Novelist Jonathan Franzen was getting hammered last week. He recently wrote a piece delving into his ornithological passion in The New Yorker entitled “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?”
The Audubon Society has accused him of “extreme intellectual dishonesty,” Grist has labeled him “confused” and Think Progress held nothing back and called his recent article “bird brained.” (My favorite so far might be the Washington Post saying that the Audubon has “flipped Franzen the bird”.)
Some of this criticism, in my opinion, is justified. Franzen set up an option between treating the planet with “disfiguring aggression” to try and mitigate climate change related emissions or “with palliation and sympathy” since the battle has already been lost. This choice, as the pieces above point out, is a false one.
Unfortunately, those controversial statements have covered over what I found to be the core argument of the article, and his most compelling case. Here is where I think Franzen nails it:
The secret to having a great Easter dinner is simple: start preparing forty days before.
Our (my) reluctance to fast during Lent does not just deprive us (me) of the preparatory experiences of Lent. It also diminishes our (my) ability to feast at Easter.
The act of making a commitment with direct consequences for our relationship with the physical world and physical selves reminds us that we are whole and integrated people. There is no strict dichotomy between our physical and spiritual selves. They are bound up in one another and the choices we make that might seem to just be physical in nature also have spiritual aspects to them, and those that seem spiritual also have physical implications.
The choice not to fast or make other sorts of ascetic commitments during Lent (or any time of the year) indicates a certain kind of relationship with the world around us. When we remove the physical bite of these sorts of commitments and opt for a vague “spiritual attitude” it often indicates a sort of dualism. In this kind of thinking it is the spiritual that truly matters and our physical natures are merely accidental.
This kind of dualism is in contradiction with the deep significance of the incarnation. The fact that Christ took on flesh means that he was not just a physical symbol of a spiritual reality but fully lived out this truth and both was and IS the new reality. This is true more broadly, people and things do not just point towards a meaning but are full of meaning themselves. They are meaningFULL.
At the heart of the Lenten season is an interesting paradox.
Lent is not observed in the making of Lenten commitments but you can’t actually observe Lent without making a commitment.
Over at Sojourners, Jarod McKenna reminds us that Lent is not ultimately about “giving up stuff” but about “the preparation of our hearts for what God has done in Christ.” Adam Ericksen encourages us that, “The worst thing we can do during Lent is to be tempted to earn God’s favor through self-denial.”
To both these points and posts I say, amen.
But as a lifelong Protestant who recently returned from spending time with Benedictine monks and nuns in New Mexico, I’ve come back with some evolving perspectives on fasting and other ascetic practices from the Catholic tradition. This isn’t in contradiction to either of these authors perspectives but some recent convictions of mine as someone who has tended to skip the Lenten fasts altogether.
Here is what has struck me. I do not believe most Western Christians today are so focused on giving up their creature comforts for Lent that they are in danger of making their faith dependent upon physical fasting. Maybe I’m generalizing too much. So I’ll make this statement more personal:
My greatest struggle has not been that I have been so committed to “giving up stuff” for Lent that I have forgotten that God’s grace is unconditional. Rather, I have tended to avoid the discomfort of giving up my daily habits and physical dependencies by using a vague sense of “inner attitudes” of preparation as an excuse. As a result, I believe I’ve been missing some real opportunities to be receptive to God’s grace.
There are few reasons I believe this to be so important.
After several feet of snow in the past few weeks here at Clarkridge Farm, I’m watching at least another six inches coming down with another storm predicted in a few days. Since I have no place to go, my refrain is to be expected. But, those who have commutes and travel plans are not so quick to embrace the “let it snow, let it snow, let it snow” attitude. And those stuck inside with young children, I have heard, are equally sick of the constant refrain of “let it go, let it go, let it go.”
Spending a lot of time indoors watching the snow and outdoors in the midst of it has reminded me of one of my favorite poems about snow. The entire book Leavings by Wendell Berry is beautiful but one of my favorites is the three line verse entitled, “Like Snow.”
Suppose we did our work
Like the snow, quietly, quietly.
Leaving nothing out.