Hello and welcome back to our off-topic Monday chat series, Lord Snow Presides (LSP)! Today, we return to Frank Peretti’s evangelical-pandering 1986 bestseller, This Present Darkness. In this installment, we examine the Yoda-like superpowers of ancient widow Edith Duster. Along the way, we’ll discover a deep and cherished core of victim-blaming within the tribe. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a doctrine about the power of prayer that accidentally reveals a deeply-unpleasant and narcissistic core running through evangelicalism.
(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.)
Itty Bitty Living Space…
Octogenarian Edith Duster lives in very humble circumstances. It’s not quite the Swamps of Dagobah, but it sure isn’t where we’d expect to find a mighty, doughty prayer warrior for Jesus. This “wise old matron of the church” and “former missionary to China” lives near the church in a little bitty apartment in a retirement community.
As Peretti tells it, she survives “meagerly” on a widow’s pension as well as Social Security. (See endnote about how this fact laughs in the face of evangelical reality.) She has enough money to live by herself in a place boasting a “large window overlooking the building’s courtyard.” She graciously serves her guests tea and pastries with a “charming” tea service, and she dresses “nicely, almost formally.”
I really don’t think Frank Peretti actually understands that much about elderly church widows. He presents this widow’s poverty much like how Pretty in Pink depicted Andie’s poverty.
Edith Duster’s health suffers quite a bit, as well. In fact, she almost didn’t make it to the big church meeting because she was sooooo sick!
What a humble, meager exterior!
… Phenomenal Cosmic Power.
Edith Duster attributes her bout of sickness to demons, of course. Nope, illness couldn’t come from anything else at all.
In any other context, she’d sound like a pants-on-head wackadoodle.
But in this book, she’s absolutely correct.
That’s exactly what happened!
When she showed up at the church meeting with a disguised Tal (the captain of the angelic host loitering around Ashton) in tow helping her along, the demons freak out (p. 103):
“What went wrong?” the other [demon] wondered. “I thought she’d been taken care of.”
“Oh, she’s ill, all right, but she’s come anyway.”
“And who is the old woman with her?”
“Edith Duster has many friends. We should have known.”
A “sickness demon” draws his sword to “slash at the arteries in Edith Duster’s brain” to give her a stroke on the spot, but the angel escorting her takes the blow–and stops it cold.
Edith Duster’s Power.
See, Edith Duster is that rarest of Christians: one who understands the power of prayer and also prays a whole lot.
Plenty of Christians say that prayer is super-important and attribute all kinds of powers to it. I’ve talked about prayer many times, as well as what happened when I realized that prayer represents the best example there is of magical thinking.
Thus, most Christians don’t actually pray all that often. As much as Biff swanned around our church acting like the Second Coming of Billy La-Di-Dah Sunday, I didn’t see him pray in our home until I deconverted. At that point, he prayed in the most grandiose, obnoxious, and ostentatious ways possible to try to impress me with how hard he was working to save my immortal soul.
After that experience, I put a great many observations together to realize that very few Christians actually spend dedicated time in solo prayer. They say they have a literal hotline to Jesus. They talk a very big game indeed about how often they pray and what prayer can accomplish. But when push comes to shove, they sure don’t waste a lot of time thinking or wailing earnestly at the ceiling.
And yet nothing whatsoever has changed.
Christians still don’t pray like they believe their own claims about prayer.
(If Edith Duster had only been posturing for her guests, this book would have gotten a hearty laugh out of me.)
This Present Darkness, to a large extent, feels like it got written as a sort of poke-in-the-butt to its target audience to start praying more often. Peretti wanted to show his tribe why prayer mattered. He also wanted to give them a picture of what might happen if they ever got off their butts and prayed for a change.
In this book, we’ve seen some fairly low-key examples of that lesson already. When Hank Busche (the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastor) faced a
panic attack demonic attack, a frantic prayer drove them away. Angels have vaguely hinted that prayer power grants them strength–while indicating that the prayers of hypocritical or lax Christians do nothing for them (p. 98).
We’ve also seen angels admiring this same pastor while he prayed. They get all googly-eyed and simper like Cameron: Ferris Bueller… Yer mah HEEERO!
This movie’s now 33 years old. You’re all welcome for the reminder, Gen X readers.
But now we get a very tangible example of how prayer functions in this universe. Edith Duster, you see, totally had a dizzy spell before the church meeting. That has only ever happened to her once before: when visiting a “spiritist” in China who hated her. She’s positive this “spiritist” put a hex on her–or at least tried to. Back then, she prayed very similarly to how Hank Busche did during his
panic attack demonic attack. And that worked! So she did it again last night, and it worked then too!
Now she demands that Hank Busche and his wife Mary pray with her around her table. Through her, Peretti lays out one of the most familiar magic spells in his entire end of the religion (p. 113):
“Lord God,” she said, and the warmth of the
[ritual euphoria]Holy Spirit flowed through them, “I build now a hedge around this young couple, and I bind the spirits in Jesus’ name. Satan, whatever your plans for this town, I rebuke you in Jesus’ name, and I bind you, and I cast you out!”
And the effects of her magic spell hit the demons immediately and unmistakably.
The Worst Magic Spell EVER.
While the trio weaves their magic spell, Peretti troops on down to what I assume is the basement of the college’s psychology building. There, two demons happen to be standing around with their swords in their hands. Ya know. Like ya do.
And suddenly their swords fall right out of their hands and hit the floor!
Hey, I didn’t say that the magic spell’s effects were important or even relevant.
I only said that they were in fact noticeable effects.
The Demons’ Shocking Reaction to the Spell.
Rafar, the Head Demon In Charge (HDIC), happens to be nearby when the swords drop. He prevents the demons from picking them back up by stomping on both blades. Then he picks up and examines one of the swords in a way that suggests that he thinks it might abruptly transform into a stick of string cheese or cartoon-style TNT.
Rafar even says “Uhnnnnnnnhhh” during this examination. (That is a quadruple-checked quote.) Peretti describes the noise as “a low, gurgling growl” done while Rafar’s “nostrils belched forth yellow vapor.” However, it does not in the least come off as a growl, much less as being scary or ominous.
Very, very slowly Rafar begins to think that Tal had something to do with the swords falling out of the demons’ hands.
At that point, he throws a galactic-level HISSY FIT.
Weird Behavior for a Demon.
Rafar flings the sword clean out of the building. Swinging right around, he then gets furious at the demon called Complacency. Complacency failed to do his job of keeping Marshall Hogan (the newspaper editor/owner in town) complacent. In fact, Hogan’s gotten intensely interested in figuring out what the big conspiracy is in Ashton, and this is obviously Complacency’s fault. Rafar uses his own sword to cut a big gash in the floor, revealing a Hellmouth sorta thing. He flings Complacency into it.
But we already know that Tal had nothing whatsoever to do with the swords falling. He wasn’t in the room while Edith Duster prayed just now, and he sure didn’t infiltrate the demons’ hideout to knock the swords to the ground. Rafar’s just so spooked by the very idea of Tal being involved in his business that he’s seeing the angel around every corner.
Indeed, when a couple of his sub-demons ask who Tal is, Rafar launches into an extremely uncomfortable tirade about how absolutely awesome (TVTropes Walkabout Warning!) his ancient enemy really is. Here’s a taste of it (p. 115):
“Who is this Tal? He is a subtle warrior who knows his limitations, who never enters a battle he cannot win, who knows all too well the power of the saints of God, a lesson you could all stand to learn!”
Then he reasons that the swords might not have fallen due to Tal’s direct intervention:
“This is Tal’s manner. His strength is not in his own sword, but in the saints of God. Somewhere somebody is praying!”
Oof. If my eyes roll any harder, they’re gonna stick that way.
And the Accidental Dark Consequence of This Belief.
Gosh, it’s so nice that Edith Duster prayed when she was dizzy and/or super-duper-sick, and her Jesus Aura dispelled the demons and got her well enough to attend an important church function that her god could have dealt with easily by himself without hassling this beloved aged child of his! And isn’t it wondrous that when TRUE CHRISTIANS™ pray, it temporarily knocks swords from demons’ hands–which they then only need to lean down to retrieve and wield again?
Their god truly is an awesome god! (/s)
But this idea that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ get magical Jesus healing represents quite a brutal message to send Christians who are sick and suffering.
This belief harms people. I’ve known tons of Christians who blamed themselves for not Jesus-ing hard enough to get magical Jesus healing. They beat themselves senseless against the rock of devotion, hoping that somehow they’d luck into the correct amount of fervor that would unlock their healing.
And their fellow Christians definitely accused them of exactly that shortcoming, just in case they failed to beat themselves up enough over it by themselves.
A World Where Evangelicals’ Dreams (Finally) Come True.
If nothing else, This Present Darkness does indeed show us the power of prayer. It shows us what our world would look like if Christians’ claims were true. Our world looks nothing like that. In the real world, very devoted, fervent old ladies get very sick and even die of illnesses–as do sweet innocent children. And plenty of heathens escape all of those misfortunes and die of old age surrounded by all the people they love most–despite Christians literally praying for their enemies to suffer and threatening harm constantly upon us.
Ultimately, in this glorious age of Christianity’s decline, it’s almost quaint to see a Christian try to quantify and describe how Jesus Magic works. The effort really brings home how useless prayer really is and what a waste of time it is. Not that Christians need the lesson–they quite understand that point already, if their prayer habits are anything to go by. All the Edith Dusters in the world couldn’t coax them to behave any differently.
Of course, back in the 80s and 90s Peretti and his fans sure didn’t perceive any of those troubling truths. They were just so excited to finally get a visualization that made them feel like Big Damn Heroes (Ain’t They Just), like paladins wading into an active battlefield with flaming swords in hand, like what they were doing mattered somehow, that they didn’t care exactly what the downsides were to this conceptualization. And through their embrace of Peretti’s ideas, it informed Christian culture warriors’ self-image forever after.
So today, Lord Snow Presides over a belief that only illustrates and highlights the very worst aspects of Christianity.
NEXT UP: Tomorrow, we’re going to stop the presses to look at that Barna study. Thursday, we have a Super Special! See you soon!
Yeah, so, about Edith Duster’s money: This book really wants us to believe that Edith Duster’s husband refused to opt out of Social Security withholding. The US allows ministers to do that. As we saw earlier, a great many evangelical ministers decide to opt out because their salaries are already as low as congregations dare to pay. But not this guy! Edith Duster’s husband was also smart enough to pick a denomination and/or missionary umbrella group that provided a pension to longtime ministers (and then didn’t fire him arbitrarily as he approached a length of service that might qualify for it). Many ministers in evangelicalism end up retiring with absolutely no savings whatsoever and no pension at all. Social Security requires someone to have paid into the fund during their working life. Edith Duster was a missionary’s wife. I doubt she was paying into the fund.
It’s beyond weird that someone like Frank Peretti, who briefly made a living as a sub-pastor of some kind and whose dad was a pastor, would make this kind of strange mistake. (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.