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"There will be clowns, games, and plenty of candy," read the newsletter. "Children are encouraged to dress as their favorite biblical characters."


Typesetting a church newsletter at an Atlanta print shop, I found myself mulling over the "upcoming events" section. It included that year's "Halloween alternative" and, well... attempts to reconcile Bible Christian culture with Halloween hijinks can be pretty funny.

Rehoboth Baptist Church -- "Atlanta's Exciting Metrochurch" -- obviously hoped to avoid two Halloween ingredients: the occult and paganism. The occult part was easy enough: they simply deleted all ghosts, witches, bats, and so on (producing the Halloween equivalent of caffeine-free diet Coke). Paganism, however, was a bit more elusive.

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) humanity's weakness for ritual and statues and incense in religion -- the latter being an approach to worship which Bible-only Christians, by and large, find quite alien.

This view of paganism, resembling an Iron Maiden album cover, is so broad brush that the Bible-only Christian never thinks to ask, "Is all pagan culture bad? Is Plato off-limits? Should I boycott Homer?" Let's face it: all non-Christian people in the ancient world were considered pagans. If you were to condemn everything they did, you might easily denounce activities and beliefs that are simply "human".

Which brings us back to Halloween at Atlanta's Exciting Metrochurch:

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. Did that make it inherently wrong? The folks at Rehoboth Baptist Church apparently decided surgery was unnecessary. An "autumn festival", while it did sound kind of pagan, seemed harmless, maybe even healthy. And, though a visiting minister might have pointed out apple-bobbing was once tied to fortune telling or something, it really didn't seem to be used for that sort of thing anymore. As for the masks and costumes and such, well... let's dress the kids up as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Mary Magdalen and effeminate Precious Moments angels!

Thus, the folks at Rehoboth did their best to sift through the Halloween negatives and the Halloween positives.

And, in doing so, they were behaving like a bunch of Catholics. Which brings us to how Rehoboth's "Halloween alternative" played a part in with my questions about Catholicism.

Remember part two of the Bible-only Christian definition of "paganism" -- the ritual, and statues, and incense? Obviously, if one regards such things with suspicion, one is not exactly comfy with Catholicism, the official home of ritual, and statues, and incense. My wrestling with private interpretation vs. church authority had led me to check into the "truth claims" of Catholicism. Yet a built-in Bible-only Christian negativity toward Catholicism made me quite reluctant to move ahead.

In the eyes of Bible-only Christians -- and I had been one for the previous ten years -- the whole Catholic approach to walking the Christian walk and talking the Christian talk just didn't look right. It didn't feel Christian. 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 was that the "errors of Catholicism" came about when the Church began to compromise with pagan cultures. 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, some of this involved worshipping false gods and appeasing the spirits of the dead.

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, some might suggest). Compromises were struck and, as a result, new Christians were allowed to remain steeped in false practices. In time, Catholicism itself became a strange hybrid, the original Christian message and practice smothered by pagan add-ons to the faith. Thus, we find ourselves wary of the Catholics today, questioning whether their form of Christianity is really Christian at all.

That was the Bible-believing Christian perspective. It went a long way toward accounting for why Catholicism -- in both ritual and belief -- looked so strange to us.

The Catholic Church, however, told the story differently. Pagan cultures were not completely bereft of truth -- some, in fact, were quite brilliant (see Plato, for a start). It would follow that, if these cultures possessed some degree of truth, then their practices would also tend to mix the edifying with the eroneous. Thus, in welcoming them to the Christian fold, one had 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? You don't want to throw out their centuries-old habit of honoring the dead. What if the night is transformed into a time for remembering and honoring those who have gone on to the Lord? And the practice of leaving peace offerings on the doorstep for the angry, wandering deceased? Definitely, no longer kosher. But how about giving all that food and all those presents to the needy? Or even to the kids? And what about the festival itself? Well, it marked the shift from Summer to Fall, which was a big deal in agrarian cultures. Keep it, though in an innocous form. Some kind of celebration seems inevitable and there's nothing wrong with celebrating the end of harvest season.

Now of these two approaches -- Bible-Christian "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 a secret motive of "if we let these people keep their silly Halloween we'll have more converts and bigger offerings on Sunday"? Doubtful. Might this compromise with paganism lead to a Halloween/Baptist hybrid -- tainting the Baptist Sunday morning service with incense-filled jack-o-lanterns? Rehoboth didn't seem to think so.

Rehoboth could not be accused of "turning pagan" on this account. Was it fair, then, to make such off-the-hip assumptions about Catholicism? Could I really say the use of ritual, statues, and incense was a slippery slope to idolatry? Should a Bible-only aversion to the look of Catholicism keep me from evaluating what Catholicism actually says?