An Evil Ecumenical Church Service in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #122, Ch. 13)

An Evil Ecumenical Church Service in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #122, Ch. 13) December 23, 2019

Hi and welcome back to our off-topic Monday chat series, Lord Snow Presides (LSP)! Lately, we’ve been reviewing Frank Peretti’s dead albatross of a novel, This Present DarknessIn Chapter 13, he compares and contrasts a pair of church services. Last week, we checked out a scene from the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church. Immediately after that scene, the author offers us a service at the Evil Ecumenical Church. And wow, it’s a doozy. Today, Lord Snow Presides over an exercise in black-and-white thinking that reveals way more than this book’s creator and fans should ever want people to know about them.

a hand painted sign pointing the way to Vildo Pentecostal Church
(Lindsey Turner, CC.) Church sign for Vildo Pentecostal Church. The photo of the church itself makes it look like a dead ringer for Hank Busche’s church. Vildo is in the very corner of southwest Tennessee, if you’re wondering. It’s so small it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.

(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.)

An Unreliable Narr–Author.

If Frank Peretti were the narrator of this book, simply a creation of the book’s actual author, he’d be the unreliable kind.

That means he doesn’t see his descriptions the same way that outsiders to his tribe do. Lots of very subtle details are completely lost on him. He presents many events in ways that he sees as glorious and sublime–but which are actually quite seedy and ill-intentioned. His supposedly-powerful protagonists are actually just as impotent and ineffective as his villains are, and none of their squabble so far has made the least bit of sense. Worst of all, everything he portrays as negative in this book actually works out to be a projection of his own tribe’s shortcomings.

Frank Peretti meant what he wrote in this book. He really thinks his tribe operates in the way he describes here. He really didn’t catch any of the negative aspects he relays about them, any more than he could perceive that his tribe is actually not anywhere near as stupendous or as righteous as he thinks it is.

This complete unreliability would have been hilarious if Peretti had done it on purpose. Unfortunately, that kind of introspection doesn’t come easily to someone laboring under an extremist and authoritarian worldview

One Born Every Minute.

In the first scene of Chapter 13, Frank Peretti went to extreme lengths to communicate what he thought was a super-sincere, super-serious, super-earnest church service.

All the elements are present and accounted for. Mary Busche “banged out” a hymn while her husband Hank–the pastor–led the singing. The small and humble congregation paid strict attention and listened actively and receptively to the sermon. And of course, Hank Busche got totally caught up in a divine whirlwind of inspiration. It was such an amazing service from start to finish that an angel showed up to give the Busches some words of encouragement–before vanishing!

Yep, this whole scene is definitely what self-proclaimed TRUE CHRISTIANS™ would consider a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church: small, struggling, and unprofessional–and yet packed with divine power.

Evangelicals would have thrilled to the description of this first church service. Back when I was Christian, my own heart absolutely yearned to be part of a church like that.

But in reality, Hank Busche is as much a grifting showman and huckster as the second pastor will prove to be. Both pastors just pander to different crowds, that’s all.

The Greatest Show on Earth.

Having shown us the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church’s service, Frank Peretti now trots along to its polar opposite. This one takes place at the evil ecumenical church in town. It is the largest church in town, as well as the most prosperous–as opposed to the small, humble, dingy little church that Hank Busche leads.

The scene’s very first paragraph sets the stage in a way no evangelical reader could mistake or miss (p. 128):

Oliver Young was a real showman; he could work an audience right down to each tear or titter and time it so well that they became just so many puppets on a string. He would stand behind the pulpit with incredible dignity and poise, and his words were so well-chosen that whatever he was saying had to be right. The vast congregation certainly seemed to think so; they had packed the place out. Many of them were professionals: doctors, teachers, lawyers, self-proclaimed philosophers and poets; a very large segment was from or connected in some way with the college. They took fastidious notes on Young’s message, as if it were a lecture.

Remember, this book’s author intends every bit of this description to be dismaying, shocking, and concerning. This paragraph is supposed to describe a fake Christian church full of fake Christians who are all Jesus-ing totally wrong.

Worse than that, this church has been suborned by actual demons!

ZOMG!

The Weirdest Sermon on Earth.

I amused myself while reading this scene by imagining how Frank Peretti came up with Oliver Young’s sermon. It’s sheerest blathering nonsense. This pastor is supposed to be an extremely well-educated man. He preaches this sermon to an audience stated to be extremely well-educated. They take notes, for goodness’ sake. But his sermon is absolutely bonkers.

It was so bonkers, in fact, that I decided to Google some phrases of it.

And what I found amazed me.

The single paragraph we see of Oliver Young’s sermon appears to bastardize the writings of Thomas Aquinas.

YES.

THAT Thomas Aquinas.

I’m Serious.

Here’s that one paragraph of Oliver Young’s sermon (p. 128):

“Did not God say, ‘Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness’? What had remained in the darkness of tradition and ignorance, we find now revealed within ourselves. We discover–no, rather, we rediscover the knowledge we have always had as a race: we are inherently divine in our very essence, and have within ourselves the capacity for good, the potential to become, as it were, gods, made in the exact likeness of Father God, the ultimate source of all that is. . .”

And here’s a strikingly similar passage from Thoma Aquinas (from here):

“Lastly we remove esse [our actual poor understanding of “God” or “he who is”] itself, insofar as it is found in creatures, from God and then the intellect remains in a kind of darkness of ignorance, as Dionysius says, and this is the kind of darkness in which God is said to dwell.”

So here’s how I think things went down:

Frank Peretti got his hands on some of Aquinas’ writing during his brief stint college. And y’all, it blew his mind! Years later, he decided to swipe Aquinas’ ultra-high-flown language for this scene. He needed a sermon loaded with New Age concepts. He needed a pastor who operated with a philosophy of confuse ’em and lose ’em.

And boy howdy, did he ever find what he needed!

Run! It’s a Thomas Aquinas!

Evangelicals have a real love-hate relationship with this 13th-century Catholic theologian. He really knows his stuff, but y’all, ouch, he’s Catholic. Evangelicals are still not completely comfortable with their new culture-war bedmates, and worse, a lot of them think he was all about what they call salvation by works. That Christianese phrase means trying to get to Heaven by being a good person, which of course runs totally counter to their own favorite teachings.

In the 1980s, evangelicals were nowhere near as hostile to higher education as they are nowadays. But the seeds of that hatred had already begun to sprout. The tribe already viewed Thomas Aquinas with great suspicion for all his intellectual brilliance and nearly-impermeable language.

Frank Peretti, in a very real way, was part of that wave of hostility. Through his bestselling novel, he also helped to shape evangelicals’ hatred of good education. He’s the poorly-educated, socially maladroit son of a fundagelical minister who very clearly didn’t go too far in their denomination. His tribe wasn’t much further along. After all, the more rowdy an evangelical group is, the less well-educated and well-off its members tend to be.

Plus, the chances of a member of Frank Peretti’s target audience catching on to the source of this sermon was roughly one in sixtileventy bazillion qwerty-oopta.

The Playground of High and Low.

That wave of hostility sharpened another divide between the two ends of the Christian playground.

That divide is the one that forever separates High Christianity from Low Christianity.

(Some scholars use more technical terms like Apollonian versus Dionysian flavors of Christianity, and that’s fine. Either set of terms works for me.)

In High Christianity, we see a heavy emphasis on rituals, intellectual discourse, and rationality. In Low Christianity, by contrast, we see a lot of emotionality, passion, wild exuberance, and a tribal love of experiences, magic, and folklore.

If High Christianity had a heavyweight champion, it’d probably be Thomas Aquinas. In the other corner, we’d find Ray Comfort, Kent Hovind, and others of that ilk.

So the first scene with Hank Busche represents Low Christianity. Unsurprisingly, since it’s written by an author who himself belongs to that side of the playground, this scene represents the heroes–the good guys–the ones backed by a real live god and tons of real live angels.

The second scene, of course, then becomes an example of High Christianity. Its pastor is so impressed with himself that he doesn’t even notice that he’s spewing complete nonsense, nor that he’s somehow ended up worshiping himself rather than the god he claims to serve.

Because that’s what’s happened in this second scene. Instead of seeing his god at the center of everything, transcending everything, being past even humans’ understanding of things in the real universe, Oliver Young looked at the whole situation and saw himself at its center.

The Lies of Satan, Apparently.

It’s exceedingly difficult to imagine any Christian pastor talking like Oliver Young. But Young’s not just any Christian pastor.

He’s a Christian pastor who’s been completely taken over by demons. They now dominate his mind and dictate his behavior. In fact, Young’s a member in good standing of the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW)! Working under the Cabal’s ringleader, Juleen Langstrat, Young’s job now consists of shepherding his flocks away from Jesus.

And that means he has to instill completely false teachings in that flock.

First and foremost, Young’s congregation must not see themselves as wretched sinners in need of Jesus’ help and salvation. Likewise, they must not see themselves as inherently bad people who can’t ever be truly good on their own. Oh no! Instead, they must see themselves as divine: as good people who are sufficient in and of themselves.

From a salesmanship perspective, it’s easy to see why Christians vastly prefer people to see themselves as insufficient and wretched. As I’ll be showing you tomorrow, it’s absolutely impossible for Christian hucksters to make sales to people who don’t need their product!

The Ashton Community Church of Their Hearts.

Quite a few evangelicals take weird pride in cultivating self-images like that of Hank Busche’s church. They express deep distrust of large, prosperous churches. And they get downright vitriolic and abusive about less authoritarian churches than their own.

Obviously, more welcoming, less unpleasant churches almost universally attract more people to themselves. That’s one big part of why megachurches are about the only churches in America that are actually growing nowadays: their teachings and groups tend to at least appear to be more user-friendly, accessible, and pleasant. (See endnotes for an example.)

But fundagelicals don’t join that flavor of Christianity and stay there to be nice or pleasant or even welcoming. They’re there because they relish power, control (of self and others), and sadistic cruelty–or because they ache for certainty, comfort, safety, nurturing, and security. A big part of their self-image revolves around them being the eventual winners of all their ginned-up culture wars. But if they keep losing members to these other churches, that wrecks the paradigm.

To reassert their sense of dominance over those churches that are, in fundagelicals’ eyes, winning, they snootily denounce such churches as not “preaching the Gospel/the Word.” When Christians reach this phrase, they mean simply this: the group or pastor they’re judging isn’t quite as nasty and extremist as they are. 

The Two Battles.

Thus, in a very real way these two scenes fight two completely different battles at once.

In one, the battle occurs between Yahweh and Satan, angels and demons, and TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and the Cabal’s members. It’s a fight between Ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil, and the stakes are the imaginary invisible souls of everyone on Earth.

In the other, High Christianity dukes it out with Low Christianity. It, too, is animated by the forces of light and darkness, but the stakes are cultural control of Christianity itself.

Since the author definitely considers himself a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ and definitely hangs out in the Low Christianity side of the religion’s playground, I can guess who’s going to win these two simultaneous battles.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over a truly astonishing pair of scenes that display an ideological battle that goes way deeper than its author could possibly have intended.

NEXT UP: Biff’s own battle with his ideological polar opposites. See you soon!


Endnotes.

It’s easy for Christians to make that mistake: Remember that Jefferson Bethke guy with that soapy “it’s not a religion, it’s a relaaaaaaationship” glurge video? He attended Mars Hill Church, that megachurch that Mark Driscoll started and ruled as its God-Emperor until 2014. I watched several of Bethke’s videos, discovering in the process that this crooning, sweetsie-syrupy-acting young man was just as misogynistic as any Southern fundagelical man screeching about no-fault divorce. (Back to the post!)


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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.

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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