The Big Church Meeting in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #115, Ch. 10)

The Big Church Meeting in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #115, Ch. 10) November 4, 2019

Hi and welcome back! We dive back into our examination of Frank Peretti’s 1986 fantasy novel, This Present Darkness. Finally, we enter the big scene he set up as the big conflict from the start of the novel: a church voting scene. We’ll look at how this scene might have resonated with Peretti as an author, and what it actually accomplishes in the novel’s setting. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a scene that demonstrates just how far from reality evangelical pastors’ lives truly are.

swordsmen and warriors in red cloudy lighting
(Hasan Almasi.)

(Please click here to find the master list of previous This Present Darkness discussions! Also, any page numbers cited come from the 2003 paperback edition of the book.)

A Quick Catch-Up.

Chapter 9 represents a bit of a nothingburger in terms of plotting. That nice boy Sandy met, Shawn, visits her parents and clears the way for a reconciliation between them all. The rest of the chapter covers Bernice’s dogged investigative journamalisming. She visits Ruth Williams, a professor of economics at Whitmore College. Whitmore is the tiny local college in Ashton. There, Sandy attends Juleen Langstrat’s weird psychology classes.

Williams goes pretty far back with Bernice and apparently was peripherally involved in her investigation over her sister’s strange death. This time, however, Bernice wants to grill her about Juleen Langstrat.

Immediately, she gathers that Williams doesn’t get along with Langstrat. Indeed, Williams notes that Langstrat lives in her own little reality. In fact, she can’t hold a “coherent conversation” with normies. But Williams doesn’t know more than that. Instead, she refers Bernice to Albert Darr, a young psychology professor.

Darr himself acts delighted to spill some tea on Langstrat, who has often offended him. He verifies that Langstrat’s seeing Brummel, but thinks it’s for “weekly sessions.” He also asserts that her areas of interest and teaching cover some very “esoteric” ground. In addition, he gives her a bunch more names of Langstrat’s associates:

  • Ted Harmel, former editor of the Clarion (her employer)
  • Mrs. Pinckston, a trustee on the board of regents (for, I assume, Whitmore College)
  • Dwight Brandon, who owns the land Whitmore stands on
  • Eugene Baylor, general treasurer of the board of regents
  • Oliver Young, the evil ecumenical pastor of the big church in town

None of these names except Oliver Young and “former editor of the Clarion” ring any bells for me. We’ve only heard hints that Harmel left the newspaper and Ashton itself under scandalous circumstances.

Okay! Caught up. Plunging into Chapter 10…

Sidebar: Oh My, These Classes.

Bernice and Marshal Hogan discuss Langstrat’s elective classes. Langstrat teaches some very weird ones. (The phone call that took Mary Busche away from her husband’s off-hours counseling session was placed, in fact, by Bernice. She’d wanted to know if Brummel was the guy they’d disfellowshipped.)

The list of courses is hilarious. It’s like Frank Peretti doesn’t realize how colleges choose what courses they’ll offer. However, these courses represent serious loss potential. It’s hard to imagine an unpopular, non-tenured associate professor gaining permission for them all. Here’s the list:

  • Introduction to God and Goddess Consciousness and the Craft
  • The Sacred Medicine Wheel
  • Pathways to Your Inner Light
  • How to Enjoy the Present by Experiencing Past and Future Lives
  • In the Beginning Was the Goddess

Hilariously, Bernice asserts that the flyer advertising all these classes isn’t university-created. Instead, it’s a handout Langstrat gave to “interested students.”

However, Peretti presents these classes as elective courses. Thus, they’re 100% university-official.

Just WTF!

Marshall gets upset that “my little Sandy” takes classes from Langstrat. Bernice suggests he interview Ted Harmel. It feels very mechanical, like hitting rote markers.

Scene ends. Exeunt right.

Ignoring the Red Bat-Phone to Jesus.

As Mary finishes her chores, Hank thinks super-hard to the ceiling in the bedroom. Peretti presents this division of labor without comment. When she finishes, she kneels next to him to think super-hard with him.

One wonders how much more Jesus Power Mary could have amassed had she skipped her housework. Maybe she suspects that dishes are real, while Jesus Power is imaginary.

This is just something I thought of while Christian. In fact, it troubled me enormously at the time. If Christians think they hold the Red Bat-Phone to a real live god, they certainly don’t act like it. I sure wouldn’t waste time on dishes with a huge church vote coming my way, if I really thought Jesus Power would help at all with it. Mary’s behavior makes sense only in a context of her knowing deep down that prayer doesn’t do jack-all anything.

A Story Frank Peretti Couldn’t GAFF About.

While the Busches think very hard at the ceiling, Alf Brummel shows up to get the church ready for visitors. For all Brummel’s vilification, he’s doing actual work related to the need here.

And as usual, this story represents one that Frank Peretti just couldn’t care less about.

Oh, he cares enough to outline some of the church’s important people. These are names and brief outlines of people we haven’t seen before, don’t care about now, and will probably never see again:

  • Sam Turner, “Brummel’s chief cohort,” and his wife Helen. We learn that he’s “a rancher of sorts.” (anti-Hank Busche)
  • John Coleman and his wife Patricia, basic rank-and-file normies (pro-Hank Busche)
  • Gordon Mayer, the little church’s secretary. He apparently keeps track of donations (anti-Hank Busche)
  • Lou Stanley, the adulterer who was disfellowshipped. He turns up at the very end of the chapter as a surprise appearance (ostensibly very anti-Hank Busche)
  • Edith Duster, an extremely old lady, and her caretaker (very pro-Hank Busche)

Hidden within their names and brief descriptions, I can see so many little side stories of infighting, power politicking, and outright turf wars. And Frank Peretti just doesn’t care about any of it. Instead, he focuses on invisible imaginary beings.

The Angels and Demons.

This church meeting is downright infested with angels and demons. They crowd around the humans inside the little church. The demons are there just to ensure the vote carries Hank Busche away. Meanwhile, the angels are there to keep an eye on things and nothing more.

As important as Ashton apparently is to the head demon, Ba-al Rafar, he couldn’t be present. Peretti informs us that he’s “wanting a very low profile.” So he ordered his underling Lucius to make sure Busche got voted out of office.

Peretti tells us that eleven angels are present. Their leader Tal appears to skip the meeting just as Rafar did (secretly, he does in fact attend–disguised as Edith Duster’s caretaker). Earlier, Tal told his angels to act only if the demons try to murder someone. Otherwise, they simply observe. Lucius even attacks one of them, Chimon of Europe, slashing his face and garment, but Chimon does nothing in response.

We also get a taste of how the angels operate. They get Jesus Power from prayers, which literally gives them the strength to do stuff. This detail, incidentally, annoyed and angered some fundagelical reviewers. That’s not biblical, you see. As that reviewer says, “as an accurate portrayal of spiritual warfare, it could prove extremely harmful.” Yes. As an “accurate portrayal” of a purely imaginary task, this could give fundagelicals all the wrong ideas. Oh noes!

A “Praying Busche.”

Naturally, the demons grow agitated and upset over the sight of the Colemans. One running theme in this book is that otherwise basic humble normies command great attention, respect, and admiration from mighty angels. It comes off as naked pandering by the author, who would have known that most of his readers would be basic humble normies in fundagelicalism.

Early on, we learn that the Colemans left “a large church elsewhere in town.” This obviously refers to the Evil Ecumenical Church headed by Oliver Young.  That’s literally the only other church in Ashton that we’ve seen so far. Otherwise, John and Patricia Coleman are just nobodies.

However, demons saw their potential. They responded by doing their level best to destroy the Colemans’ marriage. They failed, but only because the Colemans left their former church to join this one.

See, they’d “aligned themselves with Praying Busche, hearing his words and becoming stronger all the time.” Obviously, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ don’t experience serious turmoil in their relationships. Obviously.

This titbit was hilarious to see. It’s like Peretti doesn’t acknowledge the catastrophic effect on relationships that his ideology has, almost without fail.

Later, we’ll learn that “a demon of fever tried to stop the Colemans” from the meeting. But they’re here anyway. Infectious vectors for the win! Hooray Team Jesus!

If you’re waiting for a postscript about them infecting everyone at the meeting and killing poor old Edith Duster at last, you’ll be disappointed.

Speeches and More Speeches.

Nothing could possibly be more riveting, from a narrative standpoint, than endless speeches. And if you think that way, you’re in luck! Peretti gives us tons of them in the longest chapter we’ve yet seen in the book.

These speeches function as a love-poem to his self-insertion Gary Stu character and bro-crush, Hank Busche. Even the anti-Hank Busche speeches operate that way. Isn’t that how Gary Stus/Mary Sues are though? Even their “flaws” actually only highlight how perfect and amazing these characters are.

And in fundagelical imaginations, that’s exactly what’s happening here. Hank Busche cares too much about Jesus-ing correctly. He Bibles too hard. If something conflicts with the Bible, he always goes with the Bible. The anti-Hank Busche forces despise him for this. They see, correctly as it happens, that a pastor also must work with his flock, and can only lead them as far as they desire to be led.

But Peretti presents these authoritarian traits to us as absolute positives for a pastor.

Grading the Speeches.

Sam Turner whines about how saaaaad he is about poor Lou Stanley, whose reputation has been besmirched forever by all the accusations about his adultery. He complains about the loss of a feeling of family within the church body. And he’s absolutely correct about all of it. 10/10.

John Coleman complains about his previous church and how it left him “hungry for the Word.” That’s a very fundagelical bit of Christianese. In fact, it might well function as Peak Christianese. If you ever need to fit in with a crowd of fundagelicals, this phrase works like a secret handshake. It means that nobody but nobody Jesus-es as hard as you do. You wanted more Jesus than the target of the complaint provided. Whatever Jesus was provided wasn’t anywhere good enough for King You. So Hank Busche satiated Coleman’s “hunger,” and so he wants them to keep the pastor around. He’s missing the whole point of what a church is supposed to be. Instead, he sees it as something that feeds his individual appetite, not a body of believers working together to create community. 0/10.

Gordon Mayer tells them donations are super-down and chides them for withholding money to express their displeasure. Cuz even if you totally disapprove of your leader, in Fundie-Land you still must donate considerable money and resources to his enterprise! Then he reveals that the church hiring committee had hired Hank Busche entirely by accident. It’s like nobody told this committee they could do anything about a seriously misplaced vote. Nope, sorry, they had to play it like it lays! Mayer tells them to “start doing things right for a change.” He offers a tantalizing look at inside church politics, but done from a very disapproving stance. That impression gets solidified when a moment later we catch Mayer trying to stuff the ballot-box. 5/10.

The vote turns out 28-26 in favor of keeping Hank Busche on as pastor. Edith Duster and–shockingly–Lou Stanley might have turned the tide. One angel later accuses Tal of impersonating Stanley, but Tal denies that charge.

The Ignored Story.

I find myself “hungering” for a book about the church politics that resulted in Hank Busche’s hiring and later downfall. This scene is not only the longest, but it also feels the most resonant with Frank Peretti as a person. He grew up as the son of a pastor. When he hit adulthood, he helped Dear Old Dad with pastoring for five years–and clearly only nepotism led to that hiring decision. I assert this charge because very quickly it became apparent that pastoring was not among Frank Peretti’s professional strengths.

He downplays his utter failure in this regard in an interview he gave just a few months ago:

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 and I were living in a 25-foot travel trailer with a shack built around it. I was out of a job again. I’d tried so many things and still I was floundering. But I remember the moment: Barb and I were taking a short getaway at Deception Pass on Puget Sound, and I remember sitting on the high bluffs above the surging currents and asking the Lord, “What now?”

I guess it was because the Lord had allowed me to exhaust all the other paths that I finally saw there was only one path left before me — the right one. I knew, I just knew in that moment that God wanted me to be a writer. Clear as a bell.

What a lot of pain and heartache lurk in those brief paragraphs! I can’t help but think that the experience shaped his writing, especially with regard to the early plot’s central conflict.

He didn’t “end” his time as a pastor.

He damned well got them ended for him.

I’ve no doubt at all about that stark truth.

The Story We Got.

Even as bad a writer as Peretti really is, he could have done real justice to a novel based on his real-life experiences as a rejected pastor. The sheer amount of infighting leading to that rejection had to be epic. We only get hints of that process from leaders like Thom Rainer–and from ex-Christian pastors who show us exactly how that dreadful sausage gets made, so to speak.

But we’re not going to get a book like that. If nothing else, such an author would be attacked and dogpiled by fundagelicals accusing him of “sowing strife and division.” Instead, we get a fairy tale about angels and demons. In his world, TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastors (like he undoubtedly thought he was) only get rejected because literal demons pounce upon the hearts and minds of congregations.

Meanwhile, literal angels stand by to strengthen congregants who want TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastoring. It’s not because those congregants are authoritarian control-freaks who resonate with evangelicalism’s simple, enduring message of cruelty, viciousness, control-lust, and brutality. Nope! They’re just “hungry for the Word,” you see.

How Could This Book NOT Have Gone Viral?

I can very easily see why my peers ate this book’s ideas up with a spoon–and why its ideas quickly permeated our worldview and came to dominate it.

This book gave fundagelicals a very proactive position in the ultimate fight between Capital-G Good and Capital-E Evil. It assigned them positions of great honor and respect from nothing less than immortal angels themselves. There’s no way whatsoever this book wouldn’t be popular. And it would not lose that popularity, either.

By now, the idea of humans engaging in real live spiritual warfare against demons is all but dogma in the fundagelical mind. As one reviewing pastor with the website Faith Alone tells us:

On a more personal level, in nine years of pastoral ministry I have never read two books which have as successfully motivated me either to daily prayer for the people under my care, nor to take so seriously Paul’s statement that “we wrestle not against flesh and blood.” I cannot recommend these books too strongly for encouragement, comfort, and simple pleasure.

But as a pastor, wouldn’t he know better than anybody how effective prayer was? Why would he need a fiction book to tell him that? Wouldn’t he know to his marrow and bones that thinking hard at the ceiling had real-life effects?

Apparently not. He just likes the feeling of importance the book lays on personal prayer. Actual praying doesn’t come anywhere close to living up to that hype.

Follow-Through: Still Lacking.

Indeed, evangelicals get stuffed to the gills with nonsense like This Present Darkness, and they still don’t act like they believe they possess a Red Bat-Phone to Jesus. Studies tell us routinely that a solid minority of evangelicals admit to praying weekly or less often. And that’s admitting to it anonymously.

For my part, I personally know evangelicals don’t pray often. It came up constantly in their informal confessions to the groups I was in. I prayed all the time and I still felt I didn’t pray enough, but being around other evangelicals made me feel like Queen Fundie for what I did.

My then-husband Biff, for his part, didn’t start praying regularly until I deconverted. Afterward, he prayed in the loudest and most ostentatious manner possible. Afterward, he’d always emerge from our closet red-eyed and glaring accusingly at me. But he’d been telling our elders and pastors for years that he was totally a Prayer Warrior for Jesus in his off-time. And they sure seemed to believe him. Jesus sure didn’t tell them he was lying his ass off!

Seriously, I just can’t even with these folks.

Efficiency: Still Lacking.

But I reckon it’s better for Christians not to waste their time on magical thinking. Every minute and every dollar that goes to such nonsense represents the loss of resources that are painfully finite for most people. It’s not a bad thing that Christians don’t bother with stuff that isn’t relevant to them. Their pastors and communities and ideology tell them one thing about reality, but they can clearly see how actual reality differs from those teachings.

This Present Darkness represents what the universe would look like–and how it’d operate, possibly–in a world where Christians’ claims were true. Our real world doesn’t operate anything like that. And Christians themselves, even the most fervent of them, know this truth perfectly well.

So today, Lord Snow Presides over the major differences between Christians’ claims about reality and the actual truth of our very real reality–as presented in a made-up conflict in a made-up book.

NEXT UP: Speaking of which, we’ll be looking at Christians who refuse to accept their religion’s decline. See you tomorrow!


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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.
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