As a follow-up to the article I wrote last week about whether the church calendar is a superstition, I wanted to recommend a fantastic article that Kenneth Stewart of Covenant College has written about the history of Lent in the Christian Church, with a few suggestions on how evangelicals might approach this season of the church calendar.
On the one hand, Dr. Stewart does not advocate abolishing the church calendar altogether:
This annual cycle troubles me, but not for what might be thought the obvious reasons. This writer is not anti-liturgical, does not disparage a modest use of the “church year” (the annual highlighting of the main events in the career of Christ), and actually thinks that our evangelical churches need to be more deferential towards our Christian heritage than they are. He believes that there have dropped out of sight some valuable worship practices – once parts of the evangelical Protestant and pre-Reformation traditions – that we would do well to revive.
His main problem with a rush to observe Lent among evangelicals is that we are essentially doing this to over-compensate for an unhealthy rejection of church history in our recent past. Where our individual traditions have rejected broader church tradition, we feel a driving need (what Dr. Stewart sums up as a “liturgical inferiority complex”) to take up to the fullest degree whatever we have rejected in the past.
In other words, because our own churches have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, we feel compelled to hoard every last drop of the bathwater, not letting any go to waste. He writes:
The primary objection to our current rush to re-instate Lent is this: too many evangelical Christians are considering this (and some related questions) with what might be called a “liturgical inferiority complex”. While we do not shout this from the roof tops, we quietly admit to ourselves that our evangelical Protestant tradition as it now exists is somewhat homespun, even threadbare and that it stands in need of being augmented by resources taken from the past. While the Christian past has plenty of riches which may be drawn upon, the point is this: these are not best “tried on for size” from the standpoint of felt inferiority. What is needed (and, I contend is currently in short supply) is healthy critical judgment towards a whole host of things (of which Lent is but one) that might be thought to be “just the thing” to rectify our evangelical Protestant deficiencies.
Through the rest of the article, Dr. Stewart critically evaluates the history of the Lenten tradition within the Christian Church, and then offers suggestions. Here was one recommendation that I particularly appreciated:
Second, let us be sure that when we go looking for the approbation of Christian antiquity, that we are not chasing some romanticized ideal of what constitutes the genuine and the pure. The current “chase” after Lent convinces this writer that the evangelical pursuit of romantic ideals is like a stallion, still needing to be tamed.
On the whole, this is a very helpful, historical, balanced piece on how we ought to approach Lent and the broader church calendar. Read the whole PDF article here: “Much Ado about Something? Nagging Questions about Observing Lent.”
HT: Justin Taylor