The Attack on Beauty: Halloween And Humanity’s Inner Dissonace

This particular year, my daughter has been rather vocal about the impact of Halloween decoration she sees all around us.

She’s young and understandably narrates most of her day, what she’s seen, what she’s done. But the manner in which she carries on about witches, glowing red eyes, and all the particularly dark ornamentation comes across as being grossly perturbed. Even at a fall festival kids costume party my family saw a child, not even a teenager, dressed in a some pop culture killer costume that neither of us could identify but nonetheless unmistakably knew belonged to the slasher genre. My wife and I reassure her that the decoration is just that and not real, that these things cannot harm her. Nonetheless, it’s given me pause this year to wonder about American fascination for everything gruesome and evil.

Why the devils? Why the witches? Why the serial killers?

The temptation to call all these figures and manifestations as meaningless is unsatisfactory. These fascinations are remarkable and noteworthy, and beg for some analysis much as a dream or pathological behavior would require analysis from psychotherapy.

Another temptation would write off our celebration of Halloween as humanity’s outlet for death. Still, I think this is inadequate. While the Latin American celebration of Day of the Dead, as far as I can see, provides some cultural merit and de-sterilizes a culture on the stigma of death while reminding families to pray for their loved ones. It may be in part true that America attempts to get over its hang up on the uncomfortable idea of death through our morbid scenes and costumes–such cases have been made why the zombie genre was so popular in our country for so long. Still, it doesn’t account for the aforementioned costumes and figures of Halloween that are deeply satanic.

We don’t seem to be portraying monsters and demons in a cautionary or benign manner. We seem to be glorifying them, out terrifying one another by conceiving of more horrific figures. Halloween is not some lived out ritual wherein a repulsive krampus is brought out to scare the population just before St. Nicholas comes in to defeat the evil. No. Rather, it is a procession of evil without good, a long minor chord without any resolve. It’s the terrible horror movie where all the main characters die, the monster wins, and somehow we are ok with this.

Now don’t get me wrong, I have dark taste. I see value in books and movies that capture humanity’s capacity for evil. I listen to music that speaks about pain and sorrow. I am not one to sterilize all media and myth to be only bright and happy fairy tales. Ancient cultures, including those from our own Western myths, have not relented to speak about abusive gods and horrific monsters. Even Holy Scripture does not withhold painful details of humanity’s dark heart and the gore that we can conceive of. Dark media–just like all media–has its place so long as it is purposeful.

But glorifying the dark or the evil just for the sake of it isn’t purposeful. That’s just patronage.

What I have gathered about this glorification of evil is an unaligned attempt to convey one’s own inner dissonance. We prop up these figures beyond the margin of society, perhaps, because some of us feel ourselves on the margin of society. Perhaps we have a personal disconnection from our own family. Perhaps we couldn’t find our healthy niche in school. An inner exile occurs while still living within our communities. With that, we convey our own inner dissonance through an acting out, through the portrayal of the figures cast off into he margins: expelled demons, witches left to live in the wilderness, etc.

I believe most of this to be attention seeking behavior, an acting out as an attempt to address the unacknowledged pain of disenfranchisement and loneliness.

It is perhaps equally true–or even more true–that none of us have been shown or conveyed true beauty by our closest confidants and therefore we reach for the low-hanging fruit of shock, ugliness, and darkness. Let’s be honest, walking through America’s oldest and greatest cities is nothing like walking through the oldest and greatest cities of Europe. Our architecture is bland and sterile, and our iconoclastic roots of puritanism meant that America’s inception came without a great deal of beauty or art. While our country did have the foundations of Scripture as its rudder and moral compass, I believe we are seeing centuries later the consequence of the sterility that comes from a solo-Scriptura tradition that endeavors little to create, to convey beauty in new and wholesome ways. As a side note, perhaps it is only too ironic that the celebrated Reformation Day should fall on a day that has ached for art and beauty.

This is not a call to action to stop dressing up for Halloween, and stopping all together–even sheltering–I don’t think addresses our country’s real need.

Instead, I believe the answer to this malady comes from noticing those of us who are on the margins and showing them something beautiful. This could be literal in sharing with them a truly beautiful composition of music or piece of art or story. But the beauty could be just as simple as one’s own kindness and curiosity of their life. Perhaps the easiest answer of this is–in borrowing from Fr Josiah Trenham–the adopting of the beautiful life, the transformed life of truly lived and imitated Christianity that is unmistakably beautiful and bright. And within that Christianity, we ourselves have to understand what is beautiful, what we can adore and share. Yes Scripture is beautiful, and God gives us more than Scripture to rejoice about, to celebrate as beautiful: iconography, architecture, hymnography, the lies of saints, and so much more.

Let us take a moment this Halloween to recognize the catalysts of this mania, to analyze this sick hunger for the darkness. Let us stare in the face of our own sterility and mediocrity, and let us be intentional in both prayer and compassion for those around us who are on the margins that they do not adopt monsters on the margins as their heroes to celebrate.

Let us behold beauty. Let us adopt beauty. Let us be changed by it. Let us infuse it in all we do and recreate it in our works and in our living.

Happy Eve of All Saints.

Genesis 1: Creation Myths & Words of Power

Navajo and Hope Creation Myth of Spider Grandmother

Genesis 1:1-5; 20-31;

1 In the beginning God created[a] the heavens and the earth. 2 The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit[b] of God was moving over the face of the waters. 3 And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
20 And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day. 24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

Creation Myths

Creation Myths are an interesting subject for two reasons: they tend to hold common elements in their stories, and they reveal their culture’s particular views of the world and humanity.

The Babylonians held that humanity was created out of the corpse of a vengeful monster, a kind of result of the war of the gods.

The Chinese have a story of the creator god Pangu who died with each part of his body parts becoming a different part of the world, and at the very end of his body’s “transformation” (or rather, decay) did the mites devouring his body evolve into mankind.

The Greeks hold that humanity was fashioned last, and that the economy of traits and talents had run out by the time humanity was conceived of, and so standing upright and fire were given as token gifts of pity–we were an afterthought.

The Norse seem to believe that we are either the sweat descending from the armpit of the great frost giant Ymil while other parts of the story seem to suggest we were carved out of two trees by a pair of gods walking on a beach.

In my research, it seems only the story of the Spider Grandmother of Hopi and Navajo tribes has any kind of significance to the creation of mankind. We are told that we are sung into being and that this spider god continues to take pride and care in its creation (albeit, it is also held this same creator devours disobedient children, so there’s that).

In a cursory search of creation myths, its interesting that not all myths have an embedded story for humanity. Certainly, there is talk of chaos, of world eggs, of wars among gods and titans, but the tale of humanity’s birth isn’t always considered “chapter 1” material. From the aforementioned myths and from the smattering of myths of the birth of the cosmos that we alluded to, what strikes me as significant is that humanity is thought of last, as a mere consequence or “good idea” that comes out of something tragic or mundane.

Not so in Genesis

Intentionality of Creation

While humanity comes last in Genesis, we get an impression that this was supposed to be the magnum opus, the masterpiece of creation. The “Day 1, Day 2” flow of Genesis conveys deliberate planning from the Judeo-Christian God. Everything was laid out ahead of time, deemed as good, and on the seventh day (a number that would continue to live in Jewish and Christian cultures as perfect or holy) does God create not arbitrarily but creates out of His Image and Likeness. Humanity is the most important creation by this very fact, and with that knowledge, we see how the laying out of all of creation was a kind of gift laid out for us to enjoy and to reign over. God even tells us within this first chapter, after creating all things that it is for us to tame them.

Genesis ought to comfort us rather than its competing stories that everything in existence has a kind of deliberateness about it, a splendor and beauty. More than this, the matter we see and enjoy before us was not consequential of a god acting in a mundane or violent manner, but formed from a Loving God who fashions all things FOR His beloved creation that He makes out of His Image and Likeness: us. We are special.

But the intentionality of creation is but only one remarkable bit of the creation we read in Genesis. What is more remarkable is the How.

In other creation stories, we hear of “fashioning” of the world through the hands and actions of the gods, or read about the cosmos itself that we know and live in are mere body parts of a god, titan, or monster. The cosmos we know are either artisan byproducts of a god’s pottery class or a cosmic being’s death.

Again, not so with Genesis, but I think the Navajo and Hopi are due some credit here.

Creative Power of Voice and Song

We read in the creation narrative of these Native American tribes of the spider grandmother singing humanity into creation–no need for hands, for clay, for any transformation of matter. Instead, we are a composition, perhaps an anthem, perhaps a lullaby, perhaps a dirge, perhaps all of the above. Popular Christian authors such as Tolkein and Lewis seem to have taken to this narrative as well. Asland sings Narnia into existence, and we read in the Silmarillion that all things were composed from music into being, even with some dissonant chords!

Genesis is similar in emphasizing speech as the vehicle for manifestation, of order, of creation, though perhaps it doesn’t convey a musicality. While there’s a certain charm to the aforementioned creation stories of song acting as the vehicle of creation, Genesis gives some comfort and some sobriety to us.
After all, not all of us are gifted with musicality, but the majority of us can speak, or at least recognize it. God needed no hands or collateral in order to bring order and beauty out of chaos and nothingness. He spoke, and His Word–Yes, The Logos, The Son–was sufficient to manifest things to be good, to make humanity in His Image and Likeness.

But where is the aforementioned sobriety in this?

Humanity is made in the Image and Likeness of God. The only real detail we know of God from Gensis 1 is that He Creates and that He Speaks and things are so. What we glean from this is that Humanity is geared to create, to manifest order out of disorder, to put things in their proper place, to make things “good”. But more sobering than this is the power of our voice, of our words. If God can create by Word, by voice, and we are made in His Image and Likeness, ought we naught be leery of our use of words? Of our speech?

Can we not with a word similarly create and make things good? Can our words not transform others into something that resembles the image and likeness of whatever form we find ourselves in (although our original image and likeness is according to God’s, is it not possible that we distort this image and likeness?)

If God creates and orders by speech, should we not be afraid of the opposite effect our speech can have: destruction and disorder?

Personal responsibility over words

Our capacity to make and conceive of words, to control a muscle not confined by skin or bone (or tongue), to write and read a sentence that will outlive our own bodies to be remembered for generations…this is no mundane feat or gift. 

I invite each of us to give some deep consideration to the power of our words, of our speech. It’s easy for us to flare up and speak in impulse, according to our anger or sense of knowledge or importance. But what do we create in so doing? Although we can perhaps “hear speech” when we think, this primordial mess of our thoughts simply does not effect reality in the same fashion that speech does.

We’ve started wars with our tongues. We’ve torn down people with our words. We slay with gossip and with negative self-talk. When we say something, it cannot be taken back, even if it is forgiven. We create wounds in ourselves, in each other, in the very fabric of being through our speech…because God’s speech created and changed reality…and we are made in His Image and Likeness.

Today, consider the following:

  • What words do I speak/write about myself that falsely inflate myself or wound myself from reaching my potential?
  • What ways have I wounded another human being through gossip, through speech that accomplishes nothing but rather wounds the fabric of being?
  • What chaos, what destruction, what disorder, what malady do I wound reality with when I speak in anger, utter a curse, or use speech with the intention to destroy?
  • How can I use my speech in a godly manner: to create, to sustain, to make good