To many in my community, Halloween is a night of small town fun. Our church will be lighting up our gravel parking lot and inviting our neighbors over to play games like glow in the dark ring toss and leaf pile scavenger hunt. There will be hot cider and fresh popcorn for the adults and copious amounts of sugar for the children (you’re welcome dentists…or, rather, sorry!). As for me, I’ll be sitting under a five gallon bucket of cold water hoping against all odds that the kids in the community don’t have accurate aim. But, I’ve seen them play baseball and softball and know they will so I’ll be wet and freezing all night long. It’s time for our annual Trunk-or-Treat carnival.
Wait a second. Halloween? Church? Really? Yep. But why? I know that Halloween can provoke different responses for Christians. On one extreme are those who embrace it uncritically as innocent fun. On the other, are those who reject it for its association with pagan origins and the occult. But is there a middle ground? I think there is and it’s somewhere between embracing and rejecting.
As Christians we don’t uncritically embrace anything. Rather, we are taught to be discerning. Discernment means we need to think biblically. We’re told to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1). Jesus told us to be as wise as serpents and as innocent doves (Matthew 10:6). This discernment –this biblical thinking –cuts across the whole of the Christian life. We’re to be discerning in how we use our resources, spend our time, relate to others, eat and drink, etc. And thinking biblically about every detail of our lives we need to “do all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Sometimes discernment is really easy. You don’t need to jump through hoops to think biblically about pornography. That’s obvious! Other times, however, discernment requires a little more effort and sweat. That’s because we don’t always find explicit commands saying “Thou shalt,” or “Thou shalt not.” Instead, we need to apply biblical principles to a given situation. The Apostle Paul pastorally did this as he helped the Corinthian church navigate the difficult questions of eating meat offered to idols. His answer wasn’t simply “yes” or “no.” There were circumstances where the meat could not be eaten because to do so would be to participate in idolatry. But there were other circumstances where the meat could be eaten as it had lost its religious significance having been sold in the market (1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:20-30).
This careful discernment – applying biblical principles – can sometimes mean that Christians won’t always agree with each other. In such cases those who abstain are to be happy in their abstaining, and those who allow are to be equally happy in their allowing. Each stands or falls before God alone. Both, however, are to follow the rule of love (see Romans 14:1-21). That love is “patient and kind; it does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
So, as Christians we are to be thoughtful and intentional. This is important when we think of our interaction with culture. Of course, there’s different paradigms of thinking when it comes to how Christ relates to culture – against, in, or above (I vote for the last!). Completely abstaining from culture would require us, to borrow a principle from Paul, to actually go out of the world (see 1 Corinthians 5:10). Embracing all of culture would be to become a friend of the world and an enemy to God (see James 4:4). We must be content in doing the hard work of discerning the place between complete rejection and wholesale embracing.
Personally, this is where Halloween comes to mind. For me, Halloween isn’t a liturgical question as much as it’s a cultural question. As it’s commonly observed I understand Halloween to be a modern societal tradition. I know not every Christian agrees. Many of the arguments against Halloween are based on its apparent pagan origins and associations with the occult – Samhain, Lord of the Dead, druids, Celtic practices, and so forth. So, well-meaning Christians have had a hard time separating any Halloween activity – Trunk-or-Treat included – from religious worship. I get it. I really do. If I thought Halloween was inevitably an issue of worship I might unscrew my porch light, draw my curtains, and refuse to come out! But here’s the thing, I’m just not convinced it has to be.
Maybe I’m naive but I’ve never been persuaded that the line between modern Halloween practices and pagan ritualism can be drawn very straight. In her book Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween, Lisa Morton noted that Halloween has a history “that compounds confusion and error with occasional fact” and it has a “long line of misunderstandings.” It’s relationship to things like Samhain and Celtic practices simply aren’t as clear cut as many Christians have insisted for the last several decades. It doesn’t appear that there was a single origin or influence for what is now called Halloween, but rather it’s a conglomeration of all kinds of different practices many of which have been confused by poorly researched facts.
Even if those lines could be drawn straight I’m not sure it provides a definitive answer for a Christian. There’s all kinds of things in our society that have been influenced and shaped by paganism (look up the word “Monday”). If the genetic fallacy can be used here then the current meaning and context matter more than origin. Halloween has never had a single definition or expression. Rather, as Nicholas Rogers has persuasively argued it has often been “reinvented with different guises over the centuries.” Again and again it has been transformed and redefined. One can debate all they want to about the accuracy of origin stories, but what we today call “Halloween” is very different from its historical antecedents – pagan, Roman Catholic, or cultural. And I think as it’s been passed on to us and reshaped by culture and commerce it’s not an activity that (like Christmas for instance) promotes widespread religious worship, or even, at least for the kid on Main Street, has any religious importance. It’s a cultural activity.
I think this has significance for how a Christian can approach Halloween. I think a case can be made that it doesn’t have to be a question of liturgy, but is rather a question of cultural interaction. Again, I know well-intentioned Christians will disagree with me here. That’s fine. I don’t need everyone to agree with me. I’m even open to hearing why there is an inevitable connection between a Trunk-or-Treat and pagan worship (so long as we all avoid hysteria and poorly researched opinions!). But for me Halloween is a question of cultural interaction. That, of course, doesn’t automatically approve it. There’s plenty of cultural things that Christians may not want to be engaged in for all kinds of different reasons and depending on their context. I won’t begrudge them that liberty. But we need to be careful to not infringe on the freedom a Christian may have in appropriating certain cultural traditions — like social media, sports, movies, clothes, arts, civic celebrations — by setting down rules of “Do not handle, do not taste, and do not touch” (Colossians 2:21).
To me, Halloween is a cultural tradition and understood in the context of my small town it’s a night of community fun. In case you’re worried, no responsible person in our parking lot will be praying for the dead, celebrating demons, pacifying pagan spirits, calling it holy, or exploiting fears of a fictional Purgatory. We won’t even be parading around many of the images associated with Halloween. Instead, we’ll be interacting with our community, inviting people into our circumference, enjoying chitchat with friends, and being generous with our neighbors. And I will likely have many, many gallons of cold water dumped on my head.
Let the push back begin…