Blog Template Theology of the Body: Lent for the spiritually retarded

Friday, January 25, 2008

Lent for the spiritually retarded

Earlier today, MM posted a brief link to the Episcopalian church's decision to base their Lenten reflections on the Millennium Development Goals. Now the problem with even attempting to criticize something like this is that makes you sound like some sort of spiritual curmudgeon who isn't interested in the welfare of anyone else in the world. To object in any way may make you seem like someone who has relegated Christianity to some spiritual plane that ignores the suffering and poverty of people around you. So let me go on the record from the beginning to state that I am firmly AGAINST poverty...and malaria...and child mortality, etc. I mean, really, who is FOR any of those things? And I think it can be helpful when churches turn their attention to these key issues and try to address them. The Anglican Church's fight against slavery in the 19th century is testimony to how the good news of Christ can transform the lives of people in ways that allow them to effect political change for the benefit of the oppressed.

Nevertheless, the devotional itself is, to be charitable, a piece of junk; it is, as my heading says, Lent for the spiritually retarded. It looks like it was written by someone who was spiritually tone deaf and if I was an Episcopalian I would be embarrassed that my denomination even produced something so facile, superficial, condescending and, at best, tenuously connected to Christian faith. To make it easier for you to understand my complaints, here's the actual Lenten devotional in a pdf file for your perusal and reference (open it up in a separate tab, as I'll be referring to specific sections). Some complaints:

1. Where's Jesus? Lent starts on February 6, and the Lenten devotional has something for each of the days of Lent. Just flip through the first week and see if you can see who is missing? That's right, between February 6 and February 12, the name of Jesus does not appear one single time. In fact, Bishop Schori's name appears in the devotional a full three days before the name of Jesus. This is a pattern that repeats itself all the way through the devotional, where large swaths of political propaganda go by without any mention of Jesus. Now, to be fair, they do actually begin to talk about Jesus on Holy Week, but even here they still manage to leave him out on Wednesday, March 19. A Lenten devotional with Jesus as the supporting cast instead of the central character? What exactly is Christian about this?

2. No room at the inn. There is a reason that there is no room at the inn for Jesus (to mix my liturgical calendar metaphors), and that is that Jesus has been superseded by the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Check out Thursday, February 7. I'll wait until you come back...See anything wrong here? The Scripture reference is a lovely promise from Deuteronomy 6:6, "These words which I command you today shall be on your heart." Ah yes, the commands of God -- always something good to ruminate on during Lent. After all, thinking about how I violate God's commands might lead me to think about how I contribute to things like poverty and oppression and how Jesus died to redeem me from my sins.

Except, of course, that's not at all what I'm supposed to commit to my heart and ruminate upon. Instead, I'm supposed to memorize the eight MDGs. For some reason this strikes me as just slightly idolatrous, when we put memorizing human goals, no matter how worthy, above the divinely inspired Scripture. Here's a Lenten bonus for you...instead of memorizing the 8 MDGs, try memorizing the 8 Beatitudes. Which one is more likely to transform the way you think about poverty and your fellow humans?

The reality of the this so-called Lenten devotional is that references to the MDGs seem to outnumber references to Jesus by about 3 to 2. Sorry Jesus, but there's not much room for you in this year's Lenten devotional.

3. Jerry McGuire was an Episcopalian?

This really isn't so much a Lenten devotional as it is a pledge drive for the Episcopal church. Let's face it, the bottom line here is the bottom line. We end, of course, with Easter. And then we go out into the world and proclaim the good news of what God has done. Christ is risen!!, actually, we just sign the pledge card and sign off our guilt with a nice check. Do I get an indulgence with my check? Can I pay at the beginning of Lent and skip all of this other crap? And I'm a little bit confused about this anyway, because on February 8 they told me I didn't have to give anything up -- I just had to reconsider my spending habits (of course, they forgot to mention that my spending habits supply jobs for the people who make what I buy, but let's not expect any economic reality here). In fact, the whole thing is really about money, not Christ. Got a problem, let's solve it by spending money! Obviously there are things that require money to solve -- like the mosquito nets, but I'll really believe that the Episcopal church is serious about solving the malaria problem when they campaign for the return of DDT. It's even cheaper and it works. **

4. Education is dumb. Though not quite as dumb as this devotional. You see, the real problem is that we just aren't educated enough. If only we knew more about the rest of the world, we'd pray more, and write our Lent checks. Seriously, all you really need to do is just learn 50 facts about another country (March 11), or buy a globe (March 10), or learn about the plight of children around the world (March 19). Does this seem just a little juvenile to you?

5. Jesus came to create global partnerships. The theological stupidity of this devotional is just staggering. Check out March 13, which asks a really interesting question: "How does that reconciliation happen?" We all know the answer, which is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:19 -- we are reconciled to God through Christ. Except that's not quite apparently how reconciliation works. Instead, we just need to creatively find some global partnerships so that we can "develop connections across borders." It's Lenten and it's pro-immigration!!

There is something deeply materialist and obscene about this Lenten devotional. Again, I'm not opposed to any of those goals, but it seems to me that a Lenten devotional that relegates Christ to a minor character -- that uses the goals as a criterion for understanding Christ instead of Christ as a criterion for understanding the goals -- is detrimental to both our faith and to the goals. Though, to be fair, I was hoping that the U.N. would have a goal of stopping their peacekeepers from raping little girls. Now that would be progress.

Well, I've probably spent more time on this than it deserves, so I'll crawl back under my rock and come out again in a month when I have something else that fires me up. In the meantime, I'll be wondering if what most Episcopalians should give up for Lent is this devotional.

**My prediction: more people will be upset by my call for the return of DDT than by this Lenten devotional.