March 01, 2006

Happy Ash Wednesday!

(I actually heard that today. Somebody is clearly missing the point.)

In recent years on Ash Wednesday, I've used this space to pen one of my Cranky Scolding Diatribes, chiding our decadent society for failing to appreciate the spirit of Lent (and, in particular, for venerating Mardi Gras and shunning Lent - as always, we Americans love to party but avoid sacrifice like the plague). However, I am forced to change my writing habits this year, after reading an article in Slate suggesting that observance of Lent is spreading, particularly among Protestants (historically, most Protestant denominations did not observe Lent). This most unusual bit of good news is so heartening to me that, just this once, I'll abandon my Eeyorish view of the modern world.

The article's author, Andrew Santella, suggests two reasons why more Protestants are observing Lent. The first is that, with people changing faiths more often now than in the past, many Protestant denominations are heavily populated with former Catholics who brought Lenten traditions with them. The second is that many evangelicals are turning to older rituals (including Lent) as a way of strengthening their faith.

Both explanations make sense, to be sure. But I think there's something more to it. For instance, I'm not an evangelical, and I've never been Catholic, but I've been observing Lent ever since I was a kid, even in times when I wasn't particularly religious. And I notice that Tainted Bill and his wife, who aren't religious, are observing it too. How come? Well, I can't speak for everyone else, but I'll tell you why I observe Lent.

I came up with the Baptists, who traditionally have not observed Lent. My church didn't encourage the practice, and my parents never did it. When I announced, at age 8, that I was giving up chocolate bars for Lent, they were equal parts amazed and entertained. (I think they're still at least faintly amused by my observance, but they respect it. Mom always asks me what I'm giving up; I'm not sure if she's motivated by curiosity, or if she plans to smack my wrist if she sees me breaking my promise.) At first, I did it because it sounded like an interesting thing to do. It was a distinctly religious thing to do, and since my family didn't attend church with any great regularity, we were pretty short on religious traditions.

As time went on and I entered adolescence, I began to view it (with the typically testosterone-fueled worldview of a teensage male) as a personal challenge. Could I really make it 40 days without whatever I'd promised to give up? Had I grown up a few years later, I suppose I might have started calling it "Xtreme Lent" or something, but that was after my time. But I liked the idea of challenging myself to go this length of time without one of my pleasures. For me, it was of a piece with my desire to drive too fast and sneak into buildings I didn't belong in: it all came down to the question, "Are you man enough?" I'm pretty sure that no major religion views Lent this way, but it worked for me in those days.

As I went into college, I began to consider spiritual questions more seriously. I knew that I was through with the Baptists, but I wasn't sure what religion I planned to adopt instead. One week, I'd think I should give the Catholics a try; the next, I'd visit the non-denominational church; then I'd think of myself as spiritual but not religion; then I'd contemplate abandoning belief in God entirely. Through all this searching and considering, the one thing I held to was Lent.

I'm not entirely sure why; some of it may have been inertia. But it was more than that. I liked the purification aspect of the Lenten ritual; I always felt like I was doing something good, even if I wasn't thinking of it in explicitly religious terms. And it was a cultural statement for me as well as a religious one; in a consumer culture that worships acquisition and self-gratification, it was refreshing to try some self-denial for a change. (I guess this is the theory behind Buy Nothing Day as well.)

After I left college, I had more or less decided not to participate in organized religion, but to maintain faith at a personal level. I was turned off by a couple of trends in organized religion.

I didn't (and don't) care for the faith made popular by televangelists such as Joel Osteen, what I like to call "Faith Lite." This brand of theology basically boils down to Tony Robbins with a cross around his neck. "God wants you to be happy, and rich, and driving a fancy car home to your big honkin' house, so embrace Jesus and he'll make you rich!" Oh, spare me. My friend the Mad Prophet calls this the "Cosmic Gumball Machine": stick your belief in the slot, and out pops a happy, wealthy life.

On the other hand, I also don't care for the narrow exclusionary version of evangelical faith. I have little patience for those who preach that homosexuals are all going to Hell. I have equally little patience for those who insist on strict creationism. Where religion stands for intolerance, bigotry, and rejection of the finidings of science, I stand opposed. I believe that religion should celebrate the brotherhood of man, and those who practice divisiveness in the name of religion will find no friend in me. Or as Tom Lehrer once said, "I know that there are people out ther who do not love their fellow human beings, and I hate people like that!"

As I noticed the increasing prevalence of the power-of-positive-thinking churches and those that celebrated narrow-mindedness, I became burned out on organized religion. But still I held onto Lent. The self-discipline and self-denial inherent in it flies in the face of the Cosmic Gumball Machine. And anyone can participate and receive the spiritual benefit, so it's not exclusive. As I explained in my post on the subject last year, Lent fits in well with my conception of faith, even if it actually contains 47 days, rather than the 40 commonly advertised. (Looking back, my complaint about the length of Lent strikes me as considerably less than holy, particularly when I started calling it "Fraudu-Lent" around my friends. I blame this on caffeine withdrawal.)

In the last year or so, I've been moving toward a renewal of my faith. After some research, I discovered a denomination that fits well with my belief system, the United Church of Christ. My church has Ash Wednesday services, but appears to be agnostic on the concept of Lent: if you want to observe, great; if not, that's fine too. This year, I'm giving up candy, which might not be quite as severe a test as last year's vow to abstain from soda (which I kept, barely), but it figures to be a sacrifice. Maybe it isn't "Xtreme Lent" any more, but it works for me.

Posted by Mediocre Fred at March 1, 2006 07:18 AM | TrackBack
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