Our American celebration of Halloween has very little to do with observing a Christian “All Hallows’ Eve” before the “All Hallows Day” remembrance of the dead.
On “All Hallows’ Eve,” skeletons, ghosts and graveyards were supposed to be scary reminders of human mortality. Carved pumpkins lit from within, or “Jack O’ Lanterns,” were originally to frighten “evil spirits” away.
Halloween is now more a creation of Gothic and horror literature like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, Hollywood horror movies, and the candy and costume industries.
But if you do want to be frightened this week, here are some Christian theological themes that actually are scary:
1. Christian Dominionism
Christian dominionism is the idea that our nation should be governed by Christians according to a conservative understanding of biblical law. This is the “scariest” Christian theology to me because, as Chris Hedges so well argues, it is fueled by “sanctified” rage. He warns of how volatile this rage is, and that the “Christian right needs only a spark to set it ablaze.” What I particularly like about Hedges’ analysis is that he does not move away from the economic and social “despair” of those who have sought out this theology for answers. The “collapse of liberal democracy” is our common issue.
What is especially scary to me, however, is the wall of rage that seems so impossible to scale to find common cause across a spectrum of differences.
2. Hell and Damnation
Scary images of Hell and damnation have been part of religions for millennia, as Alice K. Turner demonstrates in her beautifully illustrated text, The History of Hell. These include biblical themes, as “ “Sheol” is where sinners go (Psalm 49:13–14), and hell is “everlasting fire” presided over by the Devil (Matthew 25:41).
These images abound in popular culture as well as in religion, and people who have “near death” experiences have not always written afterwards about heavenly lights, but being “hung over an abyss” with heat blasting below, while “pairs of demonic eyes” glared at them.
But while these scary images abound, a theology of hell is something different than images of demons and fire. Images of hell as judgment have been used over Christian history to construct a punitive, punishing idea of God that is used like a club to manipulate people, producing true horrors instead of faith journeys.
Over my more than thirty years of teaching at Chicago Theological Seminary, I known many students come to us at this progressive school from Christian conservative backgrounds. They tell horror stories of being told they would go to hell if they did not obey the church, their parents and other authority figures without question. Even when they experienced parental abuse, they dared not tell because they were told that disobedient children deserved punishment. Awakening sexuality, gay or straight, was met with threats of hellfire and damnation.
Theologies of hell and damnation that are used to make human lives a misery are truly scary to me because they help to create and sustain ‘hell on earth’ for many. They contradict God’s love and mercy.
Christian Evangelical Rob Bell has argued this in his work Love Wins; Bell’s position continues to be controversial.
3. Women Should “Submit”
Theologies that emphasize a hierarchy in creation, i.e. that women were created second, and Eve is to blame for the sin that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden, are scary to me because they are literally responsible for a lot of violence against women.
In my view, the primary connection between religion and domestic violence is religiously sanctioned subordination of women. Submission itself is institutionalized violence — a structure of unequal power that puts women in a vulnerable position in the home. The front door of such a “religious” home becomes a doorway to violence.
Mary Potter Engel, a Christian theologian and novelist, has called this the “Just Battering” tradition. She models her analysis of the Christian justification of violence against wives on the Just War tradition. Just War principles start with “Right Authority.” In the “Christian home,” ideologies of “submission” mean that only the husband has authority. This makes physical abuse of women “just” in the same way that political authorities can claim a war is “just” if it is authorized by them.
“Submission” is a scary theology that justifies abuse in the name of Christian obedience by women. See, for example, Kay Marshall Strom, In the Name of Submission: A Painful Look at Wife Battering.
4. God Versus Evolution
One of the scariest places I have ever been was the Creation Science Museum in Kentucky. As I walked in, I was greeted by a pineapple eating velociraptor in an animatronic Garden of Eden. Yes, according to this museum that presents the “young earth” idea that creation is 6,000 years old, this famous meat-eating hunter-type dinosaur, so scary in the movie Jurassic Park, was a vegetarian before the fall into sin.
“Creation science” is a theology, not a science since it does not use scientific method. It is a scary theology because it is used to deny the real science of evolution and undercut the genuine urgency to stop polluting human activities that are causing violent and abrupt climate change.
I actually prefer the term “global weirding” to “climate change” or “global warming” because those terms do not evoke the erratic and dangerous effects of rapidly accelerating environmental shifts.
If you want to be really, really afraid on Halloween, read the U. N. Report from Rio on the Environment that has been called “longest suicide note in history.”
The report is terrifying not because of its urgent calls for action, but because of its failure to do so.
5. God Doesn’t Love You If You’re Gay
Homophobic Christian theologies that condemn people who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender are scary dangerous, and they need to be continuously countered. Some progress has been made, but there is a current deliberate effort to role back even the modest gains in equality for LGBTQ people, and the litany of gay teens who have been bullied and then committed suicide goes on.
In my “It Gets Better” video I made for that creative campaign to give hope to gay teens, I start with “God loves you.”
6. Virulent Christian Anti-Semitism
Christian anti-Semitism is scary, dangerous and baked in to Christian history in a way that has not ever been successfully confronted and eradicated. As right-wing white nationalism grows in the United States, fueled by a president who gins up hate against groups his white Christian supporters deem “outsiders,” the role of Christian history and Christian theology cannot be ignored. The ties between white nationalism and white, right-wing Christian evangelicalism grow stronger each day.
Scary and dangerous, but a ‘that’s not who we are as Christians’ is far from enough.
The Christian Gospels contain what appears to be anti-Jewish sentiment, but read in historical context, these are Jews arguing with Jews. But certain texts have fed murderous anti-Semitsm throughout Christian history, such as John 8:44, in which you have words attributed to Jesus as he is speaking to a group of Pharisees and other Jews around him. Jesus says to them, “You are of your father, the devil.” That one sentence fuels the long Christian association of Jews with the devil.
How could Jews even continue to exist, Christian theologians in history have wondered, since they refuse to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah? Do they in fact work for the devil, or are they somehow part of God’s plan? St. Augustine thought the latter, and he concluded that Jews should suffer in history but not be completely eradicated so they can see how wrong they were when the Christ returns at the Second Coming. See? God’s plan.
Others were not so disposed toward Jewish existence since, despite repression, many Jews would not convert. This infuriated Martin Luther, who declared, “Their synagogues should be set on fire … their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed … let us drive them out of the country for all time.”
Karl Barth, a Christian theologian who resisted Hitler and who helped found the “Confessing Church to confront the “blood and soil” ideology that the Nazis used to create a “German Christian Church,” thought Luther provided the ideas, especially the “two kingdoms” theology, that helped some theologians cooperate with the deification of Hitler.
“Blood and Soil!” chanted the white nationalist neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, echoing this hateful period and their hate led to the death of Heather Heyer, a peaceful counter-protestor.
On October 27, 2018, a gunman attacked a Pittsburgh synagogue during Saturday-morning services in what the Anti-Defamation League called “likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.” It is a deadly example of the rising anti-semitism in the United States, and rooted in “’the ‘blood and soil’ right-wing nationalism that by definition excludes Jews (whom many nationalists do not consider white).”
Many prayer vigils have been held in communities and these are helpful as a visible reminder that many citizens do not agree with this hateful violence.
But, unless we Christians are willing to dig down to the very roots of our murderous Christian history and yank it out, sermon by sermon, year by year and reject it in public wherever politicians and Christian leaders evoke it, we’re a danger to every Jewish person.
There’s so much that’s really terrifying in our world, Halloween shouldn’t be scary any more.
I try to make Halloween fun for my children and now my grandchildren. Some candy (along with healthy snacks!), fun costumes and community events are a great way to have family fun. I think Halloween should be fun because there are too many really scary things in our world for kids and the adults who care about them.
What really scares me, not only this week but all year through, are the Christian theologies that prey on our legitimate fears of human finitude, physical suffering, economic uncertainty, environmental destruction, the threat of war in order to accelerate anger and alienation against vulnerable people someone has labeled “others.”
There’s no treat in that, only being tricked.
(I originally wrote a version of this for the Washington Post On Faith section. The WaPo no longer publishes On Faith, but a PDF can be found here: https://www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2013/10/28/five-christian-theologies-scarier-than-halloween-2/25139)