I cringed when I read Jeffrey MacDonald's accusation, quoted
here by Steve Thorngate, that Americans have turned Lent into a spiritual
self-help event "whose effectiveness is measured by how well it entertains us
and affirms what we already believe."
Since starting seminary I've had the opportunity to read
through the Old Testament with a thoroughness I haven't used since my
evangelical youth group days. While building biblical literacy is something
evangelicals do very well, reading the Old Testament now reminds me how my context
shaped how I read the Bible. And it all had to do with sex.
I grew up around evangelical church leaders who were hardcore
about spiritual fasting, sometimes going a week on just water or 40 days on
just fruit juice. (I never made it more than a day.) When I started running in mainline
circles, I was thrown by the way people used the word "fast" to mean giving up
chocolate or beer or television.
Harvard historian of religion Wilfred Cantwell Smith likes to talk about the origins of the rosary, the string of beads used for prayers by devout Catholics. Catholics got the idea for using prayer beads from Muslims, for whom prayer beads are quite common. The Muslims likely got the idea from Buddhists, and the Buddhists no doubt picked up the idea from Indian Brahmans, whose 108 beads account for the requisite number of Hindu prayers (Mark Juergensmeyer et al., God in the Tumult of the Global Square, University of California Press).