Behind the Mask – For What it Really Is

Pchum Ben. Perhaps the most widely observed “holiday” of Cambodia.

I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve mentioned the land in which I live. One of the lesser-known countries of South-East Asia, Cambodia is where God called my family and me to live, two and a half years ago. I’m finally going to share a bit about living here.

But if you will, stay around! Though it may seem far-off, irrelevant and uninteresting, you may be surprised by an obscure connection I made this week between the pagan, Buddhist-animistic Cambodian culture, and that of familiar America (or Australia or Canada).

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This week, Pchum Ben (pronounced: puh-choom bun) 2017 reached its climax. It’s a Buddhist festival unique to Cambodia in which it is believed that the gates of hell are opened and the spirits of the dead roam the earth. The living make sacrifices of food to appease their ancestors that they may gain favor from them rather than be cursed.

In the midst of nation-wide excitement, hustle, and activities, my family has been hosting a team of short-term missionaries from North America. Freshly plucked from their “familiar” and dropped into “foreign,” they felt the weight of spiritual warfare as millions of people around the country buy into lies passed from generation to generation.

I have to wonder how many of the “Western” population – specifically Western Christians – see the waste, futility, and deceit of Pchum Ben, but not of Halloween.

Yes, that’s the obscure connection I’ve made.

Waste


waste (/weɪst/)

noun. an act or instance of using or expending something carelessly, extravagantly, or to no purpose.*


Though most people in Cambodia have money to get by, it is certainly a poor country. Living conditions are often unclean if not downright unhygienic. Education and morality are neglected. All the while, during the holiday of Pchum Ben, people sacrifice food and throw rice into the air and into empty fields.

Citizens of North America and co., though far better off in the money domain, are still responsible for their spending. In fact, it’s perhaps because God has blessed us with these countries that we ought not to spend mindlessly. One statistic estimates that Americans spend up to $6 billion on Halloween each year.

Futility


futility (/fjʊˈtɪlɪti,fjuːˈtɪlɪti/)
noun. pointlessness or uselessness.*

Maybe the massive waste of food and rice during Pchum Ben could be justified if it amounted to something; if the spirits of the ancestors really were affected and appeased by it. But as Bible-believing Christians, we’re in on a liberating secret. The account of Lazarus and the rich man beginning in Luke 16:19 makes clear enough that the dead can not come back to this earth.

And maybe the massive waste of money during Halloween could be justified if… well if it was for some praiseworthy cause. But whether you consider the origin of Halloween or what it is today, could you really describe it as true or noble or right or pure… or anything on the Philippians 4:8 list? Could you really look Jesus in the eye and insist that it’s praiseworthy?

Deceit


deceit (/dɪˈsiːt/)

noun. the action or practice of deceiving someone by concealing or misrepresenting the truth.*


This week, I asked a Cambodian friend if she is scared during Pchum Ben. She assured me that she wasn’t and communicated something to the effect of that she just follows the traditions because it’s what everyone does. It’s not about fear and spirits of the dead and yucky, morbid monsters. At first glance, this seems like a positive thing. And yet I find myself wondering… is it really good that people blindly follow those who have gone before them?

Likewise, it seems that many people – even many Christians – don’t think of Halloween as gothic or ghastly, but rather family-friendly and innocent. The way I see it is that joining in with Halloween once threatened people’s identification with the Church and not joining in threatened their identification with the world. So somewhere along the way, Halloween was given a new brand – fun – which allowed for people to live with a foot in each kingdom (or at least to feel like they were).

Disclaimer

I’m not an expert on Halloween. Further, my convictions may be shaped by the home I grew up in.

In fact, not long ago, it would have been a valid argument to say that I don’t know what I’m talking about; that I’m a hypocrite for blindly following the traditions passed on to me by my parents just as much as Pchum Ben and Halloween participants.

However, I did some research on Halloween to give myself a bit more credibility, and it only strengthened my beliefs. This video and article were very insightful.

You’ll learn through them that Halloween arose from a Celtic holiday in which the dead were believed to return as ghosts and people would leave food and wine outside their doors to leave roaming spirits at bay. Doesn’t that sound so much like Pchum Ben, the Buddhist holiday that we (or at least I) would be quick to call a pagan belief and ritual?

I realize that this topic is somewhat controversial

My role is not to convict you; that’s the role of the Holy Spirit. If you read my words and come out with a completely clean conscience about celebrating Halloween a month from now – if you thought it was just an interesting post about two different cultures – what more can I say to you? Live in your freedom.

But if you find yourself feeling like you need to justify yourself, perhaps consider that God wants you to pay this more attention and thought. Remember that it’s Jesus who justifies us by His blood, not us by our arguments, so defensiveness may tell you something about your heart. Just something to consider.

*definitions are from Google

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28 thoughts on “Behind the Mask – For What it Really Is

  1. But … how can I comment without discussion questions? 😉

    We don’t really celebrate Halloween, though we do dress up sometimes (for a Harvest Party our group has every October-ish; it depends) and buy some candy. I have no problem with people celebrating Halloween, to be honest. I feel that it doesn’t hurt anything, and I love any excuse to celebrate and spend time with my family, haha. What matters is that you feel good with God about your decisions.

    Anyway, it was interesting to hear something about your life in Cambodia! Quite honestly, the name was familiar, but I had no idea where it was!

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    1. Haha! Yes, I considered adding discussion questions, then decided the post was controversial enough to spark discussion on its own. 😀

      I agree that more important than outward actions is the heart… whether or not you have a clear conscience and are at peace with God about your decisions. I was talking with mom about this very thing… and it’s such an interesting situation. Perhaps many people celebrate Halloween (or do a number of other controversial practices) with a clear conscience… because of naivity. Perhaps there’s a sense in which I do a disservice by bringing the topic to light because some people who once were free to do so no longer can. It’s an interesting thought, in any case. What do you think about it?

      Haha. Well the name, “Cambodia,” was completely foreign to my ears until we began the journey that lead to us moving here! lol!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. True, true! And I suppose it inspires people to say something original, which is good. 🙂

        I honestly don’t think there’s anything wrong with celebrating Halloween – at least not in eating candy and dressing up – even being aware of what’s behind it. In fact, I think there’s probably more danger in not knowing of the pagan roots than in knowing. To me, it’s a silly, meaningless holiday. I think a lot of things are what you make of them. But that’s a very unpopular opinion, though, and I realize that I could be wrong.

        I think I heard Cambodia on a Looney Tunes cartoon once … I always thought it was one of those places like “Timbucktoo.” Which I only recently realized exists … 😉

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      2. What do you think the danger is in not knowing the pagan roots of Halloween? I don’t mean to suggest I disagree; I just want to follow that thought. In fact, I do agree that it can be better to know. That way, one can be more conscientious of others and their choices are educated. I also a agree that the holiday is meaningless – which is part of why I don’t want to take part in it. I’d rather be found investing time and money in something meaningful should Christ return and find me there on that night.

        On the other hand, depending on how you do it, the harvest party you mentioned earlier sounds like an excellent opportunity to express thanks to God. After all, He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for people to cultivate, bringing forth food from the earth (Psalm 104:14). Yes, I realize it may seem obsessive to be applying Bible verses to once-a-year celebrations. Surely we get a break! But if I am “out of my mind,” it is for God, because love for Him compels me (haha, to refer to more Scripture – 2 Corinthians 5:13-14). But today I’m gladly out of my mind. Indeed, I’m in a funny mood. I feel sort of like I’m on a spiritual high and am glad to be a captive in Christ’s triumphal procession (2 Corinthians 2:14) spouting His Word as He brings it to mind and spreading the aroma of the knowledge of Him everywhere. I wish I felt like this every day!

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      3. Well, I just think, like you, that people should be informed and able to make educated decisions. Also, I feel that if you don’t know about something, you’re more likely to be hurt by it? Maybe that makes no sense, though.

        Well, mostly it’s just a party where we do little games and have a costume contest and talk and spend time together. But it’s good to get together with a bunch of Christians. 🙂

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      1. You’re always welcome here, Hannah, no matter how “late”. Kristen and Bethany make some points worth considering!

        My post simply came about as the result of my utter surprise at discovering the striking similarities between the Buddhist Pchum Ben and western Halloween; I didn’t plan on this conversation thread become debate. I think everyone knows where I stand, but I also think that either side of the argument could center on human reasoning (even “whitewashed” human reasoning). But to each her own convictions, so long as they truly are her deep-down earnest convictions since God sees right through any facade.

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      2. I completely respect what you think, Kellyn, but I somehow can’t see how death, skulls, witches, etc that are clearly celebrated in Halloween are not evil. Could you explain more why you don’t think Halloween is evil?

        And I don’t mean to offend you at all I just want to understand where you’re coming from. =)

        And thank you, Jordy! You’re sweet:)

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  2. I totally agree with you, Jordy. My family doesn’t celebrate Halloween (which is probably one of the reasons why I agree with you- hehe), and I don’t know what I would do if they did and I didn’t agree with them. I have to go check out that article that you mentioned, now- my dad has talked about why Halloween is bad some, but I don’t think I totally comprehend it.
    Thank you for this post! It was very interesting and encouraging (coming from my background) to read. 🙂

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    1. Yes, I think it’s good to recognize that the much of what we believe can be traced back to our backgrounds and upbringings. I think it helps us to understand where others come from and show grace.

      I just don’t think it’s beneficial or healthy for born-again believers to dwell on such subjects as death, monsters, haunted anything or horror. Or – as the case may be – I don’t think it’s healthy for us to see how much of it we can stand being around, even if we don’t think we’re celebrating it, per se. What does your dad say about the matter?

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      1. Philippians 4:8 X) Though the Bible doesn’t mention Halloween or Pchum Ben by name, God hasn’t left us without some general guidelines that we can apply to diverse situations with the help of the Holy Spirit guiding us.

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  3. It’s good to have a little more insight into life in Cambodia! It’s interesting you made this comparison – it sounds like the two holidays have similar origins. Have you looked into other popular western holidays? Even the origins of Christmas and Easter, in my research, have pagan origins which were then ‘Christianized’ for the same reason you gave for Halloween – so that people could have a foot in both camps. It’s kind of shocking to look into some of these things! But thanks for sharing, and not being afraid to talk about something controversial. I respect and appreciate that, and I agree with you. 🙂

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    1. I was a little aware of the pagan origins of Christmas… but not of Easter. I had just assumed that the origin of Easter as we know it today was grounded in the death and resurrection of Jesus and that any deriving from the truth happened further down the road, rather than the other way around. How shocking to learn that!

      Thank you for your encouragement. I was a bit unsure of whether or not to post this; I don’t mean to pick a fight! It’s just been on my heart and seemed to fit perfectly given that I wanted to write about life in Cambodia.

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  4. I celebrate Halloween as a secular holiday, and I don’t feel like that’s a bad thing, personally. Of course, I’m not celebrating it to praise God, nor do I celebrate it to celebrate pagan religions. This is in the same way as someone who’s atheist might celebrate Christmas without believing in God of Jesus Christ.

    As far as waste, Christmas is a far more wasteful holiday. One site I looked at said Americans estimated spending $600 billion (http://www.ibtimes.com/christmas-spending-2016-how-much-money-do-americans-spend-gifts-2460727), 100 times as much as what was said for Halloween. (Though, to be honest, I don’t know how accurate it is, but I do know that much more is spent on Christmas.) I’m not trying to say that they aren’t wasteful, just that the religious aspect of the holiday can’t be accurately measured by the money spent on it.

    I definitely understand where you come from and respect that belief. It’s merely my own opinion that the past of the holiday matters less than what it is today (and I believe that it is now a family-friendly holiday, even if it wasn’t once) and the heart of the participant.

    Thanks for sharing your opinion and sharing a bit about Cambodia! Do you speak English or have you learned Khmer? (I just looked that up, haha.) We actually read a book in English that takes place in Cambodia–“The Rent Collector” by Camron Wright. I doubt it very much relates to how you live, though! 🙂 Anyway, are there any Cambodian holidays that you have participated in?

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    1. It’s okay. 🙂 I don’t need to convince you that Halloween is bad. However, I am also frustrated with the huge waste at Christmas that utterly distracts from the simplicity and scandal of a King who was born into poverty – the Creator who made Himself looked down upon by the created that we might become rich. I’ve thought about celebrating Christmas independently from the rest of the world at a different time of the year to protect and preserve the wonder of it in my own heart. Perhaps that’s something I should bring up with my family.

      In any case, Halloween probably looks different in different homes and, in some cases, may have nothing to do with gore. When I lived in Quebec, it was very much a thing at school and in my extended family to come up with costumes that looked as realistically mutilated and gruesome as possible. Maybe there are people who never even knew that was a reality, who celebrate it “nicely” with their families, completely oblivious to outside situations. How do you celebrate Halloween?

      You’re welcome. 🙂 There are plenty of people around – other missionaries and Cambodian English students – who I can talk with in English. Still, I don’t think that’s a reason to settle. I’m casually learning Khmer by paying attention to conversations around me and asking questions. I don’t take lessons. Are you into learning foreign languages at all? Or maybe you just have no reason to! I just marked that book you mentioned as “to-read” on Goodreads. I love a good book recommendation, and that one is so relevant to me. Thanks!

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      1. Last year (I think it was), since Christmas was on a Sunday, we decided to celebrate the religious aspect on the day of, and then we did the secular aspect on Monday, exchanging gifts with each other. I think it was both fun and meaningful to separate the days and take Christmas itself to really focus on Jesus’ birth.

        Oh, trying to make costumes as gruesome as possible is definitely not what happens around where I live. Sometimes there are some teenagers who dress up like that, but mostly it is just fun costumes, like movie/book characters, princesses, and so forth. So I guess I’d be one of those oblivious ones you mentioned, haha. 🙂 I haven’t gone trick-or-treating for a couple of years, but when I was younger we’d go from house to house with my mom, and my dad would stay home and hand out candy to other trick-or-treaters. Most people just give candy, but my dad sets up our whole front room to look like a mad scientist lab and puts on this whole show…it’s so fun to watch him and the neighborhood kids love it. Oh, and we also carve pumpkins. Other than that, we don’t do anything.

        Ooh, that’s fun! I am interested in foreign languages–I especially like seeing how the grammar works and how words relate to one another, and I want to try my hand at making a fantasy language one day. At the moment, I just know a little bit of Spanish, but I think it would be fun to learn other languages… Latin would be so cool because it’s so pretty (we sing some amazing Latin songs in choir), or maybe something totally different like Swedish. 😀

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      2. I don’t see anything wrong with a dress-up day… though if that’s all it is, have you or your friends ever considered not calling it Halloween – for the sake of setting yourselves apart from the stuff that *is* gruesome? I mean, not that you have to, it’s just a thought that crossed my mind as I read your comment.

        Trick or treating is harder to maintain but keep from it being associated with some other unholy versions (unholy meaning set apart from the world… I’m not advocating a self-righteous mindset). Still, I had to smile at the image of your dad setting up the house like that. He sounds fun!

        Oh, and yes! I really like foreign languages. I especially like when they stop and make me think about English in ways I hadn’t. Haha, and yes! Sweedish is very different! Where did you get the thought?

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      3. I’ve never really thought of calling it anything else…mainly because around here, that’s what Halloween is–a dress-up day.

        He is fun! 😀

        Oh, definitely! It’s so interesting to compare different languages with what I know. Well, some of my ancestors are from Sweden, so that’s where the interest came from. 🙂 If you could learn any language, what would you learn?

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      4. So it’s not a case of there being a degree of scariness to Halloween in your circles and all of you being desensitized to it – it really is that it’s completely pure or maybe even lovely dress-ups that you do on the 31st of October and keep the name that everyone else uses? Not that it’s up to me to deliver the final verdict or anything, but in my opinion, that seems innocent enough so long as you’ve thought about any outsiders looking in to make sure it’s not a stumbling block or confusion to any of them. I think.

        Wow, Sweedish background. Ancestors how far back? Do you have any living relatives who speak the language? Do you want to travel to Sweeden? In any case, that’s pretty cool! I would learn Japanese. It seems to be the next most logical language for me to use – the one that I would be most likely to need after the languages I already know or am learning.

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      5. I’m not sure it’s completely pure, but mostly, at least. I think the older I get the more I see how people try to turn it into a scary holiday, but when I was younger, I didn’t see that at all.

        Yeah! My great-great-great grandmother, who my mom is named after, travelled to America from Sweden. I don’t know of any living relatives, though. Ooh, Japanese would be really cool!

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      6. Isn’t that one of the hard things about growing up? We learn things and lose innocence (even if in small ways) and can’t go back to not knowing like we did before.

        Family history. 🙂 It can be really interesting to learn other peoples backgrounds.

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