Angels Betting on Zero in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #140, Ch. 21)

Angels Betting on Zero in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #140, Ch. 21) May 4, 2020

Howdy and welcome back! As is our custom, now we turn our attention to Frank Peretti’s biggest failure, his 1986 book This Present Darkness. In this installment, angels openly shrug about the potential of humans going to hell, while doing nothing to prevent it for Jesus reasons. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the shocking immorality of evangelical heroes.

this angel has attitude
(Irena Carpaccio.)

(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.)

The Angels Plot.

If you need the full chapter synopsis, you can find it here. We’ve been hanging out on Chapter 21 for a few weeks now, largely because Frank Peretti touches on so many subplots in it. It’s very obviously his midpoint chapter, and it is a slog to get through!

This particular scene is the second-to-last in the chapter as well as the last one we’ll be concentrating on before moving ahead to Chapter 22. Here, we’re supposed to see just how desperate the angels are to win their upcoming battle against the supernatural masters of the earthly Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW). They openly discuss the necessity of the downfall of the two major male heroes of the story, Hank Busche (the book’s TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastor) and Marshall Hogan (the journalist who’s fundie-in-all-but-name).

What we actually see is an asinine example of pure callousness, as well as extremely poor tactical planning on the part of the angels’ leader, Tal.

The Setting.

The scene takes place in an old water tower. I actually like how Peretti uses the setting. Often, he describes the sound effects of the angels’ conversation, or mentions the damp surroundings.

He doesn’t mention the smell, however. As a kid, me and my friends played in an old water tower sometimes (before our parents learned about our new hideout, at which point they immediately dismantled it). Our all-too-temporary den of iniquity was, to say the least, damp and overgrown with wild plants and moss, which of course made it quite aromatic, which in turn of course made it perfect for a pack of 10-year-olds wanting to pretend-play at being lost in the wilderness for the day.

I guess Peretti just used this setting to communicate the mismatch in power between the angels and their demonic enemies, or else perhaps he wanted his readers to be thinking of angels lurking everywhere. My tribe sure saw them that way after that book swept through our ranks.

In this tense scene , the leader of the angels, Tal, confers with his forces. These, of course, consist of lower-ranked angels, since Peretti envisions the angels as being a quasi-military force. Repeatedly, Peretti informs us that the other angels look up to their captain with adoration and utter devotion. They never question any of Tal’s ideas, much less criticize anything he decides to do.

He’s Willing to Sacrifice Anybody (Else)!

In the meeting, Tal tells his angels that he knows Hank and Marshall will “fall,” which means they will have unapproved sex and thus damn themselves and lose everything they value in the world.

And right about here, I’m thinking:

Wow, these angels’ judgment just looks more and more questionable.

See, Tal’s already done some morally-dubious things, as we saw during the big church-vote meeting in Chapter 10. It’s entirely possible he cheated by helping an old congregant get to the meeting so she could vote to keep Hank in place as the church’s pastor — or that he actually impersonated a congregant himself (as an angel wonders at the beginning of Chapter 11).

In that scene, Tal, and therefore Frank Peretti, sounded enormously pleased with himself for being oh-so-clever and sneaky. But our trust in the angels as moral and ethical agents — as heroes, as good guys — gets shaken apart right then and there. Right there, we know that Tal doesn’t consider honesty as an important value. He’s willing to be dishonest to win in a fight as minor and silly as this: a tiny little fundagelical church deciding if they want to keep their newbie pastor or give him the boot.

In that scene, in fact, the angels stop a fake-Christian cheater from stuffing the church’s ballot-box. Peretti presents this thwarted attempt as an example of the dishonest tactics that the Cabal will utilize to get their way. He seems entirely unaware of the fact that his angels do much the same thing. In truth, neither side is willing to just let humans do their thing without interference.

It’s just so striking, given evangelicals’ long-standing idolization of what they mistakenly call objective morality.

This scene at the end of Chapter 21 runs along similar lines.

Demons and Affairs, Generally.

Guilo starts talking about Marshall Hogan’s “dangerous shift in attention toward” Bernice Krueger. She’s the pretty, young, go-get-em reporter who works for Marshall at the newspaper.

See, Guilo knows that if Bernice and Marshall engage in an adulterous affair, it’ll cost Marshall his family. ZOMG! Guilo makes no mention whatsoever of Bernice’s potential risks — of course. (Come to think of it, we don’t know much at all about Bernice’s family, aside from the sister the Cabal apparently murdered.) So he raises the question to Tal: what can they do? They can’t let him just get “destroyed” by an affair! (Again, the angel makes no mention of any desire to protect Bernice.)

In response, Tal blames Rafar, his demonic counterpart. Cuz, you know, affairs literally only come from demons. They’re never the result of humans being human and doing human stuff. No, no! This affair can be nothing other than demonic! So if Marshall does the nasty with Bernice, well, it’s not like they can stop him.

As Tal reveals, only their god’s “Holy Spirit” can “convict” Marshall of sin, after all. Thus, angels are utterly helpless to tell Marshall that he’s on the road to ruin if he keeps this up. Apparently, they’re not even allowed to tell Marshall that demons now control his affections.

Even if they could, Tal won’t let them — yet. 

Sidebar: A Quick Christianese Lesson.

The “Holy Spirit” is sort of like the part of Yahweh that actually makes stuff happen, perhaps like kinetic energy as opposed to potential energy. Often Christians conceptualize this part of their three-part god as a dove descending to Earth from Heaven. Evangelicals, in particular, believe that the Holy Spirit fills them up with spiritual gifts that let them work miracles.

“Conviction” is like guilt, but it’s Christianity-flavored guilt that comes from Yahweh. When evangelicals talk about “feeling convicted,” they’re saying that they think their god has sent his own spiritual energy from Heaven to slam them with guilt over having offended him somehow. They wouldn’t have known otherwise, goes the implication. Only a divine being could possibly have made them recognize such a thing. (And they’d point to Proverbs 14:2 as proof for that assertion: “There is a way that seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.”)

The next step after conviction is, of course, repentance. That is the only allowable next step. You dun goofed, and now you must psychically say you’re sorry to Jesus — or he’ll let you get tortured forever and ever after you die.

I know it sounds ridiculous, and it really is. But there’s a reason why evangelicals see demons behind every bush and angels atop every car hood, though. They use those imaginary beings to absolve themselves of personal responsibility or accountability for their own misdeeds.

So Marshall can’t get convicted of his desires because he’s not on Team Jesus yet. And though the angels have done all kinds of stuff to help or hinder humans all through the story, they can’t step in at all here.

Those angels interfere with whatever they want — right up to the point that Frank Peretti needs them to hold back.

Consent? What’s That?

So Tal tells his angels that not only are Marshall and Hank in great danger of “falling,” which — again — always means having unapproved sex in fundie-land, but that they must fall so Tal’s idiotic plan can succeed.

See, Tal is sure that if the demons can topple these two men, then their leader, the Strongman, will “come out of hiding.” The angels can’t shoo him out of hiding by any other means, and they can’t win the fight against him unless he’s out in the open where they can attack together — I’m guessing.

So in a very real way, Tal needs the two heroes to have unapproved sex.

And again, not a single word of concern gets uttered about the women involved here. The losses are entirely the men’s losses. One of the other angels, aghast, asks him (p. 200):

“You–you would sacrifice these men?” Nathan asked.

“Only for a season,” Tal answered.

Gosh, how nice of Tal to let two people destroy their lives — even temporarily, which is what that Christianese phrase means, a Jesus-flavored short stretch of time. How nice of him to let them do all this without even knowing they’re not really the problem here, that it’s really demons who are destroying them in the name of some big ineffable plan!

Why can’t Tal ask these men if they’re willing to do this? Because he knows they’d say no, and then he’d have to force events onto them more directly or find something else?

My Discomfort With Moral Ambiguity.

Today is May the 4th, which is of course Star Wars Day (“may the fourth be with you,” etc). So maybe this chapter comes at a good time, because it reminds me of the similar moral discomfort I felt with the Jedi.

To put it mildly, I just don’t think the Jedi are necessarily good guys. That whole “different point of view” thing to justify lying sat very poorly with me. I know that concept entered canon because the background plot had shifted so much that it retconned parts of the earlier saga. But still.

Back when I was first planning to play a Star Wars roleplaying game, its designers hadn’t given as much allowance to “gray Jedi” or whatnot. The choices then were join the Jedi Order and deal with their BS or join the Sith and deal with even worse BS. But BS of some kind was an integral part of the game in both situations.

I get why that is; a game without conflicts is really a game without teeth. It’s just that I had big issues with “good guys” who had so much moral ambiguity.

The Just World Fallacy, Again.

I still do, to some extent — maybe it’s that sweet, innocent heart of mine screaming still into an uncaring void that the universe needs to be fair.

To me, good guys shouldn’t resort to the tactics of the bad guys. Blah blah, I know evangelicals always point to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and hiding Jews from literal Nazis and stealing bread when you’re starving and whatnot, and yes, yes, we get that, I agree, those are extenuating circumstances.

But that isn’t what’s happening in this book.

Frank Peretti wants us to cheer for the angels’ side, but so far the angels don’t look particularly like good guys at all. I just don’t ever get the impression that they’re really upset or torn over what they must do to win. In fact, they seem to operate like this all the time. The banter and byplay I see in their scenes indicates that Tal’s always a scheming fellow who’s two steps ahead of the angels, and who takes daring risks and pushes boundaries to achieve success.

As I said, he’s very impressed with himself, and that means Frank Peretti’s impressed with him as well.

Two Wrongs Make a Right, In Fundie-Land.

Frank Peretti’s already destroyed his premise here by showing us tons of other big Cabal networks (at the gala in Chapter 18). Whatever’s going on in Ashton, it can’t possibly be as important as what’s happening in New York City — or wherever else those networks operate.

Even Susan Jacobson’s boss, Alexander Kaseph, is pulling up roots to move his stenographers operation from Ashton to some other town (it’s why she’s able to gather incriminating documents to help herself escape). Ashton just doesn’t sound very important to the plot.

And so far, it looks like Frank Peretti’s angels are more than willing to do each and every thing the demons are doing to win the fight.

There’s another side to this equation, of course, and it’s damning all by itself:

Tal’s plan 100% relies on two humans doing something he can’t control at all, as well as something that represents a failure for them.

The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Humans can be so delightfully surprising. We can unexpectedly turn to the light and do the right thing after years of poor behavior. Or we can suddenly erupt into dishonesty and whatnot after a lifetime of being a goody two-shoes.

Here, though, the angels bank on these two men (Marshall and Hank) doing the worst thing imaginable. Tal’s plan cannot succeed without them doing so, in fact, because he just can’t think of any other way to get the Strongman out of his hidey-hole.

(Ignore that we’ve already seen the angels distract oodles of demons at the gala to help Susan. It’s not even the only time an angel has provoked a demon into chasing him. This exact notion is part of the book’s canon and its bedrock.)

So if these two men do the right thing, then Tal’s plan will collapse.

He utterly depends on two people to both do exactly the worst thing possible, all without his input.

Does anybody else think that’s the worst possible tactic?

Yet Another Story Frank Peretti Doesn’t Care About.

You know, I’m suddenly hit with longing to see this story:

BOHO GUITAR MUSIC INTRO.

EXT. SUBURBAN NEIGHBORHOOD – DAY

ZOOM IN on MARSHALL, a white Boomer type of dude, walking.

ANNOUNCER (V.O.)

Marshall Hogan is just a regular, ordinary newspaper editor in a small town. He loves his wife and daughter and is a solid family man.

But then one day, his whole worldview changes. Not only are God and Satan real, but everything evangelicals talk about is real too! The leader of a bunch of angels says Marshall needs to commit adultery — or else the Endtimes will begin and the world will end!

SFX: RECORD SCRATCH

MARSHALL
(stops, looks at the camera in consternation.)

Wait, what?

ANNOUNCER (V.O.)

The only way Marshall Hogan can save humanity is to destroy his own family by banging his hot, sexually available employee.

What will he do?

FADE OUT on MARSHALL demanding more information.

Y’all, I’d read/watch the hell out of that.

But Frank Peretti doesn’t care at all about this very human side of his story. One reason why this book so interests me is the many stories that just fall by the wayside — all the interesting little plot-hooks that Peretti just never notices or cares about. This is one of them.

Gaming the Odds.

All Peretti cares about is his dumb angels and their dumb strategy that destroys two human lives for a purpose that they care about way more than they do actual people.

The angels care so much about the outcome of their upcoming fight that the actual requirements of morality and ethics, as well as concern for the very real lives of the people around them, stop mattering.

We see much the same thing going on in evangelicalism today, don’t we? They care so much about winning their culture wars that no low is too low for them. They’ll happily sign up to support the most callous, cruel, dishonest, and nitwitted President who ever lived — and try to force their culture-war ideals into law at any cost. Their entire movement has never been anything but a thinly-disguised totalitarian political movement seeking absolute control over everyone possible. They’ll do absolutely anything to get that control they crave.

But we’re the bad guys who don’t understand objective morality and fall into what Frank Peretti calls “moral compromise” (p. 199) without the “conviction” of the “Holy Spirit.” TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like themselves never need to worry about that, now do they?

(Yes. They do. They should. But they don’t.)

Today, Lord Snow Presides over good guys that really don’t act very good in a story aimed at people suffering the same “moral compromise” that they mistakenly attribute to their enemies.

NEXT UP: Sean McDowell’s errors continue, as we look at the medical side of “resurrection.” See you tomorrow!


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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. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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