Christians and Other Abstainers

Why those faithful who fast aren't simply chocolate soldiers.

I've got an idea for a movie script guaranteed to win an Oscar. We'll call it "Sizzle." See, there's a village in India where all the people think there's something bad about eating beef. It's part of their religion, which says they should repress their desires and hate pleasure.

Then this sexy young cowboy comes to town and opens up a grill. All day long it's thick steaks frying, or maybe some tender filets, and sometimes he dishes up a few racks of barbecued ribs.

Well, pretty soon the fragrance is drifting through the town, and the people can't stand it. They try to resist, but one by one they sneak into the grill and have a little taste. Imagine the close-ups as their eyes water and a little shiny trail of grease slides down their chins. Sure, they feel guilty, but they just can't help it. The village leader thinks he's real holy and rails and rants, but it's no use; that cowboy is so handsome and big-hearted and friendly, everyone can see he's really the hero. He defies authority and sets people free.

At the end, there's this really funny scene where the stuck-up leader breaks into the grill late one night, intending to destroy it, but instead he eats hamburgers till he's sick. The next day, the holiest day of the year, the local guru gives a speech about how they've been misunderstanding their religion all along. All that really matters, he says, is embracing life to the fullest. The movie ends with a big party where everybody chows down on the juiciest steaks ever to kiss a grill.

You probably recognize this as the plot of the Oscar-nominated film "Chocolat." Like "Chocolat," my imaginary film has one fatal flaw: It is stupendously ignorant of the spiritual tradition of the community it's presuming to chastise. Now, films that set out to criticize an unfamiliar faith might well tread cautiously, moving with appropriate hesitation and humility, if not respect. But not so "Chocolat." As in my blockbuster, "Sizzle," towering ignorance combines with invincible self-righteousness to form an impenetrable shield of condescension.

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"Chocolat" blunders into a small French village in the spring of 1959 without a clue as to the meaning and power of Lenten sacrifice. It would not have taken exhaustive research to discover that Lent is a period of grieving for the ways humans mess up the world and hurt each other. It is a time that Christians turn inward and ask in the quiet of their hearts, "How have I been part of the problem?" In admitting these faults to God in the presence of a priest, they gain profound peace and release, and the power to change their lives.

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