A Repulsive Urban Legend Retold in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #125, Ch. 14)

A Repulsive Urban Legend Retold in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #125, Ch. 14) January 13, 2020

Hello and welcome back to our off-topic chat series, Lord Snow Presides! Today, we return to our examination of Frank Peretti’s brain-melting 1986 fantasy book This Present Darkness. In today’s installment, we discover that Jesus Power can totally prevent rape! Who’d’a guessed? Today, Lord Snow Presides over one of the worst, most repulsive urban legends Christians have ever loved.

the wedding night of tobias and sarah, painting
The Wedding Night of Tobias and Sarah, painted by Jan Steen in the 1660s. It depicts a scene from the Book of Tobit. That’s Raphael killing a demon on the right. The demon was Lust and kept abducting and murdering her suitors.

(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.)

Possibly Our First Real Action Sequence.

I have no doubt in the world that Frank Peretti was mighty proud of the sequence that follows Professor Langstrat’s weird meditation scene. See, the very next scene weaves together three different events:

  • A rapist menaces and frightens Mary Busche.
  • The angel guarding Mary tangles with demons.
  • Carmen almost seduces Hank Busche.

When I finished reading the entire scene, I felt disgusted and sickened. But at the same time, I realized that it might well be our first real action sequence. Oh, I mean we’ve seen an angel hurl a sword in disgust. We’ve also seen one demon manhandle another. But these were brief instances and didn’t really constitute part of the story of the book. They were incidental occurrences, nothing more. This time, we get actual action.

More than that, we get action where we can actually see it.

Mostly, Frank Peretti tells rather than shows his story. We learn about events after-the-fact rather than witnessing them. Even important conversations tend to occur in the background. Many times, these events and conversations revolve around stories that are way more interesting than the one Peretti’s chosen to tell. It’s like he’s allergic to good storytelling.

But here, he actually presents these three events as they unfold.

It’s just a shame he felt compelled to focus on such repulsive and grotesque events.

He super-wanted to reveal the awesome might of prayer and Jesus Power. However, he accidentally demonstrates just how awful, puny, and useless his imaginary friend really is in the real world.

And he does it by proudly retelling an urban legend.

The Missionary Wife’s Tale.

When I was Pentecostal long ago, I heard a story from a missionary’s wife.

These two missionaries based themselves in Africa. Like pretty much all missionaries, they had to return to America to touch base with their patrons–and, coincidentally, to raise more funds to finance their unwise life decisions Jesus’ direct orders. These various missionaries’ visits home became big shindigs at my church–there’d be slideshows and testimonies galore, as well as maybe glimpses into the daily lives of people much different from ourselves. And always, always, we got a big boost of optimism from mUh OvErSeAs ReViVaL and ZOMG MEERKULS YAWL.

I liked these events, for the most part.

And this was the story this missionary’s wife presented to us as her own experience, as best I can recall:

One night, she had to walk alone back to the little hovel she shared with her husband in the village they’d decided to colonize for Team Jesus. She was very frightened because she knew rape constituted a big problem there. She tried to hurry. But as she neared her home, she spotted some strange men lurking off the side of the path.

Terrified, she feared the very worst. But then! OMG! She remembered to pray for Jesus’ help!

When she walked past them, they only nodded politely to her. She reached home safely. Whew!

Later, she discovered that they’d allowed her to pass without incident because they saw a pair of huge men walking beside her. They didn’t want to mess with those men, so they didn’t even try to attack her.

HER INVISIBLE PROTECTORS MUST HAVE BEEN ANGELS! ZOMG! HOORAY TEAM JESUS!

Naturally, the church congregation loved loved loved that story! They erupted into applause and hoots and outbursts of all those sorts of Things People Shout During Sermons. (See endnote.)

At the time I didn’t even realize that this story was only an urban legend. Nobody around me that night realized it either.

Indeed, the missionary’s wife simply adapted and retold an already-popular Christian urban legend–one that Frank Peretti almost certainly had heard before machine-gun-barfing out his masterpiece.

The Angels in the Parking Lot African Trail.

This urban legend pervades the breadth of Christianity–I’ve even spotted it retold in a 2015 Catholic newsletter and used in a 2016 fundagelical book, both times to illustrate the imagined nature of divine protection. I’ve even seen a recent sorta-variant involving divinely-sent dogs rescuing someone in the story from rape.

In every case, the story operates in the same exact way:

A young woman (it’s always a young woman) finds herself alone in a frightening, vulnerable situation. She prays, or else she’s already such an ethereally-fervent believer that she’s imbued with a Jesus Aura 24/7. Hooray! She escapes harm! Later, she discovers that yes, someone did plan to harm her in that situation. But–BUT!–he held back his (it’s always a man doing the menacing) hand because she had one or more big, powerful-looking protectors. She didn’t see those protectors, and there’s no evidence they even exist. Only the evildoer saw them.

In the early 2000s, I spotted the story on Snopes. There, it’s presented as angels protecting a woman from rape in a parking lot rather than on a dark African trail.

Snopes only gives us a digital origin for the story, but its real origin goes way further back.

One folklorist traces the story in its original form (as presented on Snopes, involving a young woman named “Diane”) to a 1982 book full of similar stories, When Angels Appear by Hope MacDonald. She traces it across Europe and North America all through the 1980s and 1990s, then reveals it romping around various internet forums and boards all through the 1990s and 2000s. She also notes that Billy Graham himself swiped one of these story’s variants (one from the Victorian age!) for one of his books in 1975.

Whatever its real origins, the truth doesn’t matter to Christians. They love this story in whatever form they can get it.

Improvise, Adapt, Overcome.

Like that folklorist, I suspect the story existed long before 1982, though before the 1980s it hadn’t yet gained its more lurid modern elements. But even without them, it just contains way too many other classic elements of Christian folklore for it not to have been a favorite part of their worldview.

Indeed, Christians have never tired of adapting the tale to their own circumstances and claiming personal connections to the characters involved. That 2016 fundagelical who retells it does both, placing it in a specific location and claiming personal knowledge of the young woman involved:

My friend John Bisagno, pastor of Houston’s First Baptist Church for three decades, knows this girl and her family and says they are devoted Christ followers.

Betcha money if we traveled to Houston’s First Baptist Church and asked around, we’d never find this “girl and her family.” The tale-teller doesn’t name the family or the young woman, and the reasons he doesn’t provide real corroboration should be beyond-obvious. We can also bet money that nobody actually did travel to that church or do anything at all to verify the story.

The audience wouldn’t care at all if anyone had verified it. Hell, they’d only discredit and trample anyone who revealed that it never happened.

Why Christians Love and Keep Re-Using This Tired Old Story.

I can see exactly why this story remains popular in Christian folklore.

First, it presents a ZOMG MEERKUL for Christians to thrill over. The tellers know perfectly well that nobody will check up on the story or demand credible receipts.

Second, it functions as confirmation that their god’s totally looking out for them–while not looking out for those outside the tribe. Divine protection thus becomes, in a real way, one of the perks their god awards them for believing exactly the right nonsense and belonging to exactly the right tribe.

Third, it titillates listeners with its omnipresent themes of rape and gender-based violence. We never hear these stories centered around anything except gender-based violence (in this case, men acting violently toward women). Specifically, they center around rape. The woman always stands in danger of rape. But hooray! Her faith saves her from that horrific fate.

Last, it lets Christians off the hook in finding real-world solutions to these violent acts. If Jesus Power is what saves women from rape, then clearly women need to become TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to find protection.

By the way:

If you spotted the immediate victim-blaming repercussions of this mindset, well, you’re way ahead of the Christians who slobber over this story. That’s the most sickening and grotesque part of it. This one rape victim gets divine help–but what about the millions of similar victims who don’t? She gets magical protectors–but millions of others get attacked.

And that’s totally okay with Christians.

Screw Alla Y’all: Christians Gonna Get THEIRS.

Even worse, as many other detractors have pointed out, this urban legend illustrates perfectly the all-too-common Christian mindset of screw alla y’all, I’ma get MINE.

If the rapists in this story allow this one victim to pass by, nothing stops them from attacking some other woman a few minutes later. They’re still rapists. This god doesn’t actually stop them from raping people. He doesn’t protect all women forever from rape. He just stops these particular rapists from raping this one particular woman on this one particular occasion. And yet these storytellers demand that we consider this god the real MVP of the story.

We see the same exact selfishness and narcissism on display when Christians gloat about their imagined magic healings and close scrapes. Millions of kids die from disease each year–but their kid got a magical healing! Many hundreds of thousands of people face poverty and starvation–but someone from Youth Group found a $20 on the sidewalk when they forgot their wallet that day! People suffer and die every day–but Jesus found the after-church fellowship group a nice parking spot!

It’s beyond immoral. This single-minded pursuit of gains without caring for the hardships of others descends into sociopathy.

Even if their anecdotes are just as fictional as the urban legend we’re discussing today, they reveal a serious problem within Christianity: a foul, oozing wrongness that pervades the religion and cannot be salvaged or defanged because it’s just too foundational and endemic.

But don’t worry! I’m sure you’ll all be overjoyed to hear that Frank Peretti manages to make this urban legend even worse than it already is.

Here’s How It Goes Down.

Mary Busche shops at the grocery store, with invisible angel Triskal in tow. (Does that name sound like a snack cracker to anyone else?) As she leaves, she gets nervous for no reason that she can tell.

In the parking lot outside, Triskal gets jumped by a bunch of demonic goons–which include Rafar himself! Oh noes!

While they kick the shit out of him, Carmen returns to Hank Busche’s home office for more “pastoral counseling.” She’s dressed to kill and acts super-vampy toward him. Mary was supposed to supervise/chaperone these sessions. How weird! She’s late getting back from the store!

But Mary’s car is acting up in the parking lot. While she sits in the driver’s seat, a creepy guy comes to her window, clearly menacing her. Triskal shouts at her to release the parking brake, which she does thinking she thought of it. The car begins rolling, so the creepy guy gives chase.

Meanwhile, Carmen realizes Mary’s not around and opens a seduction attempt.

“A husky contractor standing by his big four-wheeler” sees the creepy guy chasing the car and puts a stop to it. The creepy guy runs away. Rafar releases Triskal with a warning and advises him to tell Tal that “Rafar, Prince of Babylon, is looking for him.”

Back at the ranch, Hank resists Carmen’s seduction on his own. Mary returns to the house, crying and upset. When Carmen sees Mary–or more accurately, when Carmen’s accompanying demon notices Triskal–she freaks completely tf out. In fact, she acts like she’s in an Exorcism movie.

Krioni, an angel that we only now learn has been with Hank this whole time, stops Triskal from starting a fight right then and there, and Lust flees along with Carmen.

Mary does not tell Hank what happened; she just asks him to hold her.

Hooray Team Jesus!

How Frank Peretti Made the Urban Legend Even Worse.

I just could not even, when I read this scene. I needed a week to get my head wrapped around it all. It’s so vile.

First and foremost, the book takes as read that Carmen’s being tormented by a real live demon. She couldn’t want to make the sexytimes with Hank otherwise, right? Oh no. It’s gotta be demons. Can’t be just people.

Similarly, demons orchestrate the failed attack on Mary at the parking lot–while an angel helps her escape. More to the point: her (temporary) guardian angel helps her!

Here’s why that’s so bad.

Way back when, the roleplaying game-publishing company White Wolf got criticized for making their vampires basically the source of every single event and development in all of human history. In fact, just a year or so ago that tendency got them in super-hot water when they tried to put vampires at the bottom of the Chechnyan persecution of LGBT people. People thought that was not only unnecessary and gratuitous but also hugely disrespectful.

I feel much the same way about Christians’ tendency to put angels and demons at the bottom of everything people do. When they do that, they erase people’s own responsibility for their own behavior–and negate the really wonderful stuff people do for each other. It’s like Christians are scared of the idea that people can do both wondrous and truly monstrous things, and there are no imaginary friends around making any stuff happen–

–or, maybe more importantly to these Christians, stopping it.

We’re on our own. We’re in this thing together. It’s all just us. And for way too many Christians, that’s not okay.

So today, Lord Snow Presides over a gross urban legend rewritten into a Christian fantasy blockbuster–and the Christians who are a match made in heaven for the results.

NEXT UP: It’s time for a SUPER SPECIAL! Let’s see what 2019’s Top Ten Posts were! Not to clickbait, seriously I’m not, I don’t like doing that, but seriously: two of the entries on that list really surprised me! See you tomorrow!


Endnotes.

Regarding those things: I’m compiling a list of these for my Dictionary of Christianese–hence the capitalization. On this list, we find the obvious outbursts like “Praise Jesus!” and “Preach it!” But plenty of less obvious entries can be found there as well, like “That’s what happened!” as a response to someone reading a story from the Bible. I’ve always found these exclamations interesting because they’re so context-specific. Men use certain ones that women don’t and vice versa; rowdy churches use many but not all while quieter churches might not use any at all or only have a couple that they find acceptable. (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.

PS: This is a triskele. That’s what my autocorrect kept wanting to change Triskal’s name to. Just sayin’.

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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