I recently spoke at a youth leadership camp for a theologically conservative denomination (mine). And I got some significant push back. Not from the youth staff, but from an unlikely place: students.
I assumed the kids would dig a talk called Wired to Party. Most did. But some were offended. They just couldn’t get past the word “party.” I suppose the opening slide of a bunch of drunk kids at a rave didn’t help either. My point, fully dug by the youth staff, was that the world has a broken view of partying—a pathetically flat one, actually. We, as children of God, ought to throw the most joyful, fully human parties. Nope, they weren’t getting around that word partying.
In my circles, the Reformed Presbyterians, we have taught our kids that mature Christians sit still through predictable, yet “challenging” lectures. But it ends there. We’ve also shown by example that emotions are dangerous, that partying at its core is evil and that true spirituality is at best an intellectual assent to doctrine (incipient Gnosticism) and at worst an unquestioned acceptance of the culture of restraint (enlightened Stoicism).
I’m no historian of parties myself, but it seems to me that Roman Catholics are generally less freaked-out by a little carn-ival. Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day, co-opted as they are by a culture wanting any excuse to indulge the flesh, are intended to be religiously oriented feasts. Perhaps in more sacramentally-oriented denominations there’s a more obvious connection between worship and the human body. Makes sense, considering the centerpiece of the Roman Church is the body and blood of our Lord Jesus.
We Reformed like to preach Christ (usually), but we are squeamish about taking him up on the offer to “eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood.” [i] I’ve been pushing for weekly communion in my congregation for years. If for no other reason, I long to see hungry souls walk away “satisfied” and not merely encouraged in heart and head. [ii]
Oh, but wait. Too much wine could lead to joy and partying. That wouldn’t be cool.
Granted, I used to be a college minister. I saw firsthand the deleterious effects of binge drinking and the hook-up culture. I know partying is a dangerous notion. But I also witnessed some pretty fun and funny events that took place through Christian fellowship groups. Who else but Christians would champion slow-motion football spectacles and semi-normal dances? Partying, or the instinct to celebrate in groups, is part and parcel of what it feels like to be human. Partying with Jesus is good for his disciples and a sign to the rest of the world that the Kingdom has arrived.
A few times a year, our campus staff workers would gather for training. Our leader told us that small groups of us would be given $100 to have fun with, and he wanted us to video our escapades. The details are sketchy, but I recall one group went to Hershey Park (a Benjamin went further in the early 90’s); one group went to an ice cream parlor followed by a trip to a playground. I can still see the video of a bunch of adults facing outward on a huge merry-go-round, sticking out their tongues and receiving licks off ice cream cones from the others on the sidelines. It was wild! I don’t remember who won, but I do recall that we didn’t feel right about using our time and money for something so trivial. It seemed beneath us to merely have fun.
Celebrating, really cutting loose and having a good time feels somehow, sub-human, childish, unsavory, trivial, useless, carnal, a waste of time. Many bodies of believers handle our drive to have a good time as sinful and then provide alternatives that sometimes can be fun. Sometimes. Churches offer summer camps, Christian radio, and awkward Sundays in the fellowship hall. Lot’s of times this means people just look for fun outside the walls of the church, find someone else to throw a party for them. They go to ballgames, to movies, or street fairs.
But it’s very hard to imagine the possibility that partying is not only an activity everyone is hard-wired for, but also an activity the church should be leading. The Jews were told by God through Moses to party. The Sabbath day was not a fast but a feast. Plus, three times a year they were told to refrain from work and enjoy feasts. Every seven years the earth was to lay fallow so that it could have a weed party and the poor would have a glean party. [iii] Instead of partying on God’s terms, the Jews thought they’d try the parties of the pagan nations around. I suppose many stayed home to work the fields. The result? The latter history of Israel shows that Yahweh himself removed them from the land. [iv]
The Babylonian captivity lasted seventy years, the precise amount of time the land did not enjoy its rest. If that land would have been able, it would’ve vomited out the party poopers before Yahweh got to them. I can’t help but think of The Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
What does this say about the God of the Bible? What does this say about his intentions for his own people? It’s says he made them to experience pleasure at his hand, on their land, and through gathering to celebrate. What about Jesus? Certainly he was a man of sorrows and built his kingdom upon seriousness, gloom, and doom, right? Sort of. He endured all those things as Son of Man, “for the joy set before him.” [v]
His first miracle, according to the apostle John, took place at a wedding (of all places!) in Cana. [vi] The M.C. of the party was flabbergasted: Where’d all this good wine come from so late in the party? This is crazy! No one brings out the good stuff once people are a bit buzzed.
The last thing churches should do is judge The Party People who are outside the church. Partiers have an itch. They scratch it the best way they know. Such knowledge ought to double-over Christians in grief, not judgment. Churches can offer a new way, an amazing way, to enjoy life together by throwing better parties, not by retreating into a Christian bubble of safety, judgment and faux Shalom.
In our toolbox they have The Lord’s Day, the sacraments and a wonderful church year. On top of that, pretty much any civic or cultural holiday happening around us is occasion for the church to lead the way in the celebration of being human. “Happy Birthday, All!” “May the Fourth be with you!” “Come watch Shark Week!”
C.S. Lewis co-opted the great myth of Bacchus to get at the heart of what it would be like to party with Aslan the Lion:
One saw sticky and stained fingers everywhere, and, though mouths were full the laughter never ceased nor the yodeling cries of Euan, euan, eu-oi-oi-oi-oi, till all of a sudden everyone felt at the same moment that the game (whatever it was), and the feast, ought to be over, and everyone flopped down breathless on the ground and turned his face to Aslan to hear what he would sat next.
At that moment the sun was just rising and Lucy remembered something and whispered, ‘I say, Su, I know who they are.’
‘The boy with the wild face is Bacchus and the old one on the donkey is Silenus. Don’t you remember Mr. Tumnus telling us about them long ago?’
‘Yes, of course. But I say Lu —-’
‘I wouldn’t have felt very safe with Bacchus and all his wild girls if we’d met them without Aslan.’
‘I should think not,’ Said Lucy. [vii]
Lewis pictured for us what Jesus knew at the wedding in Cana: People are wired for joy. Life should be a rave, and it’s all fine because Jesus is with us. It’s not necessarily safer with him at the mic; it’s wilder.
I’m with Macklermore on this one: “Let’s give partying back to the people and spread it across the country.” By throwing parties we can glorify the one who made us for joy. Christians, have the privilege to also do it super-naturally. And that’s a party.
[i] Gospel of John 6:53, English Standard Version.
[ii] This idea of walking away satisfied is deliciously pictured by the disciple Mark in his Gospel (6:30-42). Partying with Jesus was filling! Shouldn’t our Lord’s Day gatherings also fill us up in every way?
[iii] Exodus 23:10-17, ESV.
[iv] II Chronicles 36:20,21, ESV.
[v] Hebrews 11:2, ESV.
[vi] John 2:10-11, ESV.
[vii] C. S. Lewis, Prince Caspian (New York : HarperCollins, 1951),154.