It’s fast coming up to that time of the year again when the shops are lined with all sorts of plastic and sugary spookiness and the TV listings are populated with a variety of horror films all vying for our money and attention.
The Church in the West typically responds with a “Do Not Touch” attitude towards Halloween, but as I’ve written about in several blogs, this is borne out of ignorance of the Church’s own festival, All Hallow’s Day, and the even before it, All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween):
There is plenty of material, both good and bad out there for Churches to use in this particular season of the Church calendar, but most of it, like Light Parties (great idea, but oddly marketed as an alternative to Halloween – an alternative to a Christian festival????) is aimed at children, whereas there’s a paucity of stuff for teenagers and adults to get some spiritual sustenance and engage with the themes of death and darkness, and all things spooky in the Bible. Yes, you read that right, there are some pretty spooky things in the Bible, if we choose to see them in the context of the culture in which they were written.
Generally the Church in the West has decided that only things which are light and life are worth investigating, demonising darkness and death, which is curious considering the darkness of the Passion of Christ, and the gory bits of the Bible (book here!). We also need to remember that interest in the paranormal is increasing in our cultures, and the Church is withdrawing from engaging in this field, thanks to a post-Reformation thinning of a theology of the dead (though groups like the Churches Fellowship for Psychical and Spiritual Studies are positively engaging with such discussions and re-evaluations of the baby that may have been thrown out with the bathwater of the Reformation). When the Church withdraws from a place / area of interest in culture, then it leaves a vacuum which nature abhors and gets filled with all sorts of thinking, some helpful, some not so helpful.
Here are a few things we can try in order to reach out positively and creatively with our communities:
Ghosts, Ghouls and God
Ghosts, Ghouls and God is a website specifically created to explore all things spooky in relation to the Bible and Christianity. You will find a wealth of academic level material which addresses stories such as Saul and the medium of Endor, the ghost of C S Lewis appearing to J B Phillips, Ghosts in the New Testament, the exorcism of Gottliebin Dittus by Lutheran pastor Blumhardt, and even an exploration of demonology from a deeply Biblical / non fluffy perspective.
Saul and the Woman with the ‘Ob (1 Samuel 28)
Brief Background Info: Yes, you read that correctly, if you look at the Hebrew, the woman often called a ‘witch’ by King Jame’s own spin on the text, or a ‘medium’ is actually a woman with an ‘ob inside her. According to the Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (an excellent resource for those who wish to engage with the paranormal in the Bible for studies), an ‘ob is a deceased ancestor! You read that correctly, when the Bible speaks about forbidding such practices, it is saying do not have the spirit of a deceased ancestor within you!!! Leviticus 20:27; 2 Kings 23:24 and Isaiah 8:19 are all speaking about the dangers of and forbidding of having another human spirit within you !!!
But… But… This can’t happen, because once you’re dead, you go to heaven or hell… That’s quite modern thinking and isn’t how the ancient Israelites understood Sheol, the realm of the dead where everyone went, good, bad and indifferent. It’s only when you get to Second Temple Period Judaism (approx 300BC to 70AD) that any compartmentalisation takes place in the afterlife (and which Jesus mentions in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus). Allowing another human spirit into your body (possession, or sometimes called ‘channelling’ was forbidden due to the dangers of taking inside a spirit which may overpower your own, plus it has connotations of a sexual nature which link back to the story of the Watchers in Genesis 6:1-4 and is expanded in the book of 1 Enoch). Some say that this ‘ob is a leather bottle, but how can this be located in the person who has the ‘ob? Culturally, when this was written, it would have been understood to have been a human spirit, and we should be aware of that when we try and retroject our own modern beliefs about the dead onto a 3000 year old text.
With this background information in mind, and attempting to see the text as it is, rather than what we want it to say, why not carry out this small home group study on this rather fascinating and spooky chapter of the Bible? Spolier – it was in no way an impersonating demon – it was actually Samuel! Oh, and the medium did have the ability to summon up Samuel from Sheol (otherwise why would God forbid an impossible practice, doh!)
Ghosts??? You could always have a study around the two encounters the disciples had with Jesus where they think he’s a ghost (Jesus walks on water). It’s worth noting that the disciples believing that Jesus walking on the water was a ghost is an absurdity: ghosts in their culture didn’t walk on water, only divine beings could do that. As such, Jesus was giving them a huge clue as to his true nature, but rather than believe it, the disciples believed something absurd to them – a ghost walking on water!
Also check out where Jesus tells them he’s not a ghost, implying that they exist! (Resurrection appearance).
In both these instances, Jesus could have said, “Don’t be silly chaps, ghosts don’t exist!” but doesn’t. Either he’s complicit in their potentially superstitious nature by not quelling their thoughts, or he’s agreeing that this stuff is real, but he’s not one. In fact, Luke 24 has various appearances of Jesus that both uphold and then destroy the main concepts of the afterlife in the culture of the time: revenants, dead heroes (who were worshipped), ghosts (who were spirits of the dead) and translated mortals (eg Enoch and Elijah). The resurrection of Jesus was not the return of the dead as per any custom, but something even more fantastically amazing!
Engaging with Culture- The Exorcism of Emily Rose Group Study.
Horror films are big business, and few teenagers will have not watched something spooky. The Church often will say not to watch such things, and there is sometimes good reasons for this, as some can be very disturbing indeed for those of a nervous disposition. However, this is a matter of taste and personal choice and we should not let people judge us as long as it doesn’t lead us into sinful ways of behaving.
One particular horror film which is rated 15 (in the UK) and would be suitable for older teenagers and adults to watch and have a discussion around is The Exorcism of Emily Rose.
Looks scary? It is in parts, but generally this trailer contains most of the “scary” bits. The remaining stuff is actually gentle and is the story of the exorcism of a girl, Emily Rose, which goes wrong and the subsequent court trial of the priest who was performing the exorcism. The supernatural world is put on trial with the prosecution lawyer being the hard headed rationalist Christian (!!!) This is a rare horror film which portrays the Church in a positive light, and is based on a true story based back in the 1970s in Germany. It’s a film which engages with the real question of whether demonic possession actually exists.
There are plenty of group discussion questions which come out of this particular film, the best of which are located on this particular website which includes a “Print Friendly” option for users. The Exorcism of Emily Rose Discussion Questions.
For those who are thinking this is edgy for older teenagers, then rest assured, they’re probably watching much worse stuff than this, and it is important to help teenagers understand that life isn’t all sucrose based, sugar-pink Christianity, there are some pretty dark themes in life that they will encounter, and we should be helping them meet these and engage with them in an intellectually honest way, giving them tools to evaluate and process such stuff, not pretending they won’t encounter this kind of material. The worst we can do is send them out unprepared to critically engage with their culture.
A couple more links for engaging with movies and pop culture in the horror genre are:
The Flicks the Church Forgot (Horror film reviews by Rev. Peter Laws), and
Theofantastique (Fantasy genre material explored by John W. Morehead)
Johann Blumhardt and the Exorcism of Gottliebin Dittus
One of the most amazing true stories of exorcism in the Christian tradition is that of 19th Century Lutheran pastor, Johann Blumhardt (who is well known for his works and engagement with Karl Barth), based in Mottlingen, Germany.
Blumhardt encountered a full blown possession case in one of his parishioners and which challenged his theology and understanding of the role of the dead. The account was written up by Friedrich Zuendel in “The Awakening” (available as a book or free pdf download here). The book comes in two parts, the first is “The Fight” which discusses the background, lead up to and process of the exorcism of Gottliebin. It contains the dialogue and words of the possessing spirits that Blumhardt encountered, and his thoughts, from a thoroughly grounded, biblical perspective. The second part of the book is “The Awakening” and describes the awakening that happened in his region as a result of his spiritual battles.
This reads in part like the film script from The Exorcist, but is highly Christocentric and causes us to re-evaluate the work in deliverance ministry (previously called exorcism, but dropped as a name due to the connotations of that word in popular culture).
Why not read this as a group, or as a bedtime story for this time of the year? It would take perhaps a couple of hours to get through the entire book, and you will learn a heck of a lot from it as a result.
If you want to read the story with an accompanying biblical commentary then visit Ghosts, Ghouls and God’s series of articles on Blumhardt.
The Watchers and the book of 1 Enoch
If you really want some head stretching stuff which engages the mind, consider reading through the pseudepigraphal book of 1 Enoch, a book which was preserved in the Ethiopian Church canon of Scripture and was rediscovered in the 1700s by British explorers and then four copies found in the library of the Essenes. The Early Church Father, Jerome gave a choice to the Church of whether they went for 1 Enoch or Revelation (which is a bit like saying you can have Matthew or Mark, but not both!). 1 Enoch is quoted in various places throughout the New Testament including concepts of the separation in the afterlife by Jesus, and in 1 & 2 Peter, and Jude. It was common knowledge amongst Second Temple Period Judaism (from which Christianity emerged – it didn’t emerge from the Old Testament period, which closed approx 400 years prior to Christ).
Note: I’m not saying 1 Enoch is inspired Scripture, but what I am saying is that it is highly useful for understanding the theological understanding of the first century Jew, to whom a lot of the New Testament is written. If you want to understand the Bible at a deeper level, you must know the culture to which it was written. “Scripture was written for us, not to us” as Dr. Michael Heiser would say.
Click here for a series which explores 1 Enoch and the way the Jews and Christians of New Testament times understood and used it.
The Unseen Realm
Speaking of Heiser, if you haven’t explored his work on the Divine Council, then you need to! This book (The Unseen Realm) is an excellent primer for all sorts of unpacking of the Bible from a supernatural perspective. His work is based on the latest archaeological research and academic study of the cultures in which the Bible was written. If you want to know about the Divine Council, the Watchers, and other weird stuff in the Bible, then head over to the following links and check out some of the work he’s been involved with:
A Christian Halloween Ritual / Memorial Gathering
We as a family have celebrated Halloween in the past with a short, simple ritual which honours and celebrates those who have gone before us in our families. It could be extended to a homegroup setting, or used with larger groups. Often we see churches engaged in “Tree of Memories” activities at Christmas time, but that’s quite a mixed message, celebrating the birth of Jesus and remembering the dead… Surely it makes more sense to bring this a couple of months earlier and celebrate it around a time of All Saints where all the saints are remembered? Plus, it would give something positive again to help focus on remembering the dead, and giving thanks to God for them.
We’ve also held memorial gatherings in our village, which have been well attended. Why not have the Church offer something to the community you live in, outside the walls of the church?
The Bible and Christian tradition is jam packed with all sorts of paranormal / supernatural stuff and doesn’t gloss over difficult concepts of demons, ghosts, evil, light and dark, as modern Western Christianity would like to gloss over or sugar coat.
We have a rich tradition of material, encounters with the dead, evil and suchlike, and have been witness to the triumph of light over darkness. At a time when the world is celebrating and engaging with the paranormal, what positive things can the Church offer to help us navigate through to a deeper understanding of our Scriptures and of the spiritual realms in order to avoid the pitfalls that may be there for the unaware. We’re told to study to show ourselves approved of God, yet we are told to avoid this area – why? Is it because we’re not sure ourselves, and if not, then we have everything we need in our Bibles and tradition in order to engage with these concepts in an intellectually honest and satisfying way.
Have a blessed and peaceful Halloween.