"There will be candy and games for everyone,"
read the newsletter. "Children may attend dressed as their favorite Bible characters."
Rehoboth Baptist Church, "Atlanta's Exciting Metrochurch," obviously hoped to avoid two ingredients -- the occult and paganism -- in their "Halloween alternative" celebration. The occult part was easily dealt with. According to their church newsletter, they simply deleted all ghosts, witches, bats, and so on, producing the Halloween equivalent of caffeine-free diet Coke.
Paganism was a little harder to pin down.
The word "paganism," in Bible-believing Christian circles, serves mostly as a sinister catch-all for (1) the tendency to worship created things rather than the Creator and (2) the use of ritual, and statues, and incense in religion. The first is full-fledged paganism; the second, by Bible-only Christian reckoning, betrays an unfortunate pagan influence.
The whole "autumn festival" thing was itself of dim pagan origin. It hinted at ancient times when people observed the cycle of seasons with deep and mystical reverence. But did that make it inherently wrong? The broad brush negativity of the word "paganism" would seem to suggest a scorched pumpkin policy regarding Halloween.
Apparently, however, the folks at Rehoboth Baptist Church decided an "autumn festival," despite its pagan pedigree, seemed harmless. Maybe even fun. So, instead of no party at all, they would have a little fall festival of sorts come October 31st. As for the festivities themselves? Some Christian authors gave a thumbs down to practically every traditional Halloween activity because there was always some sense in which it "used to be pagan." Playing a few games, however, and passing out candy seemed fine. As for the masks and costumes and such, well... let's dress the kids up as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, as angels and Old Testament heroes!
Thus, the folks at Rehoboth did their best to separate the Halloween negatives from the Halloween positives.
Which brings us to how Rehoboth's "Halloween alternative" played some small part in my questions about Catholicism.
My wrestling with private interpretation vs. church authority had reached critical mass: in order to be fair, I had to look into Catholicism. Yet something -- a gut-level wariness regarding the Catholic Church -- made me very reluctant to move ahead. In the eyes of Bible-only Christians, the whole Catholic approach to walking the Christian walk and talking the Christian talk just didn't look right. It didn't feel Christian. Particularly, the "ritual, and statues, and incense" mentioned in the Bible Christian definition of paganism.
Anti-Catholic ministers assured us this intuition was not without merit. Catholicism, they said, looked and sounded and repulsed us the way it did precisely because it was, at best, borderline paganism.
The theory went like this: Long ago, when Druidic tribes and Norse villages were converted to the faith, something had to be done about their "old ways." On the one hand, festivals and sacred observances were the social framework of their civilization -- it was how they lived. On the other hand, much of this included worshipping false gods and appeasing ancestral spirits.
Had the missionary been from First Evangelical Christian Church, the prescription would have been "time to go cold turkey, fellas."
But, as the anti-Catholic theorist told it, the Catholics wanted to get as many converts as possible (to fill church offering baskets, I suppose). Compromises were struck and, as a result, new Christians were allowed to remain steeped in false practices. In time, the original Christian message and practice were smothered in pagan add-ons to the faith. Thus, the Catholic Church we see today is a strange hybrid of Christianity and paganism. One might reasonably question whether it is Christian at all.
That -- with a dash of Constantine -- is what we Bible-only Christians considered the unfortunate recipe for Catholicism. It went a long way toward accounting for why the cathedral down the street looked so strange to us.
The Catholics, however, told a different story. Pagan cultures were not completely bereft of truth -- some, in fact, were quite brilliant (the Greek philosophers, particularly). If these cultures possessed some degree of truth, it followed that their traditions would also tend to mix the edifying with the erroneous. Thus, when an entire culture was in the process of conversion to Christ, one ought to separate the harmful from the harmless -- difficult as that may be -- perhaps even putting a Christian spin on particular "old ways."
Take the old pagan form of Halloween, for example. What if a culture traditionally set aside this night to appease the spirits of their ancestors? A centuries-old habit of remembering one's extended parents is nothing to shake a stick at. And yet the practice of leaving gifts on your doorstep for the angry, wandering dead was definitely no longer kosher. Perhaps some rehabilitation was in order. What if the night was transformed into a time for remembering and honoring those who have gone before? As for the "peace offering" -- why not give the food and presents to the needy? Or even to the kids? And what about the festival itself? Well, it marked the shift from Fall to Winter -- a big deal in agrarian cultures. Some kind of celebration seemed inevitable and, hey, there's nothing wrong with treating yourself at the end of harvest season.
Now of these two approaches -- Bible-only "cold turkey" or Catholic "sift and evaluate" -- which was being practiced by Rehoboth Baptist Church?
Obviously, Rehoboth was working out its own "enculturation" with the local tribes. Was this with the secret motive of "If we let these people keep their silly Halloween we'll have more converts and bigger offerings to spend on our Family Life Center & Gymnasium?" Doubtful. Might such a compromise with paganism lead to a Halloween/Baptist hybrid -- Sunday morning services tainted by ritual, and statues, and jack-o-lanterns filled with incense? Rehoboth didn't seem to think so.
Rehoboth could not be accused of "turning pagan" on this account. Was it fair, then, simply to assume that the look and feel of Catholicism were due to similar compromises long, long ago? Not really. In fact, Bible Christians did not accept such loose reasoning when atheists claimed "The Christian 'resurrection story' is obviously a fabrication based on pagan myths about the death and rebirth of Osiris..." We would insist, "Similarity does not prove descent." The atheist was biased in his thinking. He would have to set aside his prejudice and stick with the facts if he wanted to make any real progress in truth.
Apparently, I would have to do myself the same favor regarding Catholicism.