the power of prayer
Reading Time: 6 minutes Lookit! The power of prayer! (pete beard, CC.)
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Hi and welcome back! It being Monday, we turn our attention now to Frank Peretti’s grueling slog of a fantasy novel, This Present Darkness. In this installment, we whisk through a time of transition for the heroes — and see what prayer does in the fantasies of the ones who fancy themselves to be the real deal. It’s a dramatic departure from reality in both cases. Today, Lord Snow Presides over how Frank Peretti rewrote the game of prayer.

the power of prayer
Lookit! The power of prayer! (pete beard, CC.)

(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 27 Synopsis.

While Juleen Langstrat introduces Sandy Hogan to her spirit guide (a demon, natch), the rest of the heroes’ world dissolves into chaos.

Marshall Hogan (Sandy’s dad) returns to his newspaper office to discover that Carmen — the spy of the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW) — has vanished. Everything’s gone higgledy-piggledy. No paper has been printed that day, nor will be since the Cabal seized the office for nonpayment of taxes.

While there, Marshall discovers that Eldon Strachan and his wife are actually fine; they were away on a trip when the Cabal’s henchmen (or rather, henchman, which is to say Bobby Corsi, probably) tore their house up.

Bernice checks out of the hospital and goes home. Kevin Weed calls her — he apparently also wasn’t at home when the Cabal paid him a visit. Bernice sets up a meeting with him to talk in person. They’re both worried their phones are bugged, which is of course why they set the meeting up by phone.

Having reached her wits’ end, Marshall’s wife Kate separates from him. They both affirm they love each other, but she’s tired of competing with the newspaper for Marshall’s time and attention.

Chapter 28 Synopsis.

Susan Jacobson, the Handmaiden of Cabal leader Alexander Kaseph, almost escapes the Cabal’s headquarters. But Kaseph catches her at the last second! Oh noes! The angels watching over her dither about what to do.

Meanwhile, the Remnant meets at pastor Hank Busche’s house. The usual suspects show up. So does Lou Stanley, of all people, with his wife! Hank had disfellowshipped Lou for adultery — the man just wouldn’t ditch his mistress. That decision caused a major rift in Hank’s church and almost cost him his job. But here’s Lou with his wife, and he’s obviously penitent and ready to rejoin the community! Hooray Team Jesus! And obviously, the Remnant greets them “with love and acceptance,” which reminded me anew that this is a Christian fantasy novel.

Also, James Farrel, the former pastor of Hank’s church, shows up with his wife. (Seriously: prayer meeting or Amway rah-rah session, or is there any difference?)

Hank leads everyone in prayer. They don’t know much about all the stuff I’ve described in these past two subsections, nor that the angels in this cosmology use their prayers as mana, but they do know that demons have encircled Ashton for some weird reason.

As the Cabal prepares to flat-out execute Susan for her treachery, she prays for help. The angels finally set a plan in motion to rescue her.

The Power of Prayer.

I don’t plan to dwell much on these two chapters. Mostly, they’re catch-up from previous chapters and set-up for the next chapters. However, these chapters really bring home the central premise of This Present Darkness: that prayer does very important things in the spiritual world. Frank Peretti has hinted at that central importance throughout the book — like having his angels carp about how the prayers of fake Christians don’t power them at all — but here we really see his worldbuilding in action.

In Peretti-Land, when TRUE CHRISTIANS™ pray, especially in groups, they generate what the author calls “prayer cover.” Though humans don’t know at all why prayer is truly important, the angels most certainly do. For some reason, none of the angels communicate this truth to the humans, ever. It doesn’t seem even to occur to them that humans don’t know about it.

In this cosmology, Jesus himself largely gets cut out of the picture. He’s a remote presence at best. People power angels, not Jesus.

(This point turns up very often in Christians’ criticisms of the book.)

How Prayer Cover Works.

Everything extra-dextra-magical that the angels do requires prayer cover.

Flying, turning visible or invisible, and generally just angelin’ around doesn’t seem to require prayer cover. However, big miracles and fights do. Without prayer cover, even a powerful angel like Captain Tal cannot even hope to defeat even a middling demon in a swordfight.

Seriously. It’s like mana. In Dungeons & Dragons, the game developers introduced the idea of cantrips to the game around 3rd edition (around the year 2000). While spells in the game usually cost mana, take time/components to cast, and must be prepared somehow in advance, cantrips can usually be tossed around at will, cost nothing, and don’t require preparation of any kind. They don’t do as much damage as higher-level spells, but they can be useful. Otherwise, you’d better have enough mana to do the splashy stuff you want to do ingame.

In the book, angels constantly worry about how much prayer cover they have. They make their plans around this amount and hope they’ve got enough. Prayer cover creates boundaries for the angels.

Demons are not presented as having these same problems at all. I’m guessing they have a counterpart, like blasphemy cover or something, but gosh y’all, I guess there’s just so much SEEEEE-YINNNNN in the world that they never bump up against any limits.

Spiritual Warfare in Prayer.

This book became popular in the late 1980s. And I think one of the main reasons evangelicals embraced it like they did was because it gave them a feeling of purpose and utility in their belief system.

After all, if a big cosmic god is handling everything, then why does he need puny humans to pray at all? He’s got a big plan that was set in stone at the very beginning of the universe — prayer won’t change that; he’ll do whatever he was always gonna do regardless, in that worldview. Angels are giant invisible warriors with huge swords that can destroy demons. What are humans, compared to that? What are people going to do that angels don’t already have well in hand?

When we get down to brass tacks, prayer is pointless from a utilitarian point of view. It’s hard even to imagine a deity so petulant and narcissistic that he requires his underlings to praise him in prayer, much less demands it.

And y’all, that’s a circle Christian leaders have been trying to square ever since their religion was invented.

Prayer in Fantasy vs. Reality.

Rowdy John Piper can refer to prayer all he likes as “one of the most stunning, amazing, astounding privileges given to human beings.” Yes, he sure can think whatever he wants. He and a lot of his fellow Christians think all sorts of things that aren’t actually true.

Rank-and-file Christians already know perfectly well that prayer doesn’t live up to that grand hype — which is why they don’t pray very often at all on their own. As hard as they struggle to force themselves to think otherwise, every aspect of the real world tells them this truth every day. Consequently, I don’t think I’ve ever met a single Christian in my entire life who prayed very often.

(If I had a chance to exchange a daily phone call forever with Barack Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Bill Gates, you think I’d ever miss a single chance to dial their numbers? I bet John Piper’s got a similar “Sorry, Jesus” list of people who are allowed to come between him and his devotions.)

Even Christians’ own indoctrination tells them that prayer accomplishes absolutely nothing, and they know it. The only way to make prayer a useful activity is to vastly expand the parameters involved in the notion of useful activities — or to browbeat themselves into believing it somehow. 

(Don’t miss that “parameters” link, btw. That Catholic dude’s official response: “offer them [skeptics and critics] a variant of Pascal’s Wager” and explicitly try to invoke fear in them — or at least FOMO. You can’t make this stuff up. Nobody needs to wonder why Catholicism is in such a steep decline. I’ve got no words.)

Fixing What’s Broken With New Brokenness.

But then came along Frank Peretti. He gave words to the nameless concerns evangelicals felt around prayer. He told them that actually, prayer does lots — and he drew them pictures of what he thought it did.

In a very real way, he gave evangelicals their marching boots — and a roadmap.

Both his revision and the established flavors of Christianity deal with invented worlds based on fantasy, but evangelicals just like his revised world better. It speaks to them more. It tells them they’re important and that even if they can’t tell prayer does anything with any of their senses or measuring-tools, it totally does.

So almost 35 years later, Peretti’s vision of Christianity still reigns in evangelical hearts. And so does his subtle rewrite of how prayer works and what it accomplishes.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over a makeover of prayer that actually makes it way more useful than the “official” conceptualization of it!

NEXT UP: My “sticking points.” 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 sweet white cat. In life, he actually knew quite a bit.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...