In this part of the vineyard, people frequently go in for Designer Lent. They give things up — wine, chocolate, carbohydrates after six o’clock, and so on — but often so as to achieve some further goal of self-improvement.
Here is a classic example of a Christian discipline selling out to the prevailing culture. Designer Lent ends up as just another way of focusing attention on me. This, of course, is the opposite of the point. In an age of expensive minimalism, where less is more, where thin is beautiful, Lent can easily become a luxury item for those who want to detox spiritually: a wheatgrass and carrot drink for the soul.
So when I have to preach on Lent, abstinence needs some explaining. Our parishioners are mostly successful and often very driven. Many work too hard, and see life as a crescendo of achievements. For such as these, it’s easy for life outside work to take on the same pace. Quality time with family is valuable (because there is not enough of it); so it has to be used efficiently. No lolling about in front of the telly — there’s quality time to be had.
In this way, all of life becomes frantic. Everything from the frenetic obsession with education, to the endless round of music and ballet lessons, to another trip to an art gallery: it is all about achievement and self-improvement. Church often gets done at the same pace. It’s called the purpose-driven life: task + effort + enthusiasm = success. It’s great to have such people about. But Lent just can’t be approached like that.
It’s hard to explain the worth of something that has little instrumental value to those who think in this instrumental way — always with a goal in mind. The best model I have found to explain it is children’s play — the sheer glorious pointlessness of a game in which a six-inch plastic Spiderman takes on a doll’s house full of animals, or a game of catch, or making a den at the bottom of the garden. You can, if you like, give these activities an instrumental value, but that is not why they are being done. They are not a part of the purpose-driven life.
I have asked the church to try to give up this purpose-driven obsession for Lent. People can then make time to pray, to read the Bible, to sit in church — all without being obsessed with why this is being done, or whether the outcomes are worth while, or, worse still, measurable. Be lazy for Lent, I say. Of course, it’s not really laziness; it’s more like “Be still and know that I am God.”
Christianity with Attitude by Giles Fraser is out now (Canterbury Press; £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £9), or from the publisher, phone 01603 612914 or visit www.canterburypress.co.uk.