I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Halloween’s Dark Side, Georgetown’s Catholic Club & the 500th Reformation Day
We’ll see a resurgence of paganism in a supposedly secular age, we’ll see why Halloween is growing darker and darker, why evangelical Christians should care about what’s happening on a Catholic college campus, and this is the week in which we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
WHAT THE HISTORY OF HALLOWEEN TELLS US ABOUT THE RESURGENCE OF PAGANISM
We live in the midst of a culture that considers itself, defines itself, as secular. It considers itself pervasively secular, and with every passing year increasingly secular, and, yet, as Christians consider that claim, we also have to look at what happens every single year, especially, most recently, on the very last day of October. It’s the holiday that is now so well-known as Halloween. It has ancient roots — we’ll be looking at those in just a moment — but the most important thing to recognize is that it can now be argued that Halloween is the biggest spiritual holiday on the American calendar. Now, in order to make that argument, you have to understand that this society has been ardently secularizing the holidays that have been known as Christmas and Easter, the festival of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. When it comes to the birth of Christ and of the resurrection of Christ, those two central holidays of the church year have now been taken over by a consumer society, and so far as that society is concerned it’s more about Santa Claus and Easter bunnies than anything else. But when it comes to Halloween, we need to note that we are seeing the opposite pattern. We are seeing a holiday that has been re-spiritualized. Indeed, it has been increasingly paganized, repaganized. But of course that’s going back to its roots and before we go there we need to recognize that the issue that is most important for the Christian worldview is understanding what the society increasingly sees as the point of Halloween, and the biggest observation to be made there is that Halloween, in recent decades, has grown ever more dark. It’s darkness has now become the central issue in terms of its cultural fascination, and that cultural fascination also makes Halloween a big consumer event. The annual consumer spending on holidays right now has Christmas still ranked number one, Halloween ranked number two, and Valentine’s Day ranked number three; all the other holidays are distantly behind. That consumer behavior tells us something of what’s going on in terms of these holidays, but the most interesting pattern is the big jump that Halloween has made. Just a matter of a few decades ago, Halloween was a peripheral, rather minimal, American holiday, wasn’t big in terms of retail or consumer behavior. It wasn’t big in terms of cultural impact. It was largely thought of as a holiday for children associated with school parties and childhood trick-or-treating, something very different than what Halloween now represents, and this is caught the attention of those who are taking a close look at American culture.
Historian Nicholas Rogers is the author of the book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, he’s a professor of history at York University in Canada. He speaks of the rise of Halloween in modern America as a transgressive holiday, that is to say it’s no longer really about children innocently dressed up in costumes, it is rather about adults celebrating and emulating transgressive behavior, morally transgressive behavior, but beyond that, theologically transgressive behavior. It is an opportunity now seized by this society that calls itself secular to demonstrate not only an interest in spirituality, but an interest in specifically pagan forms of spirituality, and amongst those some of the darkest forms.
In his book, Rogers very carefully traces the historical development, most importantly, the pagan roots of what we now know as Halloween. It wasn’t known as Halloween then. Actually interestingly enough, Halloween was the name that was given to this particular season of the year, a three-day period by the medieval Christian church, but long before that you have to go back to ancient European Celtic pagan practices. As Rogers makes clear, this was rooted in the Celtic festival known as Samhain. It is spelled S-A-M-H-A-I-N but pronounced sao-win, and this was a festival that came at the summers end in pagan Europe. As he explains,
“Paired with the feast of Beltane, which celebrated the life-generating powers of the sun, Samhain beckoned to winter and the dark nights ahead.”
Now, even as we go back to ancient European Celtic paganism in terms of the roots here of Samhain now traced to Halloween, we also need to concede that there is ample documentation of the fact that there were animal and human sacrifices historically associated with that pagan festival. Now there’s also an historical basis documented by some historians to the fact that what we would now call transgressive sexual practices were also a part of the ancient festival and its pagan celebrations, and we would also simply have to note that that wouldn’t be entirely shocking given the sexual practices of ancient paganism that were often associated with festivals of one kind or another. And for that matter, you don’t then just have to go back to pagan Europe into the Celtic practices, you can look at the ancient near East and the Canaanites just for another parallel example.
AS HALLOWEEN GROWS DARKER, CHRISTIANS ARE TO BE PEOPLE OF THE LIGHT
But what gets the attention of many of these secular historians observing American culture today is the big question as to why supposedly postmodern, post-Christian Americans have embraced Halloween and have particularly darkened Halloween with what appears to be a consumer-driven, intentional re-embrace of this ancient paganism — the darkest roots of the holiday and the ancient festival. All of this can basically be traced to the last 30 years or so with the 20th century. As you go into that period, you’ve got something like “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” as the iconic matter of entertainment, but by the time you get to the end of the 20th century, you are looking at “slasher” films and some of the darkest cinematic presentations of evil and of violence that Americans have ever tolerated. But now not merely tolerate but apparently celebrate. It tells us something that this fascination with the occult comes as America has been sliding into post-Christian secularism. While the courts remove all theistic references from America’s public square, the void is being filled with a pervasive fascination with evil, paganism, and even new forms of the occult.
But it’s also of note that both secular and Christian Americans tend to be rather equally unaware of how Samhain became Halloween. That too is an interesting part of the story of the Christian church. During the medieval centuries, the Christian church, medieval Catholicism in particular, began to pick up many of the festivals of the ancient world, especially of ancient Europe and its traditions, and, in effect, embraced them and Christianized them, and the Christian church, in terms of medieval Catholicism, chose a three-day period, which would represent October 31, November 1, and November 2 as a holiday season in the church year known as “All hallow tide.” The three days were identified — I’ll work backwards — as in terms of November 2, “All Souls Day” or “the day of the dear departed,” that’s a day in which the church recognizes the dead; and then, working backwards, November 1, which is “All Saints’ Day,” a day of celebrating the saints officially canonized and recognized by the church; and then October 31, which would be “All Hallows’ Eve,” the eve before All hallows tide involving All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. But in terms of our modern, secular, and consumer society All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day have been basically disregarded and it’s all come down, oddly enough, to the night before, All Hallows’ Eve, but it is interesting that in this consumer-driven society, re-embracing the dark side of this holiday, it’s interesting to note that All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day have basically been now marginalized, indeed, disregarded, and all the attention is on what historically was the day of preparation for those two days All Hallows’ Eve or Halloween.
A parallel development to this re-darkening of Halloween has been the fact that many Christian parents and Christian churches have become increasingly concerned about the involvement of their children, and, furthermore, their own involvement in any kind of holiday that has now become so expressly and explicitly dark. So embracing of not only transgressive behavior but frankly of pagan and occultic practices. One of the hallmarks of the Christian worldview, of the worldview based in Scripture, is that it and it alone can explain evil in terms of its origin, in terms of its reality, in terms of its threat, and, of course, eventually in terms of its defeat, but that’s the whole point. The Christian biblical understanding of evil is the only worldview that can take evil as seriously as evil deserves, but at the same time it never allows evil to have the last word, and one of the most pervasive and continuous of biblical themes is the absolute prohibition against ever celebrating evil in any of its manifestations. The Christian is not allowed to celebrate evil, is not allowed to celebrate death, and is not allowed to celebrate the darkness, but rather, we are to be a people of the light and we are to celebrate in Christ the victory over evil, and of course the victory over death.
Perhaps there is an inverse relationship between a society’s understanding of the festival of the resurrection on the one hand, and this celebration, this re-darkened pagan celebration of death. In that light, one of the biggest, most important questions we can ask of any worldview is this: Which has the last word, good or evil, life or death? The answer to that question determines everything, and it will be interesting to see how many people knowingly or unknowingly answer that question in their own way on Tuesday.
CATHOLIC STUDENT GROUP AT CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY UNDER FIRE FOR PROMOTING CATHOLIC BELIEFS
But now we shift to Washington DC in the campus of Georgetown University for a story about a meeting that is going to be held today, a big step for that university, a university that goes all the way back to 1787. That is, even before the U.S. Constitution. The university was chartered in 1829. It is the oldest Catholic institution of higher education in the United States, and it is considered to be the premier Jesuit institution of higher learning outside of Rome. Why is this such a big deal for evangelicals? Because just consider the headline that appeared in the Washington Post, “Georgetown Students Have Filed a Discrimination Complaint Against a Campus Group Promoting Heterosexual Marriage.”
We knew that this story had to come. The question was when and the question was where. Well, the answer the first question is now, even today, and the answer to the second question is Georgetown University. That Catholic institution, by the way, is not so important as the meaning of this event. This is not just limited to Catholics in terms of interest; although, there must be many Catholics who are interested in what will take place today, but rather, this raises the huge question for all of us as to whether in this postmodern age, in this age of moral relativism, in this age of legal same-sex marriage, any religious institution can continue in terms of even allowing students to hold to the religious convictions the university supposedly represents.
This is a big story and it just gets more interesting. As the Washington Post reports,
“A Catholic student group at Georgetown University that promotes the benefits of traditional marriage risks losing its funding and other university benefits after being accused of fostering hatred and intolerance.”
The group’s name mixes English and Latin is known as Love Saxa, and as the Washington Post says,
“[It] advocates for marriage as ‘a monogamous and permanent union between a man and a woman.’”
That’s in the constitution of this student organization at Georgetown University, a university that is formally Catholic, and by its historic identity, Jesuit. A university that as a Catholic university certainly understands that the official catechism of the Roman Catholic Church defines marriage just as this student group does. In other words, what we’re looking at here is the huge question as to whether a Catholic university has any room for Catholic students.
The article in the Washington Post at least sets the issue squarely with these words,
“That definition of marriage happens to be in line with that espoused by the Catholic Church, raising the question of how administrators at Georgetown, the United States’ oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning, will handle the controversy if it eventually comes before them.”
What’s going to happen today on the campus, we are told, is that the larger body of student organizations is going to decide whether it will recognize or reject the recognition of Love Saxa as an official student group. If they lose that recognition, they lose a certain amount of funding from the university student affairs budget, but they also find themselves basically identified as a pariah organization, not welcome on campus, not welcome to use rooms, not welcome to advertise their meetings, much less to trumpet and communicate their message. This story just gets more interesting, it gets a lot more interesting, when we see that the immediate controversy arose because of a column published in the Hoya, which is the Georgetown student university newspaper. It was written by the head of Love Saxa, a young woman by the name of Amelia Irvine, she wrote the article beginning,
“I’m a 20-year-old virgin. I know what you probably think about me.” She says, “I’m also the president of Love Saxa, a group dedicated to healthy relationships and sexual integrity.”
She goes on to say that even though the group has been misunderstood, she wants to set the record straight, and this is an organization that is committed to historic Catholic understandings of marriage and sexuality and to chastity, a word that in some of the campus discussion has been openly mocked. In her article, she also said this,
“I will address another highly-debated topic: same-sex marriage. Love Saxa’s definition of marriage does not include same-sex couples, as we believe that marriage is a conjugal union on every level – emotional, spiritual, physical and mental – directed toward caring for biological children. To us, marriage is much more than commitment of love between two consenting adults.”
Now, let’s simply interject here. That’s the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. Shortly after that opinion piece ran in the Hoya, the editors of the student newspaper officially responded in an editorial in which they stated,
“Love Saxa’s constitution also identifies it as ‘a space [for students] to discuss their experiences of the harmful effects of a distorted view of human sexuality and the human person.’”
The editors then said, “By characterizing the LGBTQ experience as ‘a distorted view of human sexuality and the human person,’ Love Saxa has codified a mission that is fundamentally intolerant and hateful.” The editors continued, “Moreover, Love Saxa has also publicized its opposition to the right to marriage for members of the LGBTQ community through its actions.”
They went on to say, indicting the organization that they had dared to have someone on campus to speak like Ryan Anderson, a well-known defender of marriage and a fellow at the Heritage Foundation. The editors then concluded:
“By actively advocating a limited definition of marriage that would concretely take rights away from the LGBTQ community, Love Saxa differentiates itself from other Catholic organizations on campus. Though these other groups may agree with Love Saxa’s definition of marriage, actively and vigorously promoting this definition — one that is directly intolerant of the LGBTQ community — is not a primary focus of their missions, as it appears to be for Love Saxa.”
In other words, this Catholic student organization on the campus of America’s oldest Catholic University, a university that still claims a Catholic identity, this student organization is now being accused of holding beliefs that are, let’s get this straight, absolutely congruent with the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Los Angeles Times recently ran a piece asking the question, “Are Georgetown Students Intolerant for Agreeing With the Pope?”
The words I read from that editorial against Love Saxa in the Hoya are amazing enough, but the editors go on to say:
“Though Georgetown is a Catholic institution that respects the church’s view of marriage, its student groups nevertheless have a responsibility to care for and protect the entire student body.”
Now, let’s just understand what’s going on here. This is what we can only describe as Orwellian doublespeak. It’s the language of saying we respect the Catholic Church’s teaching, but when someone shows up on this campus to teach it, we will not only disrespect them, we will seek to eradicate them from the campus discourse. Of course the background to this also is very interesting, Georgetown University in the 1990s adopted a statement of its Catholic identity as being one of “centered pluralism.”
According to one of the deans there, the centered pluralism means that Catholicism anchors or centers that identity, but that its religious identity is reflected in its students and faculty as pluralistic. So, in other words, pluralism rules. What we see here is Georgetown University openly embracing a non-Catholic identity while simultaneously claiming to be Catholic, claiming to respect the teaching of the Catholic Church, while not respecting anyone who actually teaches that teaching. No doubt some Catholic historians will look back to the secularization of the American Catholic University in an episode such as 1967 in the Land O’ Lakes statement that was adopted under the leadership of the then fairly new president of the University of Notre Dame Father Theodore Hesburgh, and even as there were many Catholics then who understood that it was opening the gate to the secularization of Catholic higher education, well most of them probably couldn’t have imagined a time when a student group at Georgetown University would be accused of the crime of actually holding to classical Catholic teaching.
For evangelical Christians, the big issue to observe here is that this pattern won’t stay on the campus of Georgetown University, we’re going to see this pattern show up again and again because the secularization of higher education, well, it’s not limited to Georgetown University, it’s certainly not limited to Catholic institutions. It is found rather overwhelmingly in institutions that were established unquestionably on historic and confessional Protestant commitments, and what we have seen is the secularization of college after college, university after university, including many that still claim, oddly enough, some continuing Christian, even Protestant identity. They might claim, we’ve seen the formula now at Georgetown, to say that they respect the teaching of the historic church, they just won’t respect anyone who teaches that teaching.
THE REFORMATION AT 500 – ISSUES MOST IMPORTANT THEN REMAIN IMPORTANT NOW
But, of course, invoking that historic confessional Protestantism points to the most important events of this week: The commemoration of the 500th anniversary of the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation. That commemoration and celebration is going to focus much of our attention this week, and rightly so. I wanted to discuss some these headline stories that we needed to discuss this week in order that during the week we can look not only to the headlines, but also to the meaning of the Protestant Reformation, and understanding the issues that were most important then that turn out to be equally and enduringly important now. Was the Reformation necessary? Was it a failure? Was it effective? Is it over? Those are huge questions, questions that we rightly face at any time, but especially as we commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. So while millions and millions of Americans get ready to celebrate Halloween. We’re going to get ready to commemorate one of the most important events in the history of the Christian church. While millions get ready to celebrate paganism, we’re going to celebrate the recovery of the gospel. It’s going to be a most interesting and very full week.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information, go to my website AlbertMohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to @albertmohler.For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College just go to boycecollege.com.
(This podcast is by R. Albert Mohler, Jr. Discovered by Christian Podcast Central and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Christian Podcast Central, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)