Hi and welcome back to our Off-Topic Monday series! Today, we’re back for another examination of Frank Peretti’s 1986 Christian fantasy novel This Present Darkness. In Chapter 7, we look at a very common modern-day evangelical practice: overstating the stakes, then declaring victory even when they’ve completely lost their manufactured squabble. Today, Lord Snow Presides over evangelicals’ weapons-grade cognitive dissonance.
(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; Eeeevil Ecumenicism. Quoted material comes straight from sources. Page numbers come from the softcover 2003 edition of the book.)
Exaggerating and Downplaying: The Evangelical Playbook.
Even after having actually been hardcore fundagelical (“we put the fun into dysfunctional!”) for years as a young adult, I still have to shake my head at some of the weirder aspects of the evangelical psyche. If it blows my mind, I can’t even imagine what someone might think if they’ve never been part of that mess.
And if you don’t grok those aspects, it’s going to be harder to understand any evangelicals in your life.
Here’s one of ’em:
Super-exaggerating risks and potential problems for any project they undertake, then making up a win when none exists and expecting everyone else to just play along with the pretense.
The Brave Widdle Pastor.
In response to a totally over-the-top, stunningly-ridiculous, completely-contrived risk of death for continuing on as Ashton’s pastor, our TRUE CHRISTIAN™ Hero Hank Busche puts his bravest face on (p. 70):
“Maybe I’ll win, maybe I won’t come out alive. But God didn’t tell me I’d come out alive; He just told me to stay and fight. You’ve made one thing clear to me: Satan does want this town. I can’t let him have it.”
We’re talking about a small-town church, remember. Even in cities, pastors’ murder rate isn’t notably high. A congregation is far more likely to just fire their pastor or hound him into an emotional breakdown rather than physically harm him.
In fact, Hank Busche’s church will be voting on firing him soon in the book. Why would they need to kill him? Seriously, they can just fire his butt. Even vandalizing his home was a ridiculously over-the-top and unnecessary gesture, all things considered. Churches are businesses, not Scooby-Doo’s haunted houses full of mysteries and villainy. Frank Peretti ought to know that more than anybody.
However, death is exactly the fate that he’s implying here.
Holy Artificially Inflated Stakes, Batman!
Divine Thought Intrusion.
“Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee.”
Every time I read that scene I just groan miserably. It’s an involuntary response to pure cringe. Evangelicals love ripping Bible verses out of context. And in today’s politicized Christian climate, this one’s a fave.
In response to this divine thought insertion, Busche puts on his sneakers and goes for a walk–without telling his wife where he’s going, because jeez, who cares if she might worry a little about him after a serious
panic demonic attack and a suspected murder conspiracy being plotted against him by his very own church? I mean GYAAH, y’all, loosen up a little here.
Something more important than communicating with his wife is going on here.
Utterly Fearless (In His Mind).
While his attending angels watch and marvel at how Busche is obviously “giving action to a burden in his heart” (p. 70), Hank Busche walks in his cute widdle sneakers toward the town’s downtown business district. They follow along after him, discussing how he could totally be murdered if he makes himself into any kind of “threat” to the sinister forces around Ashton.
Let me repeat that in caps: PERETTI THINKS HIS GARY STU HERO COULD TOTALLY BE MURDERED HERE, Y’ALL. (PS: TVTropes walkabout warning.)
Yeah. If I keep rolling my eyes, they’re gonna get frozen like that.
But Busche remains fearless in the face of this completely contrived, made-up, nonexistent threat.
We see this exact mindset in a lot of evangelicals nowadays, don’t we?
Back in my day it was a little more imaginary–we really saw ourselves as Hank Busche, fighting unseen battles with invisible enemies. We put ourselves into these imaginary chess games with infinite stakes. Our side represented Ultimate Good, and the other–of course–was Ultimate Evil. Thus, every single decision we made might have eternal consequences.
None of us ever wondered how a god who literally had a divine plan and controlled every part of it could possibly fail. Even entertaining that dangerous notion would take years for me. Currently-believing evangelicals–even leaders in their movement–can’t go there, at least with a sense of emotional safety.
And Claiming the Win.
As he watches cars go past at the main intersection in town, however, Hank Busche feels kinda frustrated. He’s been thinking so very, very hard at the ceiling and he’s been at it for ages, y’all! And somehow his god hasn’t delivered ownership of the city to him yet. WTF? Just generally, WTF? Really now! How could thinking at the ceiling possibly fail?
So Busche does what evangelicals often do: he declares victory anyway. His imaginary friend whispers to him,
Pray, Hank. Pray for these people. Don’t let them escape your heart. The pain is there, the fear is there, the danger is there.
Busche pouts about how long it’s taking for his literal magical thinking to have an effect on Reality-Land. He looks around himself at the buildings and traffic and the cars and the trash, which do not care in the least what he thinks. So he gets all belligerent, mumbling to himself (p.71):
“I’m here, Satan,” he said. “I can’t see you, and maybe you can move faster than I can, but I’m still here, and by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit I intend to be a thorn in your side until one of us has had enough!”
TELL HIM, HANK! YOU TELL THAT MEAN OLE DEVIL!
Declaring Victory Anyway.
As far as Hank Busche is concerned, he’s already claimed victory. I noticed this tendency myself years ago–in fact, a common Christianese phrase in that crowd is claiming the victory. When evangelicals pray for a magical healing, for example, they might end with “And I’m claiming the victory over that cancer, Lord!” Their leaders encourage this behavior.
But that slow, sad, hollow-eyed walk to the hospital parking lot belongs to Reality-Land.
We are not in Reality-Land in this novel.
We are in Bizarro-World now. This is Opposite-Day, The-Upside-Down Of Fundagelical-Land. If we can at least see the conductor, Frank Peretti, standing on his soapbox frantically mismanaging the world’s worst orchestra performance, that sight remains a small comfort for the suffering we endure at his hands.
Christians realized years ago that their culture wars weren’t going well. I’m not kidding. That’s back when Franklin Graham (taking a greatly-needed break between boffing pool boys, to make a wild and unsubstantiated guess out of my left ass cheek) declared that he was totally willing to get beheaded for opposing human rights for gay people.
Sure, like anybody in the modern United States stands at risk of capital punishment for taking a right-wing Christian position about human rights, right?
Like his pals, that unspeakable coward would bepiss himself at the thought of returning a library book a day late. That base hypocrite couldn’t break a coffee date without fainting and he’s never met a moral stance he could actually maintain if profit or power sat glittering on the table for his taking.
Oh, but he’ll toooootally step right up to dance with Our Lady Guillotine over how strongly he feels about two men holding hands in public without his “Christian love” hounding them to death.
It’s very easy to make such pretenses when one remains completely, totally, absolutely safe–and in a majority position and holding inordinate amounts of political power.
Perhaps it’s that hubris that leads today’s evangelicals to declare victory over their enemies despite having lost. What else is their call for religious liberty but a demand that we all pretend they actually won the right to discriminate against their enemies, rather than lost it?
Or their constant whining about their dread enemies shoving their atheism in Christians’ poor widdle faces when they simply refuse to stay silent and in the shadows, well out of the perception of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like themselves) so they can keep pretending that atheists simply don’t exist at all?
Marking His Territory.
I’m not surprised at all that in our book, Hank Busche took his walk after his phone conversation with the church’s ex-pastor James Farrell. Of course the first thing he does after hearing that his dictator position is in danger is go out to mark his territory.
His action differs very little from that old (bad and creepy) advice to people suffering stage fright: picturing their audiences as naked. Here, Busche imagines that the town feels “pain” and “fear,” which only he as a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ can detect–and which only he can then alleviate through his superior Jesus Aura.
TRUE CHRISTIANS™ don’t talk like Busche does–pray for them, don’t let them escape your heart–about their social superiors. They only talk like that about inferiors. It’s a way of dragging down their enemies and assuming superiority over them in their imaginations, and it’s done because reality ain’t cooperating with that point of view. Busche never asks if the people of Ashton feel pain or fear, much less if they desire his assistance in alleviating it, much less how they might want him to assist.
No, King Hank the First knows exactly how this town’s residents feel, what they need, and how to meet that need–all without talking to them at all. And he’s meeting that need–in his mind, which is (to him) the only place it counts.
Ain’t he a big damn hero.
NEXT UP: We continue eviscerating the Christian marketing claim of inner peace. See you tomorrow, when we discover just how loving this claim truly is.
About that: I wish that had been literal. Hank Busche literally pissing on lampposts would have been a major improvement over what actually occurred–or rather, didn’t–in the actual text. A novel about an evangelical pastor slowly spiraling into weirder and weirder behavior would be actually interesting. But we will have no such luck here. Peretti just isn’t a good enough writer to make that descent into madness. That said, I’m developing a headcanon about what this book’s really about. (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.