In this interview, we ask author and film critic Brett McCracken about his theology and experience of Lent, especially the gray area that many Christians experience when it comes to legalism and liberty. Lent calls for fasting and discipline. Is that legalistic? Be sure to check out Brett’s recent book, where he tackles plenty of other tough questions about the gray matter between legalism and liberty.
The Table: How can the celebration of Lent change us? What is it about ritual and/or Christian liturgical life that transforms people?
McCracken: I think the value of ritual and liturgy in the Christian life has a lot to do with how it confronts us with the story that is beyond our own. Especially in our individualistic context here in the West, we are prone to see only what is right in front of us and care only for the particularities of our individual existence. Liturgy both welcomes individuals and graciously draws them into a broader community and bigger story. There’s also a transformational aspect in the way liturgy slows, pauses, or re-frames time for us. In a manner similar to what the Sabbath does for us on a weekly basis, the seasons of the church calendar help us to get out of the unrelenting pace of existence by pausing to reflect, rejoice, lament, anticipate. In our harried, technology-ridden lives, building the rhythms of liturgy–for example the 40 days of Lent as an anticipatory period of contemplation–into our lives can be truly transformational.
The Table: Is Lent legalistic? How do we navigate the gray area between liberty and legalism in Lent?
McCracken: Good question! I think part of why many evangelical Protestants have been a bit squeamish about Lent is because they perceive it to be legalistic, an exercise in works. It’s too “Catholic” in that way, some perceive. It’s true that Lent can for some become an empty exercise in do’s and don’ts, simply a ritualistic period of going through the motions for tradition’s sake. But the practice of Lent is not something we have to do. Our salvation does not depend on it. But it’s something we get to do and something that can be beautiful and life-giving. As with anything in the “legalism-liberty” discussion, it all depends on how we partake in something. Lent can be a perfectly good thing, or it can be a legalistic exercise in self-righteousness. Its value in our spiritual life comes from approaching it with the right heart, not out of obligation or because it’s trendy, but because we want to focus ourselves on Jesus and grow towards Him.
The Table: How do you (or your particular denomination) celebrate Lent? Are there traditions or liturgies or practices that are especially significant to you?
McCracken: The church I’m currently attending (nondenominational) doesn’t celebrate Lent, and neither did the churches I grew up in (Southern Baptist). In fact only in one season of my life (for about 5 years) did I attend churches (Presbyterian) that had a focus on the liturgical calendar. During that season I grew to love it. I loved the contemplative focus of the seasons and the way a specific tone was adopted and woven into the sermons, the music, the prayer, readings, etc. I loved that it happened every year and connected me to fellow Christians throughout the world and to generations past, present and future. As a lover of the arts, I’ve also appreciated how (at least in the churches I attended) seamlessly and profoundly the arts can be integrated into the spirit of the liturgical seasons. That’s one of the reasons I’m delighted (plug!) to be a part of the CCCA’s arts-focused “Lent Project.”
The Table: What are you giving up (or taking on) for Lent?
McCracken: I find myself chronically over-scheduled, over-committed and generally too busy. During Lent I make a concerted effort to slow down a bit, strip away some of the excesses in my life and live a quieter, simpler six weeks. It’s difficult for me, but a good challenge. It also forces me to reflect on all the ways I’ve populated my life with fluff, or self-reliance, or simply distraction, often crowding out Jesus and discipleship as a result. I love that Lent challenges the busybody in me and facilitates self-reflection in a manner that draws me out of myself and toward the cross of Christ.
Something I’d like to do this Lent, which I did a few years ago for Advent, is to contemplate Lent through the lens of cinema. Being a film critic I often think through seasons and moods through films I love. So I will be working in the next week or so on my list of “Lenten films,” which I hope will help other film lovers enter into this reflective season in a new way.