Hi! Welcome back to our ongoing review of Frank Peretti’s grueling 1986 fantasy novel This Present Darkness (TPD). We’ve finally reached Chapter 7, where more of ‘absolutely nothing’ happens. In the first half of the chapter, two Christians play a rousing hand of Happy Pretendy Fun Time Gaming, we learn a bit more about Hank Busche’s church, and Peretti lays out the stakes for an upcoming central conflict. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the accidental pastor of an upside-down church–and what Hank Busche’s entire situation means to Frank Peretti’s target audience.
(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; Training Spiritual Warriors; Legends In Their Own Minds. Quoted material comes straight from sources. Page numbers come from the softcover 2003 edition of the book.)
A Momentous Phone Call.
At the beginning of the chapter, Hank Busche calls his church’s previous pastor, James Farrel.
Now, he’s never spoken to Farrel. Even now, he has no real reason to call him in the first place. As relayed by Peretti, he never actually asks Farrel anything or seems to want anything in particular from him. Busche simply wants to chit-chat with someone he suspects got mistreated by his church–like he thinks he soon will be in turn.
Peretti uses this conversation to lay out some necessary exposition. What, did you expect him to communicate with us like a competent writer might, through action advancing the plot? You should know better by now. Instead, he dumps a few pages of information at us through the church’s recently-fired pastor. After this conversation finishes, I’m guessing he’ll vanish forever. (See endnote about my guesses.)
Farrel already knows exactly who Busche is, though, and what the situation at the church is. When Busche expresses surprise at how au courant Farrel is, he explains that he “hear[s] from some of the members from time to time.” Weirdly, none of those members have told Busche they keep in touch with the former pastor.
The Big Conflict.
After Busche tells Farrel he just wants to talk, Farrel immediately jumps into the central conflict of this part of the book: the big congregational meeting on Friday.
Peretti’s hyped this meeting since nearly the beginning of the book. It involves Busche’s staunch refusal to allow Lou Stanley, a known adulterer, to resume attending their church. Indeed, one of Busche’s very first moves after accepting his position was to throw Stanley out on his ear. Apparently, he did it because Stanley refused to end his affair. The church’s most powerful members are all members of the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW). They want Stanley re-admitted. But Busche only throws Bible quotes at them to justify his refusal.
In response, the people backing Lou Stanley now demand what Farrel characterizes as a “vote of confidence” in Busche’s leadership. I get the impression that this vote will determine whether or not Busche will be kept on as the pastor.
In other words, the congregation will be voting on the motion of firing Hank Busche.
Consider the Source.
I strongly believe that this conflict is so central to the book because this was Frank Peretti’s life, growing up. In fact, a conflict exactly like this one had very probably occurred in his very recent past and might even have led to the writing of TPD in the first place.
Remember, Peretti grew up as a pastor’s kid (PK). Not only that, but he also helped his father pastor his church for five long years. He refers to this time as “five years pastoring,” which indicates he assumed actual pastoral duties and may have held a title. It doesn’t sound like he remembers those years fondly. As he recently told an Idaho news site:
Right about the time I ended my five years pastoring — it took five years of pastoring to figure out I wasn’t cut out to be a pastor — I was burned out, at a loss, and wondering what in the world I was supposed to do with the rest of my life. Barb [his wife] and I were living in a 25-foot travel trailer . . . I was out of a job again. [See endnotes for what happened next.]
I’ve read a lot of interviews of his. He’s never made those five years sound like anything but absolute misery. It’d be very interesting to hear from the Christians who encountered him during those years, but we only have his very vague side of the story about what happened.
Still, Peretti seems to possess a very good understanding of upper-level church politics and power-jockeying. It’s too bad he didn’t write a book about that!
Really, the church’s power struggle represents the only part of TPD so far that rings true in the slightest.
In the book, Hank Busche represents Frank Peretti’s ideal. It’s very likely that he in fact represents Peretti’s wish-fulfillment, his dearest dreams come true. Busche lays down the law and expects his congregation to dance to his tune. He refuses to take their input into account. He’s DA KING, and as we all learned in 1981’s History of the World – Part I, “it’s good ta be da king!”
(For the N(Quite)SFW lead-up to that phrase, see here.)
This phrase gets repeated frequently throughout this part of the movie. It means that someone given unharnessed, unchecked power will use it to its fullest extent. When a peasant in the movie obtains that kind of power, he almost immediately uses that exact same catchphrase–while indulging very similarly in excess.
But in Reality-Land, a pastor is not at all “da king.”
A pastor, even an evangelical one, typically dances a very tight wire between absolute power in theory on one side and total subjugation to the flock’s whims on the other. While some pastors do manage to seize absolute power over their congregations, for most pastors that notion is a gauzy, soft-focus pipe dream. In reality, a pastor is almost always simply the manager hired by an employee-owned store–at best. At worst, he’s simply their paid entertainer, the emcee of their weekly community production of what President Jed Bartlet nicknamed “The Ignorant Tightass Club.”
So really, a church doesn’t belong to the pastor. It’s simply his turn right then to play-act that church’s leader in its congregation’s Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game.
The famous scene in question. The “ignorant tightass” here represents the very real–and very bigoted–Laura Schlessinger. Bartlet’s diatribe comes from an equally-real “Letter to Dr. Laura” circulating then. This scene completely torqued right-wing culture warriors.
No wonder burnout is such a serious problem for pastors! Every time we peek behind the curtain of church leadership, we see only constant conflicts between the fantasy and the reality of the roles of pastors and congregants.
No wonder, either, that Peretti constantly insists that Hank Busche’s heavy-handed authoritarianism is a bigtime positive trait rather than the dealbreaker it should be–and is, for most congregations.
The Ultimate Stakes for This Accidental Pastor.
However, we do already know–from repeated mentions no less–that the church only had Busche as its pastor because something went seriously wrong with the hiring process. Everyone refers to his hiring as an “accident,” even as a “fluke.” We’re not told how Busche feels upon learning that fact at last.
Regardless of how he got into the role, however, Busche still thinks that he owns that church and can run it however he pleases. It visibly enrages him–as it does the book’s author–that mere congregants possess the power to rein him in, much less eject him.
But Peretti can’t let that be the extent of the risks Busche runs in playing Ruthless Tin-Pot Dictator in that pretendy game. Nope, no way.
James Farrel, the church’s ex-pastor, gravely informs him that he could totally be murdered if he doesn’t run away before things get too serious (p. 70):
“Now I don’t know how equipped or ready you are, but to be perfectly honest, if you come through it all with even your life I’ll be surprised. I’m serious!”
WTF?!? This church might MURDER its pastor for JUS’ BEIN’ KRISCHIN? ZOMG!
Still a Pressing Problem.
Like Thom Rainer nowadays, Frank Peretti stands solidly behind evangelical pastors. He very obviously despises the power struggles, constant politicking, and shameless bootlicking that mark church life for even the most fundagelical and hardline of these pastors. And he also very obviously hates the idea that a congregation can vote on throwing their pastor out on his ear.
Nothing’s changed since then. In fact, I’m hearing more and more often nowadays about congregations exercising power over their leaders. And yet, these furious, indignant pastors still try to set the terms of engagement and spin-doctor the reasons they got fired. It’s hilarious.
- “Living, leading, and doing as Christ expects of His under-shepherds appeared to be the reasons for the deacons’ subterfuge and subsequent dismissal.” — Founders Ministries, “When Is It Right to Fire a Pastor?”
- “They think because they put a dollar in the plate they can do everything they want to in the church without discipline,” says an ousted pastor who refused to leave his former church. (See endnotes — this one’s a doozy.)
- “Pastors aren’t perfect, and many of them have done some things that may deserve firing. But that is not the case with the vast majority of churches where I have details and good familiarity.” — Our pal Thom Rainer.
It’s funny that these pastors think they can tell congregations exactly when and how they will be allowed to exercise power over the Tin-Pot Dictators they hire and pay! Then, after receiving their much-needed messy object lessons, they splutter over how absolutely positively unfair it was that they got sacked.
And then, they try to dictate how and when it’s acceptable to fire pastors (like themselves).
A Love Affair With Power.
I can easily see why someone aching to wield power over others would be drawn to evangelical church leadership. The marketing hype for these positions must sound like a siren’s song to such people–and the more authoritarian the church’s denomination, the better! Even though the reality rarely matches up to the hype, just the hope of gaining that kind of power must overwhelm the power-hungry.
And nowhere does that pitch address a group less qualified to wield that power.
Evangelical pastors seem to get a lot of training in doctrine and apologetics rah-rah, but I’m guessing they don’t get a lot of useful training in actual leadership. They seem to assume that Jesus will tell them how to lead. That podcast we talked about not long ago made these pastors’ lack of leadership skills beyond obvious.
However, money represents the most zero-sum game of all in Christianity. Churches don’t have enough money to waste faffing about. As the religion polarizes further and further, zealots drive out more and more tithe-paying members. The ones remaining behind benefit the most from association with their various groups. Unsurprisingly, those remaining Christians have begun recognizing their own importance–and demanding consideration accordingly.
But in broken systems like this one, those in power never willingly share it.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over evangelical pastors who think it’s “good ta be da king” — and take their divine stand-in roles way too seriously as a result!
NEXT UP: More Christian marketing hype that just doesn’t live up to its promises: peace and love, which I discovered only after deconversion. See you tomorrow!
About my plot predictions: I tangled with TPD about 25 years ago. Thus, I don’t remember much of it. Every Monday I begin reading, completely ignorant of what’s coming. Still, this character is really pointless. (Back to the post!)
What happened next: Then, he says, he telepathically asked his imaginary friend what he should do next, and ZOMG YOU GUYS, Jesus totally told him to be a writer! So, so, so, you guys, he had a box of index cards containing the germ of TPD. See, he’d written them and then boxed them up ages and ages ago. So he decided to turn them into a novel for Jesus reasons. Oof, this guy. (Back to the post!)
Oh, man, this guy: Eventually, his former church filed a restraining order to keep Valentino McNeal away. He responded by IMMEDIATELY starting a whole new church. Last year he popped back into the news with a super-duper-long “Open Letter” presented to his area’s school board. Even by evangelical standards, he is an absolute nutjob. (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.
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.