You might not have guessed it from the lines at your local Mega Burger drive-through, but fasting is chic. Americans, who are increasingly thinking about spiritual matters, are at the very least talking about fasting, and many are following through.

For example, just after President Bush's first inauguration, an evangelist named Bob Sjogren started a campaign to sign up enough Americans so that someone was always fasting and praying during the president's first term. The idea was so popular that Sjogren re-upped his efforts for Bush's second term. This development is part of the rise in fasting among evangelical Christians, not previously a fast-conscious group. The late Bill Bright, a prominent evangelical and founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, decided in the late 1990s to make promotion of spiritual fasting his life's final work. Well into his 80s, Bright went on several 40-day fasts. In 1998, he and Pat Robertson persuaded several million evangelicals to fast (or at least, say they were fasting) for 40 days in hopes of national religious renewal.

But most Americans know about fasting because of Ash Wednesday, the day many Christians begin their Lenten fasts. Adult Catholics, for instance, are asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, with "fast" in this case being defined as eating a single meal on each of these days; additionally, Catholics are not to eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Informally, there is also the tradition of giving up something you like for the entire Lenten period. Many Christians choose a favorite food, such as chocolate or beer, as a sort of quasi-fasting.

Fasting isn't limited to Christians, of course. As the U.S. Muslim population increases, more and more Americans follow the Ramadan fast--one lunar month per year without food or drink during daylight hours. Jews continue to fast once a year--on Yom Kippur--to repent for their sins. Mormons fast the first Sunday of each month and then give the money saved on uneaten meals to the poor. Occasional fasting is advised by some interpretations of Buddhism and Hinduism, both growing in the United States. Traditional Methodists observe a weekly mini-fast, from Thursday evening until midday Friday. And, of course, some people fast for general spiritual purposes or in connection with political campaigns.

Is the upsurge in fasting a response to flush economic times in which it seems there is too much self-indulgence, to say nothing of--if national waistlines are any indicator--too much food? Or is this development spiritual in nature? Surely, some of both.

Many Americans are dismayed by runaway consumerism and indulgence, but you don't have to fast to reject the materialist lifestyle--just buy and consume a little less. Fasting makes a stronger statement. Muslims fast to develop self-control, show adherence to their faith, and so that as each Ramadan day ends and food is served, they will have a keener appreciation of the bounty God has offered Earth. Jews participate in the Yom Kippur fast on the theory that deliberately causing yourself mild discomfort shows respect for the great suffering of the faithful of the past. For Christians, a 40-day fast recalls Christ's 40 days without food in the wilderness as he prayed to be shown his mission.

For anyone who is spiritual, fasting redirects the mind away from physical urges--after the first few days at least, when food is the only thing you can think about.

The development of fasting as a component of evangelical belief is somewhat unexpected, because fasting has at best moderate biblical support. Jews often fasted in ancient times, especially to show sorrow, and as a result the Torah and Hebrew scriptures are rife with fasting references. Jesus and John the Baptist fasted as well, though they did so either as part of Jewish observance or for purely spiritual reasons. There isn't anything in the New Testament that directly instructs believers to fast, and it's thought that Christian fasting did not become common until the early Middle Ages--a time when, as now, there was often over-indulgence in food, at least for those of privilege or in the monastery movement.

Whether a person needs to fast in order to fix his or her thoughts on the spiritual is a question each must answer alone. But this much is certain--for all but a few Americans, it can't possibly hurt to go without food once in a while--and it may help if it focuses the mind and reminds us of our blessings when meals resume. That, and the lines at the Mega Burger drive-through, may be all that's required to inspire a fasting fad.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad