Friday, October 05, 2007

HELL ON EARTH: A Sunday Paper Editorial

One of my favorite books on children and religion is Do Children Need Religion? by Martha Fay (Pantheon Books, 1993; paperback edition re-titled Children and Religion: Making Choices in a Secular Age). The book includes a chapter on holidays, ritual, and tradition.

Approaching the six or seven weeks between Thanksgiving and
New Year’s that has come to be called “the holiday season,” …
a friend invited me to attend a session of a support group of
corporate women who meet periodically to discuss the difficulties
of combining motherhood with full-time work outside the home.
The subject for this meeting, which took place in mid-autumn,
was “How Important Is a Spiritual Life?” but … as one woman
after another spoke, it became obvious that what they really
wanted to talk about was Halloween, which had just passed a few
days before.

Far from being a minor event, the children’s holiday appeared
to have taken on enormous significance in the lives of these
mothers, and their descriptions of the preparations and the
actual event were delivered with the sort of animation and
detail women traditionally reserve for tales of love or child-
birth. One after another, they told how their children had
decided what they were going to “be” for Halloween, how they,
the mothers, had then assembled or sewn the appropriate
costumes, how they had left work early or made special
arrangements with the baby-sitter to take the child trick-
or-treating. It was clear that this holiday satisfied these
women in a way no other celebration did and eventually the
conversation shifted toward why that should be. One
woman suggested that it was because Halloween was what
she called a “true children’s day”; second, that the element
of make-believe made it especially fun; and a third, that,
unlike Thanksgiving, for example, it did not entail messy
involvement with one’s troublesome extended family. …
And finally, one woman said that what she liked about it was
that it was a purely secular holiday—that, unlike Easter or
Christmas or Passover, it did not make you feel uncomfortable
about choices not made.

Everyone around the table nodded in agreement. Then I
noticed a few faces registering confusion as their owners
struggled to recall just where this wonderful holiday did
come from. Feeling something of a pedant, … I volunteered
that while it was technically not a religious feast itself,
Halloween did derive from one, being the even of All Saints’
(or All Hallows’) Day in the Christian calendar … . The
goblins and ghosts, devils and broom-riding witches, now
rapidly being displaced by fairy princesses, astronauts, and
Ninja Turtles, refer to a long tradition of caricature of the
unholy dead, as well as to Celtic pagan traditions that
antedate Christianity and have to do with the onset of winter’s
darkness and the unleashing of emotions customarily
repressed. This bit of information was politely received, but
generated no further discussion. Not only were these women
not much interested in Halloween’s religious antecedents;
there could be little doubt but that their sense of the holiday
as a thoroughly secular one was both an active preference
and a proper gauge of general sentiment. (pp. 137-139)

Fay adds in a footnote, “Ironically, while the majority of Christians celebrate Halloween without a thought to its once considerable religious significance, the Jewish day school one of my friends’ children attends sends a note home every October to remind parents that it is a Christian holiday and that their children should not be participating in it.”

There are, of course, other groups besides Jews who object to Halloween. Many conservative Christians who may never have heard of All Saints’ Day see in Halloween an orgiastic celebration of death, evil, perversion, witchcraft and Satanism, and take a firm stand with their children: no Halloween.

In my book Offering the Gospel to Children (Cowley Publications, 1992), I mentioned this attitude:

There are Christian bodies and Christian families that will not
allow their children to participate in Halloween at all, because
of its ancient connections with paganism and its continuing
association with devils, witches, and monsters. These Christians
are frightened of letting their children participate in such
traditions, in the same way some other parents are afraid of
letting the children play with toy guns. They fear that permitting
children to play with a symbol of evil—the gun or the devil
mask—signals to them that we approve of the evil itself, and
removes all restraints on its seductive powers.

But by censoring children’s imaginative lives, by modeling fear
and denial instead of an imaginative approach to our own
destructive impulses, we fail to help our children. We are
warning them that we ourselves are so frightened of our own
aggression that we cannot face it or offer hope that it can be
tamed. This realization may be more frightening to children
than the fear they certainly feel as they themselves play with
and test these symbols of evil, and find their own response.
Censorship may also, of course, have the opposite effect of
endowing these ideas and figures with the fascination of
forbidden fruit.

I know several evangelical churches in New Haven that bypass Halloween in this way, substituting a harvest festival (or in one case a “Hallelujah party!”) with entirely wholesome and happy themes.

In my book, I suggest we can do something much more nuanced, and invite children into a dramatized confrontation with evil, via a “Bible Halloween funhouse” in which we dramatically retell our story, including the very real Biblical element of the Evil One, who dogs us on our journey, meddles with God’s plan, and attempts to seduce us with lies and false promises. Some parts of the story are scary (pitch darkness in a church stairwell at the beginning of the journey, for the telling of the creation story); some are exciting (crossing the Red Sea and slamming the door (draped with plastic sheeting to resemble the “walls of water”) on Satan as he attempts to follow; some are inspiring (standing at the font to renounce Satan, and watching him fall helpless to the floor); some are solemn and serious (anticipating our own death, by adding a cross to a graveyard scene and passing behind a curtain). At the end, we bind Satan and cast him away,[1] each child adds a “saint” figure to a feltboard scene of the New Jerusalem, and we march away singing.

Well, I’m not alone. The Bible Halloween funhouse is an idea whose time has come.

“Shake your city with the most ‘in-your-face, high-flyin’, no denyin’, death-defyin’, Satan-be-cryin’, keep-ya-from-fryin’, theatrical stylin’, no holds barred, cutting-edge’ evangelism tool of the new millennium!” shouts the web site of Colorado’s New Destiny Christian Center, whose pastor, the Rev. Keenan Roberts, invented the Hell House around ten years ago and now markets it online for $299.00. “Piece by piece, prop by prop, costume by costume—the master plan is organized in a comprehensive manual. A video of what Hell House in action looks like and a special-effects compact disc audio master are also included. This sizzling evangelism event is designed to capture the attention of our sight and sound culture!”

Costumed demons guide visitors through five scenes: “the funeral of a young homosexual male who believed the born gay lie and died of AIDS;” “a riveting reenactment of a clinical abortion;” “a satanic ritual involving a human sacrifice;” “a drunk-driving accident where a father realizes he has just killed his own family;” and a teen suicide. Then, in scene six, “the tour experiences the agony of the sights, sounds and smells of hell as well as Satan himself declaring that all of what the tour has seen in Hell House is his handiwork. They are rescued out of hell by heaven’s angels who escort them to scene seven which is heaven.” There, “the tour meets Jesus, sees the glory and splendor of heaven and is given the opportunity to pray the prayer of salvation.”

Additional scenes, available separately, include “Date Rape,” “Gay Wedding,” “Rave” (“underground world of rave clubs and drug usage”) another drunk driving scene—this time the guilty parties are teens, “buzzed after the prom”—domestic abuse, and a school shooting.

Even allowing for the predictable obsession of the right-wing churches with sexuality and abortion, the scenes seem to be picked as much for their capacity to shock as for their moral seriousness. I doubt, for example, that Satanism and human sacrifice are a real temptation for American teens; meanwhile there is no mention of such real-life issues as competitiveness, jealousy, cheating, lying, and character assassination, that can be truly poisonous in the worlds of school, sports, and social relationships. I would be interested to find out if the “school shooting” scene raises the issues of bullying as a common, and serious, occasion of sin, or whether the shooters are merely depicted as devils incarnate and the innocent victims as Christian martyrs, as in the (apparently inaccurate) story of one of the victims of the Columbine tragedy.

Hell House is a high-tech version of the hellfire-and-damnation preaching that has long characterized certain branches of Christianity. True to that tradition, it reduces the Good News of Jesus Christ to the message that the meaning of salvation is to avoid, or be rescued from, horrifying, disgusting, and frightening experiences, and from the bad and evil spirits (and their human minions) who would try to harm us outright, or entice us into harm under the guise of fun or thrills or self-fulfillment or whatever. It does not appear as if any moral distinction is even made between those horrifying experiences that just happen to us (domestic violence of which we are the victims); those which we choose, knowing they are wrong (drunk driving); those into which we fall in desperation (suicide); and those into which we (supposedly) might be tempted through our own ignorance and the evil designs of others (homosexuality, in their view). All of it is just bad: horrifying, frightening, disgusting.

The most horrifying, frightening and disgusting prospect of all is eternal damnation, and that is the one thing we can surely avoid, by accepting Jesus.

And this, it seems, is Jesus’ only purpose, and his only achievement. Apparently he did not preach, or teach, or heal; he did not call disciples, rebuke the religious establishment, or feed the five thousand; he did not wash his disciples’ feet, touch lepers, or eat with the outcast; he may as well not have risen from the dead: all he did was reveal to us the magic words that will infallibly rescue us from horrors beyond our imagining. Some day he will, with triumphant glee, send all the bad guys to suffer the revolting and terrifying punishments that they had tried to visit on us, the saved.

How much of scripture—how much of the riches of the faith given to the saints—these people seem to be missing: how narrow (and ultimately uninteresting!) their Good News, so that the way to make it appealing is to contrast it so vividly to the Bad News, to scare people into church, and then to package church as entertainment, hardly distinguishable (with its amplified music and electronic special effects and its microphone-clutching worship leaders) from the malls and rock concerts and raves that are portrayed as the source of so much evil.

Make no mistake: this is now what many intelligent secular people imagine when they hear the words “Christian,” “salvation,” “faith,” “Bible,” and “evangelism.”

When does a distorted and debased version of the Gospel, and of church, become so problematic that we must flat-out denounce it, even though it claims the name of Jesus Christ? Do we just loftily ignore it, and hope it somehow goes away; or do we confront it—and if so, how? My daughter (a candidate for ordination) recently said to me, “If I couldn’t be in an Episcopal church, I would be much more comfortable in an egalitarian conservative Jewish synagogue than in a fundamentalist Christian church, in spite of the fact that the most important article of my faith is one that I supposedly share with the fundamentalist Christians and not with the Jews.” I heartily agreed with her. Some of this is a matter of culture, class and education. But not all. I really believe they are preaching a different Jesus than the one I find in the Bible. When does the time come to say so—publicly, loudly, and often?

(c) 2007 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard. All rights reserved.


[1] This is not in the book; we added it some years after the book was published. For more information about the Bible Halloween funhouse, feel free to give me a call.

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2 Comments:

At 9:40 AM, Anonymous Dave S. said...

We just received your Sunday Paper editorial and read it over. For someone who was raised in a “fundamentalist” church and is now attending an Episcopal parish, much of what you said made sense. Certainly the “New Destiny Christian Center” has a somewhat twisted view of bringing souls to Christ, and the alternative that you’ve come up with sounds really good. That said, the last paragraph of the piece was a bit of a shocker. To begin with, I think your daughter has set up a strange sort of dichotomy between the fear-mongering fundamentalists and the enlightened Episcopalians. Has she never heard of anything in between? Yes, I know she was setting up a choice for herself, but to say that the “false gospel” of the New Destiny church is further from the Cross than the “egalitarian conservative Jewish synagogue” is rather mind-boggling, considering that the latter has (at least not yet) embraced “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” as part of their theology. Or would she be evangelizing the synagogue members? Seems to me that she could do those New Destiny people a lot of good by “confronting” their misguided theology instead.
One more thing, and I’ll make this brief: since you mentioned two versions of Jesus, I think it should also be pointed out that in our own church there seems to be two versions of the Gospel as well. One preaches a theology of fall, redemption and salvation offered to all through the work of the Cross, while another preaches something quite different—and unfortunately we’ve heard quite a bit of it from many of our Episcopal leaders, including the Presiding Bishop. If you need examples, I’d gladly supply some.

 
At 10:56 AM, Blogger Grace said...

To begin with, I think your daughter has set up a strange sort of dichotomy between the fear-mongering fundamentalists and the enlightened Episcopalians. Has she never heard of anything in between? Yes, I know she was setting up a choice for herself, but to say that the “false gospel” of the New Destiny church is further from the Cross than the “egalitarian conservative Jewish synagogue” is rather mind-boggling, considering that the latter has (at least not yet) embraced “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” as part of their theology.

That was my whole point, Dave - that despite our (theoretical) agreement on basic tenets of theology, the fundamentalist church has strayed so far from what I see as the central Christian heritage that I, personally, would be unable to find any significant spiritual nourishment or community there. By the way, no, I don't see a dichotomy, but rather a continuum; having gone to an ecumenical divinity school, I know plenty of people who fall between me and what you might think of as a "hard-core" fundamentalist, liturgically, spiritually, theologically, and in terms of church polity. If the Episcopal Church didn't exist, I would presumably a Lutheran, UCC or Methodist. But, as someone whose best friend growing up was (and is) active and committed in her Jewish faith, I see many similarities between the Episcopal church and the mainstream of American Judaism - emphasis on liturgy, the ritual year, pursuit of tolerance and diversity, and intellectual inquiry, in particular - that are, to me, precious and indispensable parts of my Christian heritage, and which are not only totally lacking in the fundamentalist churches today, but the fundamentalist mindset is actively hostile to them.

No, I would not be evangelizing the people in the synagogue, but I can't see myself trying to "convert" the people at New Destiny either, because within seconds of stepping inside the door I would be so incoherent with fury that there would be no point.

in our own church there seems to be two versions of the Gospel as well. One preaches a theology of fall, redemption and salvation offered to all through the work of the Cross, while another preaches something quite different—and unfortunately we’ve heard quite a bit of it from many of our Episcopal leaders, including the Presiding Bishop.

I'm all about fall, redemption and salvation offered to all through the work of the Cross. I have no significant intellectual problems reciting the Nicene Creed. The Incarnation is at the heart of my theology. And I wholeheartedly support the Presiding Bishop when she reminds TEC and the Anglican Communion that the Jesus who died and rose again for us welcomes ALL to the table, and to FULL participation in the Body of Christ. (Don't want to derail the conversation, but you're welcome to email me if you want to continue this part of it - gracepburson at gmail dot com.)

 

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