Jesus and Halloween: ‘be wise in the way you act…make the most of every opportunity’
Halloween is the second largest grossing celebration in the US – a trend that is becoming more and more apparent in the UK. It parallels a growing interest in ghouls, ghosts, monsters and vampires reflected in the hit block-busters The Vampire Diaries and Twilight Series. It is the common world of our tweenagers and teenagers.
How should we think and feel and act about Halloween?
Contemporary Halloween is an interwoven mesh of at least five factors:
i. Christian heritage: The church festival of All Hallows (Hallowmass, All Saints’ Day) remembered those who had died. It was a time to celebrate heroes of the faith, and could include people dressing as those historic heroes. You can still see this reflected in the word ‘Halloween’. ‘Hallow’ meaning to honour or praise, such as ‘Hallowed be your name…’ and ‘ween’ a derivative for evening or night. Literally ‘a night for honour’. Historically it was a major Catholic festival on par with Christmas and Easter. The Reformation of C16th denounced it because of its links with ‘purgatory’ and ‘prayers for the dead’ and so outside more traditional Catholic circles it rarely has significance now in church life.
ii. Occult heritage: In some way (scholars disputed how much!) Halloween is also rooted in the Celtic festival of Samhain that marked the close of summer and the start of winter, the time of darkness and evil. Though it almost certainly wasn’t the case anti-Celtic Roman invaders caricatured this festival as including human sacrifice. It certainly did include an understanding that there was a ‘threshold’ between our world and the ‘world of the dead’ which also contained evil spirits. It is unlikely the church ‘Christianized’ this festival into All Hallows. Rather they came to co-exist in culture as Christianity spread into Celtic regions and began to adopt each other’s practices. The two began to merge.
iii. Cultural normalizing/ neutralizing: Many people engage with Halloween with little if any understanding of its heritage – it is simply what we do. A first generation might reject a new culture practice, the next allow it, and the third simply assume it as normal. The history of Halloween in the UK puts us somewhere between point two and three – from accepting to simply assuming it is normal.
iv. Commercial Entrepreneurship: Halloween (like Christmas and Easter) is now more shaped and controlled by the economic opportunities than any traditional or religious past. Halloween is the second highest-grossing commercial holiday in America. It remains and grows not because of any ‘spiritual’ reason but because it makes money.
v. Fun! Who doesn’t like dressing up, meeting up with friends, feasting on nice food and generally enjoying themselves? There are lots of aspects of Halloween that are positive and good and enjoyable with family and friends brought together.
Discuss: how do you think of Halloween?
Which of these five most describes your understanding?
By different groups, Halloween then has been rejected as demonic and pagan; subsumed into Christianity; and accepted unthinkingly as harmless fun. What is a right Christian response?
How should we approach culture?
Jesus approached culture in three ways which help us.
Receive as neutral (accept).
Jesus accepted his birth, being a child, dysfunctional family life, manual and intellectual work, friendship and much more. This approach often gives dignity and purpose to the ordinary of life. However ‘receiving’ culture can often be the unthinking or lazy approach and we can become naïve, undiscerning, lacking wisdom, and indistinct from anyone and everyone else. Simply receiving everything without question.
Reject as bad.
Jesus rejected loving money over God (Mark 11:15-17) and self-righteous religion (Mark 12:38-40) as simply not options. This is a second approach – to simply say there is nothing here that is good. However a blanket rejection of everything can often to the unthinking or lazy approach too! We go too far this way and we become sectarian, self-righteous, legalistic and judgmental, and end up living in a religious ghetto having no impact on culture or society.
Redeem for good (restore, heal, reconcile, transform).
Jesus’ general and dominate response was to redeem and restore: whether that was people or sickness or cultural practices. It is the heart of the cross. This approach seeks to be a transforming agent within culture – finding, cultivating and creating good in situations that might seem bleak.
All three are legitimate Christian responses dependent on our own experience, heritage, and relationships. Different Christians will respond differently to the same situation but both still be right! And the same Christian might respond to the same situation at a different time differently and still be right!
What is your default position to culture: receive, reject, redeem?
Are there things you have rejected or received you could redeem?
Where do you think Halloween fits? Why?
The need to understand your underlining worldview:
Richard Niebuhr wrote a modern classic Christ and Culture in 1951 which is still the best framework to understand how potentially Christ and culture relate. He suggests five overlapping options.
i. Christ against culture: Christ and culture are at war; in constant conflict; enemies with no common ground. Christ is ultimately victorious. The church is to battle against culture, confident in Christ’s ultimate victory.
ii. Christ of culture: Christ is to be found in culture, especially ‘the best of’ culture. The church is to promote and adopt the ‘best of’ culture’s thinking and motivations.
iii. Christ above culture: Christ is indifferent to culture; disinterested. The church is to concern itself with more ‘spiritual’ than ‘worldly’ things.
iv. Christ and culture in paradox: Christ and culture are separate, parallel spheres, dualistic in nature. The church is to separate itself from culture, creating its own distinct community.
v. Christ the transformer of culture: Christ is the agent of change in culture. The church is to seek to bring change into culture.
Discuss: What is your underlining understanding of how Christ and culture relate?
What are the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches?
Questions to consider in your approach to Halloween:
What should be your approach to Halloween? What can be received? What should be rejected? And what should we seek to redeem, transform and change as agents of transformation in culture?
What about your children – how can we ‘redeem’ their experience of Halloween? How can we help them learn good and true things about evil, death and fear from Halloween? What good questions does Halloween raise for them that we can use as an opportunity to build a true, better worldview of who Jesus is? What aspects of the ‘All Saints’ history of Halloween could we re-invent for our children in what they understand, enjoy dressing up as and do? How can we use the opportunity of fun and family time and celebration to be and say of Jesus?
Some more questions to think about?
· What opportunities are offered to show God’s glory?
· How could this be an opportunity for mission and evangelism?
· How could my approach help other Christians?
· How could my approach harm other Christians?
· What is the cultural understanding of Halloween?
· What do I personally understand is behind Halloween? [A Christian who feels a strong sense of the occult in Halloween will respond very differently to a Christian who perceives a strong sense of the Christian, or simply ‘fun’.]
· Am I being responsive to the approach my church would encourage me to take?
· If I am younger, am I being responsive to the approach my parents would encourage me to take?
· Have I prayed, thought hard, asked others and making a considered decision that is not unthinking receiving or rejecting, but transformative redeeming?
 These three categories are traditional and helpful views of how Jesus approached the world.
 Is Halloween evil? Maybe. Either way Christ has defeated evil, devil and demons (e.g. Colossian 2:15) and created the option for a Christian, with care and wisdom, to seek to redeem practices that are potentially rooted in the occult.