Christianity and Halloween: A Middle Road

So the past few years I have advocated what many cultural apologists have advocated: taking back the types of literature and films that are put forward in the world. To review my essential point, the modern horror movie and horror novelists like Stephen King come from the Gothic novel; a form of literature in which the monsters represent divine justice. As cultural apologists in the tradition associated with Francis Schaeffer have noted, we can trace the changes in the literature to the west’s changes of worldview. Thus, for example, Bram Stoker, in his epistolary novel Dracula clearly treats Dracula as a monster, but the evils that Dracula represents in Stoker’s novel have become a type of anti-hero in modern culture through writers like Anne Rice. Similarly, “torture porn” movies like the Saw and Hostel franchises have become a new tour deforce as people seem to take the same type of pleasure in watching human suffering that the Romans took in the gladiatorial events. This would be unthinkable in past generations.

But one major issue that commonly comes up is the question of Halloween, the time of year when horror movies are central, is one that many Christians think all Christians should avoid. This, again, is a question that I think Schaeffer answers. To those unfamiliar with Schaeffer, Schaeffer was a Christian apologist who brought discussions of worldview back to the table, there are of course issues with this approach. Schaeffer painted with a very broad brush—something that is necessary when worldview scholarship is focused on simple or simplistic comparisons, since worldviews are very large things. Sometimes in so doing his work could lack accuracy (though one of the writers following in Schaeffer’s tradition, Nancy Pearcy who came to know Jesus as Savior through his ministry at l’abri does a much better job in this regard, and her book Total Truth and the follow up works are a must read in the modern world).

When I was a teenager I fell into the anti-Halloween, anti-rock music, anti-modern subculture within some pockets of fundamentalism. These arguments, frankly, had a point,  but this seems to have changed as the rebellion by the modern west from its Christian heritage is so complete that, “if it feels right do it,” is no longer radical, it is typical. Similarly, in the late sixties and early seventies, occultic themes began to develop, as did interests in religions such as Buddhism and other Eastern religions. A sensationalist involved in occultic practices named Anton LeVey published The Satanic Bible, and started the first Satanic church in the mid-sixties; his movement and various splinter factions (such as Setianism, focusing on the Egyptian deity usually identified as either Set or Sutekh, who in at least later versions of the myth was the killer of Osiris, and the antagonist to Horus and Isis), were publicity hounds. During the eighties my family engaged in trick or treating, but the childish fun that was the hallmark of elementary school days began to change as a few Satanist inspired murders began to create a mass panic about Satanic ritual abuse (it was later demonstrated that there was no evidence to support most of the allegations featured on talk shows such as Geraldo Rivera’s, but the allegations tragically led to a number of false convictions that were later overturned). Within Christianity, conspiracy theorists, such as Jack Chick, or Texe Marrs began to argue that there was a secret cabal of Satanists that were secretly taking control of society, following a tradition of poor reasoning and research that is emblematic of Alexander Hislop’s The Two Babylon’s.

Yet, there are children who have had no exposure to the gospel coming to our doors. Nor do we wish to teach our children that Christianity means missing out. There is, of course, the fact that we do not  want to teach our children that begging is the way to get things, but this is a different story.

Here is where I think Francis Schaeffer is helpful. My first readings in Schaeffer was the book The Great Evangelical Disaster, which when I was at Bob Jones was considered proof of the superiority of the Fundamentalist position over the Evangelical one. Later, after grad school during my early married years, I read several other books by Schaeffer. It opened my eyes to art and human creativity in ways I had not understood in a seminary education, and it appealed both to my natural eclecticism and tendency for seeking academic breadth as well as depth. The “touch not, taste not, mingle not” approaches to topics such as literature or music assumes only two approaches to literature are possible, we can consume and approve it and allow it to subtly affect our worldview, or we can avoid it entirely. This creates the question of where to draw lines; for example, are we going to reject only modern horror, or Dracula as well? Do we do the same thing with Beowulf due to the growth of neo-paganism? Is it ok to read Greek Mythology, which has both had a massive impact on our literature and represents a real, pagan belief system? Take the old debate about church music; some reformed groups still argue that the only songs that should ever be used in worship are those that are directly quoting Scripture (fortunately they allow translations even if they do not allow paraphrases), everything else that might be produced has been touched at some point by human depravity because it has been handled by human hands and is no longer divine (but again, they sing these Psalms through human translations).

Schaeffer instead argues for reading and understanding the worldview that is implicit in literature and music. That is, it is not merely a question of Christians either avoiding secular literature or imbibing it, but rather do we read it critically? Do we understand literature within it’s own cultural context? Can we take it, and illustrate how Christianity answers the longings of the human heart in ways that other worldviews cannot? There is, in this sense, a middle ground between the two extremes; there is Scriptural warrant for this middle ground, no believer should argue that Paul’s works are something less than Scripture, and yet those Pauline epistles we count as Scripture quote pagan poets. Paul borrowed language from the stoics, though he adapted said language for his own purposes. Similarly, as we live in an increasingly sub-Christian culture it becomes necessary to be able to communicate with that culture within terms it will understand. The modern world has its myths, both in propagandistic takes on history but also in its literature, most notably it’s fantasy, science fiction and horror literature where the existential fears, hopes, and dreams of the generation are recorded. Part of our humanity is represented in our creativity, including  our tendency to communicate our concepts of truth in the forms of stories. Even the most basic texts in philosophy, texts that are still read as a guide for teaching the dialogical method in philosophy classrooms take the form of fictional, literary dialogues. We should not engage with Halloween or anything else with our mind’s turned off, we should filter it through the prism of Scripture and Christian theology and philosophy, but we cannot act as ostriches either if we are to fulfill our role as salt and light.

I won’t tell others how they should respond to Halloween, that is not my point, and I believe texts like Romans 14:10-12 gives us a warning to be cautious in judging other believers in doubtful things. But I hope this backs up the point I have made from C S Lewis in recent years, as Christians we need to engage not only the arguments of the lost, but their imaginations as well, and we do so in large part by engaging the culture with our minds being alert. Schaeffer’s extraordinary legacy is that, when most people were simply laughing at the hippy counter-culture, Schaeffer was winning them to Jesus Christ.