The Big Coincidences Build in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #152, Ch. 33-34)

The Big Coincidences Build in ‘This Present Darkness’ (LSP #152, Ch. 33-34) August 4, 2020

Hi and welcome back! Now, let’s turn our attention to the finale gaining steam in Frank Peretti’s 1986 Christian pipe dream, This Present Darkness. In this installment, all of our main and secondary characters come together at last in preparation for the confrontation to come. Also, Edith Duster makes a surprise return! Y’all, these chapters have it all. Today, Lord Snow Presides over the coincidences Christians mistake for miracles.

coincidences are always divine right
(Brett Jordan.) Coincidence? I THINK NOT.

(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. Quotes come from the book or other noted sources, unless I let you know otherwise.)

Chapter 33 Synopsis: Coincidences Galore.

Abruptly, Edith Duster (the very old prayer warrior who attends Hank Busche’s church) awakens in the night. Two handsome men stand by her bed. Immediately, she perceives that they are angels. Their height, handsomeness, and big ol’ golden swords tipp her off.

They tell her to pray lots and lots and to call Mary Busche, Hank’s wife. They tell Edith to comfort Mary because Hank is in jail — er sorry, “has fallen prisoner,” which could seriously mean anything in Christianese.

So Edith does as ordered. As she prays, Peretti describes angels gliding into Ashton. Also, the entire Remnant that Hank’s gathered wake up independently with dreams of angels and big cosmic wars. They all migrate to Mary’s house.

Meanwhile, Hank and Marshall Hogan — thrown into the same jail cell, what are the odds? — share their stories. They discover that Carmen — the seductress working for the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW) — is at the bottom of both their downfalls.

As they talk, Bernice (Marshall’s plucky reporter and Girl Friday) desperately tries to get to the meeting set up with Kevin Weed and Susan Jacobson. It takes place at the Evergreen Tavern (where Bernice first met Kevin), but that’s a good distance away from Ashton. However, a farmer’s daughter finds her, tends her injuries, and takes her by motorcycle to Evergreen.

Then, “you can call me Betsy” just vanishes. OMG!!!

Chapter 34 Synopsis: Coincidences Collide.

Bernice almost gets nailed by the Cabal’s corrupt cops at the tavern. After escaping them, she runs into Susan! Susan’s alive!

And then, Kevin Weed straggles into their hiding spot! OMG!

Turns out, after he got slipped a mickey by the Cabal’s agents, he got so tired driving his truck that he pulled over. Then, he got out and passed out a fair distance from it. Someone stole his truck while he was out cold. When he woke up, he discovered it gone — then heard the news that its driver had plunged it right over a cliff! He knows that this was no accident, of course.

While these three ponder the amazing coincidences that got them all here safely, our two heroes do the same.

At the end of Chapter 34, Marshall acceptsJesusashispersonallordandsavior. I mean, how could he not have done this? The amazing Jesus Aura of Pastor Hank just makes Jesus sound like totally “the very real, very alive, very personal Son of God.” And there were just way too many coincidences for Marshall to deny anymore.

As we’ll discuss later on, Marshall was already fundagelical in every single way except formal affiliation. All he’s done now is take that last step to join the tribe that we knew was his from the very first pages of this novel.

Coincidences, According to Hank Busche.

As soon as Hank Busche hears all about Marshall’s troubles up to now (his wife leaving, losing his paper to the Cabal, his daughter falsely accusing him of rape, etc), he knows exactly what is happening. He exclaims (p. 301):

“Marshall,” Hank said excitedly unable to sit still, “this is of God! Our being here is no accident. Our enemies meant it for evil, but God meant it for good. He’s brought the two of us together just so we could meet, just so we could put the whole thing together.”

Frank Peretti desperately wants us as readers to believe Marshall is ruff-n-tuff and oh-so-NEW-YORKER-suspicious of all that oogly-boogly stuff. However, Marshall doesn’t argue at all with Hank’s assertion. It makes perfect sense to him and explains everything that he’s experienced.

Obviously, this must be the explanation he’s needed, the one that fills in every blank in the story: imaginary friends in the sky engineering the wreckage of his life — or allowing it to happen. Yep yep, could not be anything else. All he needed was a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ to come into his life to point out this obvious truth.

He gets that help in spades.

Filling in the Coincidences With GodDidIt.

Skeptics mock this mindset by calling it God of the Gaps or GodDidIt. Semi-officially, it’s called the divine fallacy. More officially, it’s an appeal to/argument from ignorance.

It all means the same thing: if you can’t explain exactly what happened to a salesperson’s satisfaction, then obviously the explanation must be the salesperson’s favored one.

When Christians need an explanation but lack one, they default to deciding their god had to have made it happen. It’s not an explanation.

Maaaaaaaaaaaagic.

It only adds another claim to the mix. They won’t support that claim either.

However, that’s exactly how Hank Busche sells his ideology to Marshall.

How That Works in Action.

In the cells, Hank relays his own story to Marshall. The newspaperman objects to Hank’s inclusion of demons to the story.

Hank replies thusly (p. 303):

“Well, you always wanted an explanation for Langstrat’s strange pull, and how the Network [the Cabal] could have all that powerful influence on people, and what may have really been tormenting Ted Harmel, and especially who these spirit guides might be.”

“You’re–you’re asking me to believe in evil spirits.”

“Do you believe in God?”

“Yes, I believe there’s a God.”

“Do you believe in a devil?”

Marshall had to think for a moment. He noticed that he’d gone through a change of opinion somewhere along the line. “I . . . well, yeah, I guess I do.”

“Believing in angels and demons is simply the next step after that. It’s only logical.” [LOL OMG – CC]

Marshall shrugged and picked up a drumstick. “Just keep going. Let me hear the whole thing.”

See how that works? Easy peasy. Marshall already holds one false belief, so Hank simply builds off of that first false belief with more false claims.

Wingnuts are very easy to sell to, in that regard. Marshall stands helpless against these additional false claims. Denying these claims jeopardizes the false claim he already holds. He won’t do that.

So fine: these coincidences must be divine!

Miracles as Coincidences.

Almost everything happening to our good-guy characters could be characterized as coincidences of the most egregious sort. In any other type of story, they’d disqualify Frank Peretti as an author. In this story, however, he can reliably expect his readers to accept them without question. Evangelicals even in the 1980s knew to accept coincidences as miracles.

We all did it.

That five-dollar-bill we found on the sidewalk? Obviously, our god laid it there knowing we’d find it. Obviously, it happened on the very day we needed money but lacked it for whatever reason. If we could somehow work into our testimony that we’d accidentally left our wallets at home that very day, well, that extra fillip of coincidence only added to the cachet conferred upon us as the recipients of the miracle.

We even did our best to engineer these coincidences. I knew people who prayed before going out to lunch because none of us went out that often (not like these days), and this outing could become a coincidence for someone else! It could be our god leading us somehow to a person who needed to hear a sales pitch! Most of our testimonies, indeed, involved circuitous trails of coincidences that led us to the right Christians at the right times to hear the right things.

And amazingly, it was the people who rejected our GodDidIt assertions that we called “closed-minded.” Obviously, open-mindedness, by contrast, absolutely required someone to accept without questions whatever non-explanation a Christian offered.

What’s Really Happening.

Literally everybody experiences coincidences all the time. Anything that happens to us that’s a bit out of the ordinary becomes noteworthy to our brains. Usually, we’re on auto-pilot much of the time. Our brains fill in a lot of what we think we see and experience, because it’s all stuff we’ve seen and experienced so many times. And that tendency becomes cognitive biases. They’re the shortcuts that let our brains deal with the stuff it sees as way more important right then.

Sometimes, a coincidence feeds into a belief that we hold. So we assign that coincidence way more significance than it really has. Over time, our memory of the event even shifts, becoming larger-than-life to make the coincidence seem even more improbable or outsized.

A cognitive bias called subjective validation can do a number on us. It involves two pieces:

  • If something has personal meaning or significance to us, we assume it’s correct.
  • We’ll tie unrelated events (coincidences) together in ways that validate our beliefs. 

It’s hardly the only one.

People can also be really good at finding patterns in things and events that simply don’t exist. Wingnuts are especially prone to pareidolia.

When it comes to Christians’ claims of divine activity, we can find tons of these sorts of biases in motion.

The Questions That Wreck Christians’ Miracle Claims.

In the case of Marshall and Hank in the jail cell, we can ask a number of questions that destroy Hank’s claim that angels and demons stand behind everything that’s happened to them. And Marshall asks exactly none of them. Here’s the main one:

Why does this god require all this busy-work to make his plans happen? Or all this suffering on the part of innocent people?

He’s a god, right? So why does he require people to suffer so much to get his jobs done?

A false rape accusation can wreck a white evangelical man’s life, as white evangelical men themselves tell us constantly. Even after this novel’s story ends, the two men thus accused will be re-entering society. Will this god also wipe the memories of Ashton’s residents? Or will Ashton’s citizens just not care that their pastor and their newspaper editor were accused?

Further, Bernice almost got beaten to death. That’ll have some impact on her future physical and mental health. Kevin Weed’s truck got destroyed and he was drugged almost to death as well. The Cabal destroyed a child’s mind and hurt him to shut his parents up. Sandy Hogan, of course, now believes her father raped her (and I’m sure her mom will find out about this accusation). The Cabal still owns a lot of Ashton real estate — much of it apparently legally and fairly acquired, I might add. Their now-ex-enforcer still committed many crimes that cry out for justice. There’s lots more, too!

When the novel ends, all that stuff will still have happened and will still have repercussions.

We’ve already seen that this god’s angelic soldiers are happy to appear as themselves to TRUE CHRISTIANS™ as well as to meddle in humans’ reality to get jobs done. But strangely, they can’t stop this suffering from happening or handle their work themselves. In fact, they require humans to suffer for their leader’s weird plan to work.

The Zeroth Question.

But here’s the most important question we must ask:

We can’t use a god or imaginary beings as explanations without also supporting them through real-world evidence. And Christianity’s claims have always, without exception, lacked corroborating real-world evidence. So where is it?

If Christians can’t offer that evidence, they might as well use time-traveling wizards as the fairy-dust that powers their coincidences. Or leprechauns mad at the kids after their Lucky Charms. Or Hillary Clinton just in general. It all holds the same explanatory power, which is to say none at all.

As I said earlier, all Christians do when they push their favored belief system forward as the explanation for anything is add another claim to the mix. We still might not know how X happened, but now we’ve got an unproven Y claiming to be involved. That doesn’t help us at all with X.

It’s okay to say we’re not sure why X happened. Heck, it’s even okay to rest at I’m not sure forever. Some stuff we’ll never know. That’s just part of the human condition. If it’s important to us to know, we need to keep asking — and testing the ideas we come up with as explanations. And thanks to the tools we’ve invented like the Scientific Method, we do find out often enough and given time.

However, it’s not okay to latch onto some explanation, any explanation at all, to explain that mystery and then rest there happily-ever-after without further inquiry. That habit prevents us from ever finding out the truth and knowing what actually happened. It guarantees we’ll never really know. And that non-explanation will always jar uncomfortably against all the other signs that it fails to adequately explain anything.

This is why I trust an honest I don’t know over a dishonest OMG, I TOTALLY know Jesus did this!

A Story We Won’t See Here.

Marshall Hogan comes across in these chapters as a gullible twit precisely because he is the kind of open-minded that Hank Busche needs for his non-explanation to fly. His conversion happens along the scripted lines that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ ache to see in reality — but almost never do.

It doesn’t even occur to Marshall to wonder if Langstrat’s pull with Cabal members might come down to very earthly causes. Or if the Cabal itself could have influence for earthly reasons. Neither situation sounds in the least supernatural to me, nor does either situation require any such explanations. But he already believes in his god as a real being, so he doesn’t even bother to examine the situation further. Yep yep, must be demons behind it all!

In fact, in any other story, widespread acceptance of Hank Busche’s explanations would allow very real wrongdoing and very real wrongdoers to operate freely and unfettered. While these two wingnuts beg for help from imaginary friends and chase down boogeymen, a real-estate takeover is happening right under their noses.

It’s quite an interesting idea for a story, but Frank Peretti could not possibly care less about it. And neither could his readers. If anything, this novel only accelerated evangelicals’ conceptualization of miracles taking the form of the coincidences that literally everyone experiences.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over the coincidences in This Present Darkness that echo the ones Christians constantly imagine are miracles.

NEXT UP: American Gospel tries to obfuscate its Calvinist leanings. But they shine through anyway.


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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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