A Yearly Funeral of False Hopes

O Death, Where Is Thy Sting?

Ian Olson / 10.28.22

The ancients among whom Christianity first arose feared death not only as a force but as a being. The final ode of the Orphic hymn cycle is dedicated to Thanatos, the divine embodiment of death. It begins:

Hear me, O Death, whose empire unconfin’d, extends to mortal tribes of ev’ry kind.
On thee, the portion of our time depends, whose absence lengthens life, whose presence ends.
Thy sleep perpetual bursts the vivid folds, by which the soul, attracting body holds:
Common to all of ev’ry sex and age, for nought escapes thy all-destructive rage

Thanatos, to them, was not the supreme god or the god to whom one turns for blessing: he simply is to be acknowledged. Respect is owed to him due to his dread power to bring anything to nothing. Mortals must ingratiate him in the hope that his absence will prolong the time they still have.

By contrast, we in the late modern West tend to pay lip service to death’s reality, albeit in the most desultory of ways to maintain plausible deniability that it will — or already does — impact us. The pandemic, however, cruelly demonstrated just how fragile we really are, in our bodies, in our social bonds, in what we though would guarantee our health and happiness. Death capably proved itself more real than the fantasies within which we had cocooned ourselves.

Despite the more sanitized, Thomas Kinkade Christianity that America has largely — bizarrely — settled to adopt, its first and second century ancestors in the faith gained a reputation for morbidity and for defying established norms regarding death. The Christians worshiped a crucified subversive, gathered at burial sites, ate the flesh and drank the blood of their master, and revered those who gave themselves over to death.

This is because they were people who had been confronted with the cataclysmic power of death and resurrection. Death was not tamed or befriended through this but it was robbed of ultimacy, its venom drained from its fangs, such that they were permitted to scoff at death and sneer, “Is that all you can do?” The martyr, in her active passivity and rejection of every idol and illusion of comfort on offer from the world, was a living witness that death had been deposed and was no longer the ruler of this world.

Jesus’ exodus out of the grave scandalized the apostles’ contemporaries. “You say the true lord of all is one of the living dead?” the elites spat. Yes, they answered, and in him is the life that unveils our undead existence. It was Christians who first moved the dead back amongst the living. The ancients kept a respectful distance between the city and the tombs so as to sanitize and strengthen the border between death and life. The Christians, however, relocated the resting places of the dead within the city, happy to inhabit that collapsed border.

Halloween is, in our time, a stumbling block to those who insist the world is full of light and love and whatever other hokey happy crap they need to be real. We denizens of late modernity brandish our biological markers and economic activity to prove we are alive and all is well. Death is the ravenous reality we repress from consciousness as it threatens the fantasy worlds we construct with our lives. Americans treat death as though it may be someone’s problem, but not theirs.

Halloween incites such a visceral response from many people because it seems to treat death and darkness so lightly. It seems to me, instead, that there is a combination of both reverence and flippancy. Halloween-heads like me have the deepest respect for the shortening days, the dropping temperatures, for the beauty of decay and the thrill of the sublime. And yes, there is a flippancy, a mockery of the things that go bump in the night, that threaten our lives and our souls. Far better to spoof the spooky than to pretend such things don’t exist or matter as too many a dour and mAtUrE Christian might assert today.

American Christians too regularly depict grace as warm, fuzzy, and safe. But grace is frequently the undoing of all we have, a heavenly acid dissolving the stockpile of badges and accomplishments we have amassed. When what we are accustomed to is unmasked as chaos, grace will frighten and repulse us. Barth writes that grace “protests positively. It does not only say No to man. It says Yes. But it does this by completing its own answer … in active refutation, conquest, and destruction of all human answers to it” (Church Dogmatics II/2, 523).


Similarly, Flannery O’Connor remarked in an introduction to a reading of one of her stories that “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work.” But is it really so necessary that such means could be fitting? “This idea,” she answers, “that reality is something to which we must be returned at any cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world” (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, 112). The human plight is so profound that the death of God is necessary to overcome it.

This is how Paul can claim that the advantages he enjoyed as a Benjaminite, a Pharisee, and other markers of significance that once defined his existence now carried the status of nothing (Phil 3:5-8). Because set against the incongruously superior greatness of the Lord Jesus they were of such little value he could esteem them as excrement. That which had been to him a nightmare to be stopped at any cost — a messiah offering a Torah-free reconciliation — was in a catastrophic moment revealed to him as the only hope worth having. 

Hope is not a function of denial. Quite the opposite, in fact: hope is not available where denial is predominant. Hope only arises out of the demolition of its counterfeits. Hope is an answer to the grace that answers “No” to our illusions but “Yes” to our need. The picturesque “hope” which the world envisions must be trimmed before genuine hope can bud. Our false hopes of security, of freedom from suffering, of invincibility, of superiority and industriousness and of having earned a desirable outcome for ourselves must be buried before genuine hope can give us life.

The unmasking of our false hopes can coincide with putting on the mask of a grace that permits us to laugh at the petulant silliness of Satan or to mirror the living death into which we are born by dressing as a skeleton or a ghost. Putting off, putting on: this is the substance of Christian existence. We are always playacting, first as an omnicompetent achiever, then, if and when that illusion is mercifully shattered, as a little Christ showing others where to get the good candy.

The macabre of Spooky Season therefore isn’t a liability — it’s precisely the point! The Devil and his minions are comic figures in the light of their humiliating, self-undermining defeat. The Grim Reaper stands there, embarrassed, his sickle deflated. Like jellyfish washed up on the shore, we probe the spectacle of death’s powerlessness because we are immune to its sting. Yes, some decorations can be tasteless. But so can preaching. Yes, someone could take away that spells and deals with the Devil pay off. But plenty of pastors have shown us the exact same thing of late. Yes, it revels in the unknown and unsafe. But the God who rescued Israel out of Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead is far from comprehensible and the furthest thing from safe. It seems to me that the complaints about Halloween from many Christians arise from a fundamental confusion over just how weird the object of their faith is. I say to you, fear not. But enjoy the chills!


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3 responses to “A Yearly Funeral of False Hopes”

  1. […] sympathetic take on Christianity and Halloween, see any of Ian Olson’s annual reflections (here, here, here, or […]

  2. […] article on how Halloween can be a great time even for us Christians. As the author of this article “On a Yearly Funeral of False Hopes” says: The macabre of Spooky Season therefore isn’t a liability — it’s precisely the point! […]

  3. […] A Yearly Funeral of False Hopes – Mockingbird — Read on mbird.com/holidays/a-yearly-funeral-of-false-hopes/ […]

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