Tuesday, November 6, 2012

When Theology Tricks a Treat

In the beginning was the Word.

And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

And then theologians came along, and the Word became just words.

An esteemed professor at Dallas Theological Seminary told me that joke, smiling as he did.  The longer you're born-again, and the further you travel down your path of sanctification, the truer this joke becomes.  It's not that the truth of the Gospel changes, but that our understanding of it does.

Only sometimes, what we think we understand to be the Gospel really isn't.  Even though we gussy it up with theological jargon.

Which means we have to be careful with what we allow to mold our comprehension of the Gospel.  We must be vigilant against interpretations that may appeal more to our individual personalities and proclivities, but may also be less than accurate.

Does this mean that how we view God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and the Bible can vary based on our individual likes and dislikes?  Let's take a subject like Halloween, and you tell me.

Instead of the Reformation, or All Souls, We Wallow in Halloween

Last Wednesday, the annual ritual came and went in which some Christians bash other Christians for not celebrating Halloween.  The vast majority of my evangelical friends not only observe Halloween by simply handing out candy at their front door, they wallow in it, with witch costumes, carved pumpkins, and all.

Some do so more out of angst and a careful parsing of purposes, rather than full-throttle ambivalence to the day's dark significance.  Some Christians who go ahead and indulge in Halloween do so because they worry about looking like prudes to their unsaved neighbors if they keep their porch lights dark.  They fret about their children being stigmatized in school for not going along with the crowd.  They rationalize Halloween as an opportunity to evangelize, rather than condemn.  But mostly, they figure that if they're really making a mistake by participating in society's mostly watered-down Halloween customs, God's grace will more than cover it.

Which, of course, is true.  If you genuinely don't know much about what Halloween is, and aren't aware that it's actually a genuine religious observance by a genuine religious group called Wicca, then your dalliance with a Satanic holiday is understandable.  You're probably a go-with-the-flow kind of Christian.

If you're a believer who knows what Halloween really is, and you don't care, then you're likely a fun-is-good type of Christian.

Then there's the believer who not only doesn't care about the fact that real Satan worshippers use Halloween as an integral component of their Earth-centric religious calendar, but who becomes almost antagonistic towards those of us who know just enough about what Halloween really is to make us respect its dangers.  For evangelicals who enthusiastically embrace Halloween - and their numbers seem to grow every year, as Halloween becomes more commercialized and less idiosyncratic - doing so represents almost a fierce statement of defiance.  They like to say it's a defiance against the devil and his evil forces, but sometimes, it seems more like a defiance against people they think are trying to tell them what to do.

Nobody Likes Authority, But We All Think We're One

Hardly any of us admire busybodies, or people who play at piety, or those who impose arbitrary rules on us.  It's ironic, isn't it, that grace can be as cheap among believers as it is lavish when bestowed by Christ Himself.  I used to really be bothered by the fact that so many Christians were capitulating on the whole Halloween thing, until I realized that their decisions are probably more the result of Satan's trickery not only in their lives, but in mine as well, sowing dissension between us.  So while I still feel obligated to point out the flaws in excuses for celebrating Halloween, I pray that our Lord would keep me humble as I do so.  The whole plank-in-the-eye thing, you know?

However, haven't you noticed how it's become popular in politically-conservative evangelical circles to openly bristle against government in general, and less-conservative politicians and ideologies in particular?  I doubt anybody has researched the rise in religious political extremism and the rise in evangelical enthusiasm for Halloween, but I suspect both trajectories are remarkably similar.  Increasingly, conservative Christians want to do what they want to do, without regard for history, prudence, or a humble respect for basic Biblical doctrine.

For some Christians, this obtuseness is manifested in their zest for Halloween.  For me, my obtuseness is manifested in other ways.

"Probably as in this essay," some of my Halloween-loving friends and relatives would retort!

In a way, might today's presidential election and Halloween be very similar in the eyes of these evangelicals?  If Mitt Romney doesn't win, they'll be as mad at President Obama as they'd be at me for writing this essay.

Because just as the patriotic platitudes many evangelicals embrace in their disparagement of Obama are, frankly, based on an inaccurate grasp of American history, their convictions regarding their rights to the pleasures of Halloween are based on an inaccurate grasp of religious history and doctrine.

Jeer, Fear, or Resist?

Circulating in Reformed Theology circles as I do, I've heard a common narrative about how Martin Luther celebrated Halloween, chose October 31 as the date to nail his historic Theses to the church door, and encouraged Christians to jeer at Satan.  One of the more popular Calvinists to espouse this view has been Dr. James Jordan, an influential professor, preacher, and author in the Reformed tradition who lives in Florida.

Although he presents a detailed rationale for his views endorsing Halloween on his website, Jordan himself admits that he's not well-acquainted with the customs and history of the holiday.  And some of the ideas he states as facts would be readily disputed by worshippers of Wicca.  I've heard that since Wicca is such a small religion, what they think about Halloween doesn't really matter, but looking at the number of adherents to a religion without evaluating the spiritual forces at work behind them isn't the smartest rationale, is it?

If you're really interested in learning about the background of Halloween, I've done the research Jordan and others haven't bothered to do.  I suppose I could take Jordan on, point by point, but at the end of the day, if he's a fellow brother in Christ, my objective shouldn't be to denigrate him, but to honor Christ.  Remember, the devil would love for Christ's followers to lash out at each other over the issue of Halloween, rather than seeking the truth about it.  I'm content to rest in what God's Word has to say about how we deal with Satan, and contrary to both Martin Luther and Dr. Jordan, there's nothing in the Bible that actually says we can jeer him.

Instead, we're to put on the full armor of God so we can stand against the devil's schemes.  After all, our struggle is against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 6:11-12).

We're to be self-controlled and alert, resisting the devil, and standing firm in the faith, since the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for people to devour (1 Peter 5:8-9).

We walk in the flesh, but we shouldn't try to wage war according to the flesh.  Our warfare uses weapons with divine power to destroy strongholds, arguments, and lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Consider the things that cause quarrels and fights among us believers.  Don't we know that friendship with the world is abhorrent to God?  When we try to befriend the world and its customs, we risk making ourselves an enemy of God.  Remember, God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.  If we resist the devil, he will flee from us.  (James 4:1-7

Now, I understand that in Reformed Theology, like every other brand of Christianity, people like to nurture the nuances of Biblical texts until some flavor of this holy food can appease their personal palette.  I do that sometimes, and you do that sometimes.  But in any of the verses applicable to spiritual warfare, a warfare of which I suspect Halloween is a component, doesn't it take some fancy theology to tease out an official okey-dokey from God to taunt Satan?  Remember, this isn't even our battle, it's God's.

The Gospel Existed Before Theology Did

This is where man-centered theology can seep into churches like floodwater through cracks between the doors.  Theology can be good, since it helps explain doctrines like grace, salvation, and even election.  But Dr. Jordan, for example, teaches a doctrine called Federal Vision that says any child can take communion, whether they've professed a personal faith in Christ or not.  I wonder how many evangelicals would agree with that position.  I certainly do not.

This is where cloaking Christian practice within the nuances of theology can become murky.  For my part, I prefer to rely on passages of scripture that are less ambiguous and therefore less susceptible to interpretations that compete with God's holiness.  I don't see how I suffer any irreparable harm to my faith, or how God is dishonored, by my declining any involvement with Halloween, for example.  Nor can I see how Christ is dishonored if I don't believe America is an inherently "Christian" nation, like many evangelicals strongly espouse, and wish for in conjunction with the anticipated election of Mitt Romney (who's a Mormon cultist, no less).  

At the same time, I'm not going to simply sit at the feet of preachers and seminary professors and take what they tell me as gospel until I compare it with the real Gospel, like the Bereans did in the Book of Acts.  If anybody can take the facts about Halloween and buttress an evangelical obfuscation of those facts based on scripture, so that we can all take part in what Wiccans celebrate, then please do so.  But I suspect that since nobody has been able to do that, and instead has had to rely on theological postulations and carnal dispositions towards "fun," doesn't the position I hold on this subject appear to retain more validity than the popular view?

Still, this is where I have to remember that God's grace is far to wonderful and powerful than even my own estimations of how we, His followers, should be worshipping Him. 

I think that's probably called the theology of humility, and I'll stop now before it sounds like I'm an expert in it!  My personality makes me always want to have the last - and best - word in an argument, but I still need to learn the difference between speaking my piece and holding my peace.

Meanwhile, consider the rest of this famous passage from John 1:

The Word became flesh, and lived among us.  

And His glory was full of grace and truth.

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