Lent: You're Probably Doing It Wrong

I've been reading some discussion regarding this article by G. Jeffrey McDonald. McDonald laments the way that Lent is frequently observed within American Christianity and says:

We’re remaking [Lent] as a type of spiritual self-help whose effectiveness is measured by how well it entertains us and affirms what we already believe. Since Americans love parties and hate to do without, Christianity is evolving to deliver. The diminution of Lenten practices illustrates the trend and highlights what’s lost when religion becomes a consumer commodity.

I don't deny elements of truth in what McDonald is saying. In fact the article strikes me as a very satisfying read for us church leaders, what with its hand-wringing, self-righteous tut-tuts and in-crowd high-fives.

It bugs me to tears, actually.

Please don't misunderstand me. Consumerist Christianity is a big issue. And certainly the church has a prophetic duty to call people to deeper authenticity and radical discipleship. But this article smacks of caricature. McDonald characterizes Lent as a "joke" based on one comment from a friend. And "sumptuous" fish dinners on Fridays? This is the normative American Christian experience?

This kind of "you're doing it wrong" carping is not productive. All of this reminds me of the discussion we had on this blog back in December about singing Christmas carols in the church during (gasp!) the season of Advent. I argued back then that maybe, just maybe, some people feel drawn to the music of Christmas during December not because they are worshiping the gods of Best Buy and Wal*Mart, but because they desperately need to immerse themselves in a message of Joy Right Now, to soak it up, because the world is a pretty dark place. Can we treat people like grownups and say that perhaps they have a good sense of what their hearts and spirits need without us telling them?

Why don't we spend our time helping people connect their Lenten practices, whatever they might be, to the presence of the living God, rather than diagnosing those practices as inadequate? I know a woman who committed to run each day during Lent. I guess I can chide her for disrespecting Lent as a season for "spiritual self-help"... or I can help her make the connection between that practice and stewardship of the body, which Paul calls the temple of God. Heck, daily physical exercise sounds like a struggle to beat the sin of sloth, which last I checked was one of the seven deadlies! What could be more Lenten than that?

(BTW, this is part of the tension within the Sabbath stuff. Lots of people take time off for R&R and don't call it Sabbath. Good for them. So my job isn't to say "Well unless it's got the Sabbath imprimatur, it's only second best." Instead, maybe I help them see ways that their practice of rest and play doesn't just recharge the batteries, but connects them to a deep wellspring of joy and grace that [I believe] is a gift of the Holy.)

I appreciate these two posts on the Christian Century blog, both of which bring some much-needed nuance to the topic. I found the latter especially on point:

Is "true deprivation" really the point of fasting, or is true fasting measured by the extent to which it turns us toward God? Deprivation for deprivation's sake could easily become competitive or self-aggrandizing. Biblical writers frequently make the point that God isn't interested in displays of piety but in justice and love.