For 364 days of the year, parents lovingly and carefully reassure their children that there are no monsters under the bed, that the boogie man won’t jump out of the cupboard and that whatever happens, Mummy and Daddy will do their best to protect them from the nightmares of the world outside. Then, on the 31st October we chuck all that out of the window, get them to dress up as monsters, dead people or even the devil, and then encourage them to practice extortion on neighbours by demanding they give us treats or else!
Halloween, along with the westernised variations of other seasonal festivals such as Christmas and Easter, present Christians with a slight dilema: how much do we go along with the culture around us and how much do we stand out against it? There are three options: reject, receive or redeem.
Option one is to reject culture. We take the various cultural practices that don’t fit with our Christian worldview and throw them entirely out the window. We don’t join in any festivities and we have nothing to do with dressing up in costumes. At Christmas, we give Santa Claus a wide birth and Easter time is a chocolate and bunny free zone.
This approach comes from a desire to see Christians living distinct lives from the culture around us, so that we never fall into being ‘of the world’. The problem with this mindset is twofold. First, we distance ourselves from those whom we have been commissioned by Jesus to reach with the good news of Jesus. Second, it is easy for us to be misunderstood because people see what we do (or don’t do) but rarely hear the reasons why.
Option two is to receive culture. We accept the culture we live in and embrace it with open arms, even though it might be at odds with Christian principles and values. We dress up and go trick or treating with our kids, we carve scary faces in pumpkins and ride on ghost trains at Halloween fairs.
At the opposite end of the spectrum to the first approach, this idea is rooted in having a heart to engage with culture and contextualise the good news of Jesus. The problem is that it goes too far in the direction of being ‘in the world’. When we take on the practices of our culture without any filter or discretion, we end up sacrificing sound doctrine and biblical practice in order to be relevant. In the end, we loose the distinctiveness of being saved people in a sinful world.
The third option is to redeem culture. We hold Jesus and his word in highest authority, allowing it to shape and define our values and principles to be the children of God we have been called to be. Yet we are also free to take culture and redeem it in order to honour Jesus and draw alongside unbelievers. When we do this we welcome our neighbours who come trick or treating with goody bags that contain sweets but also a child-friendly summary of the good news (there are a number available from good Christian publishers). We carve crosses or the name ‘Jesus’ into pumpkins that we put in windows as a way of prompting questions from parents of visiting trick or treat-ers. We might occasionally host Light Parties for our neighbourhood that features dressing up as heroes or princesses but celebrate Jesus the light of the world. At Christmas time, we tell our children about the real Saint Nicholas (My Christmas Stocking: Filled with God’s Love is an excellent Christmas story book for this) and play make-believe that Saint Nicholas still leaves presents for them today, but we also explain how people have added to the story over the years 1. At Easter we unashamedly keep Jesus front and centre, making just as much of this celebration as we do for Christmas (decorations, celebration services at church, Bible story Easter hunts, Easter cards, etc).
Christians are to be in the world but not of the world. When we carefully and prayerfully seek to redeem culture, we keep biblically faithful living at the highest priority while still extending the life-giving and freedom-giving good news of Jesus to our lost family, friends and colleagues. This enables us to shine like stars in the relative blackness of the world we live in, but also be onside and within reaching distance of lost people in order to hold out Jesus and his word of life.
1. See this article for a more thorough run down of how to approach Santa Clause. This is also where I got the title ‘Reject, receive, redeem’ from!