Tara Isabella Burton: When Society Sees Lenten Fasting as a New Age Cleanse

Glasses with fresh organic vegetable and fruit juices as part of a detox diet. Many people opt to make healthier diet decisions during Lent, rather than simply abstaining from certain things. Photo by Derrick Brutel/Creative Commons

What are you giving up for Lent?

If you’re a practicing Christian — and likely if you’re not — you’re familiar with the exhortation to give up something for the traditional season of penitence, which starts Wednesday (March 6) for Catholics and many Protestants and March 11 for Eastern Christians. The season commemorates the period leading up to Christ’s passion and resurrection, and for the approximately 1 in 4 Americans who observe it, Lent has been a time of sacrifice, prayer, fasting and reflection.

But, increasingly, the popular concept of Lent has been transformed into a kind of vaguely theistic detox. It’s a chance not to give up earthly pleasures but to exorcise toxins.

An article published last year in U.K. tabloid The Express, by way of example, provides readers with a handy listicle of the health benefits of giving up some of the most popular fasting targets, such as smoking or chocolate, before reminding them of the upsides of giving up sex. “Abstaining over Lent might help you reconnect with your partner in other ways,” the article reads, before adding: “However, you might be tempted to break this when you hear how many calories sex burns.”

Modern Lent has come to have more in common with Dry January – the viral sensation encouraging New Year’s resolvers to give up alcohol for a month – than with its ecclesiastic antecedents.

No wonder that it’s not just the faithful who are getting in on the Lenten action. A 2014 Barna studyfound that American millennials, famously less likely to be religious than their elders, were nonetheless more likely than the average American to fast for Lent. And though hard numbers are difficult to find, abundant anecdotal evidence supports the idea that a solid minority of those who observe Lent belong to the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated.

A few years ago, Monica Potts wrote in “The Case for Secular Lent,” on Talking Points Memo, “I know tons of people who aren’t observant Christians but who nevertheless participate in some kind of targeted fast for the religious holiday meant to evoke Jesus’s 40 days and nights wandering through the wilderness.”

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Source: Religion News Service