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Lent, Individualism, and Christian Piety–An Email Conversation

March 1st, 2017 | 29 min read

By Jake Meador

Given that today is Ash Wednesday, it seemed appropriate to republish this email conversation that Alastair Roberts and I had which was first published in 2014.


Recently my friend and occasional Mere O contributor Alastair Roberts exchanged a few emails about Lent that then turned toward a broader discussion of Christian piety and individualism. The exchange is shared below. I’ve slightly indented Alastair’s responses in order to make it a bit more clear where my part ends and his begins. (And if you missed Keith’s post from a few weeks back, do go and read that too.)

Jake Email One

Alastair – I’ll kick things off.

My best guess as to why we’re seeing more evangelicals embracing Lent is that many of us have a reasonable desire to embrace a type of Christian piety with roots in the historical church. Many of us grew up with a piety which was often disconnected from historical church practices, particularly on matters related to liturgy, the sacraments, the church year, and so on. At the church I grew up in we had the Eucharist once a quarter. The largest church here in Lincoln, meanwhile, has one baptism service a year.

I suspect–or I hope–that more and more younger evangelicals are coming to see the lack of historical roots in our piety as a problem and so they are trying to do something about it–hence, Lent (amongst other things).

But it seems like there’s two main problems with this. The first is that most of us haven’t taken the time to adequately understand the role that Lent plays within Catholic or Orthodox piety, nor have we stopped to ask whether a similar role even exists in evangelical piety. I think Lent is far less problematic for evangelicals than, say, praying to saints. But unless we try to understand the particular thing Lent accomplishes in the piety of other traditions we run the risk of sloppily importing a practice into evangelical piety that actually doesn’t work in evangelical piety–and may even undermine it.

The second reservation I have is about the individualism that creeps into our practice with Lent. Jamie Smith tweeted about this earlier today. He said:

“The cultural rituals of individualism have transformed even the communal rituals of the church, making it difficult to observe Lent today. As a result, we’ve effectively industrialized Lent and, ironically, turned it into a kind of Pelagian exercise in will-power. The point of Lent isn’t to prove I can deny myself; the point is to feel the hunger of longing. We’ve lost the ethos that makes this possible. Lenten practices are lost the moment I choose “what to give up.” I need the cafeteria to stop serving meat instead.”

This seems exactly right to me–how can something meant to shape a community toward a certain end function in a society comprised of autonomous individuals whose chief values are self-realization and personal freedom?

The problem here is that there’s a sense, I fear, in which this critique can apply to most forms of Christian piety. It reminds me of something Dreher has talked about with the concept of religious orthodoxy. He’s argued in the past that the very nature of modern religious belief makes the concept of religious orthodoxy all but impossible. I wonder if something similar is at work here with Christian piety. Can you even have a functional Christian piety in a society whose guiding principles all orbit around the absolute freedom of the individual? (Perhaps another way to put the problem is that Christian piety cannot function properly without Christian society?)

So to circle back to the beginning of this email, does the problem run all the way back to the manner in which a person first becomes aware of Lent? It’s not that they are participating in a community of people sharing this ritual together, but rather that they are an autonomous individual feeling something and looking for a solution? Even in our attempt to move past modernistic individualism, we find ourselves functioning as modern individualists.

On that uplifting note… over to you.

Alastair Response 1

Thanks for inviting me to have this conversation, Jake.

I think that the increased observance of Lent among evangelicals has various causes. I believe that you are correct to identify the sense of detachment from the historical church and its piety as one of the chief factors underlying this.

However, in this enthusiasm for recovering elements of the tradition, there has often been a noticeable absence of any enthusiasm for the functioning of tradition more broadly. As I have noted in the past, for many evangelicals the tradition can function in a similar way as the thrift store functions for the stereotypical hipster—as a source for an affected ‘vintage’ identity, rather than as a living set of practices to whose moulding power we submit. We don’t want to be subject to the tradition and its formation, but want to cannibalize it for our own formation. Along these lines, perhaps we should ask to what extent the observance of Lent is accompanied by an observance of other fasts and feasts of the Church calendar.

There are two further motivations that I believe might be at work here.

The Big Story of Scripture

First, over the last couple of decades, evangelicals, through the writings of such biblical scholars as N.T. Wright, have recovered a sense of the importance of the ‘big story’ of Scripture. Evangelicals have often focused upon the individual conversion narrative—the ‘story’ of how a sinner gets right with a holy God—and treated the larger biblical narrative as a sort of backstory to this. In the work of the theologians that are shaping the upcoming generations of evangelicals, however, it is the ‘big story’ of Creation, Fall, Israel, Christ, Church, and New Creation that is front and centre. A natural correlate of a return to the centrality of the ‘big story’ is a recovery of the Church calendar, which is one of the chief traditional means by which the individual person and their ‘story’ have been brought to participation and self-understanding within this big story—or perhaps better, been told out from this story. When the ‘big story’ was backstory, this wasn’t such a pressing need.

The Role of Ritual in Faith

Second, I believe that there is a resurgent appreciation for the crucial role played by ritual, liturgy, and rite in evangelical circles. Many evangelicals are moving beyond a narrow focus upon the mind—which often reduced the sacraments to functioning as a sort of divine flannelgraph—to an appreciation of the way that Christian rites, liturgy, and ritual shape our imaginations, habits, and desires. The work of Jamie Smith is an important instance of this trend.

The point about adopting Catholic practices that don’t make sense in evangelical peity is indeed a concern, especially when the tradition is appropriated piecemeal, without any attempt to be subject to its formation as a whole. I confess that I grinned when I read your earlier remark about the largest church in Lincoln only celebrating baptism once a year: in many quarters of the tradition, Lent has been closely associated with just such a practice (for any interested in the history of Lent, which is now widely believed to have multiple and complicated origins, I would recommend the treatments of such as Thomas Talley, Paul Bradshaw, and Maxwell Johnson). While I do not advocate such a practice, it does have the advantage of underlining the fact that the baptism of the individual convert is an entry into the big story of Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6). The deracination of Lent among evangelicals is seen in such things as our lack of awareness of the history of the season and the more particular forms that it has taken.

Part of the genius of Lent historically was the manner in which it knit together personal and communal formation, overcoming the individual-corporate polarity that is so often present in our thinking. It expressed the intimate connection between the preparation of individual baptismal candidates and the more general preparation of the whole church body for the celebration of Easter. Further to this, it enacted the bond between the formation of the individual, that of the entire church, and the story of Christ. In fasting with those preparing for baptism, the whole Church took part in a renewal of its baptism in the celebration of the death and resurrection of our Lord.

Smith’s remarks about the issue of ‘choice’ are important, not least because I think that they highlight why Lent in particular is so widely observed. Within the popular Christian consciousness, Lent can function as a sort of authorization from the tradition for our acts of self-formation and religious expressionism.

To some extent or other—and whether we like it or not—we are all put in the position of choosing. As Peter Berger once remarked, we are all heretics now. Slavoj Žižek has perceptively observed: ‘[I]n our secular societies based on “choice,” people who maintain a substantial religious belonging are in a subordinate position: even if they are allowed to practice their beliefs, these beliefs are “tolerated” as their idiosyncratic personal choice or opinion; the moment they present them publicly as what they really are for them, they are accused of “fundamentalism.”’

One of the things that we are witnessing today is a cultural sea-change in the way that we form our identities, religious and otherwise. As the agencies that once conferred identities upon us—among which I include religions and their rites—have fallen victim to distrust, suspicion, and cynicism, a desperate reflexivity tries to fill the vacuum that is left in their wake. This reflexivity leads to our culture’s obsession with both irony and authenticity. Both irony and authenticity involve the subject’s sense of its inescapable bifurcation and the difficulty of uniting these two selves—‘self’ as our inner sense of who we are and ‘self’ as external performance. We must singlehandedly overcome our own self-alienation. We won’t know who we really are—what is our ‘authentic’ self—until we achieve the perfect form of self-expression. I believe that the rise of this reflexivity could illuminate a great deal in the area of our culture’s ‘identity’ discourses (gender, race, sexuality, spirituality, etc.), and their fragmentation into ever more bespoke categories.

For this new contemporary religious subject, the practice of ‘Lent’ may be part of a bricolage of self-formation. We scavenge in the ruins of the old institutions and ‘narratives’ that formerly conferred our identities upon us—such as the Church—for parts with which we will form ourselves, trying various things on for size until we find something that feels right. Rather than giving us our identities, society now serves to facilitate, validate, and function as the stage for our own identity formation. I suspect that this year’s viral trend of ‘ashtagging’ (posting ‘selfies’ with a cross on one’s forehead on Ash Wednesday) might have something to do with this.

Lent has historically implied a particular account of the Christian subject. We are given the fundamental matrix for our identity in union with Christ and his body and live out of a life and decision far deeper than, yet constantly springing up into, our own. We are also tasked with ‘self-examination’, which is always problematic for those for whom the self can only be examined through and in terms of its own projections.

As you observe, part of the problem may arise from the manner in which someone first comes into contact with Lent . However, even those raised within a liturgical tradition are subject to these forces. These new ways of understanding and realizing ourselves shape us in countless areas of life and a weekly service or two is not by itself going to inoculate us against this. Rather, the influence typically acts in the other direction: our performance of traditional liturgies has become suffused with individualism. The same modes of contemporary self-formation that I describe have infected the modes of receiving and performing traditional liturgies, yielding a parody of the historical Church’s practice rather than a recovery.

As Mark Searle observed, ‘We seek community as a means of self-fulfillment, looking to it to meet our needs but reluctant to submit ourselves to its constraints, we merely succeed in turning our parish liturgies into “life-style enclaves,” as Bellah calls them, the coming-together of people who enjoy the same things.’ Few are truly aware of the degree to which, even when faithfully going through the motions of traditional liturgy, prevailing forms of subjectivity lead us to perform them against their grain, leaving us untouched by their true formative power. Beyond the recovery of traditional liturgy, we need consciously to reflect upon how we might re-establish the sorts of subjectivity that ought to correspond to them. This is a matter to which much less serious thought has been devoted. How can we move beyond what Searle terms ‘shared celebrations’ to genuinely public and common worship?

Jake Email 2

I’ll take this the way you do on your blog sometimes:

1. Technology and the Experience of Being a Subject

Reading your reply makes me think of the recent religious experience exchange I summarized in the roundup for Mere O. The experience of being religious in modernity is different on a very fundamental level from the experience of the same during previous eras. The simple fact of being moderns and living in the modern era fundamentally informs (and changes) the nature of our Christian practice and devotion. Because of this, one of our most pressing needs is to rediscover what it means to be subject to something, of living under something that cannot be changed.

It’s that final point that is so hard for us. We have such an unprecedented degree of control over our lives, from things as fundamental as choosing who we will marry or where we will live to incredibly trivial things, like what image I’ll be staring at on my desktop background every day or what kind of tea I’ll drink after lunch (PG Tips with a bit of milk and sugar for me… my summer at L’Abri has made me a tea snob, by American standards, at least).

Even the things that we think of as creating an experience of being compelled are actually still under our control to a large degree–I might hate my job and hate the things my boss makes me do, but I can always apply for other jobs. The normal experience of my life is that I possess a tremendous amount of control over my circumstances–and that is seen as an unambiguous good by most in the contemporary west today. And obviously a lot of good things have come from greater personal liberty. But these personal liberties often have the effect of isolating us from our neighbors–which is why we’re seeing so much chatter amongst certain traditionalist conservatives about Burke’s “little platoons.” Some of us are starting to realize that the kind of autonomous freedom we aspire to brings with it a heavy price.

2. The Choice to Forfeit Future Choices

Anyway, your comments send me back to Wendell Berry’s work and, particularly, his novel Jayber Crow. Jayber is a smalltown Kentucky barber and failed seminarian who dropped out after realizing he had doubts about faith and the good life that rendered him unable to preach. Jayber is drawn back to the town of Port William because it’s the only home he’s ever really had, and yet even after being there for some time there is still a restlessness about Jayber, a desire to avoid putting down roots that go too deep into Port William. So he owns a car and carries on over several years in a relationship with a woman named Clydie who he has no intentions to marry. And then one night while he’s dancing with this woman in a nearby town, he sees Troy Chatham, who is married to a woman Jayber has long admired, dancing with a woman that is not Troy’s wife.

But the thing that really kills Jayber is when he and Troy make eye contact and Troy gives him an “OK” sign with his fingers, as if it’s a signal that he won’t tell on Jayber if Jayber won’t tell on him. It’s the realization that he might be the same as Troy that crushes him. Jayber immediately goes to the bathroom, writes his girlfriend a note explaining why he can’t see her again, and slips away without her seeing him. He then gets rid of the car and resolves to give himself to Port William and, in particular, to Mattie Chatham, Troy’s wife. He will be a husband to her, even if she cannot be a wife to him.

To put it simply, it’s in renouncing those final escapes he gave himself from Port William that Jayber is truly converted. Jayber makes a choice to give up his future choices–by giving up his car, he is giving up the possibility of easily leaving Port William. By giving up Clydie he is giving up the possibility of relationships that take him out of Port William. And it’s in those forfeitures that he is saved.

So this is where the technological point comes in for me–how can I learn to live under something beyond my control when nothing in my life requires me to do so? (I suppose some might say one’s bank account is a powerful limiting factor, but in the west we’re all so comparatively wealthy that being compelled by my bank account to forgo that dream vacation to London seems a rather cheap sacrifice and not at all like the experience I’m describing here.) Does that mean we need to sell our cars or give up our computers in order to have the experience of being subject to? (My wife and I have purposely chosen to own only one car and not have smartphones and this concern was part of that decision.) I honestly don’t know.

But the way that technology shapes us worries me and the ways that today’s technology shapes us toward individualism especially worries me. If the tools we use Monday-Friday (and quite a bit more often than that, in some cases) push us so strongly toward individualism, how can we show up on Sunday morning and enter into the life of a church membership? This is why I strongly suspect that some degree of voluntary abstention from some forms of technology (a choice to forfeit future choices) will be needed for many of us before we can truly enter into the kind of life implied by Lent–and by the Gospel more broadly. (And I am fully aware of the irony of making this proposal via email. ;) )

3. On more moderate ways of living as a subject:

All that being said, I do wonder if there are less radical initial steps we can take toward the experience of being subject to something outside ourselves. I’ve talked with a few people at my church during Lent about the possibility in the future of a church-wide fast. So rather than everyone in the congregation separately choosing what to give up, we all together join in a fast from x. We already do an Ash Wednesday service, but I wonder what might happen if we then had Wednesday evening dinners in which we ate a meal that reflected the fast we were sharing together.

Obviously there’s still a degree of arbitrariness here since someone has to choose the thing we’re fasting from, whether that’s bread or meat or alcohol or what have you. But speaking only for myself, I would rather the session at my church say “As a congregation we’re fasting from x” than entrust myself to choose something to fast from. I also wonder about the possibility of simply attempting to practice some sort of church year in a more consistent form throughout the year.

Obviously we should avoid the late medieval scenario in which you couldn’t throw a dart at a calendar without hitting the feast day of some obscure saint. But what would it look like for us to try and bind ourselves to the church year in the same way that we bind ourselves to the calendar year? Granted, many of these things are already done by other traditions and they’ve had only limited success addressing the very questions we’re discussing here, but if we’re looking for something a bit more practicable than “sell your iPhone and get off the internet,” then something like this is probably where to start.

4. On being bound by affection:

The other point that comes to mind here is that we need to rediscover what it means to be compelled by something other than coercive force. The functional dichotomy many of us live with is between being free from external control and being coerced into something by some sort of force–whether that’s the force of a boss at work who signs my paycheck or the force of the government requiring me to pay taxes or conform to other laws. What’s lost in between those two poles is the idea of being compelled by affection toward something.

This point is directly related to the point about the death of the “little platoons.” Individuals are bound by nothing, hypothetically, and the state binds us by force–so where do we learn to be constrained by affection? That experience is completely outside the normal experience of most people, I’m afraid. Marriage, hypothetically, fills that need of course, as does membership in a larger family. But things like no-fault divorce radically undermine marriage as an institution and slant things heavily toward individualism–which brings up another wonderful Berry quote, this one from “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine”: “Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided. During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other.”

This point about being bound by love is one of the points that Lewis wrote about so powerfully in his many works. Since I already mentioned That Hideous Strength I’ll just go with that–one of the main storylines of the book is Jane’s need to learn to love Mark, even though Mark is a largely unlovable, unsympathetic man. And the passages of the book most likely to draw nervous blushes and throat clearing from modern readers of Lewis are those conversations between Ransom and Jane about her marriage to Mark. Ransom makes the point to Jane that her marriage has failed not because of lack of love, but because of a lack of obedience–which has created the lack of love. It’s the idea that there are things in the world to which I must conform that I do not conform to out of fear for what will be done to me if I don’t, but out of a fear of what will become of me if I don’t. (This fits into the natural law discussion somewhere, but I’m still too much of a novice on natural law issues to be sure where.) There is an order to the world, in other words, but it is not enforced by a nation-state toting a gun. The penalty for tresspassing it is not meted out on us by some third party. Rather, it is enforced by the loss of affection and love, things we forfeit when we reject those norms. This is an important point to make as we talk about what exactly we mean when we talk about being subject to something. We’re not saying “fast during Lent because God’s gonna get you if you don’t,” or “fast during Lent because your fellow churchgoers will judge you if you don’t.” The idea is that love has a form and if we truly wish to live in love, then we must conform ourselves to it–and Lent is helpful in teaching us how to do that.

Alastair Reply 2

I quite agree with your point about the struggle to be subject to things in the contemporary world. This may even be the case for those who want to be subject. Perhaps a parallel can be drawn between the ways that hats functions in men’s clothing today as opposed to a century ago.

Whereas the hat was once ‘uniform’, signifying one’s office or station in life, and was worn by almost all men in certain contexts, now the hat is an item of personal and often eccentric expression. When I wear a hat today, I am typically expressing my personal style and individuality in a manner that makes me stand out from the crowd. Even were I to wear the exact same clothing as my great-grandfather, I would communicate a sharply different set of social messages. The contemporary aficionado of traditional liturgy can be akin to a man wearing a top hat: whatever he may intend, it will be perceived—and will all too typically function—as a personal affectation, rather than a uniform expression of his submission to an identity held in common with others. The passage from a world of given identities to one of extensive choice isn’t easily reversed, as even in our attempts to accomplish such a reversal we are typically often reasserting the semblance of the former through the mode of the latter.

Celebrating Tradition as an Act of Consuming Nostalgic Antiquity

I am struck by the degree to which our choice, autonomy, and individualism shape even those concepts that we may appeal to against them. In our celebration of ‘tradition’ we can often be little more than appreciative consumers of some nostalgic antiquity, rather than being subject to the tutelage of our forefathers in the faith. ‘Liturgy’ is often less about common worship than it is about personal aesthetics. ‘Community’ can stand for individuals’ quests for the ‘passing frisson’ of togetherness (Searle), rather than a genuine submission to the Church and its leadership as defining realities in our lives. For all of the celebration of ‘story’ over the last few decades, the ‘big story’ that people speak of is seldom permitted to assign its meanings and assert its authority within our lives and world and rather becomes a source for the individual religious subject’s selective self-definition. In our quest for authenticity, we risk establishing a simulacrum of the historical Church, a sort of ‘living museum’, which looks like the original reality on the surface but whose deeper dynamics have been substituted for radically different animating forces.

There seems to be a deeper question present here: to what extent can a society that so elevates, empowers, and facilitates unfettered choice truly be a ‘culture’? Without some sort of functional authority or principle whereby individual choices are coordinated with or ordered to common goods that transcend them, I doubt that we have a culture at all, just prevailing patterns of consumption. Such a functional authority implies the establishment and upholding of cultural and moral boundaries. The task of re-establishing a culture in societies awash with the corrosive acid of the anti-culture is a daunting one.

I believe that it must start with a restoration of a robust ‘priesthood’—servants of a society vested with authority, representative symbolism, and charged with establishing, guarding, and enforcing cultural and moral boundaries. In the absence of such ‘priesthoods’, all we have is individual choice, which is insufficient to establish and secure common goods. Within the Church, such a recovery of a ‘priesthood’ would dethrone individual spirituality from its pedestal and emphasize the act of common worship in its place. The pastoral leadership of the Church must learn to regard itself as charged with symbolizing and establishing Christ’s authority and order within a congregation in a manner that directs all towards a good that is common to all.

The practical reality of this vision is not so exciting to people. While we want to ‘belong’ to others in the sense of personally identifying with them, the notion that we might ‘belong’ to them in any sense that might give them prerogatives in dictating the course of our lives is much less appealing to us. We want the benefits—the thick relationships, deep identities, common histories, rich memories, and dense contexts—that come with rootedness and belonging, but we chafe at the limitations and prohibitions that provide the conditions under which such contexts are formed.

The Danger of Romantic Agrarianism

I share the technological concern that you raise. Even though I am someone who uses new technologies extensively, I have been dismayed by how uncritical and unreflective many are in their attitudes towards them (Michael Sacasas makes some characteristically perceptive points here). That said, I am wary of following such as Wendell Berry into a romantic agrarianism. The past is easily idealized and fetishized. We should be able to recognize the problems inherent in our current condition and the nature of certain losses, without needing to assume a nostalgic posture and trying to figure out ‘where it all went wrong.’ Despite common misconceptions, Christianity isn’t about a return to or repristination of a mythic lost paradise or golden age of the past, but about the movement towards a yet unrealized future in which that past is surpassed in a glorified and surpassing realization of the goods within it.

The increasing role that something such as the Internet plays within our lives is seen, for instance, in the way that it has been incorporated into people’s Lenten practices and disciplines. Every Lent a certain number of my friends will refrain from using Facebook, Twitter, or will take a break from their blogging. I have done this before and have benefited from the practice. Alan Jacobs has some helpful remarks on the subject here, observing that the purpose of such periods of ‘detox’ is in part that of temporary abstinence for the end of greater enjoyment and wiser use of the technology in the future. Periods of fasting enable us to reassess and reorder priorities and desires in preparation for the feasts that follow.

Many of us—here I include myself—do not feel entirely at ease with the place that the Internet and other technologies such as the mobile phone play in our lives. I am wary of the technological imperative, which would suggest that we should always readjust our practices around the latest technologies. I believe that there is a time for renewing our acquaintance with our ‘focal concerns’ (a category I picked up from Marva Dawn’s helpful book,Unfettered Hope) and reassessing the role that our technologies play in relation to these. Many people are using Lent for just such a purpose.

The Potential of Shared Fasts

Your discussion of a shared fast comes in here, though. While we are accustomed to place the responsibility for managing the use of technology and media upon the individual, many of our problems with technology and media are primarily systemic or communal. Even though there is not a deterministic relationship between the forms of our technology and how we use them, a technology’s form definitely exerts a significant influence upon us. Things such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google aren’t neutral, but encourage certain forms of interactions, while discouraging others. The actual way that they are used is also a social phenomenon, one wherein we all influence, place expectations upon, guide, and constrain each other. It would be naïve to think that a single user could change this.

It is seldom that communities together establish some distance from certain media and technologies, renew their acquaintance with their focal concerns, deliberate upon their relationship to their technology and media, and reassess how they will relate to them when they return to using them. On several occasions, I have reflected upon the way in which our online discourse is (mis)shaped by the forms of our media and by the manner in which most people relate to them, not least upon Facebook and the social web. I believe that what we need is the mindful development or exploration of new forms of media and of new kinds of communal uses of these media. As new patterns of online interaction are established through the form of the media themselves and the manner of a community’s habitual engagement, we can start to interact ‘mindlessly’ in a much healthier fashion. Tweaking individual practice will never be enough.

The ashtagging phenomenon that I mentioned earlier is one example of a use of social media that comes fairly naturally to us within the current ecology of the Internet, but which may reveal distortions in the modes of our engagement. As a ‘viral’ Internet ‘meme’, ashtagging works by means of imitation. The power of the meme to bring people together is profound: when we participate in a meme we feel as though we are ‘part of something’, something bigger than ourselves that unites us with others. This sort of ‘viral’ imitation is a mode of community that is very powerful and effective in contexts where people are fairly undifferentiated and where emotions can pass rapidly from person to person without much to hinder them.

In analysing ‘ashtagging’, we need to recognize the role that this mode of community through imitation plays within it. We should also recognize that ashtagging arises from much the same mode of ‘community’ that can be seen in the firestorms of outrage that frequently whip through social media. Anyone familiar with the work of René Girard might see that such undifferentiated masses are perfect contexts for scapegoating cycles and their contagions of violence to operate.

Perhaps the thing that first piqued my interest in the ashtagging trend was its use of ‘selfies’. Žižek has used the concept of ‘interpassivity’ to discuss such things as canned laughter on television. The canned laughter substitutes for my own laughter, laughing for me, and saving me from having to do so for myself (for those who can’t relate to this, just think of the ways that you use emoticons and Internet abbreviations to substitute for actual displays of emotion). The selfie can often perform a similar purpose. The selfie—which typically exists to be posted online—is part of an image of myself that I construct in and for an online community, such as Facebook.

This online image of me can start to substitute for me, virtually performing my identity so that I don’t really have to. I haven’t truly had a wonderful holiday unless I have an incredible photo album for my friends to ‘like’ on Facebook. In fact, while on holiday much of my attention may be diverted from the immediate enjoyment of it to the construction of an image of the holiday to stand for this enjoyment. This online image—or perhaps idol—of the self can even become integral to my identity, becoming the means by which we know ourselves. We all risk functioning like mini-celebrities now.

The fact that the ashtagging phenomenon employed the selfie is just another means by which our practice of Lent can accommodate itself to prevailing forms of social media. It also raises the question of the degree to which the mode of interpassive subjectivity I have just described may be characteristic of many people’s religious subjectivity. Are we in danger of projecting an image online which represents our religious ‘selves’ to others—and, crucially, also to ourselves—but which, in a peculiarly modern form of hypocrisy, substitutes for a self that is disengaged from the life of faith and the Church offline?

The Importance of Common Objects of Love

The points that you raise about love are crucial and will provide a fitting note upon which to conclude these reflections, drawing together various threads within them. Here I find the concept of ‘common objects of love’—Oliver O’Donovan’s characterization of an Augustinian theme—to be especially illuminating. A community is formed not by self-interest, nor by mere prohibition, but by such common objects of love. Through the lens provided by such a concept we can see the limitations both of a liberal valorization of the unfettered choice of the individual and of what might be seen as a conservative emphasis upon effective authority alone. The former leads to a divergence of objects of love and the lack of any authority by which their proliferation might be disciplined. The latter is insufficient to establish love, which requires processes of persuasion and the manifestation of beauty. The reappearance of the tyranny of choice, even in our attempts to overcome it, arises in large part from the manner in which it is pursued in the mode of a private love. Common objects of love cannot be reduced to those objects that exist in the overlap between private loves and shared private identities do not amount to a truly common identity.

O’Donovan is helpful here. In the process of distinguishing between moral reflection (to which ‘love’ corresponds) and deliberation, he writes:

Moral reflection is not without a practical significance, but it is not oriented to any action in particular, but to the task of existence itself. In reflection we answer the question “how shall we live?” not “what shall we do?” And these are different questions. The first is not merely a generalized summary of the second. It asks about our placement in the world, our relation to other realities. And by answering this kind of question we are not merely accumulating a store of provisional orientations that can be called on later in the event that some decision requires them. We are determining ourselves as fellow occupants of the universe. In a language that is as common as it is unhelpful, we are shaping our “identities.” Actually, an “identity” is not something we shape, but is given us by God, prior to any existential reflection of our own. But what becomes of our identities is the result of moral discrimination, by which we understand and confirm ourselves as God has given us to ourselves—or, of course, refuse to. By relating ourselves cognitively and affectively to the good and evil that we see within the created world around us, we adopt a posture that is the source of all our actions, but is not itself another action, or a summary of actions, but an affirmation of what we are.

The identity crises to which many of the contemporary phenomena described above correspond arise in large part from the loss of common objects of love and the collapse of those contexts and practices whereby we were oriented towards and identified by them. It arises from our unwillingness to subject ourselves to the process of ‘moral discrimination’ whereby we receive and conform to our identities in fellowship with others.

The need for pastoral leadership that I emphasized above can be clarified in terms of this. The task of the pastor is symbolic and pedagogical. The pastor’s symbolic role is that of re-presenting the Church to itself as a unified body and agency under the headship of Christ, so that the Church might be constituted and come to know itself as one. The role of the pastor is also that of leading the Church in the performance of those actions and symbolic rites within which it comes to recognize its common identity. These are the God-given ‘images’ and practices within which we come to know ourselves, rather than the artificial self-projections of the contemporary subject. The pedagogical function of pastoral leadership involves the exercise of authoritative discipline over the representations of and within the Church, ensuring that the Church is a place of faithful worship and image-bearing, faithfully directing the Church’s love to its Lord, and addressing all departures from this. Where the Church’s pastoral leadership is stripped of its representative import and authority, it will be difficult to attain to public and common worship.

The place of worship here is crucial. It is through worship that we are oriented to Christ in a manner that shapes us in love. Worship is principally a communal practice, through which love for Christ is established as the orienting principle of all of our lives, loves, and desires. It is through the lens of the common practice of worship that we come to understand who we are in God’s world. The form of identity that results from this is ordered towards objective and common goods, forged in communal practices of worship, moral reflection, and discipline. It transcends the sort of amorphous ‘community’ that springs from mimesis alone, much as it also transcends the atomized ‘community’ of overlapping private loves.

Our love will constantly be distracted from its true object within our world. In order to retain its true form and focus, we require processes of discipline and ascesis. Lent is a period of time when, by withdrawing some distance from the multitude of our loves within the world, we can as communities mindfully re-establish Christ as our common ‘focal concern’ and come to a fuller understanding of our identities in terms of him and his kingdom.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).