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The Both-And of Lent (Audio Essay)
Denial and affirmation. Even beyond the confines of "Christianity."
This is an audio essay - the transcript is below. Some slight differences may exist.
Yesterday was the first day of Lent. Although my own sense of religious belief or identity is always shifting, I still find a lot of resonance and value in the concept of Lent. In late 2016-early 2017, we started attending an Episcopal parish, and it was my first time being exposed to much of the symbolism and ritual of the liturgical calendar.
The changes to the liturgy, and especially the rich symbolism of the events of Holy Week, such as the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, the death of God on Good Friday, and the exultant triumph at the end of the Easter Vigil, are all powerful experiences.
Lent is also a symbolic reenactment of Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the desert following his baptism. In that way, Lent is both a practice of denial and affirmation, or at least it is understood as such. Perhaps the better terms are discipline & temptation. I think it is easy to lose the thread and conflate these things. Denial, in a western American sense, implies denied *desire* - something one wants, like I irrationally want an iPad, that I could buy on credit, etc. Discipline, on the other hand, implies a choice to delay a desire or to affirm something else. So in the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, for food, security, and power - Jesus’ disciplined denial of his desires (and in the case of food, a biological need), his response to temptation with an alternate affirmation - we can see all these shades of meaning at work. That’s the power of these stories, they are malleable.
It’s this sort of tension, and the overall emo/goth/introvert/sadboi vibes of Lent, that appeals to me most and makes it my favorite liturgical season, even as I do not currently practice it or attend anywhere regularly, and I have an overall contentious relationship with the concept of the divine. It is in many ways a liminal space. An in-between. A denial and an affirmation.
And it’s that pairing - denial and affirmation - that I am reminded of this year, especially as it relates to post-evangelical matters. In the past several months, there has been a lot of conversation within evangelical circles about deconstruction, about terms like ‘exvangelical,’ and about the future of the church. Christianity Today published a cover story about deconstruction without interviewing a single prominent person who talks about the issue. Jon Cooper of Skillet wants to declare war on deconstruction. And if we use this combative metaphor - if this is a war - it is incredibly asymmetrical, and white evangelicals individuals like Cooper & institutions like Christianity Today have far more resources. Cooper is very likely a millionaire, Christianity Today has over 110,000 paid subscribers. Most people creating content related to deconstruction support themselves with Patreons and day jobs, including me; I have approximately 100 paid supporters between Patreon and Substack.
Beyond the evangelical discussion, there are also persistent conversations about terms like ‘exvangelical’ in post-evangelical contexts. Exvangelical is evocative, and for better and worse, has become incredibly popular as an SEO tool and a hashtag. One person on twitter recently asked if there were people who were former evangelicals but didn’t identify as ‘exvangelical;’ it garnered hundreds of responses of people saying ‘yes.’ That was enlightening for me.
I have made it a focus of both this show and my writing that, to me, the term ‘exvangelical’ has its limits. I understand that it is inherently negative, in that it describes a former relationship. It also describes a _formative_ relationship of incredible significance. As a term, as an identity marker, it is at once a recognition and renunciation of a certain type of belief and belonging. That is significant in and of itself. But it is a denial without a prescribed affirmation. What one chooses to affirm is up to them.
I recognize that people need something to affirm. To quote Dylan in his Jesus People phase: “you gotta serve somebody.” Or at the very least, you have to find something to affirm. I will admit my own propensity for wallowing, and for motivation by guilt. Freedom from guilt is for others, but not for me. My guilt has been transmogrified over the years - first existing as existential evangelical guilt for being a terrible sinner unworthy of God’s love or forgiveness but given it conditionally, then morphing into environmental guilt, followed by a processing of white male privilege. I am prone to these negative thoughts, and to the wallowing they allow.
So I am turning my attention to that which I can affirm, not merely by apophatic, negative descriptions.
I affirm that all human life has innate value, and that all other forms of life do, too.
I affirm that I have value, despite all my shortcomings, despite all the ways I am unfairly advantaged, that our innate value is equal and shared because we are human, and that this finds resonance in St. Ireneaus’ statement that the glory of God is mankind fully alive.
I affirm my own understanding of existence is always evolving, and it is doing so in relation to other people on personal and social levels, and those relations are also evolving.
I affirm that each person has a right to explore their own spirituality, and affirm that my work is my own, and that spiritualities can be explored without impinging on one another’s autonomy.
I affirm that no concept of god is more valuable than seeing the value in life and people, and affirm that I see that at work even in the life of Christ.
I affirm that powerful groups like those including white evangelicalism, that seek to impose their will on others, especially with regard to sanctifying one type of relationship or one type of gender expression, should be held to account.
I affirm that Christianity is of such broad public concern that it must expect to be held to account in multiple spheres.
I affirm that identity is more about process than about than the attainment of any supposedly perfect state.
I affirm that the new tools of social media and other forms of digital media require constant reevaluation by individuals and society.
I affirm that very few if any labels can lay claim to a whole person for their whole life.
I affirm all this and more, as we all reckon with the intertwined legacies of capitalism, white supremacy, colonialism, and religions of empire and attempt to forge new futures.
There is no telling what will be popular or trendy in a month, a year, a decade. These things I affirm may not resonate with you, and that is ok. The things I renounce by using a term like ‘exvangelical’ may not, either. But those words can have value, even if only for a short while. And that impermanence is ok, too. Most things are impermanent, after all. Including us.
There’s so much happening, all at once, all the time. Ukraine is besieged by Russia. COVID continues. Ant-trans and anti-gay bills threaten vulnerable populations in TX and FL. I wrote recently for my newsletter that I want to move beyond what media theorist calls “present shock” - a sense of being overwhelmed by everything. And I am less willing, or perhaps even less _able_ to do so in public, contending with not only the constant flow of information but also processing one’s own feelings as well as those of far-flung people online. All of these realities are simultaneously true. And the rituals, or even some of the concepts of symbols from the rituals and rhythms of Lent, are valuable in moments like these. To explore the both-and. The denial and the affirmation. And to come to realize that our very essence is both positive and negative, simultaneously. And we all have value.
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