remembering without a dusty forehead…

or: why I don’t and will not celebrate Ash Wednesday.

It’s become a thing. Well, okay, fine: it’s been a thing for a long time. So maybe I should say it’s becoming a hip thing to adopt and do. Or the way round: since we live in a culture where we’re all about hip trends, it’s being done because it’s hip. And by “it” I mean the church’s growing interest–at least in a more open and publicized fashion–with keeping and/or following liturgical practices or calendars. This used to be a defining characteristic of the Catholic Church and few non-Catholic denominations–i.e., those of a strong hierarchical flavor. But now, as is often pointed out, a number of Protestant churches are adopting such practices or calendars and have begun to structure their ecclesial operations around them.

Why this has happened, what started it, who broke the mold, etc, are questions that simply do not concern me. Frankly, I don’t really care. What I do care about is the (often) unspoken and uncritically considered assumption that keeping and/or following liturgical practices or calendars are beneficial or even essential for the church–not least for the individual believer. In fact, someone recently asked me: “Don’t you think following the calendar is necessary?” (And the question was less curiosity and more, “Why aren’t you doing this?”) To which my response, was: ” ‘Necessary’? No. Faith in God’s redeeming and saving work in Christ is what’s necessary. Being transformed into the image of Christ by the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is necessary. Living a life that announces God’s kingdom is necessary. Keeping a calendar is not. Not even close.”

One of the places where this liturgical fascination plays out, especially now in many Protestant churches, is with the celebration of “Ash Wednesday.” Historically (dating to near the end of the 7th century CE¹ under Pope Gregory the Great) and traditionally, Ash Wednesday is a Catholic ceremony that initiates what’s known as the Lenten Season—or the Lenten Fast (to be precise). This Season, or Fast, begins 46 days² before Easter and ends on Easter Sunday. After a process of ritualistic preparation and a blessing spoken over the elements, ashes taken from the burned palm leaves of the previous Palm Sunday would be used to mark crosses on the foreheads of those attending the special Ash Wednesday mass (or ceremony). The symbolism and the act itself were designed to remind believers of their mortality (hence the typical reference to Gen 3.19 in the ceremony), thus leading them to a spirit of repentance, resulting in a desire to seek God’s mercy and forgiveness for the duration of the Lenten Fast.

I cannot begin to think of how many times I’ve heard or how many websites I’ve read that lionize Ash Wednesday because of its ceremonial symbolism–or because of how it makes people feel about themselves (or maybe others). And many of these are coming from the mouths and hands of Protestants. And one has gone so (ridiculously) far as to claim that, “if you want a faith worth celebrating, it has to start [with Ash Wednesday]”. (Wow, that was subtle). To which I would reply: Sorry, but the idea of a faith worth celebrating is not only nearly a biblical contradiction, but also–if we accept the premise–a faith worth celebrating is one that must start with Jesus Christ, not some ritualistic tradition created by man³…. And that’s a decent segue into why I do not and will not celebrate Ash Wednesday. Here are my basic reasons, in somewhat random order, and not always smoothed out for reception.

  1. Ash Wednesday was a celebration, a ritual, a ceremony, or a practice, or even a command that neither Jesus instituted nor the disciples/apostles maintained. Or to say this bluntly: it does not originate with either Jesus or his followers. In fact, there are very few celebrations and practices that Jesus instituted or even commanded, which the followers did maintain. And there are a few rituals and ceremonies (along with various other types) that Jesus rejected because they were merely being ceremonially and ritualistically performed–done for the sake of appearing holy, pious, faithful, etc.
  2. Ash Wednesday is not tied (historically) to a particular event or moment in pertaining to the life and saving work of Christ, thus making it something worth remembering or celebrating or practicing. This is unlike Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, communion, missions, offering (i.e., caring for those who cannot care for themselves), prayer, gathering together for worship, etc.
  3. Ash Wednesday is historically (and traditionally) tied to a much later teaching and set of doctrines pertaining to the sacraments of penance–i.e., what man must do in order to receive God’s grace and forgiveness–and then made to fit with historical events in Jesus’ life, particularly the passion week. And, I should say the “made to fit” idea is more of like: cramming a square peg into a round hole. (It’s similar to a Dispensationalist reading the notion of rapture into Pauline theology). I say that because, again, Ash Wednesday, what it means, how to celebrate it and why are not teachings found in the life and ministry of Jesus. And, for what it’s worth, what Jesus did teach would seem to stand in opposition to what Ash Wednesday represents and how it’s celebrated/practiced (see item 7 below).
  4. Ash Wednesday is a Catholic ceremony/ritual, and I’m not Catholic. Another way to say this would be: because my denominational heritage is rooted in the (Protestant) Reformation (specifically the Restoration Movement), I am from a heritage that unashamedly disassociates itself from all things distinctively Catholic. Thus, the traditional (i.e., post-biblical) practices, rituals, and even specific beliefs (i.e., dogmas and doctrines) that identify Catholicism as Catholicism have no place or role in my Christian life. That also means I do not see (nor do I accept) them as definitive and/or necessary things for salvation. As the NT teaches, salvation is conditioned on faith in what God has accomplished in and through the redeeming work of Christ (on the cross and from the grave) and continues to fulfill by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  5. Ash Wednesday is merely a liturgical calendar item, not a divine command. As I’ve already mentioned, the celebration of Ash Wednesday (and even Lent, for that matter–see the next item below) is not a biblical teaching nor command from God, and it in no way serves as the hinge on which my salvation–or at least my spirituality–swings. Or to say this differently: Ash Wednesday is a calendar item created in conjunction with man-made traditions rooted in a particular branch of Christianity, and not a divine command that is to be obeyed/followed by the Christian church. To digress slightly: since I was raised and grew up in a non-Catholic heritage and in a denomination not tied to liturgical calendars, I can honestly say I do not feel slighted in the least–or that my spirituality is somehow incomplete or even unfulfilling–because I did not keep or follow the habitually kept and followed rituals or ceremonies on that calendar. And I certainly did not come to think that my early agnosticism about liturgical calendars rendered my faith impotent and that doing things like Ash Wednesday would be some sort of a spiritual viagra.
  6. Ash Wednesday is a yearly, one-off ceremony/ritual, not an ongoing or perpetual spiritual discipline. Let me approach this one from another direction, using a different (yet related) topic. My wife and I refuse to celebrate Valentine’s Day. The reason? We do not believe that there needs to be a single day on which we proclaim our love for each other, or do something a little extra special for each other. And we certainly do not believe that how we handle a day like Valentine’s Day defines or determines how our relationship will be affected for the rest of the year–i.e., we don’t think or wonder: “S/he didn’t do anything for me on Valentine’s Day… Oh crap, I hope s/he still loves me.” Rather, we understand and believe that every day is an opportunity to proclaim and show our love for each other. Every day is a chance to so something a little extra special for each other. And we do all that we can to make sure we take those opportunities. And if we miss a day (or, in our case: deliberately refuse to take part in a man-made, Hallmark holiday), we know that our relationship–our marriage–is rooted deep enough not to be rattled because of a simple lapse. To apply this to Ash Wednesday and why I do not and will not celebrate it: I do not need a special, one-off day to remember my mortality, to be reminded of my sins before a holy and righteous God, to be brought to a state of repentance, and to confess my need for his forgiveness. I don’t need a special day because I was raised–both denominationally and theologically–with the understanding that every day is an opportunity to remember, to be reminded, to repent, and to seek forgiveness, and that we must always take advance of that opportunity. And not wait for a specific day on a calendar. And the same goes for things like Lent, to which Ash Wednesday is connected. Lent is a designated time in the year where people “fast” from things that otherwise distract them from being cognizant of and faithfully obedient to God. Thus, certain things are given up for the 40/46-day fast–only to be resumed afterward. While part of me wants to say: “If those things keep you from God throughout the year, why only give them up once a year? Why not given them up entirely?” But the other part of me wants to say: “Why only limit ‘fasting’ to once a year? Why not make it a spiritual discipline to be practiced more frequently? Because only doing things once a year, like clock-work, would seem to suggest loyalty to a calendar rather than a loyalty to working out your salvation in fear and trembling on a constant basis.”
  7. Jesus’ teaching on fasting would seem to speak against how Ash Wednesday is understood and performed. (This is probably one of the leading–if not definitive–reasons why I do not and will not celebrate things like Ash Wednesday). On several occasions, I have heard and read people talk about the practice or ceremony of Ash Wednesday and they will refer to Matt 6.16-18–either directly or as an allusion. It’s always struck me as an example of cognitive dissonance to use this passage as a way for advocating Ash Wednesday. As already mentioned, Ash Wednesday is a ceremony related to a fast and one that includes the practice of applying ashes to a person’s forehead (or the back of the hand). Thus, something is being done to alter the physical appearance of the individual in order to physically mark them as celebrating a particular calendar event–one that is meant to promote humility, piety, and holiness, faithfulness, etc. But Jesus clearly says: that sort of thing is what “the hypocrites do…they distort their faces so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. I tell you truly, that will be their [only] reward” (6.16). Thus, that is not what the disciples are to do. Rather, as Jesus tells them: “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (6.17-18). How can a teaching that says not to do something become a go-to text for doing the very kinds of things it says not to do? Could it be because we live in a culture that thrives on being seen and recognized and even celebrated because of our outward displays of goodness, and we’ll do whatever we can to justify the behavior? If so, then shame on us.

One final word before closing out this protracted post. Please know that I am no way saying that Ash Wednesday (by itself) is sinful or evil. All that I am saying is that I do not see a need for Ash Wednesday, and I am not compelled to take part in its celebration. I say that because it is not a necessary (or even biblical) ceremony for the either the church or the individual believer to keep. It’s a calendar item from a much later and distinct tradition, and something that is rooted in or prompted by a much larger theological presupposition–one that has its own set of problems. And it is certainly not a divine command nor a ceremony that is necessary for one’s salvation. However, the moment things like Ash Wednesday become proffered as necessary or essential or determinative for one’s faith, or that it should become a normative Christian practice or ritual because of its (assumed) spiritual benefits for the individual–which can only be obtained in that particular ceremony; that is the moment when it flirts with becoming sinful and evil.

¹ Some will say it needs to be pushed to the 10th century CE. Which is right? I don’t really care.
² Most traditions count it as 40 days, instead of 46—the difference being that the six (6) Sundays that fall between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday are not included as fasting days.
³ As I’ve mentioned before, though I cannot remember when, I use “man” primarily in the old sense, meaning: human being. But I also use it, particularly in this context, as a contrast to God–i.e., God is divine, we (human beings) are not.

something else

So apparently, this Gap ad was perceived to be racist*–despite efforts to explain the pose:

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Yet, as far as I can tell, this earlier version was not perceived in a similar way:

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But putting that debate aside, I’d like to point out one small(ish) detail that’s getting missed:

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Either Cherokee/Target or Gap has some ‘splainin to do. Who wants to go first?

* And since perception (not truth) is all that really matters these days, it must in fact be racist.

jabs with bad analogies

For the past couple of weeks I’ve seen more and more people (or groups) taking pot-shots at Christians, trying to make it look silly or inept. It might be because we’re a few days away from Christmas and that’s what normally happens. But it appears as though, because there is not a huge show-stopping crapumentary on the Discovery Channel or H2 or whatever about Jesus, the attempts have been reduced to quick jabs–or sucker punches, if we’re honest–given for a cheap thrill or an easy laugh.

Earlier this month, Conan O’Brien gave this little quip (about 5:28 in):

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A few days later, I saw these images floating around, the first slightly more subtle than the second:

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(Whether people stole it from Conan and rejigged it or Conan got it from these images is not really my concern. Frankly, I don’t care).

There are two initial problems with these kinds of claims. First, they are not fair to the discourse that needs to happen concerning the refugee crisis. In fact, these types of claims not only politicize the crisis, which is insulting those who truly need refugee, but also reveal that at least one side of the debate is happily wearing its “ideological blinders”.* The other side might be, but they are not as expressive or honest about it.

Second, these sorts of political jabs are uncalled for, primarily because they operate on a faulty premise and a crap analogy. For those who have done their homework, it will be obvious that the image of Mary and Joseph frantically looking for housing in Bethlehem only to be turned away repeatedly until some gruff inn-keeper’s wife Gibbs-slaps him and make him offer the barn; that is nothing but sensationalized tradition. The historical and textual evidence about the birth narrative does not support such view.

Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that Mary and Joseph situation was anything comparable to the refugee crisis. Mary and Joseph were not trying to flee their home country and find safe harbor in another. They were simply traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the purposes of taxation. If we wanted to say anything (admittedly in dramatic terms), we could say they were being “hunted down” in the same way that the IRS wants our money each April. But they were not under threat for their lives because of the ethnicity, nationality, religious beliefs, etc. To say otherwise betrays a lack of understanding about the data and an inability to make an appropriate analogy.

The refugee crisis is admittedly an awful situation, one that has created a rather heated debate with varying and often conflicting responses. It is a situation that needs to be taken seriously and it is one that deserves conscientious and respectful discussion and action. It is one where all sides of the debate need to come together and shut up and listen openly and fairly. And it is a situation that most certainly deserves more respect than being used as one side of a crappy analogy for the purposes of taking cheap-shots at Christians. Such one-lines are good for a laugh and caricaturing a group of people, but they do nothing for moving the discussion forward. It’s school-yard antics. It’s weak. It’s empty. And it’s hypocritical.

* Taken from “West Wing”.

ignorance is bliss

Two days ago, on the Facebook, I linked this always pleasant bit of information: we dodge extinction because a huge asteroid will sail right past us on Halloween. (And by “right past us” I mean, c. 300k miles). What gave me a slight chuckle was the article’s admission that this asteroid was just discovered, as in: “Oh crap, there it is; and it’s coming fast.” No time to rustle up some guys from an oil rig, train them in space flight, launch them into space, blah, blah, blah. Nope. This cosmic beanbag is almost here. It also gave me a chuckle because the story reminded me of something I read from Bill Bryson, who always gives me a chuckle.

After supplying a useful analogy for the sheer number of asteroids and the Earth’s interaction with them, Bryson writes:

As Steven Ostro of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has put it, “Suppose that there was a button you could push and you could light up all the Earth-crossing asteroids larger than about ten metres, there would be over a hundred million of these objects in the sky.” In short, you would see not a couple of thousand distant twinkling stars, but millions upon millions upon millions of nearer, randomly moving objects–“all of which are capable of colliding with the Earth and all of which are moving on slightly different courses through the sky at different rates. It would be deeply unnerving.” Well, be unnerved, because it is there. We just can’t see it.”

–Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003), 171

A few pages later, Bryson unfolds the really good news:

I asked [Ray Anderson and Brian Witzke] how much warning we would receive if a similar hunk of rock [i.e. the one that caused the Chicxulub crater] were coming towards us today. “Oh, probably none,” said Anderson breezily. “It wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye until it warmed up and that wouldn’t happen until it hit the atmosphere, which would be about one second before it hit the Earth. You’re talking about something moving many tens of times faster than the fastest bullet. Unless it had been seen by someone with a telescope, and that’s by no means a certainty, it would take us completely by surprise.”

–Bryson, 179

The next three pages are fairly detailed educated guesses as to what would happen next. It ain’t pretty. Happy weekend, everybody.

gotta love it…

when the murmurings of a few are projected so that they seem to be the chorus of the majority. In this end-of-the-year reflection “study”, the writer goes on and on about American perceptions concerning various topics.  The upshot being: Americans are not entirely pleased with 2013.  Here are the results (if you didn’t click on the link):

  • “Most Americans won’t remember 2013 fondly…”
  • “Most Americans are happy to see 2013 go…”
  • “More than two-thirds view the year as one that was bad for the world…”
  • “More than four in ten say it was a bad year for their family…”
  • “60% of Americans…”
  • “77% of adults under 30…”
  • “a third of senior citizens…”
  • “The public sees the world…”
    • “At the end of 2012, 69% said it had been a bad year…”
  • “There are almost no issues where a majority of Americans have seen improvement…”
    • “Only a quarter say healthcare coverage is better…”
    • “more than half say it has gotten worse…”
  • “When it comes to how 2013 impacted American families…”
    • “A majority does admit that last year was a good one…”
    • “although fewer than one in ten would say it was a very good year…”
  • “how Americans rate their family’s financial situation…”
    • “33% say they are worse off…”
    • “16% say their family is better off…”

One might read this and think (so hopes the writer of the article) that the pulse of all American has been checked and this is conclusive evidence of where we’re at.

However, there is one big, fat, nasty, smelly problem: the figures/percentages given in the “study”-report only reflect the views of the 1000 people surveyed. Proof? Right here. And notice, if you did read the article, that information is nowhere disclosed in the main article, except for a tiny link at the end (i.e. you have to look for the link then go elsewhere to get the details), thus allowing the writer to present the findings in sweeping, categorical terms and therefore give the illusion of factual comprehensiveness or, heaven help us, “objectivity”.

I’m sorry, but a survey of 1000 Americans is nowhere close to serving as a accurate barometer for the thoughts, sentiments, feelings, opinions, etc of all 317,328,103 Americans.* At best, a survey of 1000 people is an accurate (more or less) barometer for the thoughts, sentiments, feelings, opinions, etc of 1000 people. To assume or to suggest otherwise is both speculation and imposition.

If you are a writer and use surveys to make various claims or observations, you owe it to your readers to be upfront and honest about the data. In other words, don’t claim to be speaking for the masses when in reality you’re only speaking for a comparatively small handful. I would recommend 1) making the data (i.e. the figures/number surveyed) initial and more obvious, and not relegate it to a tiny link at the bottom of the page, and 2) changing the wording so as to reflect the facts (i.e. “66% of those survey” or “66% of 1000 Americans”).

If you are a reader of such surveys and honestly believe that the findings are representative of the whole of American people: you’ve been duped. (Go here and here for why I both distrust and loathe surveys).

* According to the estimated figures found here.

more statistical loathing

I have grown to dislike and even distrust the use of statistics, particularly in the form of percentages. (See here and here for examples of why this is so). Admittedly, some uses are rather comical. For instance, just the other day there was an advert on TV for mascara (Maxfactor, I think it was) and the voice-over made grand statements about women’s views on the product. Based on the VO’s claims, one would think that he was speaking for the whole of womankind. Hardly. At the bottom of the screen appeared the percentage of women supporting the claims made and number surveyed. The figures? 74% of 70 women!¹ No typo. Seven, zero. My first (cynical) thought was: “So, you [Maxfactor] basically got your own PR department to offer some opinions.”

As benign or even banal as this instance might be, it adheres to or relies on (and possibly even perpetuates) a rather malignant rhetorical ploy: shape opinion on the basis of persuasively strong claims supported by high percentages.² For example: “The majority of people (78%) believe _[insert hot-button issue here]_ should be permitted” or “…feel that _____ is unfair.” The underlying assumption appears to be: with language such as “majority” or “most people” and percentages exceeding 50%, we can make the issue appear to be prevailing and widespread, and if we can get people to believe the language and percentages, then we can shape public opinion in a particular direction. To remain in my cynicism, this usually means: the “majority” we’re documenting is the cultural norm, so you might want to get on board rather than fight against the “majority” view.

However, because I am that annoying person who asks, when confronted with percentages: ” ‘x’% of how many surveyed?”, and because the survey pool is hardly ever deep and wide enough or representative of the whole, I will neither be persuaded by the claims made (because they do not represent the whole they claim to) nor accept the data to be empirical evidence of public views/opinions (because it’s not). Moreover, I will not pretend that, say, 1500 people surveyed constitute a “majority” view and that I must accept their view, which is really a “minority” one (based on comparative figures), simply because they’re touted as the majority in a particular survey. In fact, I don’t have to accept anything simply because a few say so–and do so rather loudly (i.e. delusionally pretending to be the many).³ I accept things because they are worthy of acceptance, but that requires an entirely different (and more substantial) kind of conversation.

¹ I’m not sure if they’re doing this in the States (or anywhere else), but here in the UK it is now common practice in adverts to show both the percentage and the number of people surveyed.
² It is, therefore, no wonder that the survey-data is either tucked away at the end of the article or on a completely different site.
³ Current issues in American politics illustrate what happens when a few are allowed to shape the many, and do so on the assumption that the few are portrayed as more powerful than the many.