Monday, October 27, 2014

Finding The 'Hallow' in Halloween

As a child, I was raised in a Mennonite community that did not observe Halloween. From its roots to its current form, we saw nothing compelling or good about it. We gave treats to oddly arrayed children on our doorstep, but we never dressed up, never went out, and did our best not to support the holiday financially or emotionally. I didn't really care; my mom didn't let us kids eat much candy anyway.

I later moved out of that community and for the first time came in contact with a lot of sincere Christians who viewed Halloween as just another holiday. They experienced it as an exercise of imagination, a sort of exorcism of the spirits of fear from which we Christians have been freed. God had not redeemed us so that we would cringe in the face of evil, so they boldly subverted Halloween with a freedom foreign to my upbringing.

These very different experiences have given me plenty to ponder over the years. Though I have more to understand, I have several observations that I hope contain wisdom.

1) The discussion can get bogged down on secondary issues. 

I'm not that concerned about the roots of our holidays.

If we refused to acknowledge or celebrate anything with a basis in non-Christian culture, we would have to ultimately scrap our calendar. Even if Halloween has pagan roots (and there is good reason to believe that it is better seen as an originally Christian holiday), that says little about its current merits or faults. Christianity has a strong tradition of entering into existing cultural celebrations and seeking to redeem them. We are not of the world, but we are certainly in it.

2) Origins aside, we should acknowledge an obvious difference between Halloween and other major holidays. 

Popular Christmas movies in our culture include Miracle on 34th StreetA Christmas Carol, a Christmas Story, and Elf. The background soundtrack for December includes Handel's Messiah, Manheim Steamroller's Christmas album, and Porky Pig singing "I'll Have a Blue Christmas Without You." People go to church to celebrate the birth of Christ, talk about love and peace, and try to do something unusually nice, like watch Land Before Time yet again with the kids. In our culture, people subvert the  Christian spirit of this holiday by making movies like Bad Santa and engaging in gross consumerism, which takes the focus away from Advent themes (love, joy, peace, and hope).

The classic Easter movies in our culture are  The Ten Commandments, The Passion of the Christ, Ben Hur, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Famous songs included "Easter Parade" and "Christ the Lord is Risen Today." People go to church for the second time that year and talk about "new life" and "a new start" because of the resurrection of Jesus. In our culture today, people subvert the Christian spirit of this holiday by reducing it to the fecundity of eggs and bunnies, which takes the focus off of the typical promotion of spiritual renewal and hearkens back to the fertility cults from which the holiday originate.

Halloween's top viewing choices are HalloweenFriday the 13thThe Omen, The Walking Dead, and maybe truly frightening entertainment like Jersey Shore.  AC/DC's "Highway to Hell" has probably entertained the waiting lines at haunted houses more than any other song. People go to graveyards, dress up, and burn a lot of things in Detroit. In our culture, people (usually Christians) subvert the macabre spirit of this holiday by either offering a life-celebrating alternative or taking the focus back to the original meaning - a hallowed commemoration of the lives of the saints. The focus shifts from death to life, sorrow to laughter, despair to hope.

I point this out simply to highlight the fact that, in our culture, one of these holidays is not like the others. During Christmas and Easter, the subversion moves the focus away from Christian themes. During Halloween, the subversion moves it toward Christian themes. That's worth considering as Christians decide what they want to do with it.

3) There are at least two ways Christians engage with Halloween that are as divergent as they are defensible.

Option #1: Enter into it as Christians and redeem it. 

The Bible says that, because of Christ, death and the grave have lost their sting. We should subvert Halloween by trivializing its claim to power. Though Satan is like a devouring lion, he is nothing in the face of the power of God.

To some Christians, Halloween is a time to mock the hollow power of the grave, to laugh in the face of death. Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal; why can't modern day prophets mock the false idols and gods of our culture too?  The only thing the Bible tells us to fear is God. If we can't laugh in the face of death and the grave, then we don't understand the power of God.

Martin Luther once said, ""The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." If that's true, subversive participation in Halloween verges on being a necessary activity in the life of the Christian.

Sure, people dress up in the costumes of the denizens of evil. Why not dress up and trivialize the power of the dark?  Evil's influence is felt most strongly when it controls our emotions. We could enter into one holiday that blatantly celebrates the horror of the world and make fun of its attempt to be so macho and scary.  Just like Christians throughout history have entered into non-Christian holidays and redeemed them to the service of Christ, we can dive into Halloween and turn the darkness toward the light. Anderson Rearick III summed it up well in Christianity Today:

The one thing Satan cannot bear is to be a source of laughter. His pride is undermined by his own knowledge that his infernal rebellion against God is in reality an absurd farce. Hating laughter, he demands to be taken seriously. Indeed, I would say that those Christians who spend the night of October 31 filled with concern over what evils might be (and sometimes are) taking place are doing the very thing Lucifer wants them to do. By giving him this respect, such believers are giving his authority credence.

Option #2. Take a stand as Christians and reject it.

The supernatural world is very real, and the the realm of darkness is dangerous and destructive. We should not participate in anything that celebrates all that is wrong with the world. God is a God of creation, order, goodness, life and light; evil promotes chaos, destruction, death and darkness. Halloween trivializes the seriousness of the stakes.

As a young adult, I learned a perspective on Halloween from people who had done more than dabble in the occult. Whatever you might think of the legitimacy of their attempts to connect with the dark side, they were pretty serious about what they hoped to accomplish. Halloween was their Christmas and Easter rolled into one. They approached it with a sense of mission and purpose.

It's one thing to mock evil's false pretense; it's quite another to join the celebrations in which we scare ourselves and mimic the things that we know to be wrong with the world. Douglas Wilson has written:
"God calls us to holiness, and this does not mean that we are to meditate on zombies eating brains. I hate to break it to you, but that doesn’t qualify. Whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is noble . . . Remember?"
We get upset when the the Easter Bunny and marshmallow peeps distract people at Easter because there is a real message that goes with Easter, an underlying truth of eternal significance. We get upset at the commercialization of Christmas, because it distorts or obscures a message the needs to be heard.

Yet during Halloween we contribute money, creativity, and emotion to the trivialization of a reality that ought not be made silly  - and certainly not celebrated. Among other things, it is the holiday that gets the most overtly destructive responses from people - see here, here, here, here, and here.  All major holidays record a spike in crime  - probably because of the alcohol - but Halloween still manages to distinguish itself. Here's what happens in Boston.

I increasingly believe the celebration of Halloween is one of those freedoms Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 9 and Galatians. It's not in and of itself off limits, but it must be analyzed within the context of both personal conviction and community witness. In addition, finding a way to celebrate Halloween in a way that both enters into it and subverts it toward the good may be a legitimate way to become all things to all people.

The power of Christ is nothing if not redemptive. Why not use this holiday  - as we do with other days or holidays of ignoble origins or increasingly secular expressions - as an opportunity to engage your neighbors and point them toward a God who gives us a reason to truly celebrate?  Christians are not called to retreat from our culture.  Even imaginations cloaked in darkness can be baptized with the light of truth.


"Halloween Statement For Christians" from Marcia Montenegro, whose voice carries some weight on this issue. 


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