So let's say that you are a religion-beat reporter and your editor assigns you to do a news feature about Lent, beginning with the Ash Wednesday rites found in Western Christian traditions.
What are the questions that you need to ask at that point?
That's where this week's "Crossroads" podcast starts, spinning out of my recent post with this headline: "Live coverage of Ash Wednesday stories? Be on alert for ironic theological twists out there." Click here to tune that in.
A savvy religion-beat reporter would -- first thing -- try to find out what the editor means when she or he says the word "Lent."
Are we talking about Roman Catholic Lent? Pre- or post-Vatican II? Fasting or no fasting?
Are we talking about Anglican Lent? Lutheran Lent? Yes, there is such a thing in some congregations, on the doctrinal left and right. How about Eastern Orthodox Lent, in which many believers -- on the fasting side of things -- basically go vegan for the whole season? (By the way, who can name the rite that opens Lent among the Orthodox?)
Here is the key: Is the editor talking about what I call "American Lent," which basically allows a person to create their own version of the season. That's the whole "give up one thing for Lent" thing. The problem is that the ancient rites and traditions of Lent are not -- to say the least -- an exercise in American individualism. Just the opposite.
You see, there is a good chance that the editor may actually want a story that is FUNNY, not solemn. The editor may want "10 hip things for Millennials to give up for Lent in 2017" (I suggest kale or skinny jeans). Somehow, Lent has turned into a novelty story. Here's the tone at The New York Daily News:
If you notice people walking around with smudges on their forehead today, don't be alarmed: It's Ash Wednesday. (It's definitely not schmutz, so please don't try to rub it off of anyone.)