A couple nights ago, as I was in the throes of carving our family’s final jack-o-lantern – feverishly cutting out the stripes of Charlie Brown’s shirt (we usually fashion our pumpkins into Peanuts characters) – Taya gave a gentle, reflective laugh. “I love what you’re doing right now”“What?”
“I love how you’re really digging into that pumpkin”
“What are you talking about?”
“Remember when we were first married?” she asks, and then brings our boys into the conversation. “When we were first married, you guys, your dad wouldn’t allow us to have pumpkins, dress up, or even have candy to give out.”
“Really dad, how come?”
Taya continued, “As I recall, you didn’t even let us have a Christmas tree that first year.” She said with a soft and gracious smile, remarkably without a note of accusation or contempt.
“Why?” one of the boys asked again.
I was having to put my elbows into it now, hollowing out the flesh of the pumpkin so the candle would better show through the carving. “Ahhhh, you guys…” I said with a tone of regretful concession…
“I grew up in a pretty legalistic environment where they believed Halloween was the devil’s holiday, and if you participated in it at all, you were guilty of devil worship. And then because of some obscure verse – in Jeremiah or Isaiah I think – about bringing a tree into your living room… well, because of this I wouldn’t let your mom get a Christmas tree either. Sorry.” I said with an apologetic smile, addressing Taya. Returning to the work at hand I said, “I’m glad you hung in there with me.”
I guess you could say my convictions on these kinds of things have taken a different shape over the years. There are those from my legalistic past who might say I’ve softened, but in fact it actually feels like my theology on these things has sharpened, maybe even enough to divide soul and spirit, “judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” For this is where, in my opinion, what’s really at stake comes to light.
This post would take much too long to definitively defend and document all that could be said about Halloween, and I’m writing this less as a comprehensive manifesto than as a humble perspective that I hope might make for enjoyable reading and maybe even aid in a grace-full observance of a holiday that comes with some baggage and leaves some of us with mixed feelings (you know who you are).
And it’s not hard to see why, what with all the images of death and darkness that go along with the day. But in my case, most of my personal hang ups concerning Halloween came from the same place that all my legalistic leanings come from: fear. Fear has always distorted the way I see the world and caused me to be reactive, to circle the wagons and take a strident, defensive stance. Fear shrinks my world and can even make me doubt grace and it’s hold on me.
Fear that if I listen to secular music, my mind will be darkened and I’ll become a sex crazed reprobate. Fear that if I have a sip of beer I’ll become an alcoholic. Fear that if I enjoy something it must be inherently bad. Fear that if I go trick or treating with my kids or put up a Christmas tree I’ll inadvertently cast us headlong into paganism.
And so on and so forth.
But fear is what love intends to cast out, because to act out of fear is very different than to act out of love. If fear is reactive, maybe we can understand love as being pro-active.
One of the more humbling and awe-inspiring theological traditions is the idea that we are called to be co-creators with Christ. Of course we can’t create like God did, ex nihilo, out of nothing, but God has called us to re-create with what he’s already made – and there isn’t anything that exists that wasn’t made by him. Bent and broken as a thing may be, there is the possibility for its redemption. And we get to play a part in the unfolding drama of this ongoing redemption. At least that’s how I read it.
In this way, I believe that as co-creators with Christ we’re also given the task to be co-sanctifiers, or “little Christs” as C.S. Lewis might say – participating in Kingdom Come, reclaiming what otherwise might be lost, bringing it into submission to Christ.
Maybe you remember the worship wars in the 80’s and 90’s when there was much debate over things like whether or not you could have drums in a sanctuary and everyone was arguing about which style of music was God’s favorite? Well, at some point we had to realize that music is more often than not what we make of it. Heavy metal or easy listening, both or neither can bring honor to God – it depends on what intention of the heart is driving it. It was the human heart, after all, that lusted for the forbidden fruit. It was with our hearts, more than our hands, that we reached to take the fruit, ushering in the Fall. And it is still within the human heart where fates are determined and identities revealed.
Food sacrificed to idols is not necessarily evil when placed in the hands of the true worshipper of God. Purified and repurposed in the heart and conscience of the believer, it is restored to its original state of being simply food. If it’s the heart that defiles or purifies food (1 Cor. 8:7), I guess I came to believe that it’s also the heart that defiles or purifies a certain day of the year. And if it was God’s will for me to play a redemptive role in all this, I wanted to start trying out for the most beautiful part available to me.
Much of my religious formation took place in a milieu of shame, fear, and guilt, leaving me at once affirmed in my self-righteousness, alone in my sin, and burnt out on the holiness-works-guilt treadmill as I tried to prove my devotion to both God and myself.
Into that milieu, God visited me with a grace awakening several years ago through authors like Brennan Manning and Frederick Buechner as well as a renewed filter through which to read my bible – texts that once barked their austere demands at me slowly began to whisper and hum with secrets of a Love so outlandish and scandalous that I could hardly take it in. Books like Galatians and of course the gospels came alive for me with colors and notes I’d never noticed before. And slowly, ever so slowly, the bondage of fear began to break and the world was given back to me. The difference between legitimate and imagined ideas of sin and devotion began to come into focus, too.
In the matter of Halloween, I began to see that my own reservations about the day had more to do with my own baggage than that of the holiday itself.
What I suppose I should mention here is that I take evil and the occult very seriously. A part of my history that I don’t like to dwell on is the fact that for many years I lived with a stepfather who was deeply involved in the occult. I could tell you stories, but I’ll spare us both. Suffice it to say that a lot of what gets passed off as “occultic” or satanic has very little to do with the real thing.
Much is made of Halloween’s ties to the occult, though further research reveals that a lot of its association with the holiday might be more a matter of hype, opportunism, and aesthetic than anything else. Do distasteful and evil things take place on Halloween night? Regrettably, I’m sure of it. Is it really the devil’s holiday? I don’t think so. It could be, if that’s what you want to make of it, but to say October 31st is inherently evil is maybe to give more power to a day than is warranted.
Some of Halloween’s roots come from the Celtic “Festival Of The Dead” – a day to mark the end of the harvest season as well as the months of extended light before heading into the darker months. It was also a time to remember and even honor the dead. It was believed by the superstitious to coincide with a time when the barrier between the physical and the spirit world was thinner, leading to all kinds of bizarre notions of dressing up in fearsome masks in order to scare away any evil spirits that might have broken through. I’m reminded of the hulking statues of fierce warriors that Taya and I saw guarding the gates of the Buddhist temple in Asakusa in Tokyo who were posted there to scare away evil spirits that might want to crash the party and harass devout temple goers. This kind of stuff reveals misguided ideas of good and evil, but is relatively harmless, I suppose – except to the degree that they distract us from the truth of how the world really works.
So it’s not my intent to diminish the reality of Satan and his work – I’m sure the devil is pleased when we don’t believe he exists. But I imagine he is equally pleased when we are distracted by distorted and misguided notions of who he is and what he’s doing.
I’m not convinced that Satan is as determined to recruit worshippers as much as he’s content to influence us to worship ourselves – the very thing we are the most eager to do. The temptation in the Garden, if we remember, was that we would “be as gods”, that we would be central and in the driver’s seat. Are there those who devote their lives to actual devil worship? Yes, I’m sure. But let me suggest that when we are persuaded to serve ourselves – when we are self-centered – we serve Satan’s agenda and participate, intentionally or not, in the work of the devil. All the hurt, war, poverty, dissension, and deceit that are born of our selfishness has brought more hell on earth than the relatively small number of sincere Satanists, whose religious identity seems more or less driven by a desire to be counter-culture and empowered, which in the end is more about self-service than genuine religious devotion anyway. Marilyn Manson is less a devilish threat than he is a pitiable attention seeker.
In other words, it’s probable that my misguided attempts at taking a stand against Halloween, rooted in my own fear and self-righteousness, may have done more to distract myself and those around me from the more legitimate and potent works of the devil. One thing I do know for sure is that they didn’t do a thing to make the gospel look beautiful. They probably just made me and my faith look foolish.
And this brings me back to the matter of carving jack-o-lanterns. When Taya and I were first married, I forbid such pagan practices in our home assuming there to be something inherently sinister about carving a face in the flesh of a pumpkin. When kids would come to our door, I’d awkwardly explain that we didn’t have candy because we didn’t participate in Halloween (until I couldn’t stomach it anymore and just stopped answering the door). And though it pains me greatly to admit this, I will confess in the interest of truth telling that one year I even handed out some gospel tracts to trick or treaters.
I’m sure the kids really appreciated that! I’m sure they couldn’t wait to find out more about this stingy Jesus who doesn’t let his followers hand out candy to kids. Score one against Ol’ Scratch, right?
A lot has changed since then, and these days my guiding conviction is that my job as a co-sanctifier with Christ is to take what is broken and do my part in reclaiming it, perhaps even making it beautiful, by God’s grace. My earlier attempts of disavowing Halloween were neither redemptive nor beautiful. At best they might have been neutral, but I suspect they did more damage than good.
And all the while my poor Taya suffered from my misguided religious zeal! That is, until we had kids. And then she put her foot down.
My resolve was beginning to crack by that time anyway, and my first venture back into the world of trick or treating was timid (though I had loved it as a kid). Our twins were two and we dressed them up as Charlie Brown and Linus (it was awesome!) and went to the Barnes & Noble Halloween party where they toddled around asking workers for candy. It was fun, and I even made it through the experience unscathed by guilt!
Since then, Halloween has become one of our favorite holidays in the Gray household. We try to avoid “the appearance of evil” by eschewing costumes that strike us as “dark” or otherwise distasteful, choosing instead to hit the streets as a whoopee cushion, bottle of ketchup, or a ninja warrior, walking the two blocks of our street freezing in the late October chill. When the twins were little and their hands would get cold, they’d each slip them into my gloved hand to warm them up as we’d walk door to door. It’s one of my most cherished memories of all time. Then I’d stand back as they would timidly take the steps of a neighbor’s house, knock, and with little voices say “trick or treat” and then “thank you”. Taya would stay back at our house to greet trick or treaters, handing out copious amounts of candy (everyone knows us as the “gospel singing family” and she wants to build a reputation of generosity for us. Perhaps she’s also making up for the “lost years”…) Over time it has grown into a Halloween party where we invite friends over and Taya makes cookies in the shapes of fingers and eyeballs, and we laugh and enjoy each other immensely. You see, these days I’m more interested in reclaiming things and repurposing them than I am protesting.
All this to say: I’m excited about our Halloween plans this year.
I’m excited to have friends and family to our house to laugh with and enjoy.
I’m excited to spend time in my community with my neighbors.
I’m excited to hold my little boy’s hand in the warmth of my glove when his gets cold.
I’ve even come to value the opportunity the spookier goings-on of Halloween affords us to face our deep rooted fears of mortality and to even poke a little fun at death. It could be that hidden beneath the ragged clothes and garish make-up of our zombie costumes is the universal hope that death doesn’t really have the last say over us…
And I’d be lying if I didn’t also say that I’m excited about finger and eyeball cookies.
Of course Paul reminds us that all things are permissible, though not everything is beneficial, and it’s true there is hardly a thing under the sun that we aren’t able to justify if we put our minds to it. Whether Halloween is permissible or even beneficial for you is ultimately a matter to be worked out in your own heart.
But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord, with friends and family and costumes and candy this October 31st.
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".