A Conversation on Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety


My friend Jake Meador and I had a wide-ranging e-mail conversation over the last few days. It was posted on Mere Orthodoxy earlier today. It is lengthy, but worth checking out. The following are a few quotations from our discussion to whet your appetite.

[M]ost of us haven’t taken the time to adequately understand the role that Lent plays within Catholic or Orthodox piety, nor have we stopped to ask whether a similar role even exists in evangelical piety. I think Lent is far less problematic for evangelicals than, say, praying to saints. But unless we try to understand the particular thing Lent accomplishes in the piety of other traditions we run the risk of sloppily importing a practice into evangelical piety that actually doesn’t work in evangelical piety–and may even undermine it.


Part of the genius of Lent historically was the manner in which it knit together personal and communal formation, overcoming the individual-corporate polarity that is so often present in our thinking. It expressed the intimate connection between the preparation of individual baptismal candidates and the more general preparation of the whole church body for the celebration of Easter.


As Mark Searle observed, ‘We seek community as a means of self-fulfillment, looking to it to meet our needs but reluctant to submit ourselves to its constraints, we merely succeed in turning our parish liturgies into “life-style enclaves,” as Bellah calls them, the coming-together of people who enjoy the same things.’ Few are truly aware of the degree to which, even when faithfully going through the motions of traditional liturgy, prevailing forms of subjectivity lead us to perform them against their grain, leaving us untouched by their true formative power. Beyond the recovery of traditional liturgy, we need consciously to reflect upon how we might re-establish the sorts of subjectivity that ought to correspond to them. This is a matter to which much less serious thought has been devoted. How can we move beyond what Searle terms ‘shared celebrations’ to genuinely public and common worship?


Even the things that we think of as creating an experience of being compelled are actually still under our control to a large degree–I might hate my job and hate the things my boss makes me do, but I can always apply for other jobs. The normal experience of my life is that I possess a tremendous amount of control over my circumstances–and that is seen as an unambiguous good by most in the contemporary west today. And obviously a lot of good things have come from greater personal liberty. But these personal liberties often have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors–which is why we’re seeing so much chatter amongst certain traditionalist conservatives about Burke’s “little platoons.” Some of us are starting to realize that the kind of autonomous freedom we aspire to brings with it a heavy price.


The ashtagging phenomenon that I mentioned earlier is one example of a use of social media that comes fairly naturally to us within the current ecology of the Internet, but which may reveal distortions in the modes of our engagement. As a ‘viral’ Internet ‘meme’, ashtagging works by means of imitation. The power of the meme to bring people together is profound: when we participate in a meme we feel as though we are ‘part of something’, something bigger than ourselves that unites us with others. This sort of ‘viral’ imitation is a mode of community that is very powerful and effective in contexts where people are fairly undifferentiated and where emotions can pass rapidly from person to person without much to hinder them.


Perhaps the thing that first piqued my interest in the ashtagging trend was its use of ‘selfies’. Žižek has used the concept of ‘interpassivity’ to discuss such things as canned laughter on television. The canned laughter substitutes for my own laughter, laughing for me, and saving me from having to do so for myself (for those who can’t relate to this, just think of the ways that you use emoticons and Internet abbreviations to substitute for actual displays of emotion). The selfie can often perform a similar purpose. The selfie—which typically exists to be posted online—is part of an image of myself that I construct in and for an online community, such as Facebook. This online image of me can start to substitute for me, virtually performing my identity so that I don’t really have to. I haven’t truly had a wonderful holiday unless I have an incredible photo album for my friends to ‘like’ on Facebook. In fact, while on holiday much of my attention may be diverted from the immediate enjoyment of it to the construction of an image of the holiday to stand for this enjoyment. This online image—or perhaps idol—of the self can even become integral to my identity, becoming the means by which we know ourselves. We all risk functioning like mini-celebrities now.

Anyway, there is much, much more there. Do take a look and leave your thoughts in the comments!

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Church History, Culture, Guest Post, Lent, The Church, Theological, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Conversation on Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety

  1. Jonathan Roberts says:

    “Ashtagging”? Is that what’s happening in the photo?

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