I’ve had conflicted thoughts about Lenten practices and other aspects of the medieval liturgical calendar for years. But I’m pretty sure my reasons are significantly different from those of contemporary evangelicals. My concern is a matter of the effectiveness (or counter-productivity) of communal formative habits and modest implementation of a regulative principle of worship in church life.
I’m especially fascinated and flabbergasted by the burgeoning numbers of evangelical individuals and churches who observe the Lenten Season in some capacity, even if it’s merely an Ash Wednesday evening service with that little sooty cross on the forehead.
I’d bet real money those evangelical ashes didn’t come from burning last year’s palm branches waved by the faithful in worship to signify the Lord’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem or even from the Palm Sunday children’s pageant. Primping up the pulpit and the pastor with some purple paraments would be a pleasant picture to my pupils at least. However, that’s usually more regal ambiance than evangelicals can stomach. It’s “too Catholic” to not be “dead religion” or something. But I digress.
Even if the time of year and typical abstentions aren’t observed, evangelicals just can’t seem to get Lent out of their souls. Have you noticed how many 40-day programs and book studies for greater spiritual discipline there are?
But here’s the rub: if an evangelical individual or church wrenches a practice out of its context and appropriates it by reconfiguring it to function in a foreign framework, is it really the same thing anymore? And if the individual gets to decide what he fasts from and otherwise makes his own rules for the practice, then is it really the same thing as a communal tradition imposing inconveniences, obligations, and calls to common loves that actually rehabituate a man to a pattern of life greater than his own self-curation?
While reading an exchange between Jake Meador and Alastair Roberts posted as “Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety” at Mere Orthodoxy, I took note of these intriguing comments from Mr. Roberts:
As I have noted in the past, for many evangelicals the tradition can function in a similar way as the thrift store functions for the stereotypical hipster—as a source for an affected ‘vintage’ identity, rather than as a living set of practices to whose moulding power we submit. We don’t want to be subject to the tradition and its formation, but want to cannibalize it for our own formation . . .
[Quote from Jamie Smith]: “The cultural rituals of individualism have transformed even the communal rituals of the church, making it difficult to observe Lent today. As a result, we’ve effectively industrialized Lent and, ironically, turned it into a kind of Pelagian exercise in will-power. The point of Lent isn’t to prove I can deny myself; the point is to feel the hunger of longing. We’ve lost the ethos that makes this possible. Lenten practices are lost the moment I choose “what to give up.” I need the cafeteria to stop serving meat instead.”
[Jamie] Smith’s remarks about the issue of ‘choice’ are important, not least because I think that they highlight why Lent in particular is so widely observed. Within the popular Christian consciousness, Lent can function as a sort of authorization from the tradition for our acts of self-formation and religious expressionism . . .
For this new contemporary religious subject, the practice of ‘Lent’ may be part of a bricolage of self-formation. We scavenge in the ruins of the old institutions and ‘narratives’ that formerly conferred our identities upon us—such as the Church—for parts with which we will form ourselves, trying various things on for size until we find something that feels right. Rather than giving us our identities, society now serves to facilitate, validate, and function as the stage for our own identity formation . . .
For many evangelicals, I fear that cherry-picked Lenten practices are little more than an antiquing fetish for developing a personal brand, which will probably be exhibited on social media. In other words, dabbling in Lent is “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for evangelicals pursuing a bit of personalized expressionistic authenticity. But, hey, it’s a catchy song. Gonna pop some spiritual tags.
And it’s even worse for emergent types, if they still exist. I’m pretty confident all those votive candles and icons of saints have far less to do with communing in the traditions of the one true and ancient Faith than postmodern Christian hipsters imagine they do.
Originally written and posted in 2017 and now resurrected for your reading pleasure.