Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Christian Ramadan?

Here in the South, some local newspapers still publish a Saturday religion section. I always find something either of interest, or of unintended humor. Two months ago, the newspaper sponsored a contemporary gospel music contest, a local evangelical "American Idol" type of thing. This was clearly a pet project of the religion editor, as he has gushed about it ever since. This week, he wrote at great length of the ministry Christian rock bands provide for the "pierced and tatooed" unchurched set. Well, okay. But once I got past that, I found this: Muslims Find Ramadan Fast Partners: Christians.

It seems some evangelicals have rediscovered fasting, but boy did they go around the world to do so.

Like Muslims worldwide, Ben Ries has refrained from food and drink from sunrise to sundown in an act of self-restraint during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ends this weekend....Only Ries is not a Muslim. He is pastor of 70-member Sterling Drive Church of Christ and a self-described committed Christian....Ries is among a small group of Christians who've joined well-known evangelical author and speaker Brian McLaren in observing a Ramadan fast, opening a new chapter in interfaith relations between two traditions often at odds. To McLaren and his Christian and Muslim fasting partners, it's a neighborly gesture of solidarity that deepens their respective faiths and sends a message about finding peace and common ground....McLaren, 53, is the godfather of the "emerging" or "emergent" church, a loose-knit movement that seeks to recover ancient Christian worship practices and, in some cases, question traditional evangelical theology.

I find it interesting that these evangelicals are fasting not as a Christian discipline, but rather to show respect and solidarity with Islam. I have several Muslim friends. Were I to announce I would be participating in Ramadan with them, they would see it as the obvious gimmick that it is. Others seem to agree.

Southern Baptist thinker Albert Mohler notes:

The logic of Islam is obedience and submission...It's by following these practices that a Muslim demonstrates his obedience to the rule of the law through the Quran. For a Christian to do the same automatically implies a submission to the same rule. And beyond that, it's an explicit affirmation that this is a good and holy thing. From a New Testament perspective, it is not a good and holy thing.

And, I find myself in rare agreement with Mark Driscoll, who writes:

Christians observing a Ramadan fast is "insane at best ... Sad, tragic, horrific, misguided, dangerous, wrong...If Christians want to pray during Ramadan, they should pray not with Muslims but for Muslims — that Muslims would come to know Jesus. To pray with Muslims absolutely dishonors Jesus.

I find it ironic that Bruce McLaren, the Emergent guru, the recoverer of "ancient Christian worship" would be taking his cues from Islam. Much could be said of this, but two main points come to mind. First, I am reminded again of the shallowness and the unstable, shifting nature of what passes for Emergent theology. Weak tea, indeed, as they say. Second, I continue to be amazed at those who think that they have rediscovered/reclaimed/restored that which was never lost in the first place.

The purpose of this post is not to engage in any triumphalist Orthodox one-upmanship when it comes to fasting. My record in this department is not one which would provide any worthy examples. With the ready availability of shrimp, bean burritos and well, beer, I often feel that while technically compliant, I am far from the spirit of the thing. But I try, and am mindful of the fasts.

I had lunch with a good friend last Monday. That was the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, and a fast day. My selection of bean burritos lead to a conversation about the number of fast days we observe. He is an Episcopalian and freely admitted to have not observed a fast since he was a teenager. But my friend was shocked to learn that we have about 180 fast days throughout the year. Again, I say this not in any self-laudatory way, but to point out that Christians fasted for 600 years before Islam, and continue to do. The Jews, obviously, were fasting even longer. Clearly, there are deeper, richer and older examples of fasting than one finds in the Ramadan imitation of Muhammad.

I was reminded of an anecdote from my 2006 travels in Turkey. I was in Diyarbakir, perhaps the only dangerous city in the entire country. The area has long been a hotbed of Kurdish separatist activity, and harsh government crackdowns. Deep within the walled old city, a beleaguered Suriani Orthodox community holds on behind a walled compound. Three or four families remain and worship at the beautiful 4th-century Church of the Virgin Mary (with an incredible icon of St. Ephraim the Syrian). My guide and friend, Turan, our driver, Belial, and I arrived just before Saturday Vespers. We stayed for the service, and my two Turkish friends sat respectfully in the rear. The service was in Aramaic or Syriac, but I was able to follow along, roughly. On a number of occasions during the service prostrations were called for. I took my lead from the gentleman in front of me. After we left the church, Turan quizzed me about this. He had no idea that Christians did prostrations. We have a good-natured relationship, so I replied, "Sure we do. Where do you think y'all got the idea?" And the same would be true of fasting. While said partly in jest, there is truth to the statement. Islam is a mishmash of ideas taken from the surrounding faiths. For McLaren and other evangelicals to look to Islam for instruction in fasting is both silly and not a little insulting.


Anonymous said...

You're right, it is absurd for Christians to "rediscover" fasting through Islam. And at a Church of Christ, no less! Reminds me of when I used to hear people say, "the Church is always one generation away from apostasy."

This also gives the lie to the idea that you can light a few candles and throw an icon on the wall and thereby recover ancient Christian worship. It seems to me that American Protestants (myself included) have difficulty with the idea that we might actually be legitimate heirs to a Christian tradition.

Is anybody thinking to ask where this is all going?

Kirk said...

He is pastor of 70-member Sterling Drive Church of Christ...

Oh my! A google search informs me that this congregation is in Washington State. See, this is what happens when you stray a little too far from the twin-Meccas of Abilene and Nashville. ;)

Terry (John) said...

I think most who become Orthodox from a Protestant background go through the stage trying to shortcut the process by tacking on a few of the accoutrements of the Church to wherever they are religiously at that point. Obviously, it doesn't and shouldn't work. McLaren seems stuck in place there. You ask where this is all going? Nowhere good, I would say.

Terry (John) said...

Kirk (and JMG),
Yes, the wild thing about this is that is a Church of Christ preacher following McLaren into this foolishness. As you say, you wouldn't see that sort of thing in Nashville or Abilene, or certainly not in W****boro or B****rd ;)


There is a language problem here that is not being addressed: many Muslims do not consider what Christians do during their fast days to be "fasting." Before we indulge in pride about being the "real fast," it's important to recognize that one is not the other, even if we use the same terms for it.

For example, in Turkish, a fast is an "oruç." This means refraining from food and water, usually during the daylight hours. It does involve rising early, and eating and drinking are tied intimately to prayer-times. The fasts, by modern Christian interpretation, are closer to the Turkish term "perhiz" which is actually more of a medical term, and certainly not religious. It's more like dieting or refraining.

Around here in Turkey, your average Muslim does not consider the Orthodox-style fast to be particularly rigorous. The goal for a Muslim holding the Ramadan fast, or fasting on the Monday-Thursday fasting schedule, is to actually feel hunger and feel thirst, to focus on self-control, to use the feelings to meditate on the needy in their community to whom they are connected.

The idea that you "refrain" from certain foods and this should count as a religious fast seems fairly... well, easy at best, nonsensical and pointless at worst, for many folks I know here. When, they wonder, do you actually experience hunger, or need, which should be part of a fast? Mind you, when they actually try it they find it a bit harder than they guess. On the other hand, most of the folks I'm acquainted with don't eat meat as often as I was accustomed to in America, anyhow. When you say, "We refrain from eating meat and dairy products for a month," you might find yourself in for some shrugs for folks who are used to meat once a week or so and cheese not necessarily being a part of their daily lives, anyhow. Yoghurt is more of a fight, of course! Obviously, the alcohol issue doesn't even come into question.

And if I may be especially critical of myself and many of my brothers and sisters holding the Orthodox fasts, the fasts are actually not much of fasts at all. They really are finding ways AROUND food restrictions and indulging to the same degree -- if not more! -- than before. It becomes more about how creative you can be in the kitchen, or how selective you can be in restaurants. This may be a lot more "impressive" in America -- people may really respect you for limiting your choices (or be impressed at your creativity in desperately trying to find a fill-in for your longings). However, my Muslims associates, looking from the outside in, don't see anything spiritually beneficial in it. I don't blame them. Ramadan puts this impulse to shame. Of course, Muslims have their problems, too -- despite explicit Sunnah against it, they tend to overindulge to a silly degree when they break the fast in the evening, similar to how Christians OUGHT to reduce their food intake and sincerely struggle with self-control, if they take a closer look at traditions. However, they do at least experience the feeling of hunger and need during the day, which is frankly a lot more than I can say of the urge to fast without reducing your food and liquid intake overall.

Anyhow, I guess what I'm trying to get at is, before we take pride and insist the ancient tradition is alive and with us, we should take a very close examination at our own practices and ask ourselves how rigorously we really are experiencing a fast, and how beneficial it is to our spirit. WHY do the old fasts calendars not appeal to people who are seeking something more rigorous? What is there about the Ramadan fast which might appeal to people? How have we failed?

Terry (John) said...


Thanks for your excellent comments.

First, it was not my intention with this post to engage in any triumphalist "look-at-us" fasting rhetoric, or to engage in any Ramadan-bashing. My point concerned those American evangelicals who think they have "rediscovered" something in this regard, and are using Ramadan as a template to "recreate" a Christian discipline. Muslims fast for reasons during Ramadan that Christians should not, and McLaren and others are ignoring the much older tradition within Christianity itself.

The points you raise about the differing defintions of fasting is an interesting one. Of course in this country, a Muslim would be hard pressed to find a Christian who fasted in any capacity. I do agree that our definitions differ, and they might not consider the Orthodox practice as fasting at all. Of course, one could counter that theirs is only between daylight and dark and only for a month.

From their pespective, I can see how they would be dismissive of the way we fast. Your point about their meat consumption is a a good one. With the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables in Turkey and elsewhere in the region, abstaining from meat would not rigorous at all. Most of the meat I consumed there was in very small quantities, such as the minced meat spread on a pide. And frankly, the meat is not a problem for me either. I limit myself to one serving of beef a week, anyway. The dairy products, however, is a different matter. That is where it is a struggle for me, and as you note, would be a struggle for Turks with yogurt, etc. You mentioned alcohol not being a factor--I was surprised to find how many Turks do drink (discreetly, of course). Obviously, this is much more prevalent in Istanbul than elsewhere.

You are absolutely right in your criticism of our Orthodox fasts sometimes being ways to find ways around food restrictions, particularly here in America where we have so many choices. This was the criticism I was directing at myself (shrimp, bean burritos, beer, etc.) If I turn the Dormition Fast into a 2-week summer shrimp-a-thon, then I haven't really fasted. That said, I do find I eat less on Wednesdays and Fridays. Often on these nights, I do not eat at all, finding it simpler to wait until the next morning when all options are available. I think, however, if we were fasting as we should, we would be known as a thin people. Are we? No. I guess I a saying, that yes, there is hunger involved in Orthodox fasting.

You say: "we should take a very close examination at our own practices and ask ourselves how rigorously we really are experiencing a fast, and how beneficial it is to our spirit."

I couldn't agree more.

In this country, at least, I don't know that it is so much that Orthodox fasting has failed, but rather that in the general popular culture there is no knowledge about what Orthodox do or do not do, and absolutely no tradition of fasting at all.

Again, thanks so much for your comments. Where do you live in Turkey? I haven't been back since 2008, but hope to return next year.

Milton T. Burton said...

McLaren discovered fasting in Islam because the man is totally ignorant of the history, literature, and culture of Western Civilization. In fact, we are not longer a civilization. We are small groups of isolated individuals who view the world as a gigantic Wal-Mart where they can construct their "unique" selves by reaching out and annexing anything that appeals to them.

Submission? Submission this week to the trendy dictates of whatever bit of tinsel pseudo-theology appeals, yes, by all means. Submission to the cumulative wisdom of two thousand years of Christian Civilization? I don't think so.

Milton T. Burton said...

"Deeper, richer, and older..." Those are the keywords not just in reference to fasting but everything else. But we Americans are not "into" the deep, the rich, and the old. We are like what Paul said of the Athenians: "For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing."

Some new thing. That is the very root essence of Americanism.

Unknown said...

The Orthodox fast taken seriously really is much harder than the Muslim, if only in that it requires people to refrain from long periods from foods they are used to and dependent on. I lived in the middle-east/Arabian Gulf and was not impressed with people going without food for ten hours and then having a party. Anyone can do that unless they are completely and utterly without any self-discipline whatever. I know Orthodox who, every Wednesday and Friday of life, start the day with a small bread roll and cup of tea and don't eat again until a small meal of pulses after Vespers which is around 8pm. No feasting for them, just enough to keep going till the next day. If Muslims did that all through Ramadan I might be impressed but as it is I'm just glad I don't live in an observant community of them anymore and am not awake to the accompaniment of rock music and chatter at 1am.

It seems though that fasting has become a ridiculous bogey-man for modern people. I never hear so much nonsense anywhere as on Orthodox message boards around Lent and I think that too many priests, presumably frightened of scaring people off, are encouraging people to think of fasting, ie, basic foods in basic amounts, as something far too scary to attempt for the first 30 years. We need to get some perspective and realise that even two meals a day of bread and lentils makes our diets luxurious by some standards.

Terry (John) said...

Margaret, you raise good points. Most days I only eat 2 meals a day (with this, you’d think I’d be thinner.) It could either be an early breakfast and late lunch, or a late breakfast and early supper. Quite a few days, I will have a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast, and then not eat again until after dark. How is this markedly different from the Muslim routine during Ramadan? Granted, there is their additional restriction against liquids. I rarely get hungry between these meals as my system has adjusted to it. So, this pattern perhaps would not be so severe. Also, it has been my observation that in Islamic countries, that they really don’t do breakfasts as we know them, and that the night meal is eaten very late. I suppose this is partly due to the fact that the shops and stores stay open late and employees put in long hours there. My point is, at least for supper, Muslims would generally not be in the habit of eating until long after dark anyway.

And I agree that sometimes we American Orthodox get silly with the fasting. It is not that it is so very difficult and should not be attempted at first , but rather it is that it goes against our self-will, and we are loath to give that up.