“Low Christianity” and Halloween

“Low Christianity” and Halloween November 1, 2013

We haven’t finished talking about the Unequally Yoked Club yet, but I did want to talk briefly about Halloween. I hope you all had a wonderful one, however you spent it!

I’ve talked before about “low Christianity” and “high Christianity.” Those are terms I use for the two extremes of the religion. Others might use terms like Dionysian and Apollonian, which is also more than acceptable, but to me, “low Christianity” is how most people practice and experience Christianity. This is the Christianity that thinks it’s perfectly okay to consult a newspaper horoscope over a morning cup of coffee, forward a chain letter because “you never know,” gossip with friends, read the Bible on lunch hour, get really drunk, buy lottery tickets, avoid stepping on a sidewalk crack, have some non-marital sex, and lay out a nice dress for church the next morning. This is a Christianity marked by superstition, folk practices, and idiosyncratic interpretation of the rules. It’s the Christianity that people feel very sure of deep down but maybe don’t know how to articulate how they feel about it. It’s individualistic, chaotic, expressive, and rather rollicking. Fundagelicals especially will recognize their general style here, though they usually officially disapprove of most of the manifestations I’ve named here.

“High Christianity” would be people like my dear friend The Apostate who blogs at A Pasta Sea, who uses terms like “Marcionite” like everybody should know what that is and who has had actual theological training. I do not put it that way to be insulting; I greatly admire his knowledge and discipline, just as I admire anybody who’s managed to master thousands of years of philosophy of any kind. Either way, this is a Christianity marked by adherence to ritual, understanding of high-flown concepts and terminology, a certain rationalism and sterility, and a considerable amount of stability and rhythm. Here is where we find most upper-level Catholics and Orthodox Christians, the more liberal denominations (especially their ministers, most of whom have formal seminary training), and not a few Bible scholars. The religion they practice and talk about bears almost no resemblance whatsoever to the kind I talked about earlier beyond a vague similarity in names and concepts. I don’t view “high Christianity” as superior in and of itself; it’s just different, that’s all, with different goals, priorities, and methods of reaching those goals.

As you’ve likely noticed, I tend to dwell on the low end of the scale. I’ve never pretended to be a theologian. I barely even know what the major heresies were or why they mattered. I don’t say that out of pride, but rather because I don’t think the vast majority of Christians understand that stuff either, and moreover, I don’t think they think it matters (until or unless an ex-Christian or doubter shows up, in which case suddenly knowledge of advanced theology is terribly important to way too many Christians). I think that this has always been how most Christians operate, even from the earliest beginnings of the religion, and I think that their leaders–most of whom are from “high Christianity”–have always despaired about the mystical folk religion sprouting up under their noses–that is, when they’re even aware it’s happening at all.

In the Middle Ages, one doesn’t need to go far in studying the period before one hears about all sorts of charming folk rituals–summoning angels to find lost objects, writing little notes to demons asking for aid, praying to saints for intercession, doing magic rituals to heal sick children, and the like. These rituals look shockingly pagan to us now, but at the time, someone could draw a cross on a child’s forehead or “cast beans” (throw dried beans and other such small hard things like rock salt on the floor like dice to see the magical patterns formed) and still consider him- or herself a good Christian. The Catholic Church did everything it could to stamp out such folk practices, but they were part and parcel of how people experienced the religion.

Indeed, the Catholic Church for centuries had been quietly appropriating pagan festivals and gods and converting both to Christianity. Former pagans felt right at home. Old pagan temples and monuments, especially in Rome, were reworked–even St. Peter’s Basilica was built atop an old temple of Apollo. But by the Renaissance, it wasn’t too unusual to see banquets featuring edible statues of pagan gods and parade floats celebrating pagan themes–all put on by people who considered themselves very good Christians. Some of these people were even priests at the highest levels of the religion.

So when you hear about people claiming to be descended from hundreds of years of an unbroken line of witches, or that Wicca is thousands of years old, no, that’s not true. Most of the witchiest things we associate with witchcraft are decidedly Christian in origin and I’ve never read about any witches who considered themselves anything but Christians. Halloween is one of those things that we think of as pagan and witchy but which really isn’t at all.

Halloween may seem very pagan, but the word itself is Christian–it means “hallowed evening,” and “hallowed” means “holy.” Yes, it does have some pagan roots–like almost every single doctrine and concept in the religion does. Was it kinda based on old pagan holidays along the same lines? Sure, that seems pretty certain by now. Was Halloween’s association with spirits and ghosts based on the old festival of Beltane? Absolutely. Was All Saint’s Day, a Christian holy day celebrating dead saints, moved in the 8th century from its original date on May 13th to where it is now, where it fused with those pagan holidays? Seems very likely.

But modern Christians aren’t very comfortable with that idea. Dangit, it just feels so non-Christian. And that’s the point. That’s what it’s supposed to feel like. It’s a wild evening where people can connect with those old propensities toward spiritualism. But it is also as much a part of Christianity as the concept of the Crucifixion as a sort of ransom trick the Christian god played upon Satan (kinda like Aslan did to the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), which was one of the prevailing explanations for the Crucifixion before substitutionary atonement got popular. In many ways, this wild pagan-ness is older than most of the doctrines that many Christians consider core and essential doctrines.

Even as a young and very fervent Catholic lass, I loved me some Halloween. Usually I went as a cat or something. Even into my teens I went trick-or-treating, a custom that died only in high school when I discovered Halloween parties instead. Halloween was a sort of one-night Venetian Carnevale–just one night out of the year when expectations were up-ended, when I could act out, eat ridiculously unhealthy things, and be foolish, and nobody would judge because we were all too busy having fun. I didn’t go in for the pranks and minor vandalism that some did, but the rest of it was mine, all mine.

I didn’t see the holiday as incompatible at all with my faith. Rather, I saw the holiday as a necessary blowing off of steam before the more somber day to follow on November 1st. It was a “Night on Bald Mountain” that ended just like in Fantasia with the ringing of church bells.

I admit it blows my mind to see the lengths that many Christians today will go to in order to sterilize and sanitize their faith. Their religion isn’t like those “other” religions, those other weird strange pagan bacchanalian religions. It’s stripped of its passion, its wildness, its touch of madness. Their faith demands straight lines, uniformity, eyes front, hands on 10 and 2 on the wheel. It demands sterility, celibacy, no hint of human passion or exuberance. It demands everything be shrink-wrapped, controlled, and safe. Passion and exuberance are risky; they are suspicious. They cannot be approached without considerable preparation in advance, and if they can be denied altogether, so much the better.

Such Christians know, though, that this festival is desirable to most people. So they try their best to imitate it. In the same way that vegetarians will sometimes reach for awful fake meats to somewhat sate their appetite for animal products, Christians are guilty often of trying to fake awesome things in a misguided attempt to tame them, to access a little of their magic without falling prey to the wildness they uneasily perceive within those ivy-strewn halls.

But the human spirit isn’t quite as easily controlled as that. We will have our passion, our wildness, our touch of madness. We see the efforts to tame and control Christianity and laugh at its “Harvest Festivals” and its demands that kids dress up not as Autobots and Spider-Men/Women and Darth Vader Princesses, but as saints from the Bible. In the same way that “Christian music” and “Christian movies” are just like regular music and movies except cheesier, more formulaic, and less passionate, in the same way that the adjective “Christian” has become a synonym for something that was once fun but has now been defanged and gutted to the point that it’s not even worth watching or doing, these attempts to turn Halloween into something nice and sterile–into something nice and safe–are destined to fail.

These “Harvest Festivals” will never be as fun as a wild night roaming a “haunted house” or dancing at a great party with dry-ice-festooned red cups in hand. These rooms of usually-mortified children dressed up as saints like they’re about to be in Christmas plays when they know their friends are superheroes and Darth Vader Princesses, reciting Bible verses when they know their friends are having near-hysterical amounts of fun during one of the greatest celebrations of the human spirit we’ve got right now, will never be anything but embarrassing, humiliating memories of how the adults tried their best to imitate the real thing–of how the adults, trying their best to flee the scary boogeyman of “Low Christianity,” ended up inadvertently making an even lower form of it.

Let’s hear it for wildness!

halloween
halloween (Photo credit: BEE FREE – PGrandicelli [the social bee])

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment