Is Lent a Loser?

Mark Tenney

Abstinence and charisma.
A recent Time magazine cover extolled Angelina Jolie’s “movie star charisma.” Barak Obama has been christened “The Democrats’ Charisma Doctor.” As his star rises, Hillary Clinton has seen her once formidable lead in several primary states shrink. At the beginning of 2007, several Democratic strategists urged Clinton to unleash a “charisma offensive” to counter the saturated media coverage that has helped propel Obama up the polls.1 Charisma has become the Holy Grail sought by many and bestowed on a fortunate few. It also explains why Lent has become a loser.

If we look back over thousands of years, the Judeo-Christian story defined “charisma” as suggesting “divine favor.”2 It was tied to the notion of a covenant with God that required its adherents to resist selected instincts and obey certain laws and prohibitions. This story held to a high view of the human body – it was designed as an ally in obeying God. In creation, there was only one prohibition – Adam and Eve were told to not eat from a particular tree.3 That didn’t work out, so after the Fall our body and its habits also became intermittent adversaries in the quest for human flourishing. The point is that grace (“charis”) included the assistance of our body and appetites. This means that grace – or charisma – is not opposed to effort; only earning.

Ancient disciplines such as fasting arose from this positive view of the human body. Redemption included reining in habits and appetites to make them better allies, which is why Paul warned: “do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.”4 This bodily view of abstinence and charisma led to the practice of Lent, which dates from the decrees of the Council of Nicaea in 325.

"As such, charisma was not a rare possession attached to a few lucky people but a quality open to all who obeyed divine commands – in particular, the prohibitive “Thou Shalt Nots” that make genuine culture and human inwardness possible by restricting man’s self-destructive impulses."5

The German political economist and sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) overthrew this view. Weber rejected charisma as deriving from a strict moral code that demanded divine guidance as well as bodily determination in order to overcome fallen inclinations. This is laid out in Philip Rieff’s posthumously published book titled Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us. Rieff, who died in July at the age of 83, was one of this country’s most distinguished sociologists. He saw clearly the consequences of Weber’s furious attack on the West’s religious roots, especially Weber’s reframing of charisma as the “exceptional powers or qualities” of particularly unique individuals. As a result, charisma has become mostly about being charming, having a magnetic personality, smiling naturally (with wrinkling around the eyes), often touching friends during conversation, and exuding an extroverted personality. Charisma, in other words, is simply “the luck of the draw.” It has nothing to do with hard work, bodily discipline and abstinence.

During the same period when Weber reframed charisma, American evangelicalism embraced more of a disembodied view of spirituality. Reading the Bible, praying, worship and “being filled with the Spirit” were the avenues toward maturity. Our physical body was not “spiritual” and became for the most part inconsequential. Yet if God commanded one of his followers to win the Boston Marathon and they prepared by merely praying and reading their Bible, I doubt they would finish the race. It’s no coincidence that the Apostle Paul used the metaphor of winning a race to picture a flourishing faith that incorporates bodily training in order to finish well. American evangelicalism suggests prayer and praise if we want to get closer to God. Paul would add: Stop stuffing our faces.

Lent lost its luster once the ancient meaning of “charisma” vanished. In the Devil’s Dictionary, American newspaper columnist and satirist Ambrose Pierce (1842-1914) defined an abstainer as “a weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.” If we instead imagined faith as including works, redemption as involving our body, and abstinence as an avenue toward maturity, Lent would fare better.

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1 “Hillary Falls to Earth in Poll Race,” London Times, December 31, 2006
2 The Judeo-Christian tradition was originally understood as a four-chapter story: how life ought to be (creation), how it actually is (the fall), how life can be made better (redemption) and what it will be one day (the final restoration).
3 Genesis 2:16-17
4 Romans 6:13M
5 Adam Wolfson, “The Dark Side of ‘Charisma,’” Wall Street Journal, February 17, 2007, P1-12. Wolfson is a visiting assistant professor in the Claremont McKenna College Washington Program and a frequent contributor to First Things magazine.

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