Fasting and Religious Markets

The Catholicism Cafeteria is getting so popular that even Protestants are dining there. Or not dining, rather: as this Slate piece explains, some Protestant churches are taking up fasting for Lent and other traditionally Catholic rituals of the season.

Over the last few years, more Protestant churches have begun daubing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in Western Christianity (March 1 this year). Fasting, long familiar to Catholics as a Lenten fact of life, is increasingly popular with evangelical Christians striving for spiritual awakening. A few mainline Protestant churches even conduct foot-washing services on Maundy Thursday—the traditional commemoration of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples—that takes place on the Thursday before Easter.

It seems sort of silly at first glance—wasn’t the whole point of the Reformation to get rid of all the arbitrary rules and rituals?—but thinking about it, it makes some sense. Most major religions have an element of asceticism, clearly people find it spiritually appealing, so it’s not surprising that fasting would cross denominational lines. Fasting for Lent has the advantage of being a particularly temporary and limited form of asceticism, so it’s not too much of a sacrifice to adopt.
More interesting was the statistic that one-third of believers change churches at least once in their lifetimes. This number is almost certainly much higher than it once was, as historically people have tended to remain in the sect they were born into. One might expect churches to become more market-driven under these circumstances, and then mixing and matching of rituals like this is a natural consequence. (I suspect one can also attribute the rise of megachurches to the increasing importance of market forces in religion, sort of a Wal-Martization of churches. Or is the Catholic Church the Wal-Mart of churches?)
One more thing—John Calvin deserves some kind of unintentional irony award for this:

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin criticized Lent as a “superstitious observance.”

Right. As opposed to the empirical science that is Calvinism.

9 thoughts on “Fasting and Religious Markets

  1. Mason

    Most people should probably be washing their feet more often anyway, so I support this practice…
    As far as changing denominations mid-life, it certainly makes sense that people’s world views would change as a function of time and external events. I think it’s considered less of a taboo now to openly admit such changes and formally switch denominations (or religions or whatever), so more people actually do that.
    As for the Wa-Martization of religion, does Freakonomics (which I still need to pick up) have anything to say about it?
    I am reminded as well of Tom Lehrer’s comments in the introduction to “The Vatican Rag” about the Church’s efforts to make itself “more commercial”. (Lehrer’s intonation throughout this whole introduction is a thing of beauty.)

  2. Timothy

    Thanks for posting this as I had missed it in mt daily reading.
    Washing each others feet is a clear directive from Christ in John 13:13. I’m a bit surprised that churches that interpret the scriptures literally haven’t been keeping the scriptures.

  3. Mason

    Hmmm, I extremely am amused by the prospect of walking into Ricketts House (or at least the modular unit where the Scurves are currently living) and informing them of this…
    Say, does anybody have a handy CD which has The Ride as track 1?
    I have a friend visiting who is applying for a postdoc job at Caltech who asked me what I have by way of alarm clocks. The answer to that is that I use my boombox, but it’s going to end up going to track 1. I think that if there’s any justice in the world that I should arrange the song that blasts from it to be The Ride. (I can always try to remember to pick up a CD-R tomorrow, although my laptop can be finicky about which blank ones it wants to read.)
    [[cackles evilly]]

  4. Arcane Gazebo

    Mason: Freakonomics didn’t address this, unfortunately. I also checked at Marginal Revolution, thinking I’d seen something there, but didn’t really find it.
    I probably have a CD with the Ride as track 1, but that I guess that doesn’t help. However, most “Wagner highlights” CDs have the Ride as either the first or the last track, so it may not be hard to find one.
    Timothy: That’s interesting, I had forgotten that passage, but although it’s one of the most obviously metaphorical stories about Jesus, the literalists will of course have to take it literally.
    On the other hand, you have evangelical sects doing the anointing-with-oil (I think this was done for John Ashcroft?) so maybe they’ve got the foot-washing covered too.

  5. Justin

    On the Calvin quote, that reminds me of that amazing most-raving-batshit-insane quote from Orson Scott Card last summer. He was complaining about Star Wars because some people now put down “Jedi” as their religion on surveys; see
    for details (it’s a bit much to quote all the funny bits here).
    Anointing with oil was indeed Ashcroft. There’s also the bizarre Moonie angle – as I recall, sometime in the ’90s some wingnut senators led by Hatch anointed Rev. Moon with oil in some sort of coronation ceremony.

  6. Arcane Gazebo

    I remember reading that Pharyngula post, but I’d forgotten about that astonishing Card quote. I guess Calvin will have to settle for second prize in the unintentional irony competition.

  7. lidarose

    Just don’t play The Ride if Zifnab is around. I did that once and was very sorry… :-)
    About the Walmartization of churches: that is an interesting way to look at religion. The Catholics see the Protestant practice of adopting Catholic traditions as a return to their Catholic roots, as the Catholic attitude is that the Protestants are the ones who strayed. Protestants, of course, prefer not to look at it that way.

  8. Mason

    Did he shower you?
    I got away with playing it (so far, at least). I only played the important first part and then switched over to what was on my iPod at the time, which was Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” (which is something I would use as a Ride Chaser, although technically the Ride didn’t go all the way through).

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