Hi and welcome back! Today, we continue our ongoing critique of Frank Peretti’s abysmally-awful 1986 Christian farce, This Present Darkness (TPD). In this installment, we get our first real look at one of the other villains in the book–the pastor of the other church in town. Today, Lord Snow Presides over evangelicals’ disgust for one of their tribal enemies: excessive coziness with other denominations and religions.
(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; The Accidental Pastor. Page numbers come from the softcover 2003 edition of the book.)
Lookit The Cool Segue Of Him!
While he gazes at this huge, luxurious church, he reflects on how strangely its pastor, Oliver Young, behaves. Peretti clearly (if hilariously mistakenly) believes that he’s successfully characterized Busche as a friendly, folksy, earnest young pastor. Thus, Young represents a contrast and a foil to him. To Busche, Young “seemed rather cold and aloof.” As a result, Busche has trouble figuring him out and making friends with him.
Finally, Busche rests his tootsies and talks to himself to rebuke demons again. As he does, he watches Marshall Hogan’s brown Buick pull up to the church’s parking lot.
Aww, Frank Peretti segued into the next scene almost like a real live writer!
But we’re going to cover that meeting next time. (Sorry, Hogan!)
Before we do that, I want to show you an important facet to this story: how Peretti not-so-subtly introduces one of his villains: a movement called ecumenism.
It’s All In A Name.
In This Present Darkness, Peretti presents the United Christian Church as an official denomination. Hank even thinks to himself that he “had known some terrific Christians” who belonged to the denomination. However, “this particular bunch in Ashton were different, liberal, even bizarre” (p. 71).
Ironically, the United Christian Church actually exists as a denomination. It’s a teeny-tiny evangelical group that had fewer than a thousand members in 1990. At the time, they also had fewer than a dozen churches, all generally concentrated around Pennsylvania. They sound fundamentalist–they’re standard-issue Trinitarians who like foot-washing.
Sure, it’s possible that Peretti refers to this reclusive, authoritarian-sounding little sect. But I doubt it. They’re nothing whatsoever like the church in Ashton. Moreover, Oliver Young actively preaches the opposite of their beliefs. Had Peretti meant to name-and-shame this denomination, it’s doubtful Busche would have had to mentally-excuse the “some terrific Christians” he’d known in it.
Rather, I think Peretti chose this denomination name because at the time, his tribe had declared that one of their big enemies was ecumenism. He alludes to that enmity with the name “United Christian Church.”
The Culture Wars.
Frank Peretti couldn’t have telegraphed the evilness of this church better than if he’d simply called it “Ashton’s Evil Ecumenical Church.”
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, ecumenical became a swear word to the rightest-wing of evangelicals–like the Pentecostals I ran with at the time. Some more liberal/mainline churches had begun using that word to describe interfaith efforts, and that was not okay with us!
See, we knew that we were the only ones who knew what Jesus wanted from Christians–and we held the only absolutely-certain way to avoid Hell after death. And that meant that all those other competing denominations and religions were wrong.
If we banded together with other religions, then yes, we’d probably get a lot more done. But we’d also get lumped in with those heathens from the Southern Baptist Convention, Buddhism, even (GASP) the Bahá’í! It couldn’t help but demolish what made each of our faiths different–in effect, leveling all of us.
A huge part of the culture wars revolved around evangelicals trying to re-seize dominance over everyone else in the world. Ecumenism completely defeated that purpose.
Why Ecumenism Was Baaaaaad.
Thus, banding together with those other religions could not accomplish any of our ultimate goals. It could only, we thought, weaken our mission to convert the world to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. We always fretted and worried about our utterly-for-realsies-true-and-ultimately-Jesus-y teachings being watered down somehow. (See endnote for Christianese.)
And nothing’s changed since those days.
Worse, ecumenism might make it seem like it didn’t matter what religion someone bought into, as long as they’d purchased something. Well, we thought it mattered enormously–even if we could never convince anyone belonging to those other flavors and religions that they were risking eternity with their poor choices.
All I knew at first was this: if someone said the word ecumenical to anyone in my crowd, our reaction would have reminded anybody observing us of hissing movie vampires.
Ecumenism was bad. Even Jack Chick said so!
How Ecumenism Connected to the Satanic Panic.Of course, some folks in my group connected ecumenism to the Endtimes and the already-dreaded One World Government (OWG). Ecumenism also smelled like the One World Church, which Satan was supposedly behind bigtime.
These conspiracy theories got updated regularly to take into account current world news. Already, everyone was soaking their drawers over the United Nations. So evangelicals got really alarmed when they saw other religions’ leaders insisting that everyone band together to accomplish charitable goals.
The Satanic Panic wasn’t just about the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW) molesting little kids to deconvert them and recruit them into Satan’s legions later. I mean, yes, it was supposedly that, but that horrible stuff was only part of the goal for Satan.
See, the Great Accuser had engineered the Satanic Panic (we thought) specifically to prepare Earth for the coming battle between Ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil.
Somehow, a huge part of his plan involved destroying TRUE CHRISTIAN™ churches preaching DA TROOF™ so their members couldn’t effectively wage SPEERCHUL WARFARE against his legions when the time came.
The Cosmic Irony.
In a stroke of cosmic irony, the culture wars evangelicals began created some strange bedmates for them. They quickly saw that hardline Catholics wanted the same things they did–but evangelicals’ greater political clout meant that if those goals ever saw fruition, it’d be evangelicals benefiting from them. So the rules got bent–and then thrown right out the door.
As a result, those folks screeching about demons, spiritual warfare, and the craziest anti-abortion talking points ever could be hardline Catholics–or equally hardline evangelicals.
That is exactly why, if we consult evangelical site Got Questions about ecumenism, we discover this lengthy proviso:
If there is no doctrinal compromise on core Christian belief, if the gospel is not being watered-down or sidelined, if believers can maintain a clear testimony before the world, and if God is glorified, then we may freely and joyfully join with other believers in pursuit of God’s kingdom.
Back in my day, their answer would have been a lot of movie-vampire hissing.
We refused to stain our sheets with such an illicit coupling. TRUE CHRISTIANS™ couldn’t dally with infidels, heretics, and heathens and hope to come out of it with their Gospel un-watered-down.
A Story of Its Time.
If Frank Peretti wrote and published his book today, the villain would be the nice Unitarian Church or the one-word-named little progressive church (“Arise,” “Together,” “Transformations,” etc.) operating out of the local YMCA. And in it, Hank Busche would be bellying right up to Oliver Young to high-five him over their shared ad campaign to destroy women’s rights in that county. And they’d both despise the weird feminist psychology professor.
Standouts from that earlier set of conspiracy theories still kick around, though.
When you see some evangelicals bad-mouth megachurches or heap praise upon tiny little churches that “still preach the Gospel,” that’s really what you’re seeing. Christians like that perceive a small, all-but-cloistered church that struggles to stay alive (largely because its leader and members piss everyone off) as containing more truthiness than a plush, posh huge Fort God-type of church with its own squad of baristas and a three-story parking garage.
And nothing screams this entire religion is nothing but false claims like how quickly these TRUE CHRISTIANS™ water down their own rules when political expediency opens a door for them.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over a villain of the past that has largely become the friend of evangelicals today.
NEXT UP: We look at the marketing hype around peace–and how that hype stigmatizes and dehumanizes people outside the tribe pushing it so hard.
Some quick Christianese: Evangelicals often call this process of softening on hardline doctrinal stances “watering down the Gospel.” It means that a church is being way nicer or more generous than its Christian judge thinks it should be. It sounds way nicer (and much more Jesus-y) than “they don’t hate the same people I do with the same vehemence they used to show.”
Along with this phrase, the judges sigh their Jesus-y sighs and shake their heads with Jesus-y sadness. Sample usage: “That church used to be great, but their new pastor has watered down the Gospel.” Generally speaking, any church that opts out of the culture wars can expect this accusation. By the way: if a church is way meaner or stricter than its judge thinks it should be, then it gets called “legalistic.” Seriously. (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 thinks this novel represents serious theology. Instead, this series offers a playful critique of a book that captured the ethos of an era.