Training Spiritual Warriors in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #102, Ch.6)

Training Spiritual Warriors in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #102, Ch.6) August 5, 2019

Hello and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been looking at Frank Peretti’s awful 1986 Christian fantasy book, This Present Darkness. Last week, we examined the concept of spiritual warfare. And now, we dive into why this book’s target audience even think they’re supposed to fight anybody. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the overwhelming arrogance of spiritual warfare–and its surprisingly earthly origins.

(Jen Theodore.) We can do this the easy way, or the very easy way.

(Previous LSP reviews of TPD: Marking an Era, the Stereotypes, the Persecution Fantasies, Magical Christian Jesus Powers, Magical Evil Demon Powers; Meet the Women and the Sexism; the Sad Decline of Ashton; A Muddling of Angels; Really Dumb Demons; Spiritual Warfare Overview. All quoted material comes straight from sources. Page numbers come from the softcover 2003 edition of the book. If I do many more of these, I’ll put the links up in the Series page instead of blasting a paragraph of ’em.)

Medics Can Too Be Tanks!

I love this ad:


MARVEL Strike Force TV Spot, published March 28, 2018.

In it, a S.H.I.E.L.D. medic rides in a flying shuttle with a bunch of famous Marvel superheroes like Thor and Captain America. He thinks about heroism on the ride. As the shuttle lands, he decides that today, he will choose to be– And then he gets shot and falls on his face right down the gangplank. He’s not killed, but he is humiliated. Drax laughs and points at him, then mocks him for choosing to leave the shuttle first.

Well, Drax is totally right. The medic shouldn’t be leading point (“tanking,” in some gamers’ parlance). That’s what those superheroes in the shuttle are for. Compared to them, that medic is small, soft, and very, very vulnerable. Dude needs to be in the rear somewhere.

This ad reminded me of a friend I had years ago who insisted that mages could too be tanks. As with medics, mages in this game tended to be extremely weak physically, so they needed to be well-protected and kept out of harm’s way in groups. Not this guy! He’d leap to lead parties into the most incredibly dangerous areas. And then he’d become a goo smear in one hit. I used to keep count of how often his character died and how far back he’d set himself. Then, I presented the tally to the entire playerbase each week. Nothing dissuaded him, though. He succeeded just often enough–and at such times, dramatically enough–to make the gamble worthwhile to him.

Thus, I absolutely wouldn’t be surprised at all to discover that someone playing a medic character in that Marvel game really likes to tank. Some people love to do difficult and dangerous things like that. The win becomes all the sweeter when it finally comes.

That ain’t what’s happening with the Christians who love This Present Darkness.

Drafted Into An Imaginary War.

Frank Peretti is nowhere near a good enough writer to have completely come up with the notion of spiritual warfare on his own. As I’ve said, those ideas already existed and circulated freely in the rowdier end of Christianity. In that brackish, algae-choked delta where fundamentalists and evangelicals grudgingly met, their groups’ various leaders developed these ideas, amplified them, embellished them, and adopted them as canon. Immediately, an eager audience devoured their efforts.

I joined Pentecostalism in the late 1980s. By that time, both evangelicals and fundamentalists had already embraced the modern take on spiritual warfare.

The idea circulated for many years before then, of course. It’s in the Bible. Even Catholics knew about it. In 1910, one of them, Shirley Carter Hughson, wrote about a form of spiritual warfare that differs dramatically from the sort encountered in Reality-Land:

In the world’s wars an army may be safe from defeat and capture, and yet be far from victorious. But in the spiritual life, to be safe is to be the victor. . . To be safe is to be victorious, not to be conquered is to conquer Satan. So we may seem to be making but little progress, but if we hold fast that which we have no man can take our crown.

However, that’s nowhere near glamorous enough for fundagelicals.

A 1916 essay by Harold Evans, a Quaker writing for their journal The Friend, suffers similar drawbacks. On page 86, he discusses how he sees spiritual warfare. To him, it’s showing love and good treatment to all people so they know they’re important to Jesus. Thus, spiritual warfare becomes the opposite of Reality-Land warfare, which “negates love as a basis of human society and disregards the supreme value of personality.”

Nope, not flashy enough.

Fundagelicals’ god thirsted for blood and battle and victory.

And so did the people who’d created him.

Aching For Battle.

By World War II, the more modern conceptualization of spiritual warfare had begun to take shape in right-wing Christian minds. A 1945 Congressional Record describes the war America faced as one rooted in both Reality-Land and the supernatural imaginary. The person making the commentary, Bishop Elvind Berggrav, described so-called Christian values as the “inspiring force” behind the underground resistance against the Nazis. He knew that the church itself had not “united” the resistance, no. But it’d “inspired” it. Yay Team Jesus! Why, even “many among us who were not directly Christian used to say ‘This is a spiritual war and ours is spiritual warfare.'” (No names named, of course, nor these mystics’ faiths labeled.)

He went on to caution Congress:

Unless we acknowledge that moral values are supreme, and that technical efficiency comes second, we will not succeed in building the new world we promise ourselves.

I’m sure the bishop’s words were music to the ears of the culture-warriors gaining steam in popular culture right then.

Around World War II, people began to drift out of Christianity–and to feel safer in questioning their association with it. Christian leaders noticed and immediately lamented this development. Evangelical Christians needed an excuse to ramp up their recruitment–and their deepening influence over American culture and government.

So they crafted a Christianity that looked more authoritarian and martial than before.

And it succeeded grandly.

The Calm Before the Storm.

As the National Humanities Center tells us, by the 1950s “things looked very good for Christian America.”

But was it really that good?

Because it seems to me that if it really was that good, then the 1960s and 1970s wouldn’t have sandblasted Christian hegemony in America like it jolly well did. If the leaders of “Christian America” thought things looked that good, they simply didn’t understand how serious the tensions were that bubbled to the surface of their waters even at the height of their power.

The 1969 book The Gathering Storm in the Church lavishes quite a bit of time on those exact tensions and how they formed in the 1950s, mostly over the Civil Rights Movement but also over issues of authoritarianism, church power vs. laity power, and the widening gulf between the roles and responsibilities that clergy and laity each saw for themselves and their churches. After reading that book, I see the 1950s as anything but an idyllic between-times for Christianity.

If “Christian America” had truly been that secure, I definitely don’t think they’d have resorted to play-acting a childish game of Knights and Dragons every Sunday night. Seriously. Secure, confident people would have suited up and done it for realsies, like any other sensible people would. Hmph. The day I realized just how play-acty spiritual warfare really looked, I couldn’t ever un-see it again. It was like I’d seen Elizabeth Olsen doing her silly hand gestures without the special effects.


This will never, ever be not-funny to me. It always reminds me of Pentecostal SPEERCHUL WARFARE.

The Situation In the 80s and 90s.

Let’s skip ahead a few decades, to when I joined the Southern Baptist Convention at 16.

I didn’t hear much out of them about the play-acting aspect of the religion. But when I joined the Pentecostals shortly afterward (see endnote for a brief timeline), hoo boy. I got my fill of it quickly. And how. Every sermon felt like it was put on the whole armor of God! this and you must be a prayer warrior! that. They were intense about their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game. Oh, and let’s not forget the college club Biff started along those lines!

The people around me in Pentecostalism really and truly saw themselves as soldiers fighting a vast war between the ultimate forces of capital-letters Good and Evil. They thought their prayers and screeching and babbling and hand motions made a huge difference in that war.

Oh, sure, Jesus would totally win in the end. But for now, he needed human help to make his plan work.

That snickering you heard was me, probably. It amazes me now that back then I bought into those ideas at all. If Jesus was absolutely going to win, then why did people need to do anything at all? If nothing whatsoever could happen without his okay, if he really had a totally ineffable and foolproof plan for humanity, how could mere mortals screw that up?

And Now.

These days, you can’t even turn your head without running into a SPEERCHUL WARYER. Entire websites exists to push this idea and to teach the imaginary hand gestures and groaned-aloud incantations that go along with their pretendy game.

  • The Restored Church of God goes all-out in making spiritual warriors sound exactly like United States Marines or something. The Prince of Peace wouldn’t even recognize himself in this mess of militaristic chickenshit.
  • TruthNet asks some very good questions about spiritual warfare, then goes on not to answer any of them in their rush to establish the importance of their doctrines.
  • NCR describes a wild scene of fundagelicals going wild over Donald Trump as usual, but these prayer warriors describe their current spiritual warfare in disturbingly apocalyptic terms with themselves as Teutonic Knights or something fighting back the “forces of spiritual evil” through prayer and orgiastic devotions.
  • Billy Graham’s site features a 2014 transcript of an address by an elderly, fundagelical military officer who, unsurprisingly, buys completely into the super-militarized version of fundagelicalism that Graham helped to craft.

And these ideas percolate down to the laypeople so easily. They absorb all of it and parrot it back even when literally nobody asked them to recite their game’s setting and rules.

The Investment.

Eventually, I worked out why my church seemed so obsessed with all this fighty stuff.

It keeps everyone busy and invested–and prevents them from getting bored and wandering off. Christians who obsess over spiritual warfare feel very invested in their beliefs. Even more than that, they feel very important indeed. They’re not just schmucks who dove into religion because they couldn’t get what they wanted from the real world and who face increasing amounts of mockery for being oppressive, power-lusting weirdos who think way too much about other people’s bedroom lives.

No no! In truth, they are really SPEERCHUL WARYERS whose imaginary battles bring Armageddon closer every single night! They’re part of Jesus’ Endtimes plan! And the people who mock them now will get what’s coming to them–if not during the Endtimes themselves, then after their deaths, when Jesus will totally punish them for their disobedience while the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who fought his battles for him laugh and boogie down in his party van.

And, too, all this fighty nonsense keeps their minds off the boring-ass stuff Jesus actually told them to do. I mean, nobody who gets into SPEERCHUL WARFARE wants to be charitable to the point of impoverishing themselves, loving beyond comprehension, forgiving no matter what, and compassionate even to their enemies. That stuff’s obviously mind-numbing to them. They couldn’t care less about it.

But fighting imaginary battles against big imaginary demons with imaginary weapons while wearing imaginary platemail? Oh, wow! That’s so COOL!

It doesn’t matter to them that the entire notion of a god sending pitiful little humans into battle against ageless demons just doesn’t make any sense at all on any level. This is how they make themselves feel important–and superior to every person who rejects their ideology.

So: Let’s Head Back to Reality With Hank Busche.

When we read about Hank’s totally-demonic attack in Chapter 6 of This Present Darkness, this is what Peretti describes vs. what really would happen in real life:

A horrific demon infests Hank’s dream and hovers over his bed.
Translation: Dude had an intense dream.

After waking up, Hank wanders through a home infested with demons waiting to attack.
Translation: His dream was still scaring him.

Then Hank feels paralyzed!
Translation: Probably sleepwalking or even still dreaming in his bed. If this happens a lot, I recommend he seek a doctor’s advice.

But he totally rebukes the “demon” by screaming hysterically calling upon Jesus!
Translation: Suggestibility is a hell of a drug. I’ve totally been there. No mocking, I mean it, it’s easy for a very suggestible person in a vulnerable place to think like Hank does here.

When he finally comes back to consciousness with his wife’s help, he describes his experience as “Lesson Number One in Frontlines Combat.”
Translation: Yeah, actual frontline war veterans would totally have experienced exactly the same things. They’d know exactly what Hank was talking about. 

The Arrogance of Spiritual Warfare.

But Peretti can’t avoid these descriptions. He constantly has angels falling over themselves to admire and compliment Hank Busche for his strength of will and powerful prayer-warrior posing. And Peretti’s demons express fear of Hank because he prays a lot.

Sure, Hank’s just a little bitty guy, a first-time pastor and almost a newlywed. And sure, he ministers in a tiny little town with literally only two churches and his big drama lately involves an adulterous church member. But in the supernatural imaginary world of fundagelicalism, he’s a powerful, potent, puissant force of his own. There, he’s someone very special indeed–not only to his god, but to all the forces of capital-letters Good and Evil descending upon his little town.

In a world that increasingly curtails and peels away Christians’ unearned, unwarranted privileges and powers, it’s really no wonder that spiritual warfare caught on like it did, nor why it continues to reign over toxic Christians‘ imaginations. Forget that “the first shall be last” and that nonsense admonishing Christians toward humility and service. SPEERCHUL. WARFARE.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over spiritual warfare: an evolving concept that reveals way more about toxic Christians’ true natures than almost anything else ever could.

NEXT UP: Why so many Christians police their label–and feel so free to revoke it from others. See you soon!


Endnotes.

A brief timeline of Yr. Loyal Captain’s Adventures In Fundagelicalism: At 16, I became a Southern Baptist. A few months later, I switched to Pentecostalism. Then I drifted out of that after a Rapture scare failed to materialize. A few months later, I turned 17 and began dating Biff. A few months after that, he converted to the exact same church I’d left. And then a few months later, I re-converted back to it as well. That all happened between 16 and 17. Midway through college, Biff and I married. And a few years later, I deconverted. Whew! It sounds like a roller coaster, and it really was. If I ever write a memoir, it’ll be titled It Sounded Like a Good Idea At the Time. (Back to the post!)

An unrelated note: In this post, I originally compared what these spiritual warriors do to LARPing. No offense was intended at all! I just really struggle to find something that adequately conveys the awfulness of what these Christians do. LARPers often go to a lot of lengths to play out their storylines and rightly take great pride in their garb and accessories. Obviously, spiritual warriors don’t do any of that–and they also don’t have any idea where the boundaries between reality and imagination. Someone’s suggested they’re a lot closer to those folks who get totally into Ouija boards, which sounds like a great comparison to me!


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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.

IMPORTANT NOTE FOR DRIVE-BY CHRISTIANS: Nobody here seriously thinks this novel represents serious theology. But we do note with concern that it is painfully easy to warp that theology into pretty much anything someone wants.

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
"so glad there's such a thing as youth retention apologetics.why?because it smells of desperation."

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