Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Like a Moth to the Flame: Recontroversializing Lent for 2012

By far last year's most controversial SWNIDish topic was our critique of the Lenten fast.

To acknowledge Fat Tuesday, we foolishly deign to reiterate. We are prompted to do so by that highly visible ascetic, Shane Claiborne, who writes for the chronically esteemed Jim Wallis's modestly named "God's Politics" blog.* With that combination of bait, we had to bite fast and hard: hook, line and sinker.

Here, then, are some of Claiborne's ill-conceived commonplaces about the Lenten fast, the gravity of which suggests that they were composed when his blood sugar was already dangerously low from having given up eating anything that casts a shadow, followed by SWNIDish rejoinders:

All the major world religions have an element of self-denial at their core. Jews have Yom Kippur. Muslims have Ramadan. Christians have Lent.

Fine and good, but let's talk about the Christian religion. Did Jesus die on the cross to attain higher spiritual awareness for himself? Oh, he died for the sake of others. Since "deny himself" is followed by "take up his cross and follow me," in Jesus' invitation to be like him in his death, is the end of Christianity's self-denial the attainment of something for oneself or the giving of oneself for others?

In a world filled with clutter, noise, and hustle, Lent is a good excuse to step back and rethink how we think and live. In a world of instant gratification, it’s a chance to practice delayed gratification – to fast -- so that we can truly appreciate the blessings we have. In a world where virtual friends are replacing real ones, it is an invitation to turn off TV and computer screens so we can spend time with real people again. 

Did Jesus die so that I can slow down and appreciate a simple life? Let's concede that finding rest in Jesus is important to the experience of discipleship. Is the pinnacle of our observance of the heuristic church calendar a modestly contemplative retooling of our daily schedules or patterns of incidental consumption? Or is that at the optimistic most a modest baby-step toward something that reflects the true gospel?

It’s an opportunity to give up something that is sucking the life out of us so that we can be filled with God, with life, with love again.

Wow! If the thing is doing that, shouldn't I give it up entirely? And do things like foods or entertainments really suck the life out of me? What is life anyway? Jesus says that if you lose your life--again with the aim of serving--you find it. Seems like we might be removing the dominical sayings from their theological contexts, making ourselves into forty-days-a-year neo-Platonists, doesn't it?

[In Lent] there is an invitation  -- an excuse – to try something new. Some folks may choose to not only give up something, but to take on something new – to exercise, read, learn a new craft, or pray. So whether it is giving up an old bad habit or taking on a new holy habit… May we each use this Lenten season as an excuse to do something that empties us of ourselves so that our lives make better music.

There we have it. The aim of Lent is self-improvement. Get your holy on, which is all about you. Nothing about what to do with the money or time you save.

We say it again. The Christian faith is about the good news of the cross. Jesus gave himself for the sake of others, to bless those who don't deserve it. His followers, when they follow him, do the same. If a Lenten fast or any other attempt to practice Christianity doesn't deliberately aim at that, it surely misses the bull's eye, if not the entire target.

Or to borrow a phrase from last year, in the end our inherited proxies for genuine discipleship may be no better than pious distractions from the real thing.

*Yes, we know there's nothing modest about our blog's name, either. But there's much more sarcasm about it on this modest site.


Anthony said...

love it.

Anonymous said...

Slow day in SNWID world if that is all you have to share. Yawn.

Christian said...

I love it when people criticize you anonymously.

As to the article. I think that one of your points here is why I dislike much of the teaching I've heard on giving. Give so that you will be blessed. That teaching is utilized by so many (even outside of the Health & Wealth movement) to encourage people to give regularly.

Ellie said...

you skipped the part about "self examination" in Lent - that you self-examine by practicing self-denial. Like any other kind of fast (unless you want to chuck fasting entirely), the Lenten fast is meant to create space/time/awareness in your life of your sinfulness before the Easter celebration. How many of us really take the time to examine our sin the way David did in the Psalms? In our culture today, we're short on that whole "broken and contrite heart" thing. It might sound trite to cut out TV or chocolate, but if it's heightening your awareness of your need for God, need for forgiveness, then go for it.

JB in CA said...

SWNID: I'm not sure exactly what your point is. Are you saying that Lenten fasts are not necessary for spiritual growth, or that they're useless for spiritual growth, or that they (mostly) get in the way of spiritual growth but could have some positive spiritual advantages if observed appropriately? Just curious.

Jim Shoes said...

I suspect that SWNID expects you to read his archives. Search for "lent" on this blog and you'll find several posts from last year, one or two with massive comments.

So don't beg to have your questions answered. Look the answers up.

JB in CA said...

Well, I wasn't really begging, just curious. But no problem. If SWNID doesn't respond, I shouldn't loose too much sleep.

As far as the archived posts are concerned, I'm not sure rereading them would be of much help. I remember at the time they were originally posted not being able to figure out whether SWNID thought there could ever really be any value in fasting. He was pretty clear about where he thought actual fasting goes wrong, but not at all clear about how he thought it could (if at all) go right. And his suggestion, in this post, that fasting can have value if it somehow "bless[es] others that don't deserve it" sounds suspiciously vacuous--a little like the claim that the number three would be even if only it were divisible by two. What would a fast that blesses others that don't deserve it look like? (1) Giving someone a loaf of bread rather than eating it oneself? No. That's not a fast; it's a sacrifice. (2) Spreading the Gospel message while abstaining from food? No. In that case, the fast is irrelevant to the blessing, which comes from the message. (3) Fasting in order to focus one's thoughts on helping others? Well, perhaps, but notice that that type of fast is directed as much at self-improvement (greater focus) as it is at blessing others, and the desire for self-improvement, according to SWNID, is what makes fasting a problematic practice to begin with. So as you can see, I'm really not being lazy, and I really do have a genuine question: What exactly is SWNID's position on fasting? SWNID doesn't need to respond, of course, but let's not confuse "Look it up" with a genuine reply.

Anonymous said...

Maybe he has Is 58 in mind.
From what I see what was going on back then has some similarities with modern fasting practice (including Lent) for too many. They fast to get some sort of blessing. It seems spiritual, for sure. Yet, while they abstain from food and maybe even devote extra time to prayer, they do not abstain from sins that they know they ought to change, they don't change their generosity toward the needy, etc, etc. As God has said that He prefers mercy over sacrifice (although the latter was required), it seems that He prefers holiness and compassion over abstaining from food (as SWNID has pointed out, the latter in this instance is never actually commanded of us). He warns us similarly through Paul in Col 2:23. Maybe not all abstaining from food is bad... maybe some is even profitable. Far too often, however, it becomes a substitute for actual sanctification.
- Mike