Some Random and Curmudgeonly Thoughts about October 31
Every October 31 I have the same thoughts: “Why does American society make so much of Halloween?” and “We need a new Reformation.”
This evening children are streaming to the front door, ringing the doorbell and saying something vaguely resembling “trick or treat,” if anything, and holding up their sacks, plastic pumpkin containers, and pillow covers for candy. I don’t begrudge them their holiday; I enjoyed it as a kid and I am more than happy to satisfy their sweet teeth. (Is there really a plural of “sweet tooth?”)
Some of my best memories of childhood revolve around Halloween and I think some Christians have gone way overboard reacting against it as if the mere mention of it is tantamount to dancing naked around a witches cauldron, celebrating the Wiccan holiday “Samhain,” and evoking evil spirits. Well, there is a fine line there—between just having fun and dabbling in the occult. Right? Uh, not that fine a line.
When I was a kid, growing up in an extremely conservative Pentecostal church, we, our church, always put on a Halloween haunted house party. The adults would find an abandoned farm house, get permission to use it, spend the day decorating it and making it very scary, and then having a hay ride to it. Then everyone would be led through the haunted house, frightened out of their wits by the worship leader dressed like a zombie or Frankenstein monster, then go back to the farm where the hay wagons started for apple bobbing and (non-alcoholic) apple cider. It was fun.
I remember the time someone was so frightened by the worship leader jumping out of a closet in the haunted house he punched him in the face, knocking him to the floor. As a seven year old kid, that was exciting!
When I was a youth pastor my wife and I and some of the parents created the best haunted house ever in the Christian education wing of the church. Each room was something different, but they were all scary. In one room we had one of the teenage boys “hanging” from the ceiling. Of course, we warned the kids not to go through the haunted house if they were easily frightened. We were always there to take them away if anyone got too scared.
Then came the anti-Halloween movement among Christians and all the fun went out of it.
And remember when hospitals x-rayed candy because there was an urban myth about razor blades hidden in candy bars given out at Halloween? Well, maybe it happened once, somewhere, but for the most part it was a rumor.
Now, having defended Halloween, when disconnected from the occult, I will say I’m very annoyed at the way schools in particular have made Halloween the national holiday—to replace the religious ones they can’t celebrate. My daughters’ school banned everything to do with Christmas, but they blew Halloween all out of proportion as if it were the greatest holiday of the year. I enjoyed reminding teachers and administrators that it is, after all, really two religious holidays—All Saints Day (or Eve) (and Reformation Day) and Samhain for pagans. They would just look at me with squinty eyes and turn away. I get that a lot.
I think Halloween can be just fun. My granddaughter, with whom we just skyped before she went out trick or treating, is dressed as a fairy in a multi-colored costume with large, rainbow colored wings. I hope she has fun and stays safe, which I’m sure she will as her mom and dad are going with her (of course).
Then I have some thoughts about Reformation Day. October 31, 1517 was the day Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the cathedral church door in Wittenberg. (That’s the right spelling. People who read The Wittenburg Door often think it’s spelled with a “u.”) So, Protestants have called either October 31 or the Sunday before Reformation Day. It’s traditional to sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” on that Sunday morning. (I just realized we didn’t sing it last Sunday! Oh, well, we’re Baptists. Some Baptists think we’re not Protestants. I won’t tell them. J
I think we, American Protestants, need a new Reformation. What should it be? It should be a renewal of interest in doctrine—right belief. With the exception of fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals (especially the Reformed variety), and Missouri Synod Lutherans, most Protestants stopped caring about doctrine a long time ago. We need a renewal of belief.
Now, I should admit that there are huge exceptions to my Protestant dystopia. Recently I was invited to speak on the doctrine of God to a Friday evening crowd of lay people at a Methodist church. They were enthusiastic about learning doctrine. How refreshing! Maybe the new Reformation can begin there.
I’m not calling for Protestant inquisitions (as in sixteenth century Geneva), just fresh interest in learning about the Great Tradition of Christian doctrine—the Trinity, the hypostatic union (two natures of Jesus Christ), the inspiration and infallibility of the Bible, original sin, justification by grace through faith, etc., etc. How many Protestant lay people can even begin to talk intelligently about those doctrines? Many can talk about the rapture better than about the great doctrines of the faith!
I want to nail a new ninety-five theses, about the importance of doctrine, to the doors of all the seeker-sensitive, wannabe mega churches out there, all the churches that have sold their birthright of Reformation doctrine for a pottage of watered down soup of chorus-singing.
Tomorrow, at the beginning of my theology seminar, we’ll go to the chapel and sing what I consider to be the greatest theological hymn ever written—Charles Wesley’s “And Can It Be?” I mentioned to the students that some of Wesley’s hymns have more than twenty verses. (I’ve had some of my classes sing all twenty-four verses of “Sanctification” when we read and discussed John Wesley’s A Plain Account of Christian Perfection.) One student looked at me strangely and I couldn’t help saying that I’d rather sing twenty verses of a Wesley hymn than sing the same worship chorus twenty times. That always gets some groans.
I crave singing the great doctrinal hymns of the church—ones by Wesley, Cowper, Newton, Toplady, and, yes, Charles Gabriel (I like revival songs, too!). Anything with doctrinal themes.
Fortunately, there is a move afoot among “emerging church” young people to sing old hymns in new dress (new arrangements). A favorite is “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” (I wonder if they know what an “Ebenezer” is—besides the name of the local nursing home?)
A new Reformation Day. I dream of it. Doctrine and theology taught and valued. A new appreciation for dogma. Dream on.