Hi and welcome back! For a bit now, we’ve been looking at Frank Peretti’s bestselling book This Present Darkness (TPD). This poorly-written book helped elevate the Satanic Panic in Christian imaginations–and shaped their conceptualization of spiritual warfare for many decades to come. It did even more than that, though! Today, Lord Snow Presides over the way that This Present Darkness drew battle lines for culture warriors through the manipulation of their persecution fantasies.
But First, We Need More Exposition.
We find ourselves at the tail end of Chapter 2, pp. 23-26. Here, Peretti brings the hot action to a screeching halt. We needed more hamfisted characterization and exposition, I suppose.
At the moment, just to bring everyone up to date, not much has really happened. Two angels came to town, exploded a silly-sounding demon, and then
transferred mana ministered to a praying young man. Also, a newspaper editor bailed one of his reporters out of jail and heard about a nefarious-sounding meeting.
For the most part, the first two chapters consist of setting up the book’s antagonists and protagonists. However, the writer setting up those sides learned characterization from 1940s war-propaganda cartoons.
This isn’t even the worst one I’ve seen. That title belongs, perhaps, to this one. But it’s still pretty dang indicative of the genre.
Remember, only two churches seem to exist in the little town of Ashton. Pastor Young leads the town’s large evil ecumenical church, Ashton United Christian Church. The editor of the town’s apparent only newspaper, Marshall Hogan, attends this church. Hogan describes the other church, Ashton Community Church, as “dinky.” Pastor Henry Busche leads it. Oh, and this smaller church is the one that merited an angelic visit earlier. The town’s police chief, Alf Brummel, also attends Ashton Community Church for some reason.
Now, at the end of Chapter 2, we zero in on that smaller church and its pastor. He’s as much of a caricature as any other character and situation in this book. Peretti draws him specifically to pander to the Christians who constitute this book’s target market.
Everyone, Meet Hank Busche. He’s a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.
This scene occurs the morning after the big festival in Ashton. Henry “Hank” Busche, the pastor of the little church, opens the door of his tiny little rental house to get the milk that’s been delivered. (See endnote about milk delivery.)
Peretti tells us (rather than shows us) what he wants us to know about Busche. He’s a 26-year-old seminary and Bible School graduate, married, and working at his very first pastor gig. If Busche or his new church hold any denominational affiliations, Peretti neglects to mention them. But we do learn he loves soggy Wheaties, which is why he’s fetching the milk right now.
Busche stands on his “small concrete stoop.” There, he reflects on his church’s membership. Ever since his first day, he’s been dealing with a great many recalcitrant sheep in the pews:
But then there were all the others, the ones who… made it exciting. They made it exciting whenever he preached on repentance; they made it exciting whenever he confronted sin in the fellowship . . . [and] whenever he brought up the cross of Christ and the message of salvation. At this point, it was more Hank’s faith and assurance that he was where God wanted him than any other factor that kept him by his guns, standing steadfast while getting shot at. Ah well, Hank thought to himself, at least enjoy the morning. The Lord put it there just for you.
He sounds nice, doesn’t he?
We’ll be coming back to this paragraph a few more times. For now, just soak in the way that Frank Peretti chose to characterize what is very clearly going to be his book’s main hero. Nobody compelled him to write Busche like this.
Peretti chose to do it.
And his target audience of readers love this characterization beyond words.
Hank Busche represents #Goalz to fundagelicals. When a preacher at the pulpit barks out, “I feel like preaching a little longer today,” these are the Christians who holler back, “Yes! Praise Jesus! Preach it!” and then smugly sit there for as long as that preacher cares to screech at them. They are also the Christians who gloat the hardest about the idea of seeing their enemies in Hell, and who are the most solidly convinced that the Republic of Gilead would be a truly awesome place in reality, except those meaniepie demonically-controlled atheists in Hollywood are poisoning everyone’s minds against Jesus.
Out of all Christians, the ones who love This Present Darkness also love thinking of themselves as Hardasses for Jesus. They’re out there doing the tough work and refusing to falter or slow down or moderate their behavior or speech. They consider themselves not only the world’s Designated Adults but also its Designated Colonel Jessup. They’re completely convinced that we’re childish weaklings who refuse to perceive or recognize or accept the vast dangers in the world around us. They see those dangers, though, thanks to their faith in Jesus. And knowing the stakes, they will stand on the wall between us and the demons, and they will protect us even if we fight them and get in their way and put roadblocks before their boots.
That’s how they see things. It’s the messaging they create and consume about themselves. (It’s also why they have such a huge boner for military service and war, and tend to be so callous and cruel toward children, animals, and criminals.) This messaging and self-image both grant them permission to indulge in mind-bogglingly authoritarian political maneuvering through their endless culture wars.
So Hank Busche is the Everyman heart of every true-blue fundagelical man. He’s how they see themselves, the image they want to broadcast to the world. He’s also the marriage goal for every true-blue fundagelical woman.
The TRUE CHRISTIAN™ Pastor At Work.
So this little church “voted” Busche into office. But gawrsh, Mickey, he just has noooo ideeeeea why so many people in that church appear to hate him! However, I think we, the readers, might just be able to read between the lines to figure out this mystery.
Indeed, the author tells us that Busche is a hardliner fundagelical type of Christian with absolutely no tolerance for compromise. If he detects “sin,” then by golly, he calls it out. If he thinks his flocks need to hear yet another iteration of the fundagelical party line about Hell, why then he delivers it to them in his sermons.
Now, the fundagelicals who love this book will, I guarantee you, harrumph to themselves. They will have some guesses about why Busche’s church doesn’t like him. Remember that stupid “They Hated Jesus Too” shirt I posted recently? That’s the mindset involved here. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ indulge in a weird doublethink around their messaging: they think people both feel very inexorably drawn to Christians’ Jesus Auras, but also repulsed by it because they, being consumed and condemned by their sinfulness, haaaaaaate purity and goodness.
So obviously, in their world, a lot of people–even Christians!–will get very angry when a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ tells them about their sins and demands they clean up their acts. No matter what those people say, that’s really why they get mad when they hear such messaging. The solution (as the message-bearers see it) is for them to Jesus harder by ramping up the delivery of that message, along with possibly forcing those people to follow the rules laid down by that TRUE CHRISTIAN™ for everyone’s good.
Holes in the Story: Housing.
Peretti is in such a hurry to create this caricature of a Christian pastor that he leaves quite a few holes in his story–from a narrative, as well as an ideological–standpoint.
We could begin here by wondering why a church, even a small one, doesn’t provide its pastor with a home or housing allowance. Nowadays, churches have a lot less money to fool around with and housing prices climb steadily. But TPD takes place in, presumably, the late 1970s or early 1980s. Ashton, though small, boasts two churches and it sounds like most of the town attends one of them. But Busche lives in a tiny rental, and the implication we get is that he has to pay rent on it (“it was all he could afford on his pastor’s salary”). I suspect that Peretti wants readers to sympathize more with the poor widdle beleaguered TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastor. His poverty points to just how dedicated he is as a Christian–and to the lucrative opportunities he’s missed out on because of his principles.
When Busche finally notices the graffiti painted on the side of his house, he’s dismayed–but he has some instant suspicions about who might have done it.
The graffiti reads, “YOU’RE DEAD MEAT, [expletive]” (the book prints a blank line there and explains that it covers “an obscenity” that, I suppose, was far too devastating for delicate Christian sensibilities; I snerked hard at this).
Busche turns and heads back into the house, where Mary, his “playful little wife with the melodic giggle,” fusses over breakfast. He shows her the graffiti, after which they talk about who might have vandalized their home. They both think that whoever did it is angry about something that happened last night (Sunday, remember) at a hastily-called church board meeting.
Recently, Busche demanded that the church disfellowship Lou Stanley, who was a long-standing “Old Guard” member of the church who’d been accused of adultery. We don’t know if the charge is true or not, but Busche sure thinks it is. The church meeting concerned the disfellowshipping. Busche refused to relent and allow Lou Stanley to return to the church. Afterward, the meeting broke up–Alf Brummel, the police chief, had to jet for a mysterious meeting (hmmmm!). Busche stayed behind to pray, and I realized at that point that oh, okay, that’s who the angels helped the previous night. Hey, I can’t help it if Peretti is terrible at characterization and descriptions.
Though he’s young, Busche has certainly internalized his tribe’s authoritarianism. And this is exactly what fundagelicals love to hear in their stories: a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ who refuses to back down, to (hissss) compromise and thus weaken the fabric of a church.
Holes in the Story: Graffiti and Disfellowshipping.
This book doesn’t even make sense within its own framework.
If the “Old Guard” is this angry about Lou Stanley’s ejection, then why not just fire the pastor? It sounds like there’s enough of them to make it happen. Why bother with graffiti?
As for Lou Stanley’s disfellowshipping, boy, I sure hope that Busch also plans to do the same to any Christians in his congregation who have gotten divorced, had children out of wedlock, seem too attached to any sportsball teams, been convicted of stealing, or gotten caught sassing their parents. Peretti has Busche hyper-focused on adultery, and the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ reading the book will nod grimly as they come to that section: why yes, of course, that’s how it should be. But disfellowshipping rules, like the death penalty itself, tends to strike unfairly and unevenly.
It sounds to me more like Busche smacked his Johnson across the faces of some of his congregants, who are now handling the matter like such Christians normally do: with infighting and sneaky, passive-aggressive nastiness. The new pastor is marking his territory, that’s all.
In turn, they, too, are informing him of their own limits.
The Persecution Fantasy.
But that’s not what Peretti wants readers to take away from this scene. He wants his target readers to react with outrage on behalf of poor small-church pastor Henry “Hank” Busche. He wants them to see this conflict as a battle being set up: one between Good and Evil, with the stakes an eternity in Heaven or Hell. Their god has already chosen his preferred side. Now they must step into line with their own allegiances.
That imagery is why Hank imagines himself as a Texan fighting in the Battle of the Alamo, and even that his enemies in the congregation are literally shooting at him.
Authoritarian Christian pastors, however, can’t handle having anything less than total and absolute power over their congregations. When denied, their response begins with chest-thumping belligerence. But if that denial continues, they soon retreat into petulant self-pity and passive-aggressive retaliation. Busche and his congregation hover between those two related extremes, as do this book’s fans.
I don’t know how much more we will go with this book; I have a list of topics I want to talk about, and we’ll see what happens once I reach the end of that list. As we progress through TPD, though, we’ll notice more and more that Frank Peretti has no limits at all to how far he’ll pander to his readers in this regard. For their imaginary victory to reach the heights of its sweetness, he must portray the battle in the most extremist ways he can.
TRUE CHRISTIANS™ love to think of themselves as the embattled, virtuous underdogs fighting impossible odds against unstoppable, innumerable demonic foes. An intelligent panderer will understand that and give them what they want.
Looking back, I really don’t know how in the world all those publishers who rejected Peretti didn’t immediately understand that he’d written a book inexorably destined to be a smash hit with that crowd.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over a book that represents all the whiny, narcissistic self-importance contained within fundagelicalism–and somehow makes it all even worse.
NEXT UP: We examine what happens when multi-level marketing (MLM) shills get desperate. See you tomorrow, friends!
Regarding milk delivery: For younger readers, by 1985 this service wasn’t at all common anymore. Very likely, even if the service existed in an area it would have come at a premium cost compared to simply going to a grocery store and buying it with the other groceries, like everybody else did. The Department of Agriculture tells us that by 1975, only 6.9% of milk sales were delivered to home customers. Knowing this fact, I can only suppose that Frank Peretti wanted to over-sell the idyllic and bucolic of his setting before whacking readers with the ZOMG ABSOLUTE HORROR soon to come. (Back to the post!)
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.