The Very Unlikely Party Tank in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #117, Ch. 11)

The Very Unlikely Party Tank in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #117, Ch. 11) November 18, 2019

Hi and welcome back! Lately we’ve been reviewing Frank Peretti’s 1986 well-it’s-technically-a-book This Present Darkness. In this installment, we encounter a fundagelical trope at least as venerable as its embodiment: the old church lady whose unshakeable faith and rock-solid devotion makes her a church’s tank. I’ll show you what tanks are in gaming and why Christian culture warriors think they need one. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the weakest consolation prize ever!

larpers having fun outside in the fresh air
Orders of magnitude cooler, more fun, and more relevant than evangelicals’ notion of SPEERCHUL WARFARE. (jeager, CC.) Fresh air, fun, friends, dressing up, and creating stories together–no wonder LARP groups tend to grow while churches tend to shrink!

(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 Very Quick Whisk Through the Plot Points.

In addition to the plot points discussed today, Frank Peretti runs through some others just to dot his crosses &etc.

Sandy helps her parents unpack groceries. Her dad, Marshall Hogan, calls Ted Harmel, the previous editor of the newspaper he now owns and edits. He tries to grill Harmel for deets on Juleen Langstrat, the leader of the local Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (and Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW).

Harmel is having none of that subtle stuff. He gets really upset with Hogan and warns him in no uncertain terms to drop that whole story idea. He even warns Hogan that his wife and daughter might be at risk if he continues to pursue the story. Then he hangs up.

Worth noting: A couple of months ago, Associated Press listed some guidelines for journalists who face harassment like threats against their families. A tracker site notes that so far this year, 32 journalists have faced physical attacks. Last year, five were killed.

I haven’t noted any efforts by liberals to do that to conservative journalists. In fact, that tactic seems to go the other direction. Suppressing a free press appears to be a favorite tactic of authoritarians. Hey, such efforts helped keep Christianity dominant around the world for many centuries!

Either way, Harmel’s warning fails. Hogan comes away from the conversation more intent than ever to find out what’s happening to Ashton.

At the end of the chapter, we’ll learn that the demon Deception thinks Sandy Hogan’s under the demons’ control now. Oh noes!

Meet Edith Duster.

Earlier, we briefly met Edith Duster at the big church meeting (p. 103):

Just about a block up the street were two old women, hobbling toward the church. One walked with the assistance of a cane and a helping hand from her friend. She did not look well at all, but her jaw was set and her eyes bright and determined. Her cane clacked out a syncopated rhythm with her footsteps.

And oh my, the demons at the meeting express alarm at the very sight of her! Wow! One mentions that a demon was supposed to stop her from attending, but nope, here she is!

Frank Peretti chews some scenery around her entrance:

The two ladies made their way up the church steps, each step a major task in itself, first one foot, then the other, then the cane placed on the next step, until they were finally up to the church door.

When a demon of sickness attempts to give Edith Duster a stroke, her companion coincidentally steps in the way of the attack to foil it completely. The demon’s attack hits the companion’s shoulder, which stops the blow as if it were “concrete.” Later, we’ll discover that Tal, the leader of the angels, impersonated this almost-as-elderly female friend for the express purpose of getting her to the church for the vote.

They turn out to desperately need old Edith Duster. The vote only very narrowly succeeded in their favor.

But they’ll turn out to need her even more in a bit here. See, she’s their party’s very unlikely tank.

A Brief Gaming Primer: Tanks.

A long time ago, my good friend Gary played a very high-level mage on the MUD I played. Normally, mages function as crowd control and support for the party, not as its tank. There’s a good reason why not, too.

For those who didn’t spend their formative years on roleplaying games:

Gamers often call their party’s point people tanks. Tanks rush in at the forefront to engage directly with the opposition. And in turn, they take the most damage. In fact, their players carefully build them to take that kind of big damage. They deal a lot of damage in turn, mostly focused on one other opponent at a time.

In this pic from Elfquest, the elf-woman in the center, Kahvi, is a tank. Check out the source (here) to see the support characters doing their thing behind her.

During fights, the support characters hang back where it’s safer. They cast healing and protection spells on the tanks and sling general-damage spells against the opposition as a whole (“crowd control”). They can’t usually take direct damage themselves. In fact, a hit that a tank shrugs off can easily turn a mage into a chunky goo spot smeared against a nearby wall.

Mages Old Ladies Can Be Tanks!

But my friend Gary wanted to be a mage who was also a tank.

This desire posed some problems for him. Namely, his mage tended to die horribly, often, when he ventured into areas appropriate for his level. But bless his little heart, he’d be out there immediately afterward trying to recover his many lost experience points (XP or EXP). The funny thing? When he won his fights, he won big. But when he lost, he lost brutally and quickly.

Usually, Gary used his powers for good by leading much lower-level characters into areas that were high enough of a level to get them lots of XP quickly, but that didn’t pose a danger to his fragile little tank. Nobody of his level was foolish enough to let him lead them into any high-level areas. I was very nearly the only player who could keep that guy alive in a two-PC mission with us both tanking. (Why yes, I usually played tanks.)

Similarly, in Christianity zealots would consider Edith Duster a PRAYER WARRIOR tank.

Of Gods Who Need Starships Tanks.

This situation reminds me of one of the most mind-expanding scenes in the 1989 movie Star Trek: The Final Frontier. In the movie, the good ship Enterprise gets hijacked by a crazy zealot looking for a god he thinks inhabits the center of the galaxy. They do indeed find this god. And this god is thrilled to meet them in turn! He declares that he’ll use their ship to get beyond the great barrier that keeps him in place. The zealot is also thrilled. Even Bones completely buys into the idea that this being is “the Almighty.” Everybody is amazed!

But then Captain Kirk interrupts to piss in their Froot Loops by asking a very important question:

“Excuse me. I’d just like to ask a question. What does God need with a starship?”

Similarly, I find myself asking why an omnipotent god needs little old ladies to spend their sunset years as his angels’ tanks.

As we’ll see in Chapter 11, that is exactly what’s going on here. This god’s angels need Edith Duster’s help.

A Momentous Meeting.

Edith Duster lives in a retirement community close to the church. She survives, Peretti tells us, on Social Security (OMG SO SOSHULISM!! But the SBC seems okay with it, though many pastors opt out of it) and her dearly-departed husband’s pension from his days in ministry (gosh, that must be nice).

After the big church meeting, the next day Hank and his wife Mary visit Edith Duster. Over “charming” cups of tea, she lays down some wisdom on the young couple.

She simply had to attend the church meeting. She knew it was of great importance. Plus, she sensed that demons tried to stop her from attending. They tried to make her sick! However, this Hail Mary pass on their part only made her all the more intent to go.

See, she’s sure that a REVIVAL is coming Ashton’s way–no matter what all the demons in town think. In fact, her god doesn’t particularly care what anybody else thinks, either. He’s literally “forcing a revival upon that church.” So much for free will!

You’d think this would all be stuff that Edith Duster would have shared with the Busches long ago. She lives near the church, and she’s one of their powerhouse old-lady members. But no, this is apparently the first time they’ve heard any of this self-important blather.

Incidentally, Peretti starts calling Edith Duster “Grandma” in this scene. No notice, he just starts doing it. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to figure out who he was talking about. No idea who she’s the grandmother of.

The Trope of the Old Church Lady.

TRUE CHRISTIAN™ culture warriors venerate the trope of the old church lady who’s really a spiritual powerhouse. Edith Duster might as well be wearing a choker around her neck bearing that exact label.

Old people in these sorts of Christian groups generally hold a position of great respect in their communities. When I was Pentecostal, we had a woman very similar to Edith Duster in our church. In fact, she lived on the church’s property in a mobile home they’d purchased for her! Because she could no longer hobble across the parking lot to the church itself, they’d hooked up closed-circuit TV there (not cable or even real TV hookups, because that denomination called that “the Devil’s umbilical cord” and forbade it of members). She caught every single service that way, as well as receiving a complementary cassette recording of each one (normally these cost about $5 and were made available for purchase in the bookstore after each service). Her position in the church stood somewhere between mascot and Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother.

Besides her, our church contained a number of other elderly women. One was, along with her husband, an ex-missionary to (or from? ICR) Ireland for decades. Now retired, the two of them tippy-tapped their way through the church. I liked her very much. She’s the one who once toddled through the church hours after an evening service had ended, bellowing with her lilting brogue, “Wheeeeeere’s me man?!?” They were a well-matched pair.

And, of course, we also had a lot of older black lady members in their fancy hats. It’s hard to imagine someone dissing them. They sat in flotilla fashion in the front middle of the church every time.

What Does a God Need With Tanks?

These women formed part of our mythology. In our minds, they represented the vanguard of spiritual power. Their prayers, their devotions, and oh, yes, their single-minded pursuit of Jesus Power could achieve many miracles.

We never once asked why a god needed them to step once more into the breach.

My husband doesn’t even like asking me to carry groceries home, and especially not if I’m having a bad back day. Why would an even more powerful god put his aged servant Edith Duster to all that hassle? She should be wearing purple with a red hat that doesn’t go and doesn’t suit her, and eating nothing but sausages or bread-and-pickle for a week. Or bunking down with a bass guitar player, whatever.

Man alive, even the Southern Baptists have SOME kind of retirement pension plan. It’s terrible, but dangit, it’s more than their god offers Edith Duster, apparently.

LARPers having some good clean family fun
(jeager, CC.) Good clean family fun. To find the tank, look for the person in the sturdiest armor.

Stuff Fundagelicals Like: The First Shall Be Last.

We’ve already seen another very unlikely hero in this book. Early on, we saw angels expressing deep admiration and gratitude to Hank Busche, the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastor whose continued employment just got resolved by that narrow church vote win. The way Frank Peretti described Busche, however, I seriously thought he was just a college student praying in the church after hours. He went to great trouble to make Busche sound like a kid (p. 13):

There, kneeling in earnest prayer, his head resting on the hard wooden bench, and his hands clenched with fervency, was a young man, very young, the [angel] thought at first: young and vulnerable. . . “The little warrior,” said the dark-haired one.

[Commence Christian fanservice and squee-ing.]

I can see why Christians loved the humble, unexpected heroes in this book. Every one of them confirms Christians’ ideas about their importance in their god’s big, mysterious plan. They might not have any idea if they know what it is (hint: they absolutely do not), but dangit, they figure into it very prominently.

And they really like seeing very humble heroes vaulted to power, and very powerful people brought low. It appeals to them because their mythology contains so many of those elements. In that mythology, children turn out to be the wisest of all, while ostensibly very wise and learned men turn out to be idjits. Experts are dead wrong, while uneducated poseurs rise to positions of power.

It’s upside-down, it’s Bizarro-World, and it’s Opposite Day–every single day.


How that’d work in real life. (WKUK sketch: Opposite Day in the Courtroom.)

The Power Differential.

Edith Duster does not, of course, wield real power within Hank Busche’s little bitty church. Whatever power she could wield, it’d be of a personal nature alone. Hank Busche wouldn’t dream of allowing her real power, no matter how powerful her Jesus Aura might be.

And that fact really sprang out at me today while reading this chapter.

Obviously, there are a lot more inconsequential, powerless fundagelicals in the tribe than there are powerful ones. So it’s hard not to feel that Peretti’s outsize adoration of this character in the book represents a weird sort of consolation prize to older women who feel sidelined and ignored in the many thousands of fundagelical churches across the United States. Sure, they’re powerless. They’re voiceless. Whatever kids they raised are adults now and they’re not young and pretty anymore–so their value in the tribe has absolutely plummeted. But lookit here! ANGELS totally respect them! Their god’s granted them super awesome Jesus Powers!

I’ve no doubt that mythology has kept a few older folks in the pews to be given that sort of lip service. As the universal church body ages, however, and as more and more of them join that age bracket, I wonder how well that lip service will continue to work.

Cuz if there’s one thing I know fundagelicals don’t like, it’s follow-through.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over the mages trying to be tanks in fundagelicalism.

NEXT UP: Semi-Drunk Movie Review! I’ll be queuing up our movie, Only God Can, around 6pm Pacific. (It’s being sold by Amazonian. To get the 99¢ option, click “more purchase options” – it’s the SD one. I cannot imagine what on earth the HD version would provide that anyone desperately needs.) We’ll run a pre-show chat post where people can watch with me and hang out in comments. Later I’ll put up the actual full review, probably that same night after I sober up a bit. Please come join us tomorrow! See you then!


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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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