40 Days without Facebook? Phooey!

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the holy season leading up to Easter--and another chance for journalists to pull together one of those "what are you going to give up for Lent?" stories.

Last week a Wall Street Journal reporter had an interesting contemporary twist on that theme: parents trying to abstain from Facebook.

For centuries, Lent has been observed by liturgical churches like the Roman Catholics and Orthdox and, to a slightly lesser extent, Lutherans and Anglicans as a time for penitence, reflection and abstinence. More recently, the season has been marked by Protestant and non-denominational churches.

Roman Catholics have recently been trying various ways to get across the message that Lent isn't just about individual fasts, but has a long-standing rhythm of abstinence (sorry, couldn't resist). As Tmatt noted in a commentary on the subject, Catholics are encouraged not to "give something up" but to "take something on" as an additional discipline, not the fundamental one.

The fact that there isn't a "one size fits all" Lenten template doesn't really explain the generic quality of the Wall Street Journal article. The fact that it appears in the "Technology" section doesn't really explain why it seems so unmoored from an understanding of the diversity of religious practice in Lent--and how some traditions have very structured expectations.

The lede zooms in on the conundrum of adults who find themselves grappling with the addictive quality of social networking sites:

They're a little too old to give up potato chips, Guitar Hero or Red Bull for Lent.

But as Christian parents ponder an appropriate sacrifice, they find themselves mulling a choice they'd have once seen as preposterous: A Facebook fast -- not for their teens but for themselves.

Lenten sacrifices are meant to honor and in a small way reenact the 40 days Jesus is said to have wandered the wilderness, fasting and resisting temptation. Abstaining from Facebook for the 40 days of Lent was the rage among college students last year. This Lenten season -- which starts next week on Ash Wednesday -- the cause has been taken up by a surprising number of adults. The digital sacrifice won't be easy, they say, but it may help them reclaim their analog lives.

To illuminate this point, the writer quotes a 39-year-old electrical engineer, Larry Shine. We don't find out anything about Shine's denomination, previous Lenten practice, or even whether he currently attends church.

And that's true for everyone else quoted in the article. To be fair, the quotes bolster the article's main subject--Facebook abstention is tough, even in a season of fasting. The article isn't focused on faith, but on culture and technology. In the little space (probably) available to her, the writer did a good job of finding quotes that delineated her theme.

That being said, a few judicious explanations of Lenten history and practice and some comparisons would have enriched this article a lot--and been a corrective to what seems increasingly to be mass confusion over what Lenten fasting (let alone Lent itself) really means.

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