Welcome back! We return to our off-topic chat series, Lord Snow Presides (LSP), in which we examine Frank Peretti’s 1986 best-selling atrocity This Present Darkness. In today’s installment, we discover how a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastor works out a very serious church conflict. (Turns out, it’s easy!) Today, Lord Snow Presides over the skill of Christian peacemakers.
(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.)
As I began today’s LSP, I found myself short-circuiting for just a moment.
See, I’ve begun doing a quick recap of the scene as the first section. Today was no exception to my routine. I like my routines. They’re nice and they work for me. But this scene defies recap. We get a big ol’ exposition dump by a lazy author who can’t be bothered to show-not-tell us what’s happened. It’s disappointing even by Frank Peretti’s standards.
But here goes:
Hank Busche looks across his congregation. He notices that everyone who voted against him at the big church meeting is now gone. In their place sit tons of new people from other churches. Hooray Team Jesus!
Everyone introduces themselves. The kid he exorcised at the video arcade, Ron Forsythe, is there as well–with his girlfriend. It turns out they’ve both converted–and flushed their drugs down the toilet! Wow! Hooray Team Jesus! They’re free of drug addiction now! Totally! You know, that often happens when people convert! The whole church cheers for them. Busche feels super-optimistic about his town’s future and his wife plays piano.
Meanwhile, angels and demons bicker like fundagelical spouses outside the church. The angels won’t allow the demons inside. As the roll call continues, the demons get more and more agitated because OMG these are all TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and OMG THEY PRAY and that is just THE WORST.
Eventually, Lucius, their leader (under Rafar), tells them to go find stuff to do. He’ll tell Rafar what’s going on–eventually.
The Church Meeting’s Fallout.
Way back in Chapter 10, we watched this same church conduct a very serious business meeting. Half the church wanted Hank Busche gone, and half wanted to keep him. The half that wanted to fire him primarily quibbled with his handling of an adulterer in their midst (he’d disfellowshipped the guy). But the half that wanted to keep him liked his handling of the situation and thought it was more in line with their interpretation of the Bible (which fundagelicals today call biblical).
Hank Busche himself refused to back down. This is his very first pastor gig; he’s fresh out of whatever indoctrination-station Bible College spawned him. Consequently, he’s full of blood-n-thunder–a true authoritarian leader bellowing that followers take his way or the highway.
But he bellowed that out (metaphorically speaking) at fellow authoritarian leaders like Alf Brummel, the corrupt chief of police. They didn’t take kindly to this song and dance. That’s what the meeting was about: who will direct this church’s business? Its pastor or its longtime members who wield power in the community at large?
The church vote barely went Hank Busche’s way. (Frank Peretti gave us some cringeworthy business at the time of one of the anti-Hank members trying to stuff the ballot box, but the pro-Hank side caught him.)
This church service is the first one occurring since that big momentous meeting.
And if you were wondering what those anti-Hank folks would do, wonder no more:
Them folks flat-out done left the building.
Taking Their Toys And Going Home.
I had to laugh about this scene. I read this book many, many years ago and didn’t remember much of it at all. This scene came as quite a surprise, but in retrospect it shouldn’t have. It’s exactly what I expect out of fundagelicals.
The anti-Hanks didn’t get their way, so they took their toys and went home. Literally. As Peretti tells us (p. 171):
Many of the old dissenters had dropped out of the church and taken their embittering presence with them, and the whole mood and spirit of the place had risen several notches because of their absence. Sure, Alf Brummel, Gordon Mayer, and Sam Turner still hovered around, brooding together like some kind of hit squad, but none of them were in the service this morning and a lot of new, fresh faces were.
This paragraph really caught my eye. Does it catch yours? I bet it does.
It represents exactly how Frank Peretti and his crowd resolve disputes in their various groups.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5:9, NIV)
Inclusion of this scene was a no-brainer from the moment I wrote the title of the post.
Remember, Frank Peretti grew up the son of a small-town fundagelical pastor. He’s no doubt seen a lot of church disputes. I mean, it seems like the smaller the church, the bigger the drama gets. He probably lost his one pastoring gig (working under his dad — nepotism for the win!) as a result of one of those dramas. One wonders if that church vote scene is eerily reminiscent of the one that cost him that gig.
And it seems as well like fundagelicals only resolve conflicts in one way: the most authoritarian of the squabblers asserts dominance, forces the others underfoot, stomps on them hard, and declares victory. The other squabblers either eat dirt and make nicey-nice, losing quite a lot of power in the process, or they leave to find other, greener pasture-groups where they can set up shop with their current power level. The remaining members redistribute power in the group–and foment the next huge conflict.
Absolute obedience. Enforced conformity. That’s how fundagelicals define peace. That’s what they insist that “Jesus” totally told them to do.
They reframe those demands for absolute obedience and enforced conformity in some really snerk-worthy ways (some fundagelical professor’s out there calling it “Christoformity,” like that makes totalitarian authoritarianism sound better). They know just flat-out calling these demands what they are would make terrible PR these days. But we’re not obligated to use their redefined and made-up words, even if it’d super-help them out if we did.
To authoritarian Christians, a peacemaker is just someone who stomps on conflicting people and asserts power, forcing dissenters to fall into line–or leave. It’s been like that since those first heady days of Christian dominance.
Conflict Resolution, Authoritarian-Style.
Conflict is a result of the fall. After Adam sinned, he blamed God and his wife.
Fundagelicals are absolute authoritarians. Thus, they have no idea how to resolve conflicts in any other way but what I’ve described.
Group members are the virtual slaves of the leader’s whims, with no recourse whatsoever if those whims veer into weird or unpleasant places. They don’t know how to compromise in effective, healthy ways, nor to modify their black-or-white approaches to leadership and following. And they’re so damned narcissistic that they’ve decided that a real live god has decided that this absolute mess is the very best way for groups to function.
This is why fundagelicals insist that all groups must have a leader holding absolute veto/override power over all members. Whether it’s a church or a marriage, they can’t even imagine people working together in solidarity and sharing power between them and trying to work out courses of action that, if not totally pleasing everyone, at least satisfy everyone. I’m not sure that’s even a possible outcome for their groups.
As horribly as authoritarianism works for them, they think everything else is even worse. Plus, their imaginary friend doesn’t approve of other methods of leadership. What a coincidence!
Peewee Jesus’ Playhouse.
Churches are like really inept community playhouses in a way. Every week, they put on a big show for an audience. And most of the people involved have no experience whatsoever at putting on shows of any size. Their leaders typically don’t possess any leadership skills at all, either.
Heck, that’s why they got involved in this group. Skills, talents, aptitude, and training don’t matter in authoritarian Christian groups. Only anointing does–or, in real terms, only the ability to fake divine approval does–along with the ability to schmooze and network with the leadership network in that area.
So one person assumes absolute power in this playhouse. But that one person gets paid by the group. The people paying the most money toward the leader’s salary and the clubhouse’s upkeep hold the purse strings. And as one might expect in this situation, they (rightly, usually) expect a certain level of service and consideration for that outlay.
In that atmosphere, egos are gonna collide, and they are gonna collide hard. And fundagelicals just don’t have any way of dealing with that collision except in the worst way imaginable.
Hank’s Church: Now With Less Bitterness!
Chapter 18, in this book, opens after one of those ego-collisions. Hank Busche looks out across his congregation. He notes with pleasure–and, it seems to me, smug satisfaction–that most of his opponents have vacated. Good. He’s still got a few of them to kick around, but they’re not there that morning.
They’re gone, and they took their “embittering presence” with them.
“Bitterness“ is Christianese for anger that a particular Christian judge doesn’t think is valid. They consider bitterness to be a cardinal sin, as well as one that their imaginary friend especially dislikes.
Maybe the judgey Christian thinks the anger should have gone away by then, or maybe that it’s not valid in the first place.
Make no mistake: this is a loaded and emotionally-abusive term. Fundagelicals make liberal use of it to gaslight a victim into stuffing those troublesome emotions away so they aren’t bothered by the sight of it–and so they don’t feel ashamed of not showing compassion or helping to bring about justice to the angry person. Anger–especially when shown by someone they’ve marginalized or abused–unsettles them very much.
If a fundagelical accuses you of “bitterness,” now you know exactly what they mean by it. It’s a hamfisted attempt to silence and control you. And they use this tactic on non-tribemates because it works in their tribe, stunningly well in fact.
So here, Hank Busche breathes a sigh of relief that his enemies are gone. They were just making others dissatisfied and upset, after all. He offered them the usual authoritarian demand of his way or the highway. They chose the highway. Fine. Good. Now he can start over.
We’re Definitely In Christian Fantasy-Land.
But here we diverge even further from reality.
So far, this conflict has run about as I’d expect in any fundagelical church. A squabble has divided the church. The dissenters finally left. The pastor has somehow kept his job, and now he’s regrouping and figuring out where his power-bases are in the newly-divided congregation.
And he sees a bunch of new faces to replace those old ones.
In Reality-Land, half that church would be empty.
But in Christian Fantasy-Land, there’s a ton of happy shiny new faces in those pews!
I counted at least 21 new names in this chapter, and we’re told that “the roll call continued” after Frank Peretti listed those names. Of them, we know that two–Ron Forsythe’s parents–came in from some other church in town (not the Evil Ecumenical one, I don’t think; until meeting them, I thought that Busche’s church and that one were literally the only churches in Ashton). And of them all, only two new names are noted as being college students; Peretti notes that two others are newcomers to town. The rest are established Ashton residents.
Most fantastical of all, they’ve got two brand-new converts to celebrate!
This scene seriously reads like some kind of weird dream a pastor might have.
Sidebar Possibility: They Hated The Old Members Maybe?
In Season 1, Episode 2 of the British comedy series Black Books, Bernard Black has hired Manny to be his new assistant at his bookstore. He’s never had an assistant before, and he intensely dislikes this one. It turns out that Bernard is also a “grumpy Irish bastard,” as one character describes him later, with absolutely no business sense–and really, no business coming into contact with the public at all.
In one scene, Bernard leaves for an errand. He leaves Manny in charge of the shop. Almost as soon as Bernard has left, a customer peeks his head in the door and asks, “Is he gone?”
If my timestamp doesn’t work, the scene begins right around 18:00.
Mystified, Manny says yes.
Suddenly, the shop overflows with customers. Manny sells almost all of Bernard’s stock in that short time. These customers avoided the shop before, despite wanting the shop’s products, because they disliked Bernard so much.
One wonders if Hank Busche’s new faces found out that So-and-So, Their Hated Dread Enemy in Town, left Busche’s church, so they decided to check it out. But Peretti never tells us why they’re there that morning, or what they heard that prompted them to visit, or even if they’ll stay permanently. He leaves it to his readers to assume that Jesus prompted them to visit and that yes, of course they’ll stay, and this pastor’s church-drama problems are largely over for good now.
In reality, an Ashton resident would probably soon hear exactly what that church vote was about–the pastor being a hard-ass about disfellowshipping a longtime
customer congregant for something that most of them have probably done at some point in their lives–and conclude that Busche retaining his position means that this church has decided to go all-in on authoritarianism.
Authoritarian behavior calls to authoritarians. That’s the trumpet Hank Busche blows, the banner he flies outside his church. His fellow authoritarians get his message loud and clear, where others simply perceive a sea of red flags.
Optionality = the Death of Dominance.
No wonder authoritarian boys like Frank Peretti dream of becoming pastors one day! When Peretti was growing up, leaving wasn’t really an option yet for fundagelicals locked in authoritarian communities.
For many today, it still isn’t. But that’s changing quickly with every passing year. Every single person who safely escapes that tangled net slashes a little more at Christian dominance. Every voice raised against Christian overreach and hypocrisy makes it that much easier for another voice to raise and another person to escape.
And today’s fundagelical leaders still don’t realize that this cultural sea change in the optionality of Christianity spells the death of their beloved dominance.
Tomorrow, we’re going to look at one of those leaders. See, J.D. Greear recently let slip that his denomination’s still in the middle of a many-years-long decline. He either doesn’t realize yet what’s really wrong–or he doesn’t want to admit that vast powers of coercion were all that kept Christianity afloat for centuries, and now that his tribe has lost those powers, they’re sinking fast.
But we know.
Today, friends, Lord Snow Presides over Frank Peretti’s wildest dream: an authoritarian leader whose overreach and total lack of leadership skills is presented as an ideal Christian pastor.
NEXT UP: Reading between the lines of an exhortation by J.D. Greear. Oops, he let slip something big! See you tomorrow for it!
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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.