Hello and welcome back to our Monday off-topic series, Lord Snow Presides! Today, we dive once again into Frank Peretti’s 1986 book, This Present Darkness (TPD). I find this book fascinating still, even after all these weeks of reading and reviewing it! It simply contains so many of the seeds of what we find most tedious and grotesque about evangelicals today. As we dive into Chapter 10, we meet a femme fatale who wants her a piece of Hank. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the worst counselor in the world.
(Please click here to find the master list of previous This Present Darkness discussions! Also, page numbers come from the 2003 paperback edition of the book.)
A Dangerous Meeting.
Frank Peretti’s big huge subplot for this first half of the book involves Hank Busche’s church holding a vote of confidence in their pastor. Chapter 10 opens shortly before that meeting on Friday evening.
For some reason, Hank Busche holds a last-minute pastoral counseling meeting in his home office, rather than his church. In addition, he holds it after business hours rather than during the workday. All by themselves, these two facts make absolutely no sense. But in this context, considering who asked for the session, they start looking like absolute lunacy for a pastor trying to keep his nose clean.
The person requesting that meeting is a vampy-sounding femme fatale named Carmen. Peretti couldn’t even think of a last name for her, so he tells us that Carmen simply never provided her last name to her pastor. It seems weird that a pastor would have a meeting like this with a congregant whose full name he doesn’t even know. Peretti frequently describes his church as teeny tiny, so it shouldn’t be that hard to get everyone’s names. Or perhaps she’s just a rando off the street–in which case inviting her into his home after hours makes even less sense.
Anyway, she’s here now and we’ve got to deal with her.
A Most Unusual Counseling Session.
Sensing danger, Hank covers his ass by asking his wife Mary to sit in on the session with the two of them. That works until a phone call pulls Mary out of the room (because Hank’s office doesn’t have its own phone? because Mary couldn’t just let it keep ringing, so her husband stays safe?).
This scene could have taken place easily at the church during working hours. Mary’s presence doesn’t do much, either way. The phone removes her from the scene very quickly. Carmen’s only just gotten started describing the demonic voices she keeps hearing that keep talking dirty to her.
Once Mary’s gone, Carmen amps up the pressure on Pastor Hank. She describes a strange sexual encounter she had with someone or something that looked like her ex-husband Jim. She relays the entity’s name–which she thinks was Spanish or Italian-sounding and was called Amano or Amanzo or suchlike.
Recently, the demonic voices have escalated, she tells Hank. In fact, one of them apparently spent the whole night with her while acting and sounding like Jim. Peretti doesn’t flat-out say that she had sex with this demon, but the implication is there. The lonely divorcee cries as she tells Hank, “It was beautiful.”
While she speaks, she keeps touching Hank and taking his hand without permission.
A Gal’s Got Her Patience and Here’s Where Hers Ends.
It is a supremely creepy scene, but somehow Hank–our TRUE CHRISTIAN™ stalwart–doesn’t put the brakes on Carmen right away. Here’s what I mean (p.92):
Hank was watching [Mary] go when he felt Carmen touching his hand.
“You don’t think I’m crazy, do you?” she asked with pleading eyes.
“Uh…” Hank withdrew his hand to scratch a nonexistent itch.
Hank behaves more like a teenager than an adult. He’s nonplussed and speechless, and he withdraws from her in ways that he hopes won’t offend the pretty lady trying her best to seduce him. It is downright bizarre. Finally, he calls their counseling session to an early end. She behaves very inappropriately there as well (p. 93):
…but then her hand was touching his again. Time to call a recess, Hank thought.
“Uh,” he said, trying to be comforting, sincere, and nonjudgmental. “Listen, I think it’s been a fruitful hour. . .”
“Would you like to come again, next week sometime?”
“Oh, I’d love to!” she exclaimed, as if Hank had asked her for a date. “I’ve so much more to tell you!”
By the way, Mary’s been gone this whole time.
“Good Old Mary.”
In fact, Mary doesn’t show up again until Carmen’s gotten the hint to leave. Mary then helps scoot Carmen out the door (p. 93):
Getting Carmen out the door was easier than Hank had expected. Good old Mary. What a lifesaver.
“Good old Mary?”
Hank and Mary are both in their mid-20s, I think. He’s fresh out of Jesus School and pastoring his first church. Back in Chapter 2, he describes her thusly (p. 24):
Here was the sunny spot in a cloudy day for Hank, this playful little wife with the melodic giggle. She was a doll and she had real grit too.
Now he describes her in terms better befitting a very old draft horse.
She tries to tell her husband that this whole counseling thing with Carmen is a bad idea. Her husband brushes her off.
“Hank,” Mary said in a very hushed voice, “I don’t think I like this!”
“She’s. . . she’s a real hot one, she is.”
But he implies immediately thereafter that he has every intention of “counseling” Carmen again. And I’m guessing this “counseling” will be taking place at his home, and that he’ll still task Mary with making sure he doesn’t fall into this viperess’ arms and start doing the Horizontal Bop with her right there on the couch.
Because there’s no Jesus Power animating Christianity, pastors can’t count on divine aid to resist the wiles of seductive women. The more boisterous the flavor of Christians involved, the more likely they are to lean hard on that nonexistent safety net–and the more likely it is that the whole situation will turn into a scandal.
That’s likely why we rarely hear about big sexual scandals erupting from the more progressive and mainline churches. They know that it’s up to people to make their groups safe, not their imaginary friend. So they take the pains to enact all the safety measures the secular world has figured out.
Meanwhile, I heard not long ago about a woman who had deconverted, but her kids still wanted to attend a Baptist-type church. So she called around to the evangelical churches in their small Southern town to ask what systems they had in place to prevent child abuse. Not only did many of them not even do background checks, but several of the church secretaries reacted with indignation to the very idea that they should have any protective system in place.
One gal even spluttered at her that Jesus would keep her children safe, just like he had all the rest of the children at the church! How dare she imply that Jesus might not keep children safe! What was she, a heretic who didn’t trust Jesus? Well, THEY trusted Jesus!
Needless to say, she did not allow her children to attend that church. Thankfully, she cared more for their safety than she did about virtue-signaling her piety.
Modest: Still Nottest.
Evangelical men, in particular, get raised to think that their sexual urges are unstoppable. It’s very insulting to men, I’d think. They literally talk about rape in terms of men being sharks who go into a frenzy when they smell blood in the water, or muggers who lose all self-control when they see someone walking down a street flashing money.
To solve their problem, then, these men task the group’s women with removing all temptation from their environment. That’s why evangelical women sometimes dress in very frumpy ways. Or men simply seek to do away with women in their environment altogether, because their resolve is so weak it simply cannot withstand any woman’s presence.
If a man feels that he has been tempted beyond all endurance and has unapproved sex, or worse yet assaults someone, then the group will generally blame the woman involved for tempting him too far–even if she’s actually a little girl. They won’t get mad at the man–in fact, they’ll get mad at anybody who holds the man involved accountable.
That’s what Hank is doing in this scene, in asking Mary to be present. He’s trying to shrink-wrap his environment, but he’s doing it in a really ineffective way. My first Pentecostal pastor did something similar, but he only held counseling sessions at the church. Another popular method to prevent “a bad witness” was to leave the office door wide open. And still another involved never, ever having a solo woman over to the pastor’s home–whether his wife was present or not.
Oops. Guess Hank doesn’t know that one yet.
If this were a real story set in the real world, Mary would be very upset during this meeting. She’d know that, despite being tasked with making sure her husband’s pee-pee doesn’t wander, she ultimately can’t stop him at all if that’s what he wants to do. In this broken system, she is powerless.
It doesn’t occur to any of the Christians in these groups to hold men responsible and accountable for their behavior. Instead, they just load women down with yet more restrictions. Meanwhile, other evangelical men write listicles about “danger signs” of adultery in ministers.
And yet, having done all nonsense busy-work, evangelical men still create scandal after scandal, and the wives of these ministers still report having horrific and often abusive marriages. What evangelical leaders are doing to stop all that is not working, but they like their system too much to change its base architecture overmuch.
The higher up the ladder of power a man is in a broken system, the less accountability he faces. It’s the simple truth of evangelicalism, its central tragedy, its horror and sorrow.
Evangelical men rule their kingdom from a throne built of women’s tears and children’s pain.
The New Jesus People.
It took a while to get that throne built, though. This book shows us quite a bit about that early building period.
This Present Darkness hit evangelicals right at the height of the Satanic Panic in the mid-1980s. Many of those evangelicals themselves were fresh off the big revivals of the late 1960s and 1970s, especially the Jesus People movement.
The Jesus People–who would later become the evangelicals wringing their hands over the Endtimes and the Satanic Panic and all those other conspiracy theories–wanted Jesus to infuse their entire lives. They wanted every moment of their lives to be like a prayer to Jesus, to paraphrase the hit Keith Green song.
Most of all, they wanted as little of “the world” to infest their lives as they could manage. That’s Christianese for “anything that isn’t 100% focused on Jesus,” especially the big bad secular world aching to rip a Christian’s faith away.
The way to keep the Devil at bay was to do everything in a Jesus-flavored way. (Haha! I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it!) Christians covered their homes in Christian tchotchkes, wore Jesus swag like shirts and jewelry, and eschewed secular media in favor of Christian books and movies. Then, they felt safe.
It’s Like Counseling, Only Not.
And that same purification sentiment extended to counseling. Pastoral counseling had already begun here and there around 1925. After a slow start, by 1963 a trade group had sprung up to give certification to pastors to provide counseling. Christians already viewed psychology and real therapy with great suspicion. Now they had a Jesus-flavored alternative! Hooray Team Jesus!
But evangelicals still struggle with their broken system. Because their leaders have almost no accountability and become leaders with often next to no real qualifications, they’re not real therapists–and they do not have the oversight or ruleset that real therapists do. Evangelical pastors have never managed to square that circle, either. They ache to be the go-to for their flocks in every single way and the ultimate leader in all matters, but the struggles I saw back in the 1980s still exist today.
Oh, and those Pentecostals I knew? Their la-di-dah safeguards didn’t protect anyone either, it turns out. The denomination itself turns out to be sitting on plenty of scandals, likely as many proportionally as their spiritual bunkmates face over in the Southern Baptist Convention!
This novel shows us the seeds not only of that hatred of psychology but also the blossoming of the trend of evangelicals going to their pastors for their mental health care–and also of their habit of tasking their disenfranchised, powerless women with protecting them from unapproved sex.
How could I not be completely fascinated with this silly book?
More Good Stories Frank Peretti Doesn’t Care About.
This little scene in Chapter 10 really highlights what a piss-poor storyteller Frank Peretti is. He’s sitting on two really good stories here that he just could not care less about uncovering.
First: Mary faces the same problem as all the women in those Thom Rainer columns: a broken system specifically set up to allow their husbands to do exactly what they’re doing. She’s helpless to do much within her marriage, and yet Hank has tasked her with keeping him safe sexually.
Second: The other story that interests me is Carmen herself with regard to Hank Busche. She’s talking about rape by impersonation here, but Hank’s too green and wet behind the ears to realize exactly what she’s talking about–much less to help her in any meaningful way. Instead, he sends her home as quickly as he can and is relieved that she’s gone!
He’s an incompetent counselor in every single way. If this were real life, he’d be sending Carmen back to an environment that is decidedly unsafe for her.
Too bad Peretti’s busy writing an extended Chick tract. He doesn’t care about the human stories going on within his book. They’re accidental–almost collateral damage as he barrels on to his next big engagement with demons. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the worst counselor in the world.
NEXT UP: Terrible parenting advice from Natasha Crain. See you tomorrow!
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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.