Lent Madness: Saintly Sadness, Theological Badness

With so many witnesses in a great cloud all around us, we too, then, should throw off everything that weighs us down and the sin that clings so closely, and with perseverance keep running in the race which lies ahead of us. (Hebrews 12:1, NJB)

From the origins of Christianity, using athletic metaphors for spiritual endurance has been common:  running the race, winning the crown of laurels.  But nothing has pushed the imagery further than the phenomenon of Lent Madness.  It’s the brainchild of Scott Gunn and Tim Schenck, two Episcopal priests–one of whom promoted (if not invented) the idea of #VirtualShrove.

While I’m all for making it enjoyable and accessible to learn about the church, its teachings, and its leading figures (and have even tried to do so), I have to stop short of reducing sainthood to a contest no more important than collegiate basketball. Collegiate basketball may actually be more significant, as there is serious money down on it.  All that Lent Madness can confer is a golden halo based on a popularity contest.

I participated in the madness in 2011.  I’ve opted out since, although my own social media feeds are cluttered up with the trivialization of martyrdom, holiness, and learning.  This makes it impossible to ignore, without a massive un-friending of people I otherwise like and respect.  I will admit, my admiration for those who participate–especially the ordained among them–drops a couple of points every time I see one of their posts about this dreck.

What are my problems with this bit of harmless fun?  The big one is that, as irritated as I get with institutional Christianity, I still take it fairly seriously (which is probably why I get so irritated with it).  And voting on who is the “best” saint (or, for the post-Reformation people who get a liturgical commemoration out of Anglicans, the best “exemplar”) trivializes the religion in a way that dishonors even the people who “win”.  Is the contribution to Christian devotion more if you’re a cloistered nun, or if you’ve faced death?  Can that even be quantified?  Of course–whoever gets the most votes!  And from what I’ve seen (from people who are fairly learned in the faith, and otherwise reflective Christians), the saint gets votes for ridiculous reasons.  Some that I’ve seen over these last few painful years of watching Lent Madness include:

  • I’m a woman, and if the choice is a woman or a man, I always vote for the woman.
  •  Ethnicity or nationality (as though particular colors or nationalities matter more to God).
  •  My grandmother’s name was Margaret, so I voted for Margaret.
  •  I was baptized/confirmed/married at a church with that saint’s name.
  • I like the blue robe Mary was wearing in the picture.

(Really, I have seen these reasons, and they aren’t even the most stupid ones I’ve seen.  From devout Christians, many of them ordained ministers responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of congregations.)

I can imagine how happy the saints in heaven are for any of these reasons.  Very few people name a Thomas Aquinas for his learning, a William Temple for his contribution to ecumenical relations (or for planning the future of the Church of England for the post-war realities it would face), or Catherine of Siena for essentially founding what has become the healthcare system of the western world. What they did or endured matters little.   .Trivia again reigns in the church.

But as long as it gets out on social media, it must be good, right?  It gets our message out!  What message?  That church is sentimental sap-and-crap? That the people who matter are the ones who get the most votes?

As Lent Madness progresses through its brackets, we learn in greater depth more about those who have “won” in the previous rounds, the less-popular saints being left as shadowy figures whose lives and witness are unimportant.  It’s the theological version of American Idol, a program I dislike intensely, but is still better than Lent Madness.  Because at least American Idol is honest that it is nothing more than a popularity contest.

Fortunately, I don’t really believe that the saints in heaven pay any attention to Lent Madness.  They’re too busy praying for the enlightenment of those who participate. They must be very sad that they’re so artificially pitted against each other, when really, they’re all on the same team.

Joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit; but joy is a deeper thing than silliness.  Silliness, making games of what should be taken seriously, is theologically bad.  “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (I Corinthians 13:11, NRSV). I can’t take seriously a church whose leaders have made a name for themselves by taking up childish things, and I can’t take seriously the ministry of those who debase the sacrifice of holy men and women by participating. I’m with Neil Postman on this–it’s a way of making religion indistinguishable from, and thus no more important than, mindless entertainment.

Yes, I know, I’m a buzz-kill.  No fun at all. So, maybe I’ll participate, by setting up a number of fake Facebook accounts, and voting for the probably-less-popular saint each day–a sort of ecclesiastical version of  Vote for the Worst.That way, perhaps some of the less-sentimental vote-getters might have a moment of well-deserved recognition.

And that would make learning fun.


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