Social Media, Shrove Tuesday, and the Stupidification of Church

Tomorrow is Shrove Tuesday (or Mardi Gras), the last day to chow down on all the fun foods that have historically been forbidden to Christians during the forty days of the penitential season of Lent. In prior centuries, when food was neither cheap nor plentiful (and in the northern hemisphere, Lent occurs during the tail end of winter, when cramming as many calories as possible down one’s throat prior to a season of fasting is not the worst idea), the tradition of eating all the fatty, meaty foods that were hanging around, rather than wasting them, developed.

Many churches have made this into an annual event known as the Pancake Supper.  Ironically, this quasi-ritual, originally a way of using up all the leftovers so nothing goes to waste, has turned into a planning-heavy, shopping-intense event–often a “fundraiser” for something like the church youth group. If even a cursory analysis is done, the money spent on eggs, Bisquick, sausages, milk, butter, disposable plates and flatware will almost always be more than the money raised.  And to tell the truth, a lot of families are busy to the point where they don’t want to commit to one more damned church activity during the dinner hour on a weekday evening.

Additionally, unlike the following day in the liturgical year, Ash Wednesday, the Tuesday evening pancake supper has absolutely no religious significance.  Christians observe Lent to honor the forty days in the desert which Jesus undertook immediately after his baptism (for various purposes, according to the three synoptic Gospels).  But there is no justification for believing that he enjoyed a stack at the local IHOP the night before the Holy Spirit drove him into the wilderness. So, the ritual of the griddle is not, as far as I’m concerned, a particularly important part of the Christian faith.  Needing to go gluten-free a few years ago has given me an easy way to decline buying tickets to this annual event.

Even so, tomorrow’s pancake supper is in danger in a number of churches in the eastern two-thirds of North America, as we’re experiencing a fairly severe winter.  (The town where I currently live got 90″ of snow before metorologic winter even officially began, and we currently have a snow-pack a couple of feet deep, and what the National Weather Service has called “potentially life-threatening wind chills.”)  Driving safely may be a significant concern tomorrow, and people are getting worried.

Not to fear–social media to the rescue. An Episcopal priest in Massachusetts came up with the idea of “Virtual Shrove Tuesday”. Take a picture of yourself eating pancakes–at home, in a restaurant–and post it to Facebook, Twitter, or whatever your favorite social media site (preferably multiple ones, I suppose), and use the hashtag #VirtualShrove.  I haven’t yet figured out how, if you can’t get to church, you can drive or walk safely to a restaurant, but everyone knows I’m still living in some plugged-in version of the Bronze Age. My guess is, if you’re eating in a restaurant instead of at the church pancake supper, it’s because you don’t want to be at the church pancake supper.

I wish I could say I made this stuff up, but really, I don’t.  People do think (according to my Facebook feed, anyway) that this is a Good Idea. There are three reasons I class this as another instance of the Stupidification of Church (stupidification is not a word, but it should be).

The first is that people with mouths full of food, or making goofy grins while they’re getting ready to dig into food, rarely make edifying viewing.  The few wedding albums I’ve shown up in, it always seems I’m chewing something, and it’s not my best look.  I just recently heard an internet priest complain how tedious it was to trawl through over a thousand Facebook friends’ posts and see so many pictures of what they were having for dinner–when it’s a normal-ish day, when everyone is eating different things.  If a range of foods from around the world is “tedious”, Shrove Tuesday can only be more so.  There is only so much you can do to pancakes, bacon, sausage, and ham (which, by the way, I’m pretty sure Jesus also did not eat) to make them into the kind of visuals upon which people can endlessly focus a rapturous gaze.

The second reason is that the author’s encouragement:   Whether you’re eating pancakes at church or with your family, why not tell the world we’re preparing for Lent? is a pretty precise disobedience to the passage from the Gospel of Matthew that most Episcopalians will hear the following day at Ash Wednesday:

Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your father who sees in secret will reward you.  (Matthew 6:5-6, NRSV)

Okay, Ash Wednesday is an act of clerically-led liturgical disobedience, where we hear the words of Jesus:

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18, NRSV)

Then we walk up to a priest who schmutzes our heads. And we’re supposed to walk around with that dirt for the rest of the day.

If those two things aren’t important enough, my third reason is that #VirtualShrove is a debasement of the Christian religion.  Yes, friends, I am back to my admiration of Neil Postman.  In a chapter of Amusing Ourselves to Death entitled Shuffle Off to Bethlehem, Postman queries the televised experience of religion as something that robs worship of its vitality, and reduces the likelihood of a transcendent encounter with the holy.  I’ve said a lot about it here, and will not repeat my earlier remarks. But reducing the experience of Christian fellowship and community to pictures of people eating does nothing to spread the Gospel (as one person has claimed).

In Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, Postman says that any talk (or talk-like activity, a category in which social media should be included) which undermines the real purposes of the agent needs to be classified as “stupid.”  If your goal is to attract people to your church using great fellowship as a drawing card, images of people eating pancakes at IHOP is exactly what you do not want.  Those images send the message “I can get out of my driveway, and I like pancakes. I just choose not to eat them at church or with church people.” The pancakes may be second-rate, and the company doesn’t make up for the quality.  Probably the opposite of what you intended.  If you want to show people that your congregation is a place where spiritually serious things happen, pictures of goofy grins and stuffed faces are not really the best image to convey that message. Are these the messages any minister wants to (as one person said) “Go. Tell”?  Is  “I choose to be someplace else rather than with my fellow Christians” what any minister wants to know about his or her congregants?  I hope not.

Social media can be a tool for showing the work of the church in truly uplifting ways–building homes for the homeless, feeding the hungry, magnificent worship with the best of music.  Facebook, Twitter, Instagram can be used to keep in touch with shut-in parishioners, and to connect people from wildly diverse congregations and traditions to emphasize our common commitments.

But pictures of people with plates full of pancakes weakens that.  When we flood the internet with images of people engaged in trite activities with no real religious significance, and encourage it in the name of “church”, we portray the church as a place in which to engage in trite activities with no real religious significance.

Or, maybe, that’s the point. Get them in with that kind of doorbuster, and hope they don’t notice when something serious goes on. Or, just never make the demands that serious, committed religion requires.


3 thoughts on “Social Media, Shrove Tuesday, and the Stupidification of Church

  1. I re-united with a “real life” friend today on Facebook. Her suggestion was not to do the #VirtualShrove, but if you’re snowbound, to invite the closest houses to yours over to have pancakes (everybody might bring whatever they have that might contribute to the meal), and then post pictures of the impromptu communities. Sounds so much better to me.

    Probably, that’s how the pancake thing got going, anyway. “What can we make with all this stuff we can’t eat during Lent, but won’t last another 40 days? What happens if we pool together the bits and scraps each of us has?”

  2. Thank you for your reflection. Our church posted its photos to show solidarity with you folks in the Northeast who couldn’t get out in the cold. But we also gathered for prayer once we chowed down, and made the intentional connection between our presence there that evening and the opportunities to participate in that liturgical disobedience (or maybe we should just call it body prayer?) of Ash Wednesday. But we didn’t post all that on #VirtualShrove, and I resisted quite successfully the #ashtag phenomenon that really did verge over into your more serious concern.

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