instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, February 24, 2004


It's time for my annual "Television doesn't count" post.

Lent is a season for repentance and conversion. Fasting has always played a role in repentance and conversion. Not just because of the symbolism that man does not live by bread alone, but because fasting works. Maybe not for everyone every time, but on the whole the evidence is that human nature is such that fasting as a means to draw closer to God draws us closer to God.

Now, the act of fasting is not a very complicated concept. It means this: Don't eat.

For some reason, people don't think "Don't eat" is good enough. And we get junk like this:
Lenten fasts have a tendency to be oriented toward things like giving up food or television. But there are many other creative ways we can welcome Jesus’ healing touch this Lent. Below are some suggestions you may want to consider.
  1. Fast from anger and hatred.
  2. Fast from judging others.
  3. Fast from discouragement.
  4. Fast from complaining.
  5. Fast from resentment or bitterness.
  6. Fast from spending too much money.
I don't know why anyone who gave it any thought -- which, presumably, includes anyone who writes advice to others on Lenten fasting -- would think "fasting" means "not doing something you shouldn't do." I mean, I'm not fasting from throwing rocks at children and dogs, I'm just not throwing them.

Imagine someone waking up on Easter Sunday thinking, "I made it! Now I can stop fasting from anger, hatred, judging others, discouragement, complaining, resentment, bitterness, and spending too much money!" Alleluia, He is Risen!

The author of this article slips a mention of the traditional Lenten fast of "giving up...television" into the first sentence. It's certainly true that giving up some minor comfort or pleasure is a Lenten custom, and in recent decades television has become a minor comfort or pleasure of choice.

This is fine; this is good. As a form of mild mortification, giving up television is well-suited to us soft-bellied Americans. In fact, it's even indulgenced:
A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, in a spirit of penitence, voluntarily abstain from something which is licit for and pleasing to them.
What it isn't, though, is fasting.

Not everyone agrees with me, of course. But the relation between a human and food is fundamentally different than the relation between a human and entertainment. Eating has physical, biological, physiological, psychological, familial, sociological, cultural, and anthropological dimensions. The central Christian ritual is a meal, itself derived from the meal that is the central Jewish ritual. Simply put, eating is not just one of many licit and pleasing things people do. We should not expect it to be just one of many licit and pleasing things people give up.

When he heard Jonah's prophecy, the King of Nineveh did not proclaim, "Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall watch television." Jesus did not go into the desert to fast from chocolate and Starbucks. We should not begin building a tower we can't complete, but neither should we call the hut we do build a tower.

As with almsgiving, the concept of fasting has been diluted. As with almsgiving, as a consequence of this dilution, people aren't fasting but think they are. As with almsgiving, people are missing out on the graces available through fasting.