Hi and welcome back! It’s time for Lord Snow Presides! Yes, we return once again to our longform review of Frank Peretti’s 1986 opposite-of-a-masterpiece, This Present Darkness (TPD). In this installment, we learn more about the inner workings of the bad guys in the story — and glimpse a possible real-world inspiration for this book’s plot. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the lack of originality of This Present Darkness.
(For a chapter synopsis, see the last LSP.)
(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. All quoted material — in block quotes or in the post itself — come from actual sources.)
Ascended Masters: Fundagelical Edition.
In his conversation with Marshall Hogan, Ted Harmel reveals that Juleen Langstrat’s New Age cult talks to otherworldly entities. Seriously (p. 191):
“I don’t even know if they’re real,” [Ted] Harmel muttered. “They’re just . . . there, that’s all. Inner teachers, spirit guides, ascended masters . . . they’re called all kinds of things. But anyone who follows Juleen’s teachings for very long invariably gets mixed up with them. They come from nowhere, they speak to you, sometimes they appear to you when you’re meditating. Sometimes you visualize them yourself, but then they take on a life and personality of their own . . . it’s not just your imagination anymore.”
“But who are they?”
“Beings . . . entities. Sometimes they’re just like real people, sometimes you only hear a voice, sometimes you feel them–like spirits, I suppose. [. . .] They’re part of the network, and the network knows everything, controls everything. Juleen controlled me. She even came between me and Gail. I lost my wife over this whole thing.”
One idly wonders if the molestation charges against Ted or his affair with Juleen had anything to do with that breakup. Ted sure thinks not, and so neither does our incurious dullard of an author.
Darn all those false accusations! Where’s the concern for all the men falsely accused?!?
Never fear! Paige Patterson definitely has Ted’s back!
What Ascended Masters Are, Sort Of.
This Ascended Masters nonsense comes to the story honestly. Sort of.
Theosophical philosophy informs many strains of New Age thinking. In it, Ascended Masters function sort of like Buddhas for white people. A very wise spiritual teacher dies, then becomes a kind of angel guiding the living toward the enlightenment they themselves achieved.
These teachers live on another plane of existence, but they can reach into this world to teach and guide others.
And yes, they’re just imaginary friends for adults, just like the Christian god and his angels are. They provide aid and teach people oh-so-wise stuff.
In this book, the Ascended Masters are all demons, but in real New Age thinking they’re spirits. Occasionally, a living person claims to be an Ascended Master, and that’s where the fun really begins for critics and snarks.
A Long List.
According to La Wiki, the term Ascended Masters came into use in the 1870s courtesy of Helena P. Blavatsky. It became popular in the 1930s. Eventually, it filtered into the teachings of all kinds of gurus and hucksters.
A number of people past and present, living and dead, real and imaginary have qualified for the title of Ascended Master. Wikipedia offers a good starter list of names:
Master Jesus, Confucius, Gautama Buddha, Mary the Mother of Jesus, St. Paul of Tarsus, Megha Alcorn as known as Megan Sebastian, Ashtar Sheran, Merku, Sanat Kumara, Aaron as known as Alaje, Aleph, Hatton, (aka Hilarion), Melchizedek, Archangel Michael, Metatron, Kwan Yin, St. Germain and Kuthumi, the currently living Master Mindo, as well as dozens of others.
Wild. The real wonder is that literally nobody has ever conclusively demonstrated that this concept is even real, much less validated the many claims of any of these “masters” or their self-proclaimed students, much less even qualified exactly what an Ascended Master can do under what conditions.
This lack is, you may rest assured, intentional.
Jesus as an Ascended Master.
TRUE CHRISTIANS™ get tetchy when someone names “Master Jesus” as an Ascended Master. They try to hold the whole world to a strict no competition clause. As you can guess, then, this common New Age claim made them especially upset back in the 80s and 90s.
One Christian writer who’s still stuck in the days of the Satanic Panic even discusses it directly. She wrote a 2009 testimony titled “Delivered From Twelve Years of Occult Bondage.” In this absolutely-totally-true tale, Karen Winterburn tells us:
Revelation 3:20 surfaced in my mind the same way: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him and he with Me.” Jesus Christ was alive and well and knocking at my door! And this was most assuredly not the Ascended Master Jesus Christ. This was the real live Person! I was now willing to dismantle my altars to false gods; to put away The Bhagavad Gita and the I Ching.
Notice the phrasing: Her version of Jesus is the only real deal. All these other versions of Jesus are therefore totally fake! These fakes are demons who seek to deceive people and keep them off the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ path.
In my then-tribe of Pentecostals, everyone similarly considered these fakes to be honest-to-goodness demons, and it’s obvious that this book’s characters think the same thing.
In this Christian’s testimony, we see how fundagelicals commonly talk about any presentation of Jesus that differs from their own: a literal Savior who’ll only rescue people from his own bloodlust if they follow a very strict protocol to placate his cruel impulses.
(See endnotes for more info about this particular tale-teller.)
The Probable Inspiration For TPD’s Plot.
It’s not that New Age cults don’t take over towns when they can. They just don’t have the resources, usually.
Cult leader Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh began a cult that tried to take over an Oregon town’s local government in the early 1980s. The cult utilized the same sorts of tactics that the villains use in This Present Darkness. Rajneesh’s cultists, referred to as Rajneeshees, got pretty far till they spiraled right out of hand with a 1984 bioterror attack that caught national attention.
This attack finally focused a lot of unfriendly and powerful investigative eyes on the cult and its shenanigans.
The investigation soon exposed a Rajneeshee plot to flat-out assassinate an unfriendly State District Attorney and a number of other people (including a journalist who’d written a long series of unfriendly articles about their cult). Thankfully, none of these plots seems to have resulted in deaths, but they got pretty far along in some cases.
In addition to beginning serious investigations against the cult, local and state authorities began to play catch-up with legislation specifically intended to limit the ability of Rajneesh and his cultists to take over the area.
The Very Earthly Collapse of a Cult.
Rajneesh’s cult soon collapsed as a result of all this pushback and exposure. His commune disintegrated over just a month or two in mid-1985.
Meanwhile, American authorities kicked the cult’s leader out of the country. After a long period of travel, he eventually ended up back in his home country of India after every other country refused to let him stay. There, he died in 1990 from heart failure at the tender age of 58. (“Heart failure” sounds so much better than “alleged serious long-term abuse of all the drugs,” doesn’t it?)
Nobody needed the help of
divine invisible agents to end this cabal. No intrepid band of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ were able to stop its rise (and I’ve no doubt in the world that many Christians did indeed pray for the cult to collapse, to no avail).
Instead, all it took was responsible lawmaking and necessary criminal investigations.
I’m absolutely certain Frank Peretti knew about this story before barfing out his novel, since it bears so many similarities to his book’s cult-driven real-estate scam and occurred so close to his own stomping grounds.
A Product of Its Time.
I’ve said before that Peretti’s book fascinates me because of how it calls attention to fundagelical projection in the modern age. Yes, very much so.
It also fascinates me because it’s a sort of time capsule of what his end of Christianity was like at that time. Everything we see in this book can be traced to something fundagelicals were doing right then, or believed, or thought was happening in reality — or to real current events then.
I see this chapter as fascinating for that second reason. Yes, it’s projection, but it also shows us a lot about what Peretti’s times were like.
A Disastrous Comparison.
If I’m right and the Bhagwan’s cult inspired Peretti’s bad guys, the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW), then he couldn’t possibly have shot himself in the foot worse than he did there.
Everything about Rajneeshpuram screams hucksterism and fake, contrived, obviously-made-up SOOPER SPEERCHUL ideas meant to draw in rubes and gullible marks. No imaginary agents need be invoked to explain its rise to power, nor to account for its fall and eventual disintegration.
And that brings us to Peretti’s own religion, doesn’t it? We could say the exact same things about Christianity.
And, in fact, we do — seven days a week around here these days!
Today, Lord Snow Presides over the purely earthly and imaginary influences that brought us This Present Darkness.
NEXT UP: A “ministry’s” very bad no good terrible math. See you tomorrow!
About Karen Winterburn: She returned to a hardline form of Catholicism eventually. These days, she pops up occasionally to talk about New Age topics, as she does here to discuss astrology. I’ve even spotted her showing up in devotionals! We might just have another entry for our Cult of “Before” Stories here, because I have yet to encounter a single one of these breathlessly-told testimonies that turned out to hold water. The more magic a testimony contains, the less chances there are of it being true. I doubt she’ll be the first TRUE CHRISTIAN™ to find semi-fame with a completely-realistic testimony.
Moreover: as we’ve seen, hardline American Catholics are doing their damndest to bring back the Satanic Panic — and Winterburn’s testimony certainly fits into that genre of Christian fiction. (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.