Hallowe'en vs Reformation Day

Ghosts & Goblins, Lazarus & Luther

Last time, I wondered if the evangelical reluctance to engage with Hallowe’en is partly based around a lack of theology when it comes to demons, even though we find demons, unclean spirits and strange encounters in scripture.

What could be more strange than Saul’s encounter with the Witch of Endor, when Samuel is summoned from the grave?

What about Jesus’s story about the Rich Man and Lazarus? The unnamed wealthy guy wishes to send Lazarus back from the bosom of Abraham to warn his family about the judgement to come. Read Luke 16:27-31:

And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send [Lazarus] to my father's house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

Is that a thing? It’s a parable, though, isn’t it. Is it?

I look at this briefly in my book, The Gospel According to a Sitcom Writer. (Signed copies of this book would make excellent Christmas presents for at least two people you know. Buy them here, along with a copy of The Sacred Art of Joking). The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is the basis for Dickens’ Christmas Carol, in which Marley comes back from the dead to warn Scrooge - who ultimately heeds the warning.

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The Exorcist

If one depicts these evil spirits and ghosts in a movie, one would have a Catholic priest as the exorcist. But this was not an area left behind by the Protestants when the Reformation came. It may surprise readers to know that this area is taken seriously by the Church of England today. Yes, the established church accused by all and sundry of both refusing to move with the times, whilst caving in to the spirit of the age. But check the website of your diocese and you will see there are individuals authorised to carry out ministries of deliverance and perform exorcisms.

Why wouldn’t it? The Church of England’s doctrines are rooted in the Reformation. Looking back at the original reformers in the 16th century, we find plenty of evidence that they took these matters seriously.

Martin Luther, the son of miner, knew that evil spirits were at work under the ground. The textbook on mining, De Re Metallica by Georgius Agricola, came out soon after Luther died and was widely read for the next two centuries. It gave practical advice on dealing with demons:

In some of our mines, however, though in very few, there are other pernicious pests. These are demons of ferocious aspect, about which I have spoken in my book De Animantibus Subterraneis. Demons of this kind are expelled and put to flight by prayer and fasting.

Elves and Leprechauns

Similar beliefs resiliently persist today in countries which prize enlightenment rationalist values. Over half of sober-minded Icelanders believe in Huldufólk - the hidden people. These are elves who live in enchanted rocks and cliffs, who appear to be benign rather than hostile. A third of Irish people believe leprechauns exist.

For Luther’s father, the main problem was the existence of kobolds. The word ‘kobold’ is derived from the frustrating cobalt ore that made it hard to extract silver. These ‘kobolds’ also threw stones, hid tools and generally made the lives of miners even harder.

Luther wrote about this phenomenon in Table Talk, The Devil and his works, DLXXIV:

The devil vexes and harasses the workmen in the mines. He makes them think they have found fine new veins of silver, which, when they have labored and labored, turn out to be more illusions. Even in the open day, on the surface of the earth, he causes people to think they see a treasure before them, which vanishes when they would pick it up.

This is hardly an outlier in Luther’s writings. In the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, Ronald L. Cammenga writes:

Luther was convinced, both on the basis of Scripture’s testimony and his own experience, that the devil and his hosts exhibit a real presence and exert an equally real influence on the world of human experience…. He believed that there were goblins and ghosts, spectres and poltergeists, hags and witches. All of these not only had contact with the world of humans, but were able also, in negative and harmful ways, to impact the lives of men, women, and children.

Some might argue that Luther was fundamentally a man of the medieval period, but as we’ve already seen, his views on the supernatural were rooted in scripture, as well as the experiences of his father and his fellow miners.

To find out more about the Martin Luther story, and to support this weekly blog, do consider getting a copy of A Monk’s Tale on MP3 or Audio CD. More info at the bottom.

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The Princess and The Goblin

These characters don’t just show up in oral folk tales. We find it in classics like The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald (1872), a Christian minister. In this tale, Curdie is a miner who has to outwit goblins who live underground, pestering and harassing the humans who go about their business.

CS Lewis was full of praise for MacDonald, although his underground creatures in The Silver Chair are more like terrified, enchanted gnomes. It is Tolkien who really gives goblins their modern form in Middle Earth, where they are creatures in their own right. They are clearly evil, but they have lost their supernaturally demonic origins.

So what exactly are goblins, leprechauns, elves and spirits?

It is hard to say with confidence, and it rather depends on the context, but one thing we can say: they are not superstitious nonsense.

There is a case, then, for celebrating Reformation Day as the antidote to Hallowe’en. Over the last few years, in my household we’ve celebrated Luther’s 95 Theses and made sausages and sauerkraut. Maybe we should celebrate Christ who drives out demons and casts Satan into the lake of fire.

What you do in your household is, of course, up to you and your conscience. But let us not be blind to the spiritual battles that rage around us, not be scared because:

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths. (Colossians 2:13-16)

Happy All Hallows Eve/Reformation Day!

Wanna a hear a song about the doctrine of Purgatory, to the tune of Tragedy? Sung by Martin Luther? Sure you do. Have a look over here.