The Mardi Gras of my senior year in high school sealed it. Up before dawn and gearing up—not with parents, but partners in crime—we rushed uptown to the three blocks where all the kids from a handful of high schools came together.

It was a grey morning in which the windows of heaven were cracked open so that a cold, slow drip fused the skies and the streets into roughly the same substance. For warmth I clung to a girl that I genuinely liked but didn’t love, which made me sad every time I was with her. I wanted to go home, except that I was already there.

Within the next four hours, the roads had turned into a communal vomitorium. Most of us had scuffled with police (either they were harassing us, or we were harassing them). One friend’s car was impounded for drug possession, and another bud, drunk, got into a fistfight with his own dad, drunk. A win for humanity.

I felt like I hadn’t slept in days, but I got back to the house at 3 p.m. I napped angrily but was awakened by a friend asking if I wanted to go out that night. (This was the guy whose car was impounded earlier in the day; he of course needed a ride for the evening.)

I shouted into the receiver, “I’m getting the hell out of here!” hung up, and went to college in New Hampshire.

But here I am in 2013 hosting a Mardi Gras party (which, by the way anyone in the community is welcome to attend; just lemme know).

I love Mardi Gras, and I love New Orleans. Why the change?

Say Anything with confetti

I told myself while living in New Orleans that it’s so hard to be a saint in the city, but I was really a Pharisee. If I make myself feel superior by judging people doing supposedly bad things, that’s just as bad a thing, no? Even if I wouldn’t want my kids to do everything that’s ever been done at Mardi Gras, Carnival isn’t really a bad thing.

Through no one’s fault, and because of my parents’ hard work and care, I enjoyed a very comfortable childhood. If Mardi Gras was about blowing off steam and resting well, I didn’t feel the need. I do now.

While I’m sure that by most standards my life is still incredibly privileged, I’ve faced enough struggles—and in pastoral ministry and walked alongside many more—that seeking rest and relief from cares are valuable.

(Here’s a fun and potentially weird-seeming Christian fact about Ol’ Jim: I consider myself to be a “sabbatarian,” i.e., one who practices keeping regular periods of rest. For various theological reasons, I don’t do the stores-closed-on-Sunday thing, but I believe that it is pleasing to God when we rest gratefully from our labors. It’s a gracious command for us.)

So, a city that builds an annual party season into the calendar and shuts down everything for a week in the clog days of February? Unbelievably awesome. That I’m given the time to spend hours upon hours standing around, drinking something frosty, talking to people, and catching worthless beads? Sure beats working in the mill. And I can dress up? Sign me up.

At liberti Collingswood church services last Sunday, I talked about how we ought not to treat one another from a functional perspective. We aren’t created to be consumers of other people, using friends, family, and co-workers to gain social capital, fun, pleasure, money, sex, and so on. Relating to people as people re-humanizes us.

Mardi Gras serves no practical, productive function. It’s John Cusack in Say Anything, with confetti. Fat Tuesday in New Orleans is also subversive in a healthy way. It will never be Mardi Gras: Brought To You By Microsoft. You can commoditize Mardi Gras but not control it; it can’t be centrally sponsored and controlled. How many fun things can you say that about?

Not only that, but Mardi Gras is strikingly egalitarian. Thankfully, racism is not the only note in the Fat Tuesday brass band. Everyone in the city does Mardi Gras, and it’s open to all.

I recall Bruce Springsteen saying he loved the Jersey shore because it’s for everyone. It’s not the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard; if you’re a teacher or a police officer, you can still take a week or two there in the summer, and maybe someday get a little place not too far from the sand.

It’s the same with Mardi Gras; we’re in this party together—which is why Mardi Gras always looks kind of bizarre. Last month, I was back in New Orleans for a weekend and grabbed a table at the Carousel Bar in the French Quarter, a nouveau cocktail type of establishment where they fart in the general direction of “mixed drinks.”

Sipping something with my dad, I marveled at the people at the bar as they glided by. (The Carousel Bar actually has a rotating, carousel bar in the center of the lounge. You should take the plunge and do a similar D.I.Y. at home.) There, old people, young people, costumed people, fat people, skinny people, dark people, light people all bellied up together.

By contrast, when I went with Emily a couple weeks ago to the Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company (cocktail bar) in Center City, I left resolving to hit the gym and make sure that the cucumber slices I put on my eyes at night were organic.

Fat Tuesday takes that diversity and cranks it up to 11. Exclusion comes in different guises, but Mardi Gras has junk in the trunk with a bumper sticker that says, “We’re all people, after all.”

In its best expressions, Mardi Gras doesn’t serve as simple escapism, either. Traditionally, New Orleanians party on Fat Tuesday, knowing that right around the corner is Ash Wednesday mass, and the beginning of Lent, which commemorates the suffering of the world as reckoned through the suffering of the Son.

It’s an all-out party that persists not in the forgetfulness of death but rather in lament and defiance of it. It’s also a foretaste of heaven: sinners coming together and having a party.

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