Hi and welcome back! Last week, we covered the midpoint chapter of Frank Peretti’s 1986 fundagelical fantasy novel, This Present Darkness. In Chapter 21, Frank Peretti skipped merrily across a whole bunch of plots, giving us a little taste of each one, George R. R. Martin style. I only touched on each of those plot vignettes last week. So now, let’s zero in on one of the most interesting of the lot of them. Today, Lord Snow Presides over just how easy it is for wingnuts’ meetings to get completely out of hand.
(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.)
(Previous posts about wingnuts: The Problem With Wingnuts; How One Untrue Wingnut Belief Inevitably Becomes Many; The Heartbreak of the Teen Zealot; Doctrinal Yardsticks and Wingnuts; When We Can’t Both Be Right; The Cloud Has Moved.)
Where Are We?
In the second scene of the chapter (and clearly the one Frank Peretti really wanted to talk about), we find ourselves in a church meeting. Peretti describes it as “a dinner fellowship,” which is Christianese for a very boring dinner party with lots of prayer and Christian posturing. These people can’t just get together to have a dinner party. That’s way too secular and worldly. No, no no! They must have a Jesus-centered dinner party!
The hosts of the meeting are Andy and June Forsythe; the meeting takes place in their home. These are Ron Forsythe’s parents. Ron, of course is the kid Hank dramatically exorcised a few chapters ago.
We met Andy and June Forsythe quite a while ago. They joined Hank’s church because theirs wasn’t Jesus-y enough. Their former church, in fact, was United Christian — the aforementioned Evil Ecumenical church! Whoa! They told Hank they were super-worried about their son, who they saw as getting involved in all kinds of scary things.
Andy Forsythe turns out to have the same last name as a local business, Forsythe Lumber. I’m not sure we’ve seen that name before. Peretti describes the Forsythes’ home as a “modern log cabin on the outskirts of town.”
(Since Kevin Weed, Susan Jacobson’s ex-boyfriend, works for a logging company called “Gorst Brothers” in a nearby town, I’m now certain the Forsythe connection will become plot-important sometime soon. Not even kidding, Frank Peretti really does seem to operate under Star Wars rules. Everything needs to be connected somehow.)
These Folks Are The REMNANT, Y’all.
I’m not sure the Christians in this “dinner fellowship” meeting describe themselves as “the Remnant,” but that’s how the book — and the angels, at least — refers to them all through the story. That name gets another workout in this chapter.
Fundagelicals nowadays have no shame whatsoever about calling themselves exactly that (there’s even a Judaism-obsessed Florida-based church group formally using it, as well as this church), but I don’t remember if a character’s used it yet.
The word remnant is important Christianese, especially among fundagelicals. As you can likely guess, a “remnant” is a bit left over from a larger piece, like a fabric remnant. Usually, remnants don’t have a lot of value. But in Christianity, fundagelicalism in particular and especially, the term means the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who didn’t abandon the religion when everyone else did. No, the Remnant stuck around and stuck it out. They were the hardcore believers who refused to compromise!
Even back in the 1980s, when Peretti wrote this book, a certain subset of Christians already loved to describe themselves as the Remnant. The term has only assumed greater and greater importance since then. Here’s a fundagelical-leaning site discussing it — but reading it might feel an awful lot like watching a guy try to suckstart his own fishing rod. It is really that self-congratulatory.
Whenever fundagelicals get bad news these days, they comfort themselves by declaring that they are the Remnant, not like those fakey-fake Christians-in-name-only who yeeted the moment things got difficult.
Jesus will be extra-proud of them, right? Right?
Only the Loyal.
The group tonight consists only of people Hank can totally trust to have his back. I guess that’s why he couldn’t hold this meeting at the church; he’s not completely certain of the loyalties of his flock, especially after almost getting fired in the big church meeting in Chapter 10. Almost exactly half his little church congregation dislikes him and wants him gone, and now he knows that.
So he’s holding this meeting here, at the home of someone he knows is loyal, and only loyal sheep got invitations to it. I don’t know who curated the guest list, but I’m assuming Hank had a lot of input on that score.
Almost everyone there is a middle-aged married couple, because obviously TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are never married to people who don’t attend the same church. At least two of those couples are brand new members, though it sounds like all of them are lifelong Christians of some flavor or another.
It’s interesting that Hank doesn’t seem to include a lot of longtime members of his church. When a leader is always bleeding people who get disillusioned and critical of how that leader operates, that’s a red flag.
How Things Get Completely Out of Hand.
Tonight, the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ let their hair down and fly their Jesus Freak Flags. Almost immediately after introductions get made, Andy Forsythe opens up with a statement designed to escalate emotions and induce fear (and thus excitement) in the attendees (p. 197):
All of them had one main concern: the town of Ashton.
“Oh, it’s a war, all right,” said Andy Forsythe. “You can’t go out on those streets and not feel it. Sometimes I feel like I’m running through a shower of spears, you know?”
The other members pick up on this imagery immediately. Jean Corsi, a new church member there with her husband Dan, chimes in immediately to try to one-up the meeting’s host:
Jean said, “I really think it’s Satan out there, just like the Bible says, just like a roaring lion trying to devour everyone.”
Is Ashton really this dangerous, this dire, this evil, this eager for combat with TRUE CHRISTIANS™?
No. No, It Is Not.
Look, we read Chapter 7. We were there. We saw how Frank Peretti described Ashton. It’s a one-horse town whose horse ran away. Here’s how Peretti described Ashton then (pp. 70-71):
As Hank neared the main business district he paused on a corner to look up and down the street, watching old cars, new cars, vans and four-by-fours, shoppers, walkers, joggers, and bicyclers stream in four and more directions, regarding the orders of the traffic light as mere suggestions.
So where was the evil? How could it be so vivid last night and a distant, dubious memory today? No demons or devils lurked in the office windows or reached out of the storm drains; the people were the same, simple, ordinary folks he had always seen, still ignoring him and passing by.
Yes, this was the town he prayed for night and day with deep groanings of the heart because of a burden he couldn’t explain, and now it was taxing his patience, unsettling him.
“Well, are you in trouble or aren’t you, or don’t you even care?” he said aloud.
Nobody listened. No deep, sinister voices answered back with a threat.
Reality really is not playing well with the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ in Chapter 21. Ashton resembles every other little Pacific Northwest logging town I’ve ever seen. I even lived in one as a child — here is my favorite restaurant from those days. These towns are the polar opposite of sinister.
But that’s no fun for a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ who is aching to feel important and powerful.
ZOMG DEMONS ATE OUR SON!
Jean Corsi, not satisfied with having successfully one-upped Ron Forsythe, charges ahead. She uses the time-honored prayer request method of simultaneously spreading gossip and crying for attention:
Jean added, “Some of you know our son is having some real problems right now. We really wish you’d pray for him.”
And what’s her son (“Bobby”) doing that’s so problematic? Well, he enrolled at the local college ZOMG ZOMG ZOMG, and now “something’s really happened to him.” She does not actually name anything specific.
Apparently Bobby left the family home a week ago and they haven’t heard from him. Yes, I can see why a parent would worry about that. But so far, nothing has indicated that anything out of the ordinary has happened. It sounds like he just argued with his parents and left in anger. If they’re fundagelical wingnuts who see demons behind every bush, that might have a lot to do with why he needed time away.
As far as Jean and Dan Corsi are concerned, literal demons infest the college, and those demons have possessed their son Bobby.
And instead of comforting her or calming her down, her tribe just eggs her onward into greater and greater heights of hysteria.
How Ron Forsythe Seizes the Boomers’ Attention.
Almost immediately, Ron Forsythe scares the willies out of the parents present by leaping into the conversation and one-upping Jean’s story. After her husband Dan angrily suggests that the other parents not let their kids go near that darn dirty college and she suggests that Bobby is actually possessed, Ron finds his voice:
Jean ventured through her tears, “I know this sounds awful, but I really wonder if Bobby isn’t possessed.”
“I was,” said Ron. “I know I was. Man, I heard voices talking to me, telling me to get some drugs, or steal something, all kinds of horrible things. I never let my folks know where I was, I never came home, I’d end up sleeping in the weirdest places . . . and with the weirdest people.”
Jean asks how on earth he’d gotten into that lifestyle. (She must be thrilled that someone else finally caught a ball she’d lobbed. The others practically ignored her first two throws.) In answer to her question:
Ron shrugged. “Hey, I was already going the wrong way. I’m not sure I’m even all the way straightened out yet. But I’ll tell you when I think I got into the Satanic Stuff: it’s when I had my fortune told. Hey, that’s when I caught it, no doubt.” Someone asked if the fortune-teller was a certain woman. “No, it was somebody else. It was at the carnival three years ago.”
I double-checked. The odd capitalization of “Satanic Stuff” exists in the original. Ron never names this “certain woman.” (The phrase does appear in the Bible in many places, however.) Nor does Peretti reveal the identity of the fortune-teller who actually did infect Bobby with demons.
But Ron’s oh-so-caszh testimony has the desired effect: everyone gets panicky.
Things Get Out of Hand.
Pagan Invasion Ep. 1: Halloween, Trick or Treat?
I think this was made in 1999. Poor Glenn Hobbs; he missed the boat there.
Back at the ranch: By asserting that the town’s annual carnival led to his demonization, and that a fairly innocuous activity there became the catalyst itself for his infection, Ron manages to get all the parents there freaked out.
Jean begins to blubber, “Bobby’s possessed . . . I just know it!”
The meeting is ” this close to devolving into an all-out riot.
I’m dead serious: the next one-up attempt will need to involve someone tearing up and eating the carpeting in that living room, or another exorcism.
Hank Steps In.
One of the most important parts of a fundagelical pastor’s job is to intervene when the flocks start taking the Pretendy Fun Time Game all too seriously. And that’s what Hank does here.
Right after Jean starts crying about Bobby being possessed, we see Hank do his pastor-y thing:
Hank could see it was time to take control. “Okay, people, now I have a real burden to pray for this town, and I know you do too, so I think that’s where the answer lies. That’s the first thing we need to do.”
They were all ready. Many felt awkward praying out loud for the first time; some knew how to pray loudly and confidently; some prayed in phrases they’d learned from certain liturgies; all meant every word, however they managed to express it.
In the log cabin’s rafters, meanwhile, the angels get down and funky. Ohhh yeah, this is jussssst what they needed. These prayers power them up just great!
Hooray Team Jesus!
The All-Important Context of Wingnuttery.
A lot of what wingnuts do is highly context-specific and ritualized. What I’ve described here — a “dinner fellowship” that descends into chaos and hysteria with everyone trying to one-up everyone else, only to be pulled back from the brink by the group’s leader demanding prayer — is something I’ve seen many, many times as a Christian. This is how fundagelicals interact with each other; this is how they behave in groups.
Did you notice nobody comforted Jean in her distress? Well, nobody did. And she doesn’t appear to be angry or miffed that her distress went completely unnoticed.
I don’t remember ever seeing anybody in my Christian days comfort someone talking like Jean, either, or remember anybody being upset about that lack of comforting. Taken away from the context of “fellowship,” these outbursts look absolutely bizarre and ridiculous.
But that’s why wingnuts perform like this in the exact way they do. Jean, for example, got her reward already: she one-upped the previous person’s tale of woe and ended the evening as the gold-medal winner of the Demonic Oppression Olympics. I guarantee if this had happened in real life, and it easily could have, Jean would have gone home satisfied.
A Strangely Cracked Mirror.
Take the literal angels out of the rafters, and this “dinner fellowship” happens hundreds and maybe even thousands of times a week in fundagelical culture.
I marvel at how very well this little “dinner fellowship” scene rings so true to real life, considering everything else in the book that absolutely doesn’t. When Peretti turns his author’s eye to the absolute dysfunction of Christian communities, especially fundagelical ones like the ones he spent his entire childhood observing, that’s when we get anything close to a scene that rings true to life.
Today, Lord Snow Presides over a scene that accidentally reveals exactly why fundagelicals need a firm hand to keep their groups together.
NEXT UP: Evangelical churn returns to fundagelical leaders’ attention. See you tomorrow!
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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.