Hello and welcome back to our off-topic chat series, Lord Snow Presides! We return to our review of the 1986 Christian fantasy novel, This Present Darkness. In this installment, we explore a trope that this book’s author never tires of repeating: how terribly angry his tribe’s enemies always are. Today, let’s look at the role of anger in Frank Peretti’s book–and what his reliance on this trope reveals about his tribe.
(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.)
The Anger of Evil.
A central trope in evangelical minds involves how their enemies are consumed by anger all the time, while they themselves have joy unspeakable and love and yadda yadda in their own hearts. (I’m not gonna quote the song lyrics. I’m NOT.)
Indeed, in This Present Darkness we’ve encountered scenes of lost tempers and unmitigated rage at every turn–and always from the book’s bad guys. By contrast, the good guys react, at most, with bemused concern.
Marshall Hogan, the everyman center of the book at the moment, often gets irritated and frustrated by the stuff going on around him. He’s the absolute epitome of the meme “Old Man Yells at Cloud,” as well as a potent (if accidental) reminder of privilege distress. However, he always calms himself down somehow–or else his wife calms him down. He’s not yet a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, but I’m guessing that he will be by the book’s end. Peretti can’t jolly well show him throwing a wobbler!
But the demons throw tantrums constantly, and so do their minions. It’s so incredibly striking that I noticed it immediately when I began reading this book.
Evil Is Always Angry.
From the get-go, the book’s villains hold everyone around themselves hostage to their anger. In this book, people/demons always walk on tiptoe around their superiors, always fearful of arousing wrath through some mistake or inadvertent misstep. Even the powerless demons snipe at each other for absolutely no reason. Here’s a quick exchange from Chapter 5 (p. 48):
Complacency asked [the hate demons], “Where is Prince Lucius?”
“Find him yourself, lizard!” one of them growled.
When Complacency finds Lucius, he offers him a warning about Marshall Hogan. He thinks it’s a big mistake to bother Hogan. But Lucius, rather than listening to a subordinate with boots on the ground, freaks out at him (p. 49-50):
“My Prince,” Complacency pleaded, “I must have a word with you.”
Lucius’s eyes narrowed. Who was this little lizard to interrupt him in the middle of a conference, to violate decorum in front of these others?
“Why aren’t you with Hogan?” he growled.
“I must speak with you!”
“Dare you speak with me without my first speaking to you?”
“It is vitally important. You’re–you’re making a mistake. You’re bothering Hogan’s daughter, and–”
Lucius immediately became a small volcano, spewing forth horrible cursings and wrath. “You accuse your prince of a mistake? You dare to question my actions?”
Besides Lucius’ racism (species-ism?) against lizards (like did Complacency choose that form? I’m guessing not, but other demons have now insulted him twice over it in only two pages), it doesn’t sound like he or his own superiors ever set up channels of communication or even a chain of command. I don’t think any low-level demon has any way to effectively voice concerns about anything their superiors are doing or planning.
Who’d’a thunk that an author with no experience whatsoever with life and no curiosity about anything outside his own experience as a pastor’s son might not understand anything about military organizations?
Evil Always Reacts Poorly.
While the angels are always portrayed as friendly, kind, and compassionate toward each other, Frank Peretti always shows his demons fighting with each other.
Sometimes the squabbles become actual knock-down, drag-out fights. Right after Lucius dresses Complacency down, his own superior, Rafar, comes in just in time to overhear his boasting. Rafar senses (probably correctly) that his underling might be itching to challenge him for his title/rank/whatever, so they get into a fight. Lucius loses hard–so Rafar twists the knife by humiliating him right in front of his own forces (p. 52-53):
Rafar leaned over him, blood-red breath spewing from his mouth and nostrils as he spoke. [“Does he mean like smoke?” — “Let’s not jump to conclusions.” — CC]
“I perceive you wish to challenge for my position.” Lucius said nothing. “ANSWER!”
“No!” Lucius cried. “I yield.”
“Up! Get up!”
Lucius struggled to his feet, and Rafar’s strong arm stood him with the others. By now Lucius was a most pitiful sight, totally humiliated.
Evil Is Always Scared Of Punishment.
The whole book runs like this. In Chapter 11, we see demons punish Juleen Langstrat and Alf Brummel for failing them with the church vote. As, respectively, the leader and most powerful member of the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW), their assignment involved influencing the vote to fire Hank Busche from his pastor job. They failed: the vote succeeded and Hank Busche still works there.
Frank Peretti’s description of the torment visited upon Juleen Langstrat sounds very much like that scene from the end of 1982’s Poltergeist where the mom is flipped all around her bedroom–up the walls to the ceiling and across it. (Here’s a link to the clip; it’s not really work-safe.) The demons are not not not happy with her (p. 107):
Late into the night, Juleen Langstrat hovered in an inescapable trance, halfway between a tormented life on earth and the licking, searing flames of hell. She lay on her bed, tumbled to the floor, clawed her way up the wall to stand on her feet, staggered about the room, and fell to the floor again.
Her torment worsens from there. At one point she finds herself holding a knife and contemplating self-harm. Alf Brummel, her underling, also contemplates self-harm to escape the rage of his superiors.
Evil Has a Low Tolerance for Frustration.
In Chapter 13, after Marshall Hogan confronts Oliver Young at the evil ecumenical church service, we get a scene of Rafar visiting his own superior, the Strongman. (See endnote for info about the confrontation itself.)
The Strongman hangs out at a ranch outside of Ashton. One of the Cabal’s main allies, Sam Turner, happens to be a wealthy rancher (we met him at the church meeting; he attends Hank Busche’s church and voted against the pastor). So this is probably his land and his complex of buildings.
Rafar offers the Strongman (“it was forbidden to speak his name”) an update regarding the demons’ plan to take over Ashton. The Strongman expresses a great deal of annoyance regarding the delays–they can’t make their move till Rafar does something about the angels’ captain, Tal. Apparently Tal and Rafar have a long history together–they’ve tangled many times, and Tal’s wrested some important victories away from Rafar personally.
As Rafar leaves that meeting, having been thoroughly mocked by the Strongman, he blasts his rage out into the skies. (“Old demon yells at clouds?”) As enraged as he is, he doesn’t even bother to conceal himself while he zips and zooms and rages around Ashton’s airspace. He’s lost all sense of decorum.
Why Satan Mistreats Everyone, According to Christians.
Frank Peretti’s target audience would perfectly understand what was going on here. This mistreatment is exactly what they’d expect to see. They’d only nod grimly every time violence erupts in this fashion.
Gosh, these poor sorry bastards in the Cabal thought they were signing up for an awesome life as the demons’ chosen hands in this world! But nothing ever works out well for the agents of Satan! Never ever! It might sound like a sweet deal, but it’ll turn sour in an instant! Gosh, that’s nothing like what TRUE CHRISTIANS™ get by shackling themselves to Jesus!
It’s been this way in evangelicals’ imaginations ever since I was one of them myself. The origins of this folklore probably go back much, much further than that even.
Evil Is As Evil Does, Actually.
Evangelicals take it absolutely as a given that anybody who falls in with their boogeyman will come out the worse for it. The boogeyman never deals fairly nor honestly, and will alter the deal at the last second without notice and without recourse.
As one Free Baptist site puts it, such an agreement “always ends in a bad deal. . . Satan’s deals are far worse [than anything humans can contrive]] and have far greater consequences!” Another Baptist pastor warns, “Satan’s deals are always on his terms, and the only thing permanent about them is the cost.” (Hilariously, a few paragraphs down he accidentally reveals that his god operates in exactly the same way.) A Mormon kids’ site warns that any engagement with Satan always ends in tears, usually with Satan reneging on or zinging the hapless kid who does it, just like Hades did to Hercules in the animated movie–ZOMG IT’S JUST LIKE THAT.
By contrast, of course, Christians’ “strongman” god never does any of that. Ever. Nope. It might feel that way. The Bible might even sound that way especially with the story of Jephthah’s human sacrifice of his own daughter after one such zinger, but it’s definitely not like that. Nope.
Nor is it anything like all those parents of sick kids who pray for their kids to be magically healed–but when the kids die, the parents all insist that no, no, see, their god really has healed their child! “Death is the ultimate form of healing!” Their kid’s all healed in heaven! PRAYER. ANSWERED. Now shut up, atheists.
The Christian god never zings or springs surprises on his followers, nope! Lambchop has mentioned a Christian telling the heartwarming tale of a guy who asked his god to reveal to him what Hell was like–and then he got burned almost to death in an accident. That dude knows now, amirite? HAW HAW!
It is amazing that Christians don’t realize just what a bad actor their god is, nor ever notice that bad faith is his usual operating mode.
The Real Reason.
Considering nobody’s ever seen angels or demons, much less this god or his heretically-dualist counterpart Satan, it might seem odd that Christians spend so much time emphasizing what a bad idea it is to make deals with their boogeyman. They really want Christians–especially children in the group–to be frightened of the idea of playing nicely with their enemy.
Mostly, Christians conceptualize this playing-with process as a passive one. One can make a deal with Satan or fall in with his dark forces just by sleeping in on Sundays or refusing to comply with Christian leaders’ demands. Apparently he’s very easygoing that way.
That facet becomes the clincher, for me, of what Christian leaders’ real reason is for so intently scaring their flocks out of the idea of making deals with Satan. Their flocks must become so scared of even accidentally consorting with Satan that they drill down on obedience.
The flocks must be made to think as I once did: that as unreliable, frustrating, soul-crushing, and terrorizing as Christianity was, it had to be better (at least in the long run) than anything Satan might have on offer.
And that’s where we are in This Present Darkness. Nothing Peretti has revealed so far has made his religion look even vaguely effective, enriching, enlightening, or even useful. His angels are dolts; his TRUE CHRISTIANS™ have the absolutely weirdest priorities. And his god is entirely absent. But dang, his Christians sure are a lot nicer than the villains!
Or are they?
Projecting at the Speed of Sound.
Gosh, y’all, we’ve never, ever heard of TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who overreact in anger and burst out in violence, have we? Nope, not us, never! That’s something only demons–and demonically-possessed or -oppressed heathens–do! Yep! For sure!
Ugh, I could only keep that up for a little bit.
In reality, I’ve never met a group of people who are solidly enraged, violent, retaliatory, cruel, and sadistic as evangelical Christians. At all times, they seem like they are simmering with about-to-erupt anger and brutality. None of them have any idea how to work with people who disagree with them, nor even seem capable of conducting themselves with any more civility than a whisker-thin veneer of syrupy fakey-fake niceness.
And the louder the Christians are about how totally right they are and how totally wrong everyone else is, the faster that veneer fades when anyone disagrees with them.
The stereotype of the shouty angry fighty chest-thumping evangelical exists for a reason.
Take, for instance, this famously angry dude, who hates gay grandkids:
Or this sweet, sensitive soul, outraged about trans people being able to pee in public restrooms without him hassling them:
Or the Lizard King himself, Mark Driscoll, bellowing “HOW DARE YOU?” at someone or other.
(Mr. Captain: “They look kind of yelly.” Me: “They’re evangelicals.” Him: “Oh, of course.”)
The only people who could possibly be attracted to these displays are people who want permission to get angry themselves and lash out in rage–and then have a convenient fallback excuse to get out of the repercussions of their childish inability to control themselves.
Here, the excuse is well gosh we have to be angry about SEEEEEE-YIN, cuz Jesus did and so therefore we must do it too! We can’t condone SEEEEEE-YIN! Or try this one: We have a sin nature! We can’t help any of this!
Out of all the parts of Christianity for evangelicals to ignore or hand-wave away, Jesus’ Greatest Command is the most disastrous bit they could have discarded. But it’s also the most telling.
Anger in Evangelicalism.
Evangelicalism is about the abdication of responsibility in the powerful. Its leaders grant unilateral power to certain people (and reserve the most of it for themselves) while they strip power entirely away from others.
But with that power comes no responsibility at all. As we’ll see tomorrow, there’s no way whatsoever for those leaders to rein in anybody who’s misusing it. The system contains no guidelines for learning self-mastery and self-control. It doesn’t even teach lessons of basic compassion and kindness. If someone in this group doesn’t already know that stuff, they will not learn it in evangelicalism.
At most, their system tells them: Do this–but if you don’t, then just mouth a quick “sorry” at the ceiling and it’s cool. But most of the time, it doesn’t even do that. Instead, it offers hundreds of ready-made excuses for why none of them can behave like they take their god’s commands seriously.
That’s why it’s hardly rare to discover, in the news, Christian leaders exercising violence against their family members, total strangers, and their own underlings. Mark Driscoll allegedly screamed right in the faces of his elders all the time. James MacDonald allegedly reduced his staff to tears on the regular with his tantrums. Phil Robertson out-and-out scares me with his sheer capacity for viciousness. And enough hardline Catholics revel in the tale of Nicholas slapping/punching Arius at the Council of Nicea that some deacon is trying to rein them in.
Nothing at all, apparently.
Re-Evaluating the Demons.
So now, let us return our attention to the demons in This Present Darkness.
These demons really do act exactly like I’d expect evangelical Christian leaders to act when faced with frustration or pushback. I’ve heard way too many stories of Christian subordinates walking on eggshells around their pastors and way too many stories of tantrums and over-the-top retaliation from Christian leaders to think that’s the sole purview of the infernal.
Frank Peretti offers up an idealized vision of angels–and TRUE CHRISTIANS™, for that matter. In his world, the Christians are sweet and kind and gentle to each other, hospitable and caring. The demons, naturally, operate in exactly the opposite way.
Yin and yang, the Dark Side and the Light Side of the Force, Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu. If the one is super-nice, the other must be way-not-nice.
But if, in reality, the super-nice side isn’t really very nice at all, then what must one think about the other–the one that the first side claims is way-not-nice? If they lie about themselves, then what stops them from lying about their dread enemies?
Today, Lord Snow Presides over an author who lies about his tribe’s enemies because only terrorized people would ever want to be a part of his own.
NEXT UP: We very helpfully answer a pastor’s disingenuous “simple question.” It was too hilarious not to share. See you soon!
About the big confrontation: It was a ridiculous nothingburger. Hogan tried to zing Young into admitting he knew Juleen Langstrat. Young at first tried to avoid the topic, but eventually admitted it. It’s yet another instance of Peretti not knowing how journalists do their jobs. I might not know much about that either, but I do know that this ain’t it. Peretti declares, through Hogan, that Young acted “cool, very tough, and very slippery,” but so far we’ve seen nothing whatsoever that supports any of those assertions. Hogan, for his part, comes off like a buffoon with no social graces–not at all like a wily NOO YAWK TAHMNS JURNAMUHLIST. Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes strips about Tracer Bullet sound more true-to-life than this book’s depiction of journalism. (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.
PS: That thing about Rafar flying around Ashton? Weirdly, nobody’s ever actually captured a demon doing that with a cameraphone. xkcd was right. Either demons are way better at controlling their tempers or gosh, maybe they don’t exist at all!