Happy Halloween! Or Happy Reformation Day. Or Happy All Hallow’s Eve. Or maybe I should just wish you all a Happy Friday.
For many Christians, today seems to be marked with uncertainty. Yes, we all enjoy seeing (and buying, but this isn’t the place for personal confession) the gigantic bags of candy in the grocery store. And most of us enjoy seeing hilariously clever punny costumes (admit it, you chuckled at those). But for many others, the celebration of Halloween brings us back to that seemingly never ending question concerning how we should interact with culture.
Halloween today seems far less innocent than it did even ten years ago. Back in those days, Richard Mouw notes,
“Witches and warlocks were fictional characters. Today Wicca and neo-paganism are a fairly visible presence in the religious marketplace. More significantly, Halloween is no longer mainly for kids. It has become an adult festival as well—identified in many minds as an opportunity for a bit of Dionysian abandon.”1
Not surprisingly, some people feel the need to withdraw from the spectacle of Halloween as the representation of evil, non-Christian, and anti-life. Those with this perspective often form a Christian sub-culture on (or around) Halloween, holding Harvest Parties, Hay Rides, and Trunk-or-Treats as a means to counteract the dangers of celebrating Halloween elsewhere.
On the flip-side, some other Christians have thoroughly embraced Halloween, with all of its fascination with the undead, non-human, and the like. Timothy George examines the current interest among American Christians with Horror Houses and “Entertainment Evangelism”:
“There are many variations on this theme: a hayride through hell, a demon-guided stroll in a cemetery, a train trip of terror, and so on—but all presentations have three things in common. First, there is a series of mini-dramas, gruesome, death-centered tableaux always presented in lurid, edgy (some say cheesy), soap-opera style. These run the gamut from smoking-related cancer deaths to school shootings, teen suicides, fiery car crashes, botched abortions, homosexual teens dying of AIDS, and all kinds of family traumas—domestic violence, divorce, sex abuse (including incest), and the like…. After the “incidents” come the consequences, namely, a visit to hell. “Hell” is a dark, smoke-filled room complete with strobe lights and the shrieks of tortured souls. The dénouement is a Mel Gibson-esque portrayal of the crucifixion followed by a personal appeal to accept Jesus Christ. Sometimes an actor impersonating Jesus makes the appeal himself in a breath-minted, nose-to-nose encounter with those presumably shaken by what they have seen.”2
Such events seem to be the opposite of a church-sponsored trunk-or-treat. Instead of creating a Christian sub-culture countering Halloween, these events form a sub-culture of Christian Halloweens, complete with with the undead and non-human. Of course, there are also many who engage in more uncharacteristically-Christian forms of entertainment during the celebration of Halloween.
The point here is not to decry out-of-hand these responses to Halloween, but rather to note three prevailing attitudes among Christians concerning their relationship to our culture: That of retreat (creating a Christian sub-culture), that of co-option (using cultural forms and ‘baptizing’ them for ministry purposes), and that of accommodation (buying in wholesale to the message and methods of culture). Despite the pervasiveness of fleeing from culture, co-opting culture, and joining culture, none of these options seem like an appropriate way to find the balance that “in the world but not of the world” calls Christians to live out.
As I point out numerous times every year when discussing Halloween, Halloween began as All Hallow’s Eve, that is, the day before All Saints Day. Whatever else the celebration of Halloween may have been or whatever else it may be today, October 31 was once a day of special preparation before God, a time to remember all those who have gone before us and witnessed to the truth of Christ. Amidst constant reminders of death that accompany Halloween, we can remember the examples of those exemplars of faith who have gone before us. This may mean something as simple as reflecting upon the live of a loved family member or friend and recalling the lessons of their life and death. For others, this may involve the invocation of the saints and martyrs. Along with remembering, we too are called to witness to the truth.
In addition to recalling the lessons of those who have gone before us in the faith, we may also use this time to reflect upon the evils of our world. I’m not sure about you, but seeing representations of the fiendish undead serves as a powerful reminder of the evils that exist in our world. Sure, the skeleton on my neighbor’s apartment is comical, but encountering a non-decorative skeleton—perhaps in an area ravaged by disease or war—is rarely funny, and more often cause for horror and suffering. I may be abstracting too much from the blowup witch and organ-playing-ghoul that I pass on the way to work, but these images should remind us of the deprivation and wickedness of sin, suffering, and death that are a part of our world.
Finally, this season provides Christians with an excellent opportunity to engage with those who believe in and practice witchcraft, Wicca, and paganism. Instead of being dismissive, we can respectfully learn about and dialogue with people in our lives for whom Halloween represents something much more than just a day for scoring some candy. This engagement should not be strictly apologetic in nature, but should have at its heart a willingness to love people and offer them the power of him who has truly conquered the grave, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus taught and healed people in different ways depending on the context of their situations. Similarly, different Halloween contexts call for different ways of interacting with people. If your community is obsessed with the occult, primarily rural, or generally isn’t safe for children, then having an “alternative” form of Halloween such as Trunk-or-Treat may be an excellent way to engage your community during Halloween. For other contexts, a well done and theologically sound “House of Horror” in some may be appropriate. For many, simply having conversations about the Christian origins of Halloween with other parents while walking house to house may be the best form of witness. For others, finding modest, tasteful, and conversation-starting costumes would be a great place to start.
Like so many other things, Halloween represents an opportunity for Christians to seek the balance of living as witnesses in the world while not giving into the world. Neither abandoning nor thoughtlessly co-opting Halloween are appropriate ways to live the Gospel in our American context—so go, and redeem Halloween with your witness.
2. Timothy George. “The Gospel of Ghoul.” First Things, 21 October 2013. http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2013/10/the-gospel-of-ghoul
Photo courtesy of Paul Gorbould.