In the last year I’ve had the great fortune of attending two spectacular weddings in the city of New Orleans. This was a fun coincidence given that most of my friends are already married and spread out across the United States, but on these separate occasions, the brides-to-be were originally from Louisiana, and dear friends from my university days were getting hitched.
New Orleans is undoubtedly one of the most unique American cities. Obviously, it is well known for its historic French Quarter district and its annual Mardi Gras festival. Infamously, perhaps, New Orleans also conjures up images of devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina or the sexual libertinism one can find on Bourbon Street.
To my surprise, however, New Orleans also boasts America’s oldest cathedral. Though continually rebuilt throughout its lifetime, St. Louis Cathedral was founded in the early 1700s and shapes the distinctive Catholic presence in New Orleans. At the same time, juxtaposed with these traditional forms of Catholicism are the sundry occult beliefs and New Age practices that populate the New Orleans cityscape. On one of my tours through the French Quarter, for example, I found shops advertising practical resources related to Astrology, Gnosticism, Theosophy, Voodoo, and Witchcraft.
For many visitors, these esoteric cult shops are nothing more than part of the show in New Orleans. They’re harmless tourist traps that conveniently pop up along one of the many popular New Orleans ghost tours. For those coming from a Christian perspective, however, I wonder what kind of responses such shops elicit. (It’s an open question, at least in this post, so please feel free to share your thoughts below.)
Interestingly, the Scripture passage read during the wedding I recently attended was from St. Paul’s ever-popular words to the church at Corinth: “Love is patient, love is kind….”[i] While this is always a fitting passage to be read before a bride and groom exchange vows, it seems particularly relevant at a wedding in New Orleans, a city which is in my estimation more similar to the ancient city of Corinth than any modern American city. Corinth, you may recall, was a port city known for sexual licentiousness and occultism. Sound familiar? As the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson writes, “like most ancient ports, Corinth enjoyed a reputation for sexual immorality. And with the constant movement of people in and out of the city, attachment to particular pagan rituals and clubs became a necessary means of maintaining some form of social stability, a practice that would become a particular problem for early Christians.”[ii]
If New Orleans is a sort of modern reincarnation of Corinth, then these parallels raise a couple of pressing questions: First, what effects does the occult or other New Age religions have on the citizens and tourists of New Orleans (or take another city with similar characteristics, say Vancouver)? Second, how might Christians living in cities respond to the sexual libertinism or cultic tendencies they may witness? Of course, there are no easy answers to questions like these, and understanding the spiritual conflicts involved requires much wisdom, prayer, and patience.
But despite any difficulties that may abound, Christians are, I would suggest, in possession of a culturally relevant text. To be sure, there are vast differences between Corinth and New Orleans today, but the very fact that priests and pastors continue to read a two thousand year old Corinthian letter to a bunch of boozy Southerners at a balmy New Orleans wedding makes me believe that Scripture is applicable and that all cities are redeemable. In New Orleans, where hearty plates of crawfish and grits accompany the soulful music of the resplendent French Quarter, that is good news indeed.
[i] 1 Corinthians 13:4
[ii] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, 3rd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 262.
Paul, I really liked that you made a connection between NO and Corinth. It gives me a better idea of what the ancient city was like and what it would have been like for Paul and other missionaries trying to gain a foothold in a city with so many varying beliefs. It says to me that we aren’t so different today than the people of Corinth- which is surprising but maybe not at the same time. I think NO would be the last place anyone would expect a spiritual revival. That makes what Paul did so amazing and gives us hope of what the gospel can do.
Sorry, that was meant for Paul’s reply to me. Good points though Kate.
Paul, as one who has lived in Vancouver and now makes New Orleans home, I share some of your wonderings. I’ve wrestled, prayed, preached, and pastored through some of the topics you address. My answer to those wondering how to position themselves to address said concerns (in whatever city): live in the city, love the city, and slowly lead those around you into the way of the good news.
Also, as you know, (and I’m aware this wasn’t the scope of your post) it takes stepping out of the Quarter to observe some of the larger systemic issues facing the city. For one church’s response to engaging the city regarding issues of racial disharmony, check out Canal Street Church’s website, particularly their non-profit the RICC: http://canalmosaic.org/
Thanks for your comments and helpful reflection! It’s encouraging to hear of churches that are thinking through these issues and working to love those around them in the city. And I agree with you that the Quarter represents only a small slice of New Orleans. Anyway, next time I’m in New Orleans, I hope to check out Canal Street Church.