Friday, March 11, 2011

SWNIDish Lent in the Dock

This would appear as a comment on our previous post, were it not too long. Perhaps we should give up verbosity for Lent.

Obviously we have struck a nerve. We reply briefly on several points.

To interlocutors who say that our view of Lent is incomplete, we reply that it is only our post that is incomplete, and for obvious reasons that it is a blog post and not a monograph. If Lent is practiced to urge people to love and good works, it is exactly what we urge, which you'll note is not the end of Lent but its reformation at the popular level. You'll note that we haven't said that the bad way is the only way all folk observe Lent, though we think it is at least the common way and probably the most obvious. We aren't throwing out the baby with the bath water. We are urging better bath water for the baby.

On the nature of biblical fasting, those who pose the question have concordances. We urge them to do their own work. Give up co-dependency for Lent.

Dr. Love, in your rejoinder you have embedded several assumptions that we find unwarranted. You can identify them and then decide whether they have warrant, and maybe even describe the warrant. We simply offer a different assumption that we think has warrant, and then follow it to a conclusion, assessing the capacity of the assumption to account for the evidence: if (as many have noted) the etiology of Hebrew fasting is ritualized mourning, and if that background is understood in many/most/or all of the relatively few biblical texts that mention the practice (and, we say again, never enjoin it on Christ's followers, though it remains something that they may do as they see fit), does a coherent picture emerge that challenges the other notions of fasting that we have picked up here and there, whether from the neo-Platonists of Alexandria, Byzantium and Rome or some other source (and it's not the source that disqualifies the notion, of course)?

Another point that y'all are missing is the object of mourning. Who are those who mourn/weep, whom God blesses under his end-time rule? They are those who mourn the miserable state of the world in rebellion against its God. Such mourning is necessarily and always the prelude to action as the agents of God's rule (hence, blessing on the merciful, peacemakers, persecuted for the sake of the Name). If not, it isn't mourning for the world that is in rebellion against this particular God that we say we worship.

And so to self-control, undeniably a biblical virtue, but rightly understood, like all biblical virtues, not as an ascetic virtue but a social one. Temporarily giving up one of God's good gifts for the sake of "self-control" is at best in the penumbra of the biblical virtue. At best. Consciously aiming through the power of Christ's Spirit to control oneself so as to be more loving, joyous, peaceful, patient, and such toward others is in the middle of the umbra. Note well that "self-control" is embedded in a virtue list that is undeniably social, not ascetic. Paul's use of Stoic vocabulary is at its foundations profoundly un-Stoic.

The ethic of the New Testament is centered on the center of the message of the New Testament: the incarnate Son of God died for others. It looks inward on the way to moving outward, and immediately. The Christ who arises early to pray does so because he moves on to the many villages of Galilee with the announcement of God's rule. The Christ who agonizes in the garden contemplates his death for the sake of others in submission to the good Father's will.

Though the direction of this conversation has brought us a measure of despair as to the potency of our teaching efforts, we rejoice at least that no one has challenged the fundamental notion in the previous paragraph, though we think some ignore it unconsciously as they process Lenten practice.

In his celebrated book on why he remains a Jew and did not convert to Christianity, Jacob Neusner, arguably the greatest scholar of the humanities of the last century and undeniably the greatest scholar of Second-Temple Judaism of his time, decried the tendency of Christianity to veer to aceticism, thereby denying the goodness of God's created gifts to humanity. Neusner claimed his beef was with Jesus, but we think he read Jesus through the lens of ascetic Christianity. In that light, he had a point. We are listening and urge others to do the same.

It is a tragedy that anyone might miss the message of the cross because we have miscommunicated it in our efforts to celebrate it.


Anonymous said...

I'm rendered almost speechless by this entire discussion.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if Jacob Neusner looks at American Christianity and thinks it veers too much toward asceticism. Even those in America who celebrate Lent and celebrate it faithfully could hardly be accused of denying themselves so much. The American church can hardly be accused of denying the good things of God. Most of us want them too much.