Last week, I finally re-bought a copy of This Present Darkness. Almost immediately, I realized I’d made both a mistake and a discovery. Let me show you what I mean. Today, Lord Snow Presides over a book that became a fad that became both a sign of its time and one of the shapers of the very future of evangelicalism.
Everyone, Meet Frank Peretti.
Frank Peretti grew up in Seattle. After being born with a seriously visible congenital condition, he struggled in his early life to fit in and make his way through the world. (His father took him to a faith-healing service given by Oral Roberts. Alas! The famous preacher failed to procure a magical healing for young Frank. Feel free to take a moment to let the sheer shock of that revelation rustle through your system.)
Like many authors have, Peretti tried pretty much every job under the sun. At one point, he even helped his father pastor an evangelical church! After that failed to work out, he left to work at other jobs.
While working in a ski factory, he managed to get a children’s fantasy book published in 1985, followed the next year by This Present Darkness. In addition to a sequel to This Present Darkness, he’s penned a number of other books aimed mostly at the Young Adult (YA) market. A few of his nonfiction books deal with bullying; others are fictional fantasy and adventure novels.
However, Peretti leaves out most of his non-evangelical-aimed books in the 2003 foreword to This Present Darkness. In fact, he never mentions any of those other works at all in it. You’d never know, reading only that foreword, that most of his published output has happened well outside the SPEERCHUL WARFARE genre.
If you’re wondering where Peretti stands regarding the culture wars, then wonder no longer: he stands neck-deep in that vile, filthy swamp of muck, and he relishes every single drop of it. He particularly loves being a useful idiot for his tribe’s anti-abortion culture war. Likewise, his tribe has richly rewarded him for pandering so well to them.
A Quick History.
So Frank Peretti published This Present Darkness in 1986. The title derives from a Bible verse, Ephesians 6:12:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Like most Christian fads from back before the internet became a widespread phenomenon, this one took a few years to get rolling. I remember it becoming a major big deal around 1990. Very quickly, literally everybody I knew owned a well-loved, oft-read copy of the book.
Just like most Christian media can, this book’s plot can be adequately described as a bargain-basement parable. As a group, Christians have never been exceptionally good at creating parables. This one is worse than their usual efforts. It’s a hamfisted glurge book aimed at flattering fundagelicals by focusing on their culture wars.
My pastor at the time sternly cautioned his church against idolizing it more than our Bibles.
But by then, that ship had already sailed.
Oh yes, long ago. And it was all because of the book’s lavish attention to spiritual warfare.
The Slow Burn.
Sure, evangelicals already knew about the concept of spiritual warfare. That idea originated long ago. It just wasn’t a super-popular idea. Not, that is, until after This Present Darkness came out.
Check out this Google Books search for the phrase in books printed between 1960 and 1985. Now, check out this similar search for the phrase in books printed between 1986 and 2000.
See the differences in the returns on the search? In the first, we see spiritual warfare showing up mostly in the texts themselves; it isn’t generally anywhere close to the focus of these books.
But in the second, spiritual warfare marches front and center. In almost every book on the second list, it makes up both the title of the book and its main focus. And generally, those books came out a few years after Peretti’s book–which speaks to the slow burn This Present Darkness endured on its way to bestseller status.
Indeed, Peretti told one Christian news outlet in 1997 that he had a lot of trouble getting This Present Darkness accepted by any Christian publishers. Once interest accelerated, Christian Contemporary singers like Amy Grant began to plug the book during concerts, which ensured that word of mouth spread quickly.
Thanks to This Present Darkness, the sky became the limit for authors hoping to catch a ride on Peretti’s coat-tails.
The Book’s Basic Plot.
In order for us to talk about the book’s impact, I need to segue briefly for a plot synopsis.
But jeez, how to start describing this idiotic book’s plot?
Let’s put it this way: this book achieved that bestseller status despite itself, not because of any particular virtues it possessed. It’s like the fundagelical Christian culture wars got real groovy one night, put on some Barry White, and let it all happen naturally.
I suppose the following works about as well as anything else could:
At the peak of the Satanic Panic, a pair of small-town journalists discover that a globe-spanning cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, whatevs) are plotting to take over their entire small town. ZOMG! When the journalists start uncovering this nefarious plot, the Cabal of Satanic Wiccans (or Wiccan Satanists, Whatevs) (CSWWSW) start playing hardball with them. The CSWWSW also play hardball with the town’s unpopular TRUE CHRISTIAN™ pastor, who makes a nuisance of himself by calling attention to all the demons he’s detecting around town. Eventually, the pastor and the journalists team up. Meanwhile, angels duke it out with demons over the town.
ZOMG YAWL!! WHO WILL WIN THE BATTLE FOR THIS LITTLE TOWN’S SOUL?!?
Oh, who indeed?
You should sooner expect the Russians to figure out how to take down the alien motherships in a movie like Independence Day than for anybody but the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ to win at the end of This Present Darkness.
How Peretti Played His Audience.
This book accomplished something that no other book until then could. It gave evangelical Christians a way to visualize the usefulness and effectiveness of their prayers and spiritual devotions. Peretti gave those Christians permission to view themselves as big bad PRAYER WARRIORS FOR JESUS. Indeed, he taught them to see their prayers as a sort of power-up for angels.
Peretti also taught evangelicals to see demons and angels everywhere in their lives, all helping or hindering humans as appropriate.
Most of all, though, he created in evangelicals a deep hunger for fiction that fit into their worldview–and portrayed evangelicals as the heroes defeating all the evils they imagined existed in the modern day. That hunger created a very profitable market for books like This Present Darkness–and books that built off the ideas created by Peretti for it. Suddenly, Christian fantasy fiction became not only a way for an author to make a living, but it became a way to make a very, very comfortable living.
The Left Behind wackadoo Jerry Jenkins gave Peretti a blurb for his book’s back cover that made that last point crystal-clear:
Frank Peretti kicked open the doors that all of us Christian novelists are passing through today. We owe him a huge debt.
What’s hilarious is that in Peretti’s foreword to my copy of the book’s 2003 edition, he talks about how he thinks his invisible friend is “still using my feeble effort from years ago to open eyes, change hearts, and save souls.” It’s beyond impossible to imagine This Present Darkness actually persuading any skeptics to convert. But Christians gonna Christian. They express the same optimistic hope with every movie they make, too.
When Fantasies Collide.
Very quickly after his book started taking off in sales, Peretti began hearing about prayer groups wherein evangelicals rebuked and bound demons named after specific sins, like the ones named in his book. (Binding demons means rendering them helpless through spiritual warfare. Rebuking demons makes them go away. The two terms are largely interchangeable.) Worse, these Christians also began behaving like their prayers gave angels their power–which is a gross inaccuracy in most flavors of Christianity.
And Peretti appears to have known that his book strayed far, far away from the evangelical party line. In interviews in the late 80s and early 90s, he tried his hardest to get out in front of all the accusations of heresy that dogged his steps.
Indeed, for whatever my opinion is worth it seems to me like he was just writing a fantasy novel loosely based around low Christianity–that folk version of the religion that the pew-warmers in evangelicalism practice in their heads. As earnest as the book comes across, as perfectly as it panders to all the worst impulses in the evangelical heart, he didn’t intend for it to become an out-and-out battle manual for aspiring PRAYER WARRIORS FOR JESUS.
The Voice of an Era.
His problem was publishing a fantasy novel exactly like this one right at the height of evangelical power. In the late 1980s, that flavor of Christianity was in full swing toward extremism and politicization. Evangelicals had already pushed through the Satanic Panic, after all, and purchased the favor of one of the two major political parties in the United States.
I was Christian then myself. Back then, I remember feeling like any day now we’d achieve the goals of the Great Commission–and finally kick off the end of the world. I didn’t like This Present Darkness much, but I agreed with its general ideas because they fit very well with my beliefs in function if not in exact form.
This Present Darkness gave Christians a way to visualize and express what we saw as our role in that whole Endtimes process. And in the doing, it made Frank Peretti a household name. Ironically, it doesn’t sound like the publisher paid him a whole lot, but I’m sure he made up the difference later.
The Party Ain’t Over.
In next week’s LSP, I’ll dig into the first chapter of the book itself. We’ll get into Frank Peretti’s casual racism and hatred of KIDS TODAY, plus get a look at the deepest, darkest fantasies of the evangelicals who glommed onto this book like it was the Newest Testament of Jesus Christ.
For now, I just wanted to start off the review party with a look at where this book came from and how it shaped the next generation or so of evangelicals. Because that is exactly what This Present Darkness did.
All those legions of fundagelical culture-warriors you see nowadays? If they’re around 35-50 years old, chances are about 100% that they read this book during their formative years. They were shaped by it just like regular young folks got shaped by Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s part of the evangelical DNA as surely as Oral Roberts himself is. It put words to their half-formed imaginations and gave them strategies and tactics–albeit imaginary ones–to pursue in fighting their most dreaded enemies. And it helped them demonize their real-world ideological opponents like just about nothing else could have.
Pretty much everything non-Christians despise about evangelicals can be traced to this book. That, to me, makes it worthy of examination. I hope you feel the same way!
Today, Lord Snow Presides over the midwife of toxic Christianity itself: This Present Darkness.
NEXT UP: We skewer one of the biggest broken promises in Christian evangelism. See you soon!
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.