I write a lot about how conservative my upbringing was, but in reality the household in which I was raised was on the more laid-back end of the morality spectrum when compared to the church communities in which we were involved. For example, I remember one year, when I was in maybe second or third grade, some parents at the Baptist private school I used to attend objected to the presence of Baby-Sitters Club books in the school’s library. I can’t imagine and still don’t know what their reasoning was, but the books were ultimately removed. Instead of joining in the book-banning, my mother rolled her eyes at the nonsense when we were alone.
Our somewhat clandestine (and very relative) liberalism carried over into darker matters as well, matters such as Halloween. When I was a child, my family loved Halloween--or at least, my siblings and I did, and my parents very kindly went along. We dressed up every year, sometimes spending weeks deciding on and designing our costumes, and brought home whole pillow-cases worth of candy each October 31st. Sadly, there are some churches that would disapprove of this. Some churches--and you can bet the one that housed the elementary school mentioned above is included on the list--think of Halloween as an evil celebration, a day of the Devil. They can be spotted fairly easily because they often replace the real fun of trick-or-treating with the pseudo-fun of what is usually called a “Harvest Festival”, which takes place on safely sanctified church grounds and exists to offer a more wholesome alternative to the night’s otherwise debaucherous activities. My parents, by contrast, once dressed me up as a devil. You can imagine how well that went over with the Baptists.
Even before I was old enough to trick-or-treat by myself, I knew, whether innately or having just absorbed it from my parents, that to think that something as silly as participating in Halloween was a spiritually dangerous practice was a bridge too far, maybe even for God. But I’m not writing this just to be a hater. Throw your Harvest Festival. Enjoy your carnival games and religious tracts. My problem is the underlying assumptions of which the “Halloween is evil” mentality is symptomatic: the idea that the source of evil is lurking outside of us, that it can be identified by what it looks like on the outside, and that it will almost by definition be related to the subject of death.
In Christian circles, or at least Evangelical ones, the belief that evil forces are trying to invade our hearts and minds is known as “spiritual warfare”. Many churches believe that these kinds of “battles” are going on around us all the time, with angels and demons fighting for people’s souls and, ultimately, power over heaven and earth, like a celestial Game of Thrones that we can’t see or feel. Some churches also believe that humans can participate in this “war” by using the powerful weapon of prayer. It’s kind of spooky. What’s spookier to me than the idea of angry invisible ghosties flying around my head at all times, though, is the idea of a whole bunch of people who think that by virtue of identifying as a Christian they’ve solidified their position on the side of good and need only not participate in the bad things around them in order to be morally pure. And how does one identify what is “bad”? Anything having to do with the aesthetics of death or decay seems to fit the bill, as well as anything that plays at our lizard-brain fears, like snakes (serpent in the garden, anyone?). It’s all about staying away from what is “scary”, which, to me, seems slightly illogical if we can assume that someone who believes in spiritual warfare also believes that God will be the ultimate victor.
Interestingly, the Christian church wasn’t--and still isn’t--always averse to the subject of death. Before there were these contemporary Halloween festivities there was All Saints Day, which, with some variations in the details depending on where and when you live(d), exists to make space for the honoring of those who have passed on and the contemplation of one’s own mortality. I’m not going to get deep into the history of the All Saints Day here, or how it morphed with and into different kinds of celebrations over time and through different cultures; that’s what Google is for. Rather, I want to spend a moment thinking about what a blessing the reflection on the reality of death can be.
Listen, we’re all gonna die. It’s not that it’s not sad when it happens, but it’s not an injustice, either, in and of itself. Unfortunately, many Christian traditions, including the one in which I grew up, actually see death as an unnatural thing because they believe it to be part of the punishment for sin. This is based in a reading of the Bible--a reading I personally believe is incorrect, or at least incomplete--that assumes humans’ original state was as immortal beings, and it was only Adam’s and Eve’s screwing up of the literally Edenic situation that doomed people to perish. Taking the theory further, those who believe this doctrine often also believe that being let into heaven via commitment to Jesus (i.e. salvation) is the reversal of the death curse because it means a person will once again live forever in paradise.
It’s a nice story, in its way, but I think it does more harm than good. It gives people who believe it a reason to be mad at and scared of the inevitable (which is not to say that anger and fear are not a natural part of the grieving process) and makes it very likely they will avoid coming to terms with something they’re going to have to deal with eventually. Death is scary to think about, but I believe that that fear needs to be faced, and that in doing so it can be reduced. In my experience, contemplating and coming to terms with the fact that there will be a moment in which my life will be over, in which it will all be done and there will be no more opportunities to fix what’s broken or to try something new, has made a more content and confident person out of me. I find myself more likely to do what I really want to do instead of what I think I “should” be doing, and I find myself able to more easily let go of circumstances and outcomes that aren’t ideal. If death approaches, indignance is a time-waster and must be saved for only the most significant of injustices.
I encourage you to consider your own death today, in addition to remembering those who have already died. It really is a valuable practice, which is somewhat proven by the fact that many religious traditions from around the world share some version of it. Don’t be afraid to dip a toe in the darkness; don’t stay always safe and cozy in the Harvest Festival world if you can help it. It is not the things that look appalling or grotesque on the outside that we need to stay away from, but rather the things that are too nice and neat and unfamiliar with life’s sorrows; those, I think, are the things that are not to be trusted.