Saturday, October 31, 2009

How should Christians think about Halloween?

Halloween has its roots in ancient Roman and Celtic harvest festivals that also celebrated the end of the life cycle and so produced celebrations for the dead. As Christianity moved through the west, the church sought to reorient the basic identity markers of western culture from paganism toward Christianity. As part of this, in the eighth century, the church moved its “All Saints Day” festival from May 13 to November 1.

However, the older ideals held on for Europeans and the evening before All Saints Day came to be celebrated on October 31: Hallow’s even (which has come to be shortened as Halloween). Some of the practices associated with the older Roman and Celtic festivals continued on: lighting of candles to honor the spirits of the departed; the carving of lanterns from fall season vegetables; and harvest foods that reminded of the bounty provided by God (or the gods).

While through much of the past thousand years, the church has tried to pursue a strategy of accommodation when it has come to such festivals, many Christians find Halloween incompatible with the Christian faith. Others simply view it as a secular or community holiday that has no real religious overtones or meaning. Still others seek to replace Halloween with Harvest Festivals or, for some Protestants, Reformation Day, remembering the day the German Reformer Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door in 1517 and so began the Reformation.

What is the right approach? It strikes me that there are two sets of biblical texts that could guide Christian thinking on how to deal with Halloween. One set of texts has to do with the freedom that first-century Christians have to eat meat offered to idols. In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10, the Apostle Paul observes that Christians know that idols are nothing—there is only one true God who has come near to his people in Jesus Christ. And so, strictly speaking, nothing happens when food offerings are presented to idols. As a result, if one’s conscience does not object to eating that meat, then eat it.

And yet, there are two big “howevers” in these texts. The first has to do with an actual participation in the sacrificial system itself. 1 Corinthians 8:9-10 and 10:19-22 picture a situation in which believers were actually attending pagan sacrifices and then participating in the eating rituals. In those situations, Paul tells us that while the idols are nothing to us, the motivation of the participants is actually demonic: “I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not God. I do not want you to be participants with demons” (10:20). And so, Christians should not participate in activities in which those with whom they participate actually believe that they are engaged in acts of worship to false gods.

There is a second “however”: and that has to do with the consciences either of a weaker brother or sister or of an unbeliever who is watching you. If a Christian believer struggles with the whole notion of eating meat offered to idols, Paul instructs us not to eat so that we might not cause our brother to stumble: “Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother…For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (Romans 14:13, 15). Love for fellow Christians is far more important than eating meat.

The same goes for an unbeliever. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10 that if an unbeliever invites you to dinner, eat whatever is put before you. “But if someone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—I do not mean your conscience, but his” (10:27-29). At the end of the day, the Gospel and its effect in the life of an unbeliever is far more important than eating meat.

The second set of texts has to do with avoiding and reproving the works of darkness. For example, Paul says in Ephesians 5:11: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” In Ephesians 5, the context has to do with the practices of the temples of the gods: sexuality immorality and impurity (referring to the sexual practices of idolatry) and greed (referring to the motivation of idolatry). Paul demands that those who bear the name of Christ and so walk in the light reject the practices and people associated with false worship.

Likewise, in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, Paul raises the question: “What accord does Christ have with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” Both of these texts appear to urge believers not to participate in activities that are characterized by darkness or idolatry.

In the light of these two sets of texts, then, how might contemporary Christians think about participating in Halloween? Here are some observations.

First, Halloween, as practiced in most communities today, is a largely secular and community holiday. It has very little to do with its pagan and co-opted Christian history. As a result, it does not appear to fall under Paul’s strictures regarding participation in idolatrous worship. In this regard, it would be similar to other secular and community celebrations with which Christians do not struggle.

Next, for some people and communities—for example, those with a significant Wiccan community—Halloween does continue to have connections with its older pagan roots. If one lived in such a community, then Christians would do well to avoid participating in Halloween activities in order to avoid practices that are associated in the public’s mind with paganism.

Moreover, for some people and communities, Halloween becomes an excuse to engage in the fruitless works of darkness, even without association with the false worship of ancient gods. Parties that encourage sexuality immorality, impurity, greed, or coarse talking are to be avoided and exposed by believers.

Fourth, if there are believers within the congregation that have significant objections of conscience to participation in Halloween—because of some past association with paganism, memory of past evil practice, or some other reason—Christians should be determined not to participate in Halloween activities in order to preserve our brother or sister’s conscience. The Gospel is more important than anything else.

Likewise, if there are unbelievers in the community for whom Halloween is valued as a pagan activity or who are concerned that a Christian’s participation in Halloween activities in participation in a pagan activity, then Christians should be determined not to participate. Again, the Gospel is more important than anything else.

Finally, the general principle of 1 Corinthians 10:31-32 rules all Christian behavior: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.” We often think of the first part of this general principle, but not the latter; and yet, they must stay together. If we can participate in Halloween activities to God’s glory and not cause offense to unbelievers or believers, then we should participate freely without concern. For we know that Halloween is nothing and that idols are nothing, but that God has triumphed over all things in Christ, granting us freedom as sons and daughters of God.


Shannon Rop said...

Hi Sean...Hope you are liking your new job as pastor instead of professor. I liked your post on this...was curious what your kids do. We do not celebrate Halloween in pumpking carving, no trick-or-treating...but we do celebrate Reformation Day, with a party with Jason's family, where we read a children's book about Luther, watch a movie, sing "A Mighty Fortress" and take a quiz, while eating yummy fall-ish food. Next year, we hope to expand onto other Reformers.

Cal said...

Thanks for the good post. Perhaps one help would be to recover All Saints Day as a time to remember the great cloud of witnesses.

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Shannon: well, following the logic of this piece, we went ahead and joined with some other families in our church and neighborhood and were out together. Since we have so many church families in our neighborhood, it came to be a time of seeing our people in a community kind of way.

When we were in St. Louis, though, we didn't have the same community in our neighborhood and so we typically went to a local church's "Harvest Festival." Again, this is in the piece--we've tried to deal with this contextually based on where we've lived and how to apply the Scriptures to living in that place, rather than having a set rule. Hope that helps, sml