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.

So I have some sympathy for Jeffrey MacDonald's call for recovering serious self-denial as a
Lenten discipline. I also appreciate Tim Suttle's point about constant satiation, the status quo
for Americans of any degree of privilege:

The sad result of satiation is
that we lose any sense of mystery and wonder. Satiation dulls the imagination
and healthy spirituality loses out to the pursuit of the ultimate experience.
In our culture satiation is much easier to achieve than character. Lent can be
the antidote.

I'm struck, however, by the fact that neither MacDonald
nor Suttle addresses the fact that for Protestants, Lent has never been just about
. Historically, those Protestants willing to acknowledge
Lent at all have done so in large part by observing spiritual disciplines.
Instead of (or in addition to) eliminating bad or superfluous things, we've
added good ones.

But in MacDonald's view, U.S. Christians are "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." He continues:

Today Lent is widely ignored in
Christian America. Seasonal sacrifices, if observed at all, tend to be token.
For Catholics, "abstaining" can now consist of sumptuous fish dinners on
Fridays; even a Good Friday "fast" can include two small meals. Some Protestants
conveniently eschew sacrifice altogether - if no one can earn divine favor, why
bother? Still others bring a take-it-or-leave-it attitude, marked by promises
to exercise daily or do without sweets for a few weeks. True deprivation is
rare. As a pastor I know once told me, giving up something for Lent "is kind of
a big joke."

How did Christianity's most
serious season become a joke in this supposedly religious country?

I'll fess up to not being above joking around about
Lenten disciplines (search this page for the phrase "jelly beans"). But
candy-based disciplines aside, I'm drawn most to those Lent practices defined
positively, to increased attention to prayer and meditation and fellowship
(with soup and bread).

What do you think? Is MacDonald onto something here, or
does his argument suffer from too narrow a view of what Lent is?

Steve Thorngate

The Century managing editor is also a church musician and songwriter.

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