Christians carry around in their heads what I call the mush gospel. We mush together the various stories from all the gospels into a single story/gospel that is idiosyncratic. This mush gospel is built up from reading, from hearing the gospel stories read, and from sermons and hymns. We use that mush gospel to make [...]
My favorite way of understanding religion is, without question, the playfully serious and seriously playful exploration of religion in creative writing. Because certain symbols are universally resonant across time and space, they find their way into both religious practice and creative expressions like poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, television scripts, stage plays, and sermons. This doesn’t mean [...]
Sometimes, my friends, two wrongs make a right. Consider:
PROBLEM #1: Halloween costumes of Christian characters like Jesus, Satan, and even the Mother Mary have become too predictable.
PROBLEM #2: Virtually nobody has read the stories that didn’t make it into the Bible, even though they are genuinely interesting and chock full of scoundrels and heroes.
Never has the cause of religious literacy been simpler! You, yes you, can help with your Halloween costume selection this year! Every time someone inquires after your fascinating choice of costume, you can launch into a story that 99 percent of your fellow party-goers won’t have heard before. From the delightfully queer and saintly to the dastardly macabre and necrophiliac—whatever the tone you wish to strike, I can assure you an early Christian character exists to bring it to life.
Kid appropriate? Heck yes, bring on the young (queer?) female superhero!
Costume: Think Greek Joan of Arc. Thecla cuts her hair short, binds her breasts, and wears a homemade robe “in the fashion of a man’s.” Thecla exhibits a confidence and joy that is practically angelic, so give her a bright aura (gold facepaint?).
As a bonus, a friend or partner could dress up as the lioness who rescues Thecla from other dangerous animals.
30-second story: Thecla abandons her engagement to a wealthy and powerful man to become an apostle after overhearing Paul’s teaching. Her own mother drags her before the authorities and demands she be burned alive as an example to other young women, but God sends a rainstorm to extinguish the fire. Later Thecla is tossed to the wild animals in a Roman arena, but a lioness protects her from harm. She baptizes herself in a pool of killer seals and goes on to live happily ever after.
By the way, Thecla lived to be 90 years old, so ladies, don’t hold yourselves back!
Where to read the whole story: The Acts of Paul and Thecla
2. Young Murderous Man with a Sickle
Kid appropriate? Not in a million years.
Costume: Obviously you’ll need a sickle, which shouldn’t be hard to come by because it’s also a favorite of the Grim Reaper. Lose the Reaper’s black robe and go for a short toga instead.
30-second story: An old man learns that his son has been having an affair with a married woman. When he tries to warn his son against it, the son becomes angry and kicks his father so hard he kills him on the spot. Overcome by grief over what he has done, the son grabs the sickle from his belt and charges off to kill the woman, her husband, and then himself. The Apostle John meets him on the road and convinces him not to go through with it by raising the father from the dead. After that, the young man chops off his own genitals to prevent further temptation, and he delivers them to the woman as a parting gift. ... You might want to leave out that last part in polite company.
Where to read the whole story: The Acts of John, chapters 49–54
3. The Pearl Merchant
Kid appropriate? Yes! The pearl merchant is actually Jesus in disguise.
Costume: Lithargoel the pearl merchant wears “a linen cloth bound around his waist with a golden belt,” which is a clue in many ancient stories that this is actually a heavenly being. The merchant also wears a shawl “tied on his chest, going over his shoulders and covering his head and hands.” He carries an official-looking bound book and a staff. For dramatic effect, you can enter the room calling out in a slow, resonant voice, “Pearls! Pearls!”
This may be the more difficult act, so kids might skip this part: Don’t show anybody your pearls when they ask to see. Instead, invite them to come visit your city and you’ll give them the pearls free of charge.
30-second story: After a dangerous journey by ship, the twelve apostles land in an unfamiliar city, where they meet a pearl merchant named Lithargoel. Rich people see that Lithargoel has no bag or bundle where he could possibly be carrying pearls, so they dismiss him without even leaving their houses. But the poor clamor around him and beg just to see the pearls so they can tell their friends. Lithargoel invites them to his city, where they can have pearls for free. The twelve apostles undertake the dangerous journey to Lithargoel’s city only to be stopped by him (now disguised as a doctor) at the gate. Lithargoel reveals himself to be Jesus and sends the apostles back into the world to heal people and spread the good news.
Where to read the whole story: The Acts of Peter and the Twelve Apostles
4. Kallimachos and Drusiana
Kid Appropriate? No, because even though Kallimachos and Drusiana both come out well in the end, Kallimachos does enter her tomb with the intent to defile her corpse.
Costume: To make the story work, you’ll need a huge serpent, preferably wound around your body. Kallimachos was wealthy enough to bribe someone, so you can get away with a Caesar-style toga and sandals, but you should look disheveled and pale.
A friend or partner could come dressed as Drusiana, a beautiful woman who has died of grief for driving Kallimachos mad with lust. For Drusiana, go for a humble toga and pale face, but with hints of her beauty shining through her sad state.
30-second story: Spurred by Satan, a young man named Kallimachos lusts after a married Christian woman named Drusiana, who has committed to celibacy along with her husband. When she learns of his lust for her, Drusiana dies of grief over Kallimachos’ “damaged soul.” Kallimachos, driven mad by this Satan-inspired lust and egged on by a greedy servant, bribes the servant to help him break into the tomb to defile Drusiana’s body. But when they enter and attempt to remove her clothes, a huge serpent strikes and kills the servant, then climbs onto Kallimachos, who lies “like a corpse” until the apostle John arrives to raise first Kallimachos then Drusiana. Kallimachos shares a vision of the risen Christ and repents of his evil deed.
Where to read the whole story: The Acts of John, 63–77
A Few Halloween Costuming Snags
I’ve written this blog post obviously a bit tongue-in-cheek, so a word of caution is warranted: some characters—such as the “blind god” from stories like The Nature of the Rulers and numerous blundering officials in the Acts of the Apostles—explicitly mock or criticize either the God of the Hebrew Scriptures or Jewish people themselves. Let’s not rehash hundreds of years of anti-Semitism with a poor costume choice, okay? Nevertheless, many unsung but genuinely interesting, tradition-defying characters remain tucked away in the annals of Christian history. Why not have some fun with bringing them out of the shadows?
I ran into some interesting problems in writing this blog post. For instance, the Gospel of Mary of Magdala is a much loved off-the-beaten-track gospel that is finding more and more traction in arts, culture, and even church. In this gospel, Mary is wise, intelligent, and not portrayed at all as a prostitute. Which leads to the conundrum I experienced when I thought how wonderful it would be to suggest her as a costumed character this Halloween. The Gospel of Mary doesn't actually comment upon Mary's appearance. It focuses on her teaching. If you want to introduce her to a new crowd, you're going to have to use your own creativity and inspiration to do it in a way that doesn't just reintroduce old stereotypes of her. I have always loved the cover image of Mary from Karen King's translation (pictured right), so perhaps that is a good place to start?
Another fascinating problem was Jesus himself. I joked at the beginning that Jesus is too predictable. In fact, if you begin to really delve into early Christian stories, you'll discover as many Jesuses as there are storytellers. The irony here is that a costume works best when somebody can recognize clues to your identity, so the further you move away from the Jesus of Christian tradition, the less effective your costume becomes. I really like Lithargoel the Pearl Merchant (#3 above) because his costume is so vivid and interesting in its own right, that his secret identity becomes a bit of a punch line: "Believe it or not, I'm Jesus!"
By the way, if you actually dress up as one of these characters, (1) you are a religious literacy superstar, and (2) pretty please, send me a photo!
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.
Westar Institute fosters collaborative, cumulative research in religious studies and communicates the results of the scholarship to a broad, non-specialist public.