So, Lent Madness. I was introduced to it last year, about halfway through the Lenten season. Since I love history and learning about the saints, I kind of got into it, though I don’t even follow the actual NCAA March Madness (that’s right, I am a certified heretic here in Kansas). I also really like Scott Gunn and the things put out by Forward Movement. I never did jump in with both feet though. I know it is meant to be both fun and educational, an innovative way of introducing or reintroducing the heroes of the faith, but the whole concept of voting for saints in a competitive bracket sat uneasily with me from the start. And, I’ll confess, after Frances Perkins won the “golden halo” last year, I was one of those who was like, “Wait – what?”
So, I’ve been kind of ambivalent about it, and I wasn’t planning on taking part this year. But, as mentioned, I’ve got great respect for the guys behind this idea ( I was also pleased to see that Fr. Robert Hendrickson is going to be one of the "celebrity bloggers" this year), and there has also been some gentle encouragement from my own rector for our parish to get involved. We even have the bracket posted in our parish hall. So, I decided rather last minute to give Lent Madness a second chance. I voted in the first two or three rounds, and was generally enjoying it. Then I read this post by the Crusty Old Dean, and it reminded me of (or helped me to clarify) all the reasons why I really don’t care for Lent Madness. (His post is much more informative than this one of mine, so if you're pressed for time, tarry not here.) So, I decided to sit on the sidelines for a bit. I would still follow the posts about the saints from day to day, but would refrain from voting.
Well, after yesterday’s matchup, I’m not even sure I want to continue to follow the posts. The bout was between Antony of Egypt and Mary of Egypt. It turned into something of a riot in the comments section. Commenters had no shortage of fodder for their fast and furious input. We had two ascetic desert hermits from the North Africa of the third and fourth centuries. Hard to imagine a more far removed time, place, and culture. Now throw in a bunch of 21st century American Christians, some of whom are being introduced to these saints for the first time via a three paragraph introduction on an admittedly snarky website that casts saints in competitive head-to-head matches – what could possibly go wrong?
Some were suspicious of Antony’s motives in giving away all his worldly possessions. Some found Mary’s whole hagiography problematic, either viewing her as the victim of patriarchal misrepresentation or seemingly dismissing the very idea of sexual sin (one commenter criticized Mary for engaging in “self slut shaming”). The most frequent topic of discussion, however, concerned Antony’s sister. According to the “celebrity blogger” who introduced Antony for this round, after Antony “heard the gospel command to not worry about tomorrow, he promptly gave away what remained of his money, put his sister in a house of virgins, and took up a life of solitude.” As soon as I read that, I knew there would be comments a-plenty, but holy cats, even I was taken aback. The resounding cries of condemnation ran the gamut, describing Antony as “a very off-putting figure”, an “unfeeling brother”, and a “loser”. The one that took the cake, and which I must believe was intentionally inflammatory was: “Antony was a crazy jackass who treated his sister abominably. Boo.” Quite a few people declared that they were choosing not to vote this round, apparently as a kind of protest against being expected to choose between two equally unworthy candidates. Incidentally, I found it puzzling that nowhere in the introductory blog was there mention of Antony as the father of monasticism. I would think that’s a pretty significant detail.
Unlike the Crusty Old Dean, I would stop well short of identifying myself as a Lent Madness hater. In fairness, there was no small number of commenters who very ably made the case for seeking to understand Antony and Mary on their own terms, not through a modern lens, for doing further research rather than jumping to conclusions based on such scanty information, and for being open and humble enough to recognize Christ in the other, even and especially when that other seems incomprehensible (this seemed to be the primary challenge to these saints’ detractors; they simply could not or would not see beyond their own modern assumptions). In conclusion, I don’t expect to be jumping on the Lent Madness bandwagon this year. Primarily, it’s a matter of personal taste, so I don’t want to make too much of this. But there is also an element of my distaste that is based on principle. I absolutely believe that we should be encouraging people (and taking the opportunity ourselves) to learn about and reflect over the lives of the saints. I’m not sure Lent Madness is the best way to do it. It’s a venue that seems, by its very organizational structure, to encourage simplistic thinking and polarization. This corresponds with my more general and increasing skepticism about the potential of any social media for fostering meaningful community. Sometimes it seems to happen, but the potential for misunderstanding and damage seems so much greater that I wonder if it’s worth it. Maybe I’m being too negative; I pray that those who take part in Lent Madness are strengthened and inspired in their faith as they learn about the great broadness of the communion of saints. It seems that many would claim this has indeed been true in their experience. But not in mine. So, maybe I’ll give up following Lent Madness for Lent.
Peace of Christ.