On Jack-o-Lanterns

When I was in junior high, a friend of my father would engage me in theological debate. Of course, I wasn't up to the task, but I consider it part of my training. I loved every minute of it.

"Why didn't you wear a head covering in church today, Heather?" he'd ask.

I'd stammer and stutter. I didn't know then about the cult prostitutes and the new Roman woman. But the one phrase that caught me said, "But if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, she should cover her head."

"It's not disgraceful today for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved," I told him.

The debate continued on. I never "won" (nor did I ever wear a head covering to church), but even then, I sensed that there was something in the culture of Paul's day that was different from the culture of our day, and that changes how we do things sometimes.

Years later in seminary, a professor introduced me to the concept of form, function, and meaning. Every form has a specific function, and this function shows a certain meaning. If the function and meaning of the form are the same from one culture to the next--and I mean the broader culture, not our church subcultures--then by all means, keep the form. If it isn't, then the same form without the same function and meaning is meaningless at best and confusing at worst.

Take, for example, the holy kiss. Paul commands us to greet one another with a holy kiss. In his day, the holy kiss (the form) had a function of showing warmth, friendship, and hospitality. The command, then, meant to welcome fellow Christians into your home and church with warmth, friendship, and hospitality. It was a way of showing Jesus' command to love each other and be of one body (see John 17).

Today, if you came into my church for the first time, and I gave you a kiss on the lips (which is how it would have been practiced in Paul's church), you'd at best back slowly out of the church and at worst tell others about the weird cult you accidentally went to once. In our culture, a kiss on the lips hardly means friendship. But the command to welcome others into our churches and homes with love and hospitality still stands (and I've been to many churches who've forgotten this command). It means anything from something as simple as a handshake to asking a newcomer to lunch.

(By the way, there are other cultures--meaning broader cultures, not church subcultures--that practice a kiss, whether on the cheeks or on the lips, as a welcome of friendship.)

Going back to the head coverings, we can use the same ideas to evaluate whether or not women wearing head coverings is appropriate in our churches.

In Paul's day, it was shameful for women to shave their heads because that was a practice of cult prostitutes. In these early days of church establishment, outsiders mistook the church for the fertility cult. Paul warned women to cover their heads (form) to show that they were honorable women, not cult prostitutes, who went without head coverings or with shaved heads, and not contentious new Roman women, who were a type of extreme feminists of the day (function). In so doing, they would communicate that the church was not the fertility cult nor was it a contentious group (such as the new Roman women who were stirring up all sorts of trouble by publicly denouncing marriage and childbirth, claiming women were above men, and participating in the fertility cults) but were a peacable group that submitted to government authorities as much as possible (meaning).

In our culture--meaning the United States, not our local church subcultures--does wearing a head covering have the same function or communicate the same meaning? No, but the truth stands that we should communicate we are a peacable group that as much as possible submits to government authorities.

This tool of evaluation can also be helpful for issues not directly addressed in the bible (not because God didn't foresee them but because they weren't part of the stories and cultures of the day).

Take, for example, jack-o-lanterns. Can Christians participate in Halloween and display decorations such as jack-o-lanterns? I would argue that the answer is not the same for every Christian. The answer requires the Christian to understand her culture and be sensitive to what it means in her neighborhood. In most parts of the United States, a jack-o-lantern is harmless fun. It's a way of engaging the imagination in a game of pretend. It's function is nothing more than laughter, and its meaning can be a way of connecting and participating with your neighbors.

In a few places, though, a Christian may live in an area where witchcraft is prominent and by displaying things such as jack-o-lanterns and witches riding brooms, they connect themselves with different cults. (Again, the evaluation for the most part should be according to the larger culture, not church culture, which has a habit of artificially carrying cultural meanings.)

Let's look at one more example: Eucharist or communion. In the first century, it's form was the loaf of unleavened bread from the Passover feast and a glass of wine. It's function--a sign of the new covenant. It's meaning--to participate in the new covenant, to be nourished with spiritual food, and to remember and proclaim Christ's death and resurrection. The form took everyday items found on every table and infused them with spiritual meaning.

We continue the practice today, but we don't always use the same form. Some use grape juice. Or the bread we use may be wafers or crackers or a loaf of leavened bread. I even heard of one church using Doritos and Coca-Cola--everyday items they infused with a spiritual meaning. How far can we take this? 

This type of thinking isn't an exact science. It gives us a guideline as we seek to understand how Christians reflected God in their culture and how we can reflect God in our culture.

This is Part Four of a series on contextual theology. You can read parts one, two, and three.

Comments

I like this concluding line: "This type of thinking isn't an exact science. " We can all take a deep breath and relax! Good post and series.

I think sometimes we get so caught up in everything, we forget to love each other in the process. Remembering that it's not exact helps us treat each other mercifully as we all seek to love God and our neighbors and let God's glory be known in all the earth.

This is a great explanation and really good examples of contextual theology. I need to go back and read the first three posts.

Hope it's helpful for you.

I read Heather's article and was surprised regarding her stand on Halloween and Jack O Lanterns. I've been a Christian and have studied the Bible for many years and I really can't find Scripture to support carving out Jack O Lanterns. We are commanded to not practice the ways and customs of the heathen. Jeremiah, Chapter 10. Are we free as Christians to carve out a Jack O Lantern? Yes, but why would our thoughts and actions support a practice that is not taught in the Bible.

We are commanded, "to cast out imaginations and every high thing that exalts itself against the will of God." Responding in love. Sandy

Thank you for your response, Sandy.

There are many things Christians do on a day-to-day basis that are not mentioned in the Bible because we live in a different culture than the people in the Bible (e.g. Christmas--both secular and religious--celebrations, most of the jobs we work, having a presence on the Internet). There are also many ways the people in the Bible lived that we don't live (e.g. selling everything we own to live in common with the local believers). The point of this post (and the others in the series) is to help us think through how we can live God-honoring lives in our culture so that we may bring God's victory to the people in our communities.

Appreciate your thoughtful post. I think it behooves us to honor the Lord as His Spirit convicts our conscience, enabled by His grace, and not necessarily try to be so acceptable to our culture. (Btw, witchcraft is more prominent than you realize). Also, the Eucharist and Communion are not the same practice for me. To celebrate the Eucharist is to look at the wafer/wine as the actual body and blood of Christ (transubstantiation), given again and again for us - which I do not believe or practice. To celebrate communion, which I do, is done in *remembrance* of Christ and His blood *already* shed for me, once and for all.

I suspect you're right: Witchcraft is on the rise these days, I've heard, although I don't know many communities necessarily connect Halloween festivities with witchcraft (this is where discernment is needed in individual communities). (You might be interested in a book a friend of mine wrote, Generation Hex. I don't agree with all her points in the book, but I think it's a good reminder of the rise of Wicca and the hurting people who turn to it because of their desire for love and acceptance.)

I agree that we need not worry about making ourselves acceptable to our culture, but we should always be concerned, as Paul was, with the reputation of the gospel. Thank you for clarifying that here.

Also, my church celebrates Eucharist, but we don't believe in transubstantiation. (This is why I use the words interchangeably.) Our practice is probably closer to consubstantiation: While the elements aren't transformed into Jesus' body, in the communal practice of communion, Jesus is present, and the people are fed with a spiritual food. This is what Martin Luther and C.S. Lewis believed.

Thank you for your interaction here with this post.

I do believe all of the ideas you've offered for your post. They are really convincing and will definitely work. Still, the posts are very quick for newbies. May just you please extend them a little from next time? Thank you for the post. kkefeafkaeed

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