All Hallow’s Eve
So we have some important things in the Christian calendar coming up. Any ideas?
All Saints is the big one. All Souls. What’s that one? What’s the difference between the two? There’s one more we’ve left out… All Hallow’s Eve.
So, a slightly different tack…. What about favorite scary saints? I don’t mean saints who are scary, but characters out of legend or story that are scary, but have a warm place in your heart. I’ve always loved the headless horseman. I think it comes from having an English teacher as a mother, as well as a well-worn VHS copy of the Disney version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, but there’s something incredibly fun about the idea of a spectral headless ghost wandering the woods of the Hudson Valley. What about you?
I know I’ve probably worn out my welcome talking about how much I love this celebration on our church calendar, but please hang with me, please, because Jesus is just around the corner.
What other holiday, secular or sacred, has us willing to go knock on strangers’ doors and ask for candy? I mean, I was taught for years to never accept candy from strangers, and here, once a year, we go around, dress ridiculously and threaten strangers with a prank if they don’t give us candy? It’s socially-sanctioned blackmail!
Or where the supernatural, scary things, suddenly become very close, and very comfortable. Or when death becomes something to make fun of, something not of existential dread, but of spooks and haunts and ghouls.
Maybe that’s because All Hallow’s Eve, the Church’s word for Halloween, is kind of the celebrations of the church all together: a mix of Christmas and Easter, of All Saints and Pentecost, of Advent and Lent. Creation and sin and redemption and resurrection and judgement.
It’s a profoundly Christian celebration, but I’ll get to that later.
So it’s a sad realization I had the other day, that an entire generation of children, and possibly now adults my age, are enthralled by that most bland of holidays, the “Harvest Festival.”
A harvest festival? It has a vague pagan-y feel about it, with shades of brown and yellow, with that kind of mallow-y, marzipan-y feel of those marshmallow circus peanuts that tastes of nothing and feels very strange when you finally bit into it. We’ve tamed Halloween, put the Wolfman on a leash, un-wrapped the mummy, and flushed the creature from the black lagoon. Godzilla is in a terrarium and Dracula’s teeth are in a glass by the bedside. We have, in a word, taken the bite out of halloween.
And it’s our fault, by which I mean Christians. For almost 40 years, we’ve sunk our teeth into a very strange lie that, when you actually say it out loud, sounds absolutely bonkers. If someone said this lie to you on a bus, you’d probably try to change seats. When I was in Samoa, I once had a man on a bus tell me that President Obama was planning on dropping a nuclear bomb on Chicago to start World War III, and that’s why he moved to the South Pacific and lived in a shipping container, and that still wasn’t as loony as what I’m about to tell you… Or Remind you.
Recall the late ‘70s and early ‘80s… Nixon’s whispy ghost glowers in the past horizon, the malaise of the gas shortage and Reagan’s morning in America competed for votes.
Then suddenly, evangelical media became awash in the idea that there was a vast underground of satanists and witches conspiring and subverting Christians, kidnapping and abusing children, and that Halloween was a secret way of giving the Devil more than his due, and any M&Ms eaten in response to a night of trick-or-treating was contributing to your spiritual doom.
It even leaked over into the secular media; in 1985, 20/20 did a special on Satanism, alleging millions were using Halloween as a way to draw children into the occult. Three people: John Todd, Lauren Stratford and Mike Warnke were the primary evangelists for this conspiracy gospel. Warnke, in particular held himself out to be a high priest, had conducted illegal arms deals with the superior general of the Jesuits, that he had been injured 5 times in Vietnam and participated in LSD experiments in college.
The problem was, none of it was true. An FBI report showed that there was absolutely no evidence of a vast occult underground; in 1991, Cornerstone Magazine did an expose on Warnke that revealed not only was his more fantastic stories of high priests and arms deals lies, but basic facts about his education and Naval service were also lies. Instead of being a good orthodox Evangelical, it turned out that Warnke was actually Orthodox, capital O, of the eastern variety. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but he also held himself to be a bishop of the “Holy Orthodox Church, Inc.” It seemed that nothing Warnke said was untouched by untruth.
But by 1991, the damage had been done. It had been deeply ingrained in the Christian mind that Halloween was a dark con game and had to be resisted and “Christianized” into something “family friendly.”
And a holiday wasn’t the only victim of these lies; the FBI report revealed that at least 12000 people were falsely accused of child abuse using the tropes that Warnke, Todd and Stratford dreamt up. Perhaps these fantasists were victims, too: Todd died in 2007 in a psychiatric facility; Lauren Stratford spent some time in jail after falsely claiming to be a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and stealing thousands of dollars in donations; Warnke disappeared for a while, then resurfaced selling what could be the least-insightful book of all time: Friendly Fire: A Recovery Guide for Believers Battered by Religion, a book detailing is ill treatment at the hands of evangelicals after the Cornerstone expose.
Our readings today call for justice and discernment and maturity. I do not believe that the American church can hold itself as possessing any of those things and maintain a “harvest festival” on Oct 31.
Who can realistically call ourselves just, discerning and mature, and believe that millions of Americans were involved in secret devil worship? Who can realistically call ourselves just, discerning and mature, and look away when we believe silly lies from fantasists and ruin 12000 people’s lives by believing those lies? Who can realistically call ourselves just, discerning and mature and say that dressing up as Frankenstein is accidentally going to bat for the other side? Who can realistically call ourselves just, discerning and mature, when we take a Christian holiday and denude it of its Christian content? We are like the blind man in today’s Gospel, but instead of following the Lord that healed us we slapped our hands over our eyes and said, “I still can’t see!”
Because there’s a Gospel on Halloween: first is this: on Halloween, and almost exclusively for American Christians, we are allowed to celebrate the human creative imagination. Michael Spencer, the late Internet Monk writes (in voice as the Great Pumpkin proposing a toast on halloween night) about creativity:
“The world of the imagination has always been essential to human beings, but they’ve never known just what to do with it. Sometimes they want to live there entirely, and others times they avoid it completely. They reward those who create it in books and music, and yet they fear these artists of the imagination as well, even doing them great harm. Throughout history, the imagination has been denounced as well as celebrated. Each one of us knows about those times when we were welcome to bring happiness, and also about those times when we were blamed for all kinds of evil that we did not create, in fact, could not create because of what we are.
“This ambiguity is part of human nature, and we ourselves embody part of the struggle. Is the world a place that truly is as it appears, or is there more to the universe than what eyes see and ears hear on any particular day? Do good and evil really exist, or are they simply words that mean nothing? Do human being really understand themselves, or are there mysteries within them that defy explanation?”[i]
It’s our imagination and creativity that allows us to interact with the world and explore God’s Creation. This is something to be celebrated. With candy and costumes, of course. And this isn’t to say that our imagination can’t be misused, but that underlines the necessity of Halloween only that more strongly… Here is how Christians use the imagination: to create new universes, new people new lives new physics new machines and airplanes and airships and creatures of the deep and creatures in the sky, to explore strange new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations, in galaxies far far away, or in our own backyard or around a table top with friends.
Secondly, our veering off of Halloween and into “harvest festival” erases the most fundamental point of Christianity; that the resurrection of Jesus means that death, hell, the darkness that infects our selves and our souls have no more power, no more life in them, and that our fear of them is baseless. We can make fun of and have fun with these things, because Jesus came back from the dead and defeated them once for all. And there is nothing funnier than someone who thinks they have more power than what they actually do; don’t believe me, watch the Marx Brothers. OR the nightly news. But understand this… If we live by fear, we will die by fear. There is no gospel there. Nothing good can come from seeing the devil behind every tree and every pumpkin.
And to be clear, there are things to be fearful of; this side of the resurrection and judgement, we know we will have to tolerate injustices and actual, real evil in our world… Bombs in the mail, shootings at synagogues, and the structures of power that enable and pursue unholy cash grabs and trade the souls and lives of our weakest for political grandstanding. If you want evil, it’s here, in our communities and in our lives, every time we rationalize to keep “them” away from “us.” There is no need for an international cabal of witches to do that for us.
I return to the great pumpkin:
“When I see someone explaining the evil influence of a pumpkin, it’s both a cause for laughter and for sadness. How can anyone, particularly one who says they believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, believe that mummies and werewolves and ghosts and witches hold any spiritual or actual power? One of the best imaginative writers, C.S. Lewis, who created all of the Narnia characters, was convinced that God gave human beings the realm of the imagination to be a sort of classroom to teach them, in a childish form, the spiritual nature of the universe and reality itself. In allowing them to create the imaginative realm, they were learning to reflect on reality and see its true character, and to see their own character as well. It was a way to see that human beings are the imaginative creations of God himself, and they reflect both his nature and their own fallen, rebellious nature.”
We are told by the author of Hebrews to seek the meat of the gospel, to move on from the basics of the faith to the complex, stronger meat. For the author of Hebrews that means moving on from mere dead works and simple faith in God, and devouring the meat of the full gospel: not simple belief that Jesus is Lord, but living out that reality in its fullness. That requires critically thinking about the stories and narratives that we tell ourselves and accept from our culture, whether it be secular or sacred, and determining whether it spreads the gospel or whether it limits it, whether Jesus is the Lord of all things, the lord of ghosts, goblins, creatures of the night or whether he is just one of the many shrill voice of our cultural pharisees trying to get our behavior just right so we will sin no more.
So which one is he for you? The Lord of All, or one of many lords? I know which one the Great Pumpkin chose:
“So I propose a toast: to every little boy who goes to sleep dreaming of Hogwarts. To every mother who reads Narnia to her children. To every teenager devouring The Lord of the Rings. To every grandmother who reads her granddaughter a ghost story. To every parent who shares their favorite scary movie with their child. To every young writer who writes the stories in which we live. To those who know to life, to jump and to delight at Sleepy Hollow. To all who give us this one night of frightful fun and remain little boys and girls, A TOAST!!
When hinges creak in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls… Whenever candlelights flicker when the air is deadly still… That is the time when the Gospel is proclaimed!
Welcome, foolish mortals, to the Church of God.
[i] Michael Spencer, “iMonk Classic: The Great Pumpkin Proposes a Toast,” October 30, 2010 <http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/imonk-classic-the-great-pumpkin-proposes-a-toast>