Thursday, October 31, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, October 31, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Halloween and the Great Spiritual Conflict: Paganism is Now Big Business in the US
Well over 100 ago, Herman Bavinck, a major Dutch theologian, predicted that the 20th century would witness a giant conflict of spirits, a great spiritual battle. That was, indeed, characteristic of the 20th century. But it is, if anything, even more characteristic of our own times, in the 21st century. And there is no date more symbolic of that great moral battle, that great spiritual confusion and conflict, than October the 31st, celebrated by most in our society as the day called Halloween.
Halloween should impress itself upon the Christian conscience. We should be very aware of dangers, old and new. And as Christian parents and Christian churches think through the issues of Halloween, we have to understand that it really is a big issue in this society. We are talking about $8.8 billion expected to be spent on Halloween costumes and other Halloween events this year. We're looking at the fact that Halloween is now a major American holiday. And it's not by accident that it has become so, because it is not just the candy and the costumes, it is the spirit of confusion, even a spiritual conflict, that marks Halloween and is essential to its popularity, at least in many sectors of our society.
A few years ago, historian Nicholas Rogers wrote, "Halloween is currently the second most important party night in North America. In terms of its retail potential, it is second only to Christmas. This commercialism," he said, "fortifies its significance as a time of public license, a custom-designed opportunity to have a blast. Regardless of its spiritual complications, Halloween is big business." But that's quite a clause, "regardless of its spiritual complications," because the spiritual complications loom large.
About a year ago, Regina Hansen, identified as Master Lecturer of Rhetoric at Boston University's College of General Studies, said, "For its part, the secular celebration of Halloween, with its costumes and decorations, seasonal theme parks and annual television specials, continues to resonate with primal themes, darkness and fear, harvest and nourishment, courtship and sex, the allure and rejection of the supernatural. It continues," speaking of Halloween, she said, "to be a holiday that emphasizes community. How else," she said, “to explain all those people waiting at their doors to give free candy to strangers?" If only the essence of the holiday really did come down to community.
Christians thinking about Halloween have to look to the past, the present, and the future. Looking at the past, we recognize that Halloween, like every other major celebration on the calendar, has a history. And that history is pagan when it comes to Halloween. No real surprise there. But I think what might surprise many Christians is to know the kind of pagan background that was invoked with Halloween. The pagan roots of the holiday are very well-documented. Halloween is rooted in the Celtic festival of Samhain, which came at summer's end.
As historian Nicholas Rogers explains, "Paired with the feast of Beltane, which celebrated the life-generating powers of the sun, Samhain beckoned to winter and the dark nights ahead." Now, scholars dispute whether that particular holiday was celebrated as a festival of the dead, but the pagan roots of the festival are beyond dispute. Questions of human and animal sacrifices and various occultic sexual practices continue again as matters of historical debate, but the reality of the celebration as an occultic festival focused on the changing of seasons was undoubtedly foundational to the very idea of what became Halloween in the first place. As Rogers, the historian, commented, "The basic idea of the festival was that it was and is a festival of the dead and a time of supernatural intensity heralding the onset of winter."
Harold Myra, writing just a generation ago but pointing backwards to when Halloween became a major part of American society, he wrote, "More than 1,000 years ago, Christians confronted pagan rites appeasing the lord of death and evil spirits. Halloween's unsavory beginnings preceded Christ's birth when the Druids, in what is now Britain and France, observed the end of summer with sacrifices to the gods. It was the beginning of the Celtic year and they believed Samhain, the Lord of Death, sent evil spirits abroad to attack humans, who could escape only by assuming disguises and looking like evil spirits themselves." Harold Myra went on to summarize, "Most of our Halloween practices can be traced back to the old pagan rites and superstitions."
But that's the past. What about the present? Again, perhaps the most important issue when many American businesses think about Halloween is that figure of $8.8 billion expected to be spent on the holiday this year. Neil McCarthy, writing at Forbes, tells us just this week that the National Retail Federation is projecting annual spending per capita when it comes to Halloween at $86.26. McCarthy summarized, "Even though that sum seems pretty high, costs really pile up quickly with people splurging on costumes for themselves and their pets, booze, parties, trips to haunted houses and pumpkins, among other things. Like in previous years, U.S. men are predicted to spend the most on spooky merchandise. That's $96.13 compared to $76.92 for women."
But considering the present again, one of the most interesting developments over the last several decades has been the re-embrace of the pagan roots as the current meaning of Halloween. The fact is that when I was a child, there was virtually no recognition, no public acknowledgement of the pagan roots, nor of any kind of occultic practices associated with Halloween. But that was then, and this is now. And now, major newspapers in Chicago, in San Francisco, in Atlanta, in New York, and beyond, they are reporting on Halloween as an occultic cultic set of practices and as an occultic holiday right now.
The Resurgence of Paganism: What the Revival of Witchcraft Reveals about the New American Spirituality
Sunday's edition of The Chicago Tribune had a full-page article entitled "Craving Magic." The subhead in the article: "As interest in witchcraft is propelled by spirituality, feminism, and digital access, a Chicago witch meetup grows to over 400 members after just two years." The article is by reporter Nara Schoenberg, and she writes, "Standing hand in hand, they form a circle around a smooth black cauldron, their voices letting off a reverberating hum as they repeat, 'Ohm. Ohm. Ohm.' Outside, twilight is approaching. Inside the Malliway Bros. witchcraft shop in Rogers Park, candles burn and the smell of incense hangs in the air." Later in the article, we are told that this was the ritual performed earlier this month by the Witches' Conclave Meetup, "one of many signs that witchcraft is gaining ground, particularly among millennials in search of spiritual meaning."
The article goes on: "The Witches' Conclave, which has grown to more than 430 members in less than three years, moved to a larger space in August after its workshops repeatedly sold out overnight. The hashtag," we are told, "#witchesofinstagram is tearing through social media, with over 3.4 million posts. Witchcraft provisions," the article continues, "are available via a range of monthly subscription boxes, which have in turn spawned YouTube unboxing videos garnering as many as 190,000 views."
Later, we are told that this particular phenomenon is now represented by the fact that Urban Outfitters sells so-called "ritual kits" with sage, love oil, and crystals. Amara Dulcis, identified as manager of Chicago's Alchemy Arts occult supply store said, "There is absolutely a rise in interest, mostly among young people." Schoenberg reports, "The newcomers go for spells, crystals, and forms of divination such as tarot cards. They're not typically involved in religions like Wicca, but they may be interested in learning about them."
Looking at the totality of these articles, what we see, city by city, paper by paper, is the fact that there is, on the one hand, something of a rather superficial attachment to this resurgence of witchcraft, but there is also a deeper identification with the ancient paganism of Wicca. And you really have a mash of modern feminism, and of course, gender theory, and beyond that, the LGBTQ revolution and modern sexuality, and of course, occultic practices, and all of this comes to a culmination on the date of October the 31st. But of course, this isn't limited to the day called Halloween. Halloween is just the great American national festival at the intersection of all of these rather dark developments.
That modern interest in witchcraft turns out to be a complicated picture. One authority cited within the Chicago Tribune article said, "Witchcraft is so super-sensory. Not only is it honoring nature and the body, but there are beautiful objects and candles, and this really creative experience that you're having because you're crafting your altar. Many of us use tools like tarot cards and beautiful flowers. It's a really lush experience that is very tactile and just aesthetically stimulating." That's an honest, candid, and extremely revealing statement by someone who represents this new interest in witchcraft. You will notice that it is tactile, that it is aesthetic, but it's a dark aesthetic. And you will also note the reference to the fact that the individual is crafting his or her own altar. What does that say? Well, it says just what you think it says.
But modern witchcraft in the United States also points to the fact that at least some of it is primarily ideological, and it was driven by Second Wave feminism. The Chicago Tribune article gets to this, telling us: "Second Wave feminists used witch iconography, and a group called Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H.), which famously put a hex on the New York Stock Exchange."
The Tribune article goes on to describe the meeting of the Witch Conclave Meetup, but it's also interesting that it tells us how it ended. After all of the rituals which involved "writing down a question on a little piece of paper, something participants want to know the truth about, " the leader “sprinkled the pieces of paper with a mysterious gray powder and each person wraps his or her paper and parchment before submerging it in a cauldron containing flower petals, botanicals, spit, and human hair."
Now, just hang on to that when you consider the next sentence: "When the ritual ends, that participants snack on Oreos and rice crackers. The mood is upbeat, with several people saying that public interest in witchcraft still hadn't peaked." That's right, they go from a cauldron that was bubbling with flower petals, botanicals, spit, and human hair, to eating Oreos and rice crackers. I'm just going to guess that Nabisco is not ready to feature that in their next Oreos commercial.
Meanwhile, The New York Times ran an article just in the last few days entitled, "No Need for a Hunt: Awash With Witches." Jessica Bennett is the reporter, "At protests, in books, and on screen, they're everywhere, and it's about more than spells." Bennett tells us, "51 years ago, a group of protesters calling themselves WITCH," you remember that acronym from the Chicago story, "they staged a Halloween hex on Wall Street dressed in all black with long peaked hats. The women sneaked through the narrow streets of Downtown Manhattan late into the night, making their way to the entrance to the New York Stock Exchange where they oozed glue into the latches of doors. The next morning, the male bankers couldn't get in and the Dow reportedly fell a full 13 points."
But the article is interesting because it cites one of the persons involved in that even, Robin Morgan. Remember, the event took place 41 years ago. But looking back, she said, "We didn't consider ourselves real witches, but we used the moniker because of what it represented, a powerful woman." But the whole point of The New York Times article is that that was that feminist appropriation of witchcraft four decades ago. But there are real witches now. As The Times reports, "Today there might be no need to sneak around. Real witches are roaming among us, and they're seemingly everywhere. Haven't you noticed?"
Speaking about the modern resurgence of witchcraft, The Times reports, "Witches are your millennial co-workers doing tarot card readings on their lunch breaks and professional colleagues encouraging you to join them for a New Moon ceremony aimed at career success. Witches are influencers who use the hashtag #WitchesOfInstagram to share horoscopes, spells, and memes. And they're anti-Trump activists carrying signs that say 'Hex the patriarchy.'"
"We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren't able to burn." That's one of the mottos. "Witches are panelists, podcasters, members of the Wing, which calls itself a coven, and in-house residents at Manhattan hotels. And some might say that one is even a presidential candidate, Marianne Williamson." Far later in the article I read: "There is no perfect way of tracking witches in America, but we do know that Wicca, the religion that has roots, at least partly, in 1950s Britain with a retired civil servant named Gerald Gardner who once tried to hex Hitler, is more popular than ever according to a number of studies. Not all witches are Wiccan, some are pagan, and not all Wiccans are pagans, practice witchcraft. But you get the point." Indeed, we do get the point.
But Christians will be most interested in a paragraph that comes later in the article: "Additionally, Americans of all ages and genders are more spiritual than ever. According to a 2017 survey from the Pew Research Center that examined New Age beliefs, 60% of Americans believe in one or more of the following: psychics, astrology, the presence of spiritual energy in inanimate objects. More than a quarter of adults in the United States say they think of themselves as spiritual but not religious."
So, in worldview analysis from a biblical worldview, we are just looking again at the fact that is underlined of the basic spiritual reality of what it means to be human. Made in God's image, we cannot be non-spiritual beings. The question is, what will we worship? What will be this shape of that spirituality? The fact is that we are looking at a radical increase in the United States of those whose spirituality, and thus their deepest beliefs and their personal practices, are leaning deeply into paganism. Even if that paganism is now dressed up, in the age of Instagram, as something more cool than threatening, Christians understand there is no such reality. There is no paganism that is merely cool and not threatening, particularly in theological terms.
Why Does Culture Celebrate Evil? The Allure of Darkness and the Fear of Death
But then, something else that Christians need to recognize is the celebration of not only death, but the dead, that frames so much of the Halloween celebration, and not only that, even tourism around the world. The Travel section of Sunday's edition of The Chicago Tribune included another full-page article, this one with the headline, "Celebrating Day of the Dead." The subhead: "An eternal fascination with skeletons in Mexico City." David Hammond is the reporter.
What makes this story of particular interest to Christians in the United States and elsewhere is that, though this phenomenon is primarily identified first with a practice in Mexico, this isn't a story that stays in Mexico. It has become more mainstreamed in American society, and many American Halloween costumes, and furthermore, party things, are actually drawn from the Day of the Dead as historically celebrated or commemorated in Mexico.
David Hammond, explaining the historical roots of the Day of the Dead, says it goes back all the way to the age of Montezuma and other Aztec rulers. He went on to explain: "The skull display is reminiscent of the grisly arrays on Aztec skull racks, huge wooden frames holding the impaled heads of enemies or sacrificial victims." But those skull racks that hearken back even to the practice of human sacrifice, they are now being translated into a cultural celebration, not only in Mexico, but in many parts of the United States as well.
The Tribune article is quite candid to identify the fact that there is even a patron saint of sorts for the Day of the Dead, that would be Santa Muerte, and she is understood to be a spiritual figure who is both beloved and feared. Hammond writes, "For devotees of Santa Muerte — whom they address as Bony Lady, Pretty One, Little Girl and other endearing diminutives — this sacred space provides a magical, macabre connection with the supernatural. The Bony Lady is known for taking care of business, which may include snaring a lover or whacking a competitor."
But as Christians consider the world around us, both as a cultural challenge, as an environmental context, and as a missiological opportunity, it is important for us to understand how this terrain is being reshaped by this resurgence of paganism. Again, that New York Times article was really making the primary point that witchcraft and other dimensions of paganism are now becoming so common in America that they are not only big business, but they're basically identified right in a neighborhood near you, or a cubicle near yours.
The Times article cites Helen Berger, a sociologist at Brandeis University and the author of the book, Solitary Pagans: Contemporary Witches, Wiccans, and Others Who Practice Alone. She said, "We're in a period of great transition. We're all very aware of it. There's an increase of globalization, an enormous amount of polarization, and for many of these young people, this spirituality is speaking to them."
So that's actually a very important point for Christians to consider. What would it mean that this particular shape of dark spirituality is speaking to so many young people today? Perhaps it is because they are honestly aware of a deep darkness of the reality of evil. And here's something the biblical worldview reminds us of: evil is attractive. Evil is so attractive that, in a fallen world, it can appear as beautiful and as inherently seductive. This is something that Christians have to recognize. This is why we have to keep reminding ourselves in Scripture that evil is not only real, it is evil precisely because it is totally opposed to God.
But we also need to remind ourselves that the biblical worldview tells us that evil is opportunistic. We are told that sin is crouching at the door. And when you're looking at Halloween, especially in its re-paganized guise in contemporary America, you are looking at the fact that sin is crouching at the door, and it's right there in the party invitation, and it is in the symbolism and the iconography of modern Halloween. And just think about this, when it comes to your family and your children, some of that iconography and that explicit paganism is now becoming mainstreamed in a consumer society such that it just might be coming home in the bag of candy that is carried by your own child on Halloween night.
Thinking about the allure of darkness, this is not new in human history, but it is newly indicative of the spiritual condition of the society around us. This can be measured simply by looking at just the dimension of American cinema. If you were to go back a half-century, you would look at cinematic productions, at movies, that would indeed feature dark themes, but in a very limited and indirect way. Camera angles and narrative scripts, and of course what was allowed to take place within the frame of the camera, that was extremely limited, not only by legal concerns, but also by the pressure of a society. Even going back to the high tension of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, there was really no kind of hint of the occult, even in the dark films dealing with evil, and danger, and death, and threat. It was all indirect, and it was not occult.
That began to change in the 1970s in American cinema. By the time you fast forward to the present decade, cinema in the United States and elsewhere, not only outside the frame, but inside the camera frame, now deals explicitly with the most acute occultic practices, and furthermore, with the most extreme forms of violence and the most graphic representations of death. What would not have been allowed in America a half-century ago is now, often, a vast commercial success. Not only that, many American parents let their children, especially their teenage offspring, go to those movies without recognizing that those movies are, themselves, not only a celebration of evil opposed to God, but they are also deeply frightening in such a way that darkness seems to gain an advantage. The narrative storyline is something that gets imprinted upon the heart, and of course, among the nightmares as well.
Another issue that Christians should consider is the imagination, the human imagination when it comes to evil. There is no doubt that when you are looking at Halloween these days, you are looking at a massive representation of artistry, creativity, and imagination. But Christians have to step back and say that actually turns out to be a problem, not something that should be a matter of cultural pride. When you're looking at imagination set loose upon the contemplation of evil, you are looking exactly at what the Bible warns against.
One Little Word Shall Fell Him: The Certainty of Christ’s Triumph over Sin and Death
But Christians looking at Halloween and understanding the theological and spiritual dimensions, do need to step back and understand that we are looking at a society that is trying very seriously, even commercially, to tell us something. It is telling us that, even in a secularized age, we are a society made up of people who still have a fascination with death because we fear death. We understand the sentence of mortality, and death itself is the great unanswered question for most people alive today.
And it is the Christian biblical worldview alone that can explain death, and it is the Gospel of Jesus Christ alone that can explain how we can survive even death. This is also where we need to look to the Bible and understand that the right balance in understanding, or discussing, or conceiving these issues is actually what is found in Scripture. You will notice the candor of Scripture, first of all, on mortality and death. You will also notice the fact that the Scripture never allows death to be honored. It never allows death to be declared as victor. It never allows the worship or fascination with death.
The Bible also validates the very existence of Satan, of the devil, and of evil spirits and of demons. All of this is actually demonstrated in Scripture, revealed in God's Word, but never as a matter of fascination and never as an open question as to whether or not God in Christ will triumph over every single evil dimension, and particularly, over sin, and death, and the devil. The devil's existence is acknowledged and the danger is made clear. We are told in the New Testament that the devil is “wandering to and fro, seeking whom he may devour.” But we are also told that Satan, who after all was a fallen angel expelled from heaven, that Satan was defeated on the cross of Jesus Christ and in the empty tomb, and one day, his fate will be eternally sealed.
This is also true when it comes to sin. The Bible is explicitly honest about sin, telling us about the very essence of sin as rebellion against God and breaking God's law. And of course, the Bible is very detailed, very definitional when it comes to sin, candidly addressing sin for what it is, individual sin as codified in the law and in the moral teachings of the Scripture. But the Bible never allows a fascination with sin. It never validates a concentration on sin. Rather, it is sin that points us to the need for Christ, and it is Christ who alone is victorious, and completely victorious, over sin.
And that takes us to a final thought, considering what it means to be alive on October the 31st, 2019. Millions of people around us are celebrating Halloween. But for Christians, particularly for Gospel-minded Christians, we need to remember that October the 31st has been celebrated and commemorated throughout the history of the Christian Church as All Saints Day, as a day of remembering those who are the saints who have gone before us. And let's just remind ourselves that the very fact we're using the word "saints," which means the holy ones of God, points to the fact that we do not have a fascination with sin. Rather, we are to have a fascination with Christ, and a fascination with the Gospel, and a celebration of the fact that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is alone the message of our salvation.
And of course, those of us who are the heirs of the Reformation have to go back in our imaginations to this very date 502 years ago, October the 31st, 1517, when Martin Luther nailed those famous 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the spark that began the Protestant Reformation and the recovery of the Gospel. And we remember that it was Luther, in his famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, who put all of this into perspective when, in the third verse, he has Christians sing:
“And though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed his truth to triumph through us. The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him. His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure. One little word shall fell him."
Let's just remind ourselves as we come to a conclusion today what that little word is, that little word is Christ. So may the joy of the Gospel and the memory of those who have gone before us fill your hearts with the Gospel of Jesus Christ on this day, October the 31st, especially on this day, October the 31st, and furthermore, on every other day.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
I want to remind you again, I hope that you'll join me, Mark Dever, John Piper, and others for Together for the Gospel 2020 in Louisville. The theme of next April's conference is Entrusted with The Gospel. Registration prices will increase tomorrow, so make sure you register today at T4G.org. I'll hope to see you there.
For more information, you can go to my website at AlbertMohler.com. Today, at the website for The Briefing, we will also put up a link to my Ask Anything, in which I address the question about Christians and Halloween.
You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.