There are big banners hanging over the streets of our local business district, announcing a “Spooktacular” celebration on Halloween. I wonder whether the local Evangelicals—there are three congregations of them in the town—will boycott the participating stores. There is much evangelical opposition to Halloween these days.
My parents were Evangelicals, but they always enjoyed Halloween. My father was a pastor, and he and my mother would put on a yearly Halloween party for the young people’s group at our church. They would decorate our house with witches on broomsticks, ghosts, and pumpkin faces. My dad would turn the lights down at some point and tell a story designed to frighten the partying teens. We always also had a good supply of candy in stock for the Trick-or-Treaters, and I was encouraged to go around our neighborhood collecting candy. Then we would argue about how much of it I had to share at home.
None of that would play well today in evangelical congregations, where—at the end of October, at least—a “Christ against culture” spirit takes over for a week or so. As a counter-celebration, churches often put on “harvest festivals.” Kids may dress up in Pilgrim-like or patriotic garb—but none of the typical Halloween fare.
I wonder about this each year. And I typically get asked as Halloween approaches what I think about the way the day gets celebrated. Evangelical kids know all about the Halloween imagery and practices, and they often pressure their parents to let them wear a costume to a public school party, or to go trick-or-treating. Parents are often relieved by the opportunity to redirect their children’s attention to a “harvest festival” kind of event. But they still feel the Halloween pressure, and are not always sure what to say, beyond “It’s a pagan thing, and we are Christians.”
What has changed since my childhood? Well, for one thing, in those days witches and warlocks were fictional characters. Today Wicca and neo-paganism are a fairly visible presence in the religious marketplace. More significantly, Halloween is no longer mainly for kids. It has become an adult festival as well—identified in many minds as an opportunity for a bit of Dionysian abandon.
And then there is the more general adult fascination, as evidenced in popular prime-time TV, with the subject matter traditionally associated with Halloween: zombies, ghouls and vampires.
So, do those recent changes mean that Christians should avoid Halloween? I’m ambivalent. Part of me wants to tell my fellow Christians to lighten up a little, keeping the focus on a day when kids can have some fun. Given the present cultural realities, however, it is important to use the occasion to say some things to them about how Christ has overcome the powers of evil.
That’s an important message for adults these days as well. In theological circles there is much more interest than when I was young in the Pauline references to “principalities and powers” and “rulers and authorities in heavenly places.” When that theology shows up in sermons, though, it is usually employed as a means of warning us against various systemic “isms”—consumerism and racism being high on the list of things that get preached against.
I’m not against being warned about those particular “isms.” But the Christians who are worried about Halloween and all it stands for are struggling with different aspects of evil. They are wondering how to raise their children in a culture that often seems opposed to what they stand for. They are nervous about what reading Harry Potter and vampire stories might be doing to the souls of their offspring. They worry about obsessions with tattoos and bodily piercings, and they fear the “Goth” subculture’s influence on their teenagers.
These phenomena too are connected to what the Apostle had in mind when he told us that we wrestle with more than “flesh and blood” in our spiritual struggles. The Devil and his minions do not confine their insidious influences to “systemic” political and economic patterns. They also seduce us in other, more personal, ways. Luther reportedly threw inkwells at the Devil. I strongly suspect that he knew he could not actually hit his intended target. But he did need to let the Enemy know he that he was aware of his presence, the kind of presence that Andrew of Crete was also aware of: “Christian, dost thou feel them, how they work within, / Striving, tempting, luring, goading into sin?”
The powers of evil work in very personal ways. Among their subtle seductive strategies are the ones that lure us into a fascination with skulls, curses, mysterious personages, and magical sights and sounds in the night. Which is why I should perhaps get over deciding about Halloween on the basis of pleasant memories of past Octobers. At least I should act on the obligation to encourage a more assertive teaching ministry about these matters.
Not too far from the “Spooktacular” banners in the local shopping district there is also a sign in front of a church announcing some classes in parenting. I have a good idea of what goes on in those classes: insights drawn from “family systems” theory and child/adolescent research. Very worthwhile. But maybe it is time to have some theologians teach classes for parents as well. The local businesses have been marketing Halloween for at least a month now. It would be a good thing if the churches would beat them to it next year, with some solid catechesis, focusing on the practical realities of evil in our daily lives.
Richard J. Mouw is Distinguished Professor of Faith and Public Life at, and president emeritus of, Fuller Theological Seminary.