Hi and welcome back to our off-topic chat series, Lord Snow Presides! We’ve been looking at Frank Peretti’s 1986 offense against literature, This Present Darkness. Amazingly, we’re now about 1/3 of the way through this massive book–and it’s had so much to say! Unfortunately for its author, most of its message doesn’t say much that’s good about his tribe. In today’s installment, we discover a popular Christian urban legend when a literal angel shows up to church–and a second one in how demons show up too. Today, Lord Snow Presides over Christians who just can’t get over themselves.
(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 Carefully-Chosen Sermon Text.
Chapter 13 begins with Hank Busche, the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastor of the “dinky” Christian church in Ashton. Here, he gives a Sunday morning sermon. This is the first sermon he’s given since the recent momentous church vote. To mark the occasion, he’s chosen a Bible passage that speaks to his recent scrape with almost getting fired: Isaiah 55.
Most Bible students will recognize this chapter as the infamous source of would-be apologists’ hand-waving about “his ways are higher than our ways.” In other words, Christians are never ever EVER allowed to question or judge their imaginary friend’s reported actions and decisions. I must say, if I were going to design an ideology that was really toxic for followers, I’d definitely include a clause like that in it. 100%.
But this chapter includes some other stuff loved by today’s toxic Christians. For example, it includes their god’s promises of mercy for any dissenters and heretics who bend the knee. In fact, this offer comes right before that hand-waving!
Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. (v. 8)
It also includes one of the germs of their planting seeds Christianese. As seeds grow with watering,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (v. 11)
And Hank’s feelin’ this chapter this morning. Ohh, yes, for sure!
Hank loves this chapter, Frank Peretti informs us. He doesn’t tell us why, however. He doesn’t tell us a single reason why Hank enjoys preaching this message. But it’s not all that hard to guess. Like Frank Peretti himself, this TRUE CHRISTIAN™ newbie pastor belongs to a tribe of stone-cold authoritarians. Isaiah concerns topics very dear to the hearts of authoritarians: gaining compliance from the reluctant and assuring the tribe of dominance in exchange for compliance.
One commentary essay calls this chapter “a gracious offer of pardon, and peace, and of all happiness.” But it’s more of an extortionary threat. Yahweh isn’t offering this stuff out of the goodness of his heart. He demands obedience. If he doesn’t get it, the chapter makes a number of oblique threats against those foolish enough to refuse to obey him–or rather, those speaking for him.
That commentator also assures readers that the chapter means that his imaginary friend will always, without exception, answer those who seek him out. I suspect this is where currently-believing Christians get some of their weird accusations against ex-Christians. Who among us hasn’t run into a Christian who thinks that The Big Problem Here is that we didn’t really pray for their god’s attention? Or that we asked in a totally wrong way for it? And that The Big Solution Here, in turn, is for us to ask just right according to their own magical spell formulation, and then we’ll get PROOF YES PROOF that their supernatural claims are all true? Hell, I had someone assure me of that just like a week ago.
Hank Busche probably also likes thinking that his god supplies the needs of his followers, something Isaiah 55 also discusses. Frank Peretti himself sure probably likes that message; this book’s sales figures freed him from crushing poverty and serious Failure To Launch. Neither the book’s story nor the Bible chapter are true in the metaphorical sense, but Christians like to use divine nurturing as a sales promise to potential recruits.
It’s not like they’ll ever need to deliver on any of these promises, I mean.
Things to Shout During Sermons.
Frank Peretti tells us that most of the people attending that morning are Hank’s supporters. Unsurprisingly, his detractors skipped out. Some of the people are infrequent attenders who weren’t even at the meeting itself, and at least one couple is one he doesn’t recognize at all. But overall, he’s among his own tribe this morning.
While Busche speaks at length, growing more and more animated, his little congregation calls out encouragement. Fundagelical pastors love this stuff, but we don’t see congregations getting this rowdy anymore. It’s been ages since I heard about a congregation shouting during a sermon. They still do, of course, but usually fundagelicals stick to head-nodding and occasional lifting of the hands in excitement and prayer.
Very occasionally you see a preacher getting super-excitable, which is the congregation’s cue that they’re allowed to rise in excitement alongside him. That’s where we are this morning in Hank Busche’s church.
Around the 15-minute mark this guy starts losing his poor li’l mind. Note the people shouting in the background.
But the book’s author tells us nothing whatsoever of what Hank Busche likes in that chapter, or what it contains that he thinks applies to his congregation extra-lots today.
My guess? I think he told his congregation that his god extra-super-likes everyone there for supporting him as their TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastor, and how nothing they do is in vain.
(Mr. Captain: “I couldn’t make out his individual words at all, but I knew that was a fundie preacher yelling.”)
The Angel in the Audience.
But one of the people in attendance isn’t actually human.
Hank Busche notices him during his sermon. He’s a “big blond guy” who “had to be a football lineman or something.” From time to time, the big visitor offers up a shouted “Amen!” in response to the pastor’s presentation.
It must be rare enough to see a single guy at a church service, much less one who seems to have a lot going for him. My impression has always been that most men attend church services with a female life-partner of some kind. Good-looking single men tend to get snapped up very quickly–which has led to grief on both sides.
But here a handsome guy sits alone. Hank Busche notices him immediately.
Of course, he doesn’t realize who his attractive visitor really is: a real live angel!
Christianese Gone Wild.
After the sermon, Hank Busche greets his attendees. The Irish Lucky Charms Angel indeed brought June and Andy Forsythe to the service. Hank Busche and the Forsythes learn about each other for a bit. Likely the pastor’s ears perk up when they discuss their son Ron, “who was in trouble with drugs and needed the Lord.” June informs the pastor that “we were starving” at the Big Evil Ecumenical Church in town.
Interestingly, Andy tells us that Ashton boasts a number of churches besides the two we know (p. 127):
“It’s been really strange the last few years. One by one the churches around here have kind of died. Oh, they’re still there, all right, and they have the people and the bucks, but . . . you know what I mean.”
Hank wasn’t sure that he did. “What do you mean?”
I’ma press X for doubt here.
Despite Busche’s kitten-eyed innocence, he knows exactly what they mean. When someone talks about starving in a fundagelical context, then discusses churches in this manner, they mean only one thing. Those churches aren’t TRUE CHRISTIAN.™ Indeed, Andy tells him all about how “Satan’s really playing games with this town. . . [Churches here] don’t preach the gospel.”
That’s Christianese. It means the theology taught by this church/person doesn’t match my headcanon, so therefore it’s absolutely wrong.
(Mr. Captain: “The whole bag. Put it to your lips, Hank. The whole thing. Don’t hold back.”)
Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaand HE’S GONE.
Then, Mary Busche offers to introduce her husband to the hot blond guy. He’s already spoken to her.
In fact, he’s given her a message to give the pastor (p. 128):
“Yes. I got a chance to talk to him. He told me to tell you that,” Mary deepened her voice to mimic him, “‘the Lord is with you, keep praying and keep listening.”
“Well, that was nice. Did you get his name?”
“Uh. . . no, I don’t think he ever told me.”
Andy asked, “Who’s this?”“Oh,” said Hank, “you know, that big guy in the back. He was sitting right next to you.”
Andy looked at June, and her eyes got wide. Andy started smiling, then he started laughing, and then he started clapping his hands and practically dancing.
“Praise the Lord!” he exclaimed, and Hank hadn’t seen such enthusiasm in a long time. “Praise the Lord, there was nobody there. Pastor, we didn’t see a soul!”
Mary’s mouth dropped open, and she covered it with her fingers.
ZOMG Y’ALL, ITZA MEERKUL!
(Mr. Captain: *laughing in sardonic snerkdom* “It must be! Can’t be that narcissists just didn’t notice someone!”)
The Trope of the Angelic Visitation.
A well-loved Christian trope involves angels interacting with unsuspecting humans (TVTropes Walkabout Warning!). The Bible itself retells this trope more than a few times (Genesis 18:2-16; Genesis 19:1-11; that whole Road to Emmaus thing in Luke 24/Mark 16).
Ever since then, Christians have treasured this entire notion. The trope’s elements do not vary much, either. The angelic character will be attractive and strong, usually uncaring of petty concerns like having a home or money. He appears at a time of need, helps out in some major way, then leaves without being noticed. After he’s gone, people work out that he had to be OMG an angel, y’all!
Five or six years ago, a viral sensation of a story made the rounds of a mystery man helping a car crash victim before vanishing. For a while, everyone thought he was an angel. However, a few days later we discovered the truth: he was a very real person–of course–who’d stopped to help. Besides that story, stealth angels show up all over the place in the news. As usual, every time someone investigates a supernatural claim we discover the same thing: it isn’t at all supernatural.
I understand perfectly why Christians love this trope anyway. They need their faith to be based in reality. If angels are real, then they think that obviously means all their other false beliefs are real too. We find the same thinking around the topic of demonic possession.
Angelic visitation represents a place where Christians feel their beliefs are confirmed by reality. They’re not going to examine these claims too much, consequently.
Sometimes someone goes for broke and just makes the visitor Jesus, as here in 2000’s Bedazzled. Thanks to Chiropter for helping me remember this movie to track down this clip!
A Very Useless Angel.
But the angel’s message consisted only of the usual rah-rah I used to hear when I was Christian. Stay the course, be strong, and don’t abandon the faith cuz Jesus is coming back Any Day Now™. Literally, this angel’s message could have been a word from the Lord with no alterations at all.
Peretti could have made his angel offer them something more substantial–something they couldn’t have come up with on their own. He could have had the angel warn them about specific members of the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (Or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW). Or he could have told Busche that Marshall Hogan was someone the demons had targeted specifically for harm. Either piece of information would have been very useful. He was already showing himself in public–it’s not like he was bound at that point by the Prime Directive or anything.
But no. We get stay the course, be strong, and don’t abandon the faith.
It really says something that a fundagelical-written fantasy book written to pander specifically to a fundagelical audience can’t come up with anything better than this farcical nonsense.
And I’m sure that audience loved it simply because it sounded exactly like the blithering “messages” they get every revival service at their churches. Can’t vary that message too much, eh?
I Wish They’d Get Over Themselves.
So far, Frank Peretti has given us no clue at all why Ashton is important to the demons. He just tells us constantly that it is, in fact, of the utmost importance to them.
Nor does he tell us why the angels care so much about Ashton as a strategic objective that their leaders have sent a top officer (Tal) there to coordinate a defense. Nowhere in this whole book has anybody made clear what the stakes are for either side to win or lose Ashton. We just know that the stakes are, indeed, very high.
I get why Peretti’s focused on Marshall Hogan, the newspaper owner, as a key player in the angelic resistance, but the angels have already shown that they don’t mind revealing themselves at certain times. Nobody’s yet shown up to tell Hogan why he’s having panic attacks and why his daughter’s moving further and further away from him. He’s been enlisted in the angels’ war without anybody even telling him that it’s occurring under his nose. And fundagelical readers would be totally okay with that glaring violation of his free will and consent.
Thus, I’m forced to conclude that Peretti has no idea what the town’s importance is and cannot be arsed to find out because he’s not telling a story like that.
He just wants to make fundagelicals feel important, like their small towns matter, like if they screech at the ceiling and wave their arms a lot that it matters somehow as long as they call it spiritual warfare. They may not look like much to the folks they refer to snidely as being part of the world.
But Jesus thinks they’re super-duper-important.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over the fundagelical arrogance that destroys the potential of good stories.
NEXT UP: The first time I heard this Christian lie, even I felt puzzled and nonplussed. I knew quite well that if I ever stopped believing in Christianity’s various claims, I sure wouldn’t attend church anymore.
But it seems like many Christians sure want us to believe they would. See you soon!
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. Lord Snow presides over a suggested topic for the day, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. We especially welcome pet pictures! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.
(Mr. Captain’s cloud guess: I said, “Honey, someone thinks this is an angel. What do you see? I’m thinking face hugger or Spaghetti Monster.” He looked at it. “A… cloud? Stratocumulus?” And then he shrugged and walked out with the dinner bowls.)