‘Tis the season for the creepy, the spooky, and things that go bump in the night! While folks around the world are gearing up for Halloween (or All Hallows’ Eve) Christians stay in “fright mode.” We constantly caution people to fear any given number of things, events, and beliefs that we don’t understand. That’s why we are so drawn to conspiracy theories. We’re also well known for our hobby of looking for the “true origins” and “hidden meanings behind” a sundry of objects and traditions. Every year in my Adventist elementary school, our teachers would pull out the encyclopedia and read to us about Halloween and its beginnings, attempting to steer us away from participating (curiously, the holiday's theorized connections to Samhain were emphasized, but its connections to Christian liturgy were left out). What’s even scarier than Halloween is the Christian tendency to skip research altogether and instead rely on pure conjecture and rumors spread by equally uninformed people.
I came across an example of this recently when someone posted a meme about “shadow work.” Since the previous paragraph has primed you to think of Halloween and menacing things, you may be forgiven for thinking this could be a reference to something ominous. But just like “shadowing a professional,” “five o’clock shadow,” and “shadow of a doubt“ are innocuous references to shadows, so is “shadow work.” The word in this instance refers to a concept introduced by Carl Jung, a well-known psychologist. In his framework, the shadow is akin to the "blind spot": the unconscious part of who we are; the part of our personality that we don’t acknowledge; the part that, when it surfaces, we proclaim was “out of character,” although it actually is a component of our character. However, in the viral meme that was spread, the poster warned of the “demonic” nature of shadow work, because a workbook of the same name had been derided by her pastor. She claimed that the mirror featured on the book's cover was proof of its satanic influence since, as she stated, “we all know mirrors are portals.” It was one of the most asinine things I’d ever read! And it would be laughable if this display of her and her pastor’s ignorance had not been zealously shared within Christian circles. Sentiments like this only add to the stigma Christians hold against seeking psychological help.
If the book in question had been titled “Working on Blind Spots,” it wouldn’t have been met with the same suspicion, because people have heard the term “blind spot.” On the other hand, “shadow work” sounds alarming because it’s unfamiliar. The human mind naturally fills the gaps in our understanding with what we are familiar with. So, if someone’s experience attaches “shadow” to a negative connotation, they ascribe that to new, unfamiliar contexts.
Instead seeking out the factual knowledge, people are too often content to let their imagination and assumptions run wild. They get egged on by others who are equally eager to decipher the “real meaning” behind things. It’s exciting to feel that you’ve discovered “insider information” or that you’re “in the know.” And that exhilaration fuels people to find and spread even more wild theories, regardless of whether they true at all. This is why clickbait titles like “Secrets They Don’t Want You To Know” are so popular. Topics that are not fully understood and seem crowded with jargon, or that pertain to a specific professional industry, or that are just plain new have become fertile ground for speculatory theorizing.
Within Christendom, subjects can get bonus “scary” points if they don’t have Western European roots. Customs and practices that trace their beginnings to African, Indigenous American, or Asian cultures are prime candidates for being called demonic or satanic. Saying that something has “Eastern influences” is the Christian equivalent of summoning the boogeyman. Nevermind the fact that Christianity itself is a Middle Eastern religion. This insidious bigotry is also the reason that European instrumental music—such as baroque or classical orchestral music—is often regarded as appropriate for church (even songs that are unquestionably secular), while instrumental jazz, or even merely using drums, is considered inappropriate in many Christian circles. There’s truly no coherent rationale for this except the Columbusing of Christianity and the literal demonization of anything with “unfamiliar” associations.
Are there things that we as Christians should avoid? Sure. But when everything is sinister, nothing is. Just like the boy who cried wolf, constant “warnings” about anything and nothing have the effect of desensitizing us to actual threats. This explains why leaders can overtly demonstrate non-Christlike behaviors, yet still be affirmed and followed as long as they claim to be Christian. Influencers like these can manipulate their supporters into co-signing activities that truly are terrifying. Being so focused on “hidden” dangers makes people oblivious to blatant wickedness right before their eyes.
Halloween can be scary. But it’s not half as scary as rampant unchecked ignorance.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD, is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and a clinical neuropsychologist. She is president of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found by clicking here.
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.