Pharisee Games

If you haven't heard of Frank Peretti, you probably haven't been in a Christian bookstore recently. Peretti is to fiction what Hal Lindsey was to prophecy: a multimillion-selling author who has scored a hit with conservative Christian readers by scaring them silly. Sales from his first three novels-This Present Darkness, Piercing the Darkness, and Prophet-total four million copies according to his publishers, Crossway Books.

Peretti writes about contemporary Christians battling evil in the suburbs. His enemies of the faith are those you hear about on Christian talk radio: university professors, liberals with New Age ideas, co-opted government officials, and young people caught up in Eastern mysticism. In case one underestimates the threat, Peretti opens readers to a spiritual realm where demons actually sink their talons into bad people's skulls and tell them what to say. Meanwhile, unseen angels protect Peretti's prayerful heroes as they beat back "the darkness."

The first novel, This Present Darkness, is set in the Pacific Northwest hamlet of Ashton, where "a skeptical reporter and a prayerful pastor...suddenly find themselves fighting a hideous New Age plot to subjugate the townspeople, and eventually the entire human race." The conspirators operate from Ashton's (secular) college, where a demon-powered woman chairs the psych department and puts young minds in touch with "the Baalim ."

Hank the preacher moves to troubled Ashton to take over the little white church. But the town's leaders, bewitched by the evil psych professor, don't want truth told from the pulpit. In fact, the New Age conspirators ran the former preacher out of town with false charges of sexual abuse. Hank is too squeaky-clean for smear tactics, so the liberals of his flock try to vote him out for preaching the Dwight L. Moody gospel. He survives harassment like the American archetype that he is:

[Hank] had lived through a great many glories and hassles, the kind that come with pioneering churches, pastoring, itinerating....For him, the church had always been an exciting place to work....It was exciting now too, but it resembled the exhilaration the Texans must have felt at the Alamo. Hank was just twenty-six, and usually full of fire; but this pastorate...seemed a difficult place to get the fire spread around. Somebody had wetted down all the kindling....At this point, it was more Hank's faith and assurance that he was where God wanted him than any other factor that kept him by his guns, standing steadfast while getting shot at.

The Alamo allusion gives away Peretti's fondest theme: The Christian in America is a hero under siege. For Christians who wonder why to take time to pray, why to live in faith, Peretti gives inspiration. Readers learn that God hath clothed them like Davy Crockett to fight the heathen. Being offended by rising New Age beliefs and being shot at reflect different levels of oppression, but Peretti doesn't burden us with nuances.

PERETTI DOESN'T interpret spiritual warfare subtly either. Throughout the book, people who speak out against the conspiracy face physical attack from the spiritual realm. In This Present Darkness, Pastor Hank survives a demonic attack the night before a congregational vote of confidence: The room seemed to fill with smoke. Blackness like blindness, a loss of hearing, a loss of contact with the real world, time standing still. He could feel himself dying. An image, a hallucination, a vision, or a real sight broke through for an instant: two ghastly yellow eyes full of hate. His throat began to compress, squeezing shut. "Jesus," he heard his mind cry out, "help me!"

Peretti shows how God speaks to the young preacher:

His next thought...must have come from the Lord: "Rebuke it! You have the authority."

Hank spoke the words.... "I rebuke you in Jesus' name!"

The crushing weight upon him lifted so quickly Hank felt he would sail upward from the floor. He filled his lungs with air and noticed he was now struggling against nothing. But the terror was still there, the black, sinister presence.

He sat up.... "In the name of Jesus I command you to get out of this house!"

[There followed] the sound of a multitude screaming in anguish and pain. The cries were deafening at first, but they faded as if moving off into the unseen distance.

Peretti assumes that the Holy Spirit allows demonic attacks until we say the magic words. Then the demonic host might lurk under the coffee table until rebuked again.

A pastor told me he objects to Peretti's placement of demons under every bush and to the fact that he "uses the name of Christ as if it were some magic word. That's idolatrous [and] a violation of the commandment to honor God's name, misusing the name of Jesus in a superstitious way, not to mention ignoring God's sovereignty over spiritual warfare."

The key to Peretti's success is how dangerous yet how simple he makes the Christian's world look. If you feel anxiety and despair, it's due to satanic oppression, so invoke Jesus and it will go away. Peretti portrays sulfurous-breathed, bat-winged demons that are specifically assigned to lead us into fortune-telling, complacency, lust, hate, jealousy, deception, lawlessness, and murder. This is as absurd as it is unbiblical.

Many Christians I know read Peretti's books and enjoy the suspense and the emphasis on the importance of prayer. But works of art like Peretti's do Christians a disservice. By focusing so much on the hordes of hell, he reduces the reader to the-devil-made-me-do-it theology, which takes away individual responsibility for our sins. As Christians we seem able to sin perfectly well on our own.

DAVID A. FAGAN is a free-lance writer living in Seattle, Washington.

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