Top critical review
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on March 10, 2009
For years students asked me what I think about Frank E. Peretti's popular novels, This Present Darkness (Wheaton: Crossway Books, c. 1986), and its sequel, Piercing the Darkness (West¬chester, IL: Crossway Books, c. 1989), so I read them during the recent Christmas vacation. The title of the first books comes from Ephesians 6:12: "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness . . ." (RSV). That of the second comes from John 1:5: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (RSV). Spiritual warfare, an enduring conflict between demonic and angelic beings which becomes localized in human beings and activities, is both books' central theme.
This Present Darkness takes place in a small American town, Ashton, which is targeted for takeover by demonic powers. An evil multinational empire, Omni Corporation, has gained control of much of the town and is poised to purchase Whit¬worth College, its most significant institution. A fundamentalist preacher, Hank Busche, and a few praying folks, plus a courageous newspaper editor, Marshall Hogan (who finds Christ as his personal Savior toward the end) thwart the plot--with the direct and dramatic assistance of multiplied scores of angelic warriors under the skilled military direction of Tal. The second work, Piercing the Darkness, shares with the first a few common characters (namely Marshall Hogan) and many characteristics: a small town, Bacon's Corner; a corrupt policeman; a fundamentalist church (whose school is at the center of the plot; a college, Bentwood, which allows demonic influences to flourish; and a central figure, Sally Roe, who through assorted adventures finally finds the Lord. It has some new wrinkles as well: a witches' coven, satanic rituals, and a generally hostile judicial system.
I'll not deny you the pleasure of enjoying the books' suspense and adventure, both of which keep the pages turning, by divulging further details, but I think I've indicated the general drift of the two stories. So let me evaluate them. First some positive notes. The books read well. Peretti knows how to tell a good story, full of suspense and action. Though not necessarily the mark of great literature, I applaud those books which I'm compelled to finish quickly just because I've been drawn into the plot and want to follow its unfolding--and I found myself anxious to resume reading these books until I'd finished them. While Peretti's novels will never be critically acclaimed for their literary artistry, they are, in my opinion, well-crafted mystery stories which are clearly superior to much "Christian" fiction, which too often turns to preaching rather than engaging the imagination.
Secondly, I generally like the portraits Peretti presents of contemporary believers. They're up-front about their faith, yet they're not locked into some of the petty legalisms which sometimes serve as stereotypes of true believers. They're not super-saints, but they're admirable, credible folks. While I found the books' plots more engaging than the characters, which lack the psychological or spiritual depth a Dostoevsky would provide, the main characters are credible and easily elicit the reader's affection and concern.
Thirdly, I applaud Peretti's effort to take seriously the reality of spiritual warfare, clearly a biblical teaching--and, incidentally, one central to the monastic movement of the Early Church, where monks like St Anthony went to the desert to do battle with the forces of evil. Though few writers can bring it off as did Milton in Paradise Lost or C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, the presence and power of angels and demons deserve our atten¬tion.
On these three counts I applaud Peretti's novels. They're good fiction--readable, instructive, far better evening fare than most TV pro¬grams, even the "Christian" variety. Reasonably mature, theologically balanced believers, will find them enjoyable. Yet I can't fully endorse the books. For one thing, they include a sustained (if often muted) judgmentalism, a polemical predisposition which has marred so many of the fundamentalist-modernist battles which have raged within American Protestantism for the past century. Peretti's "true believers" in This Present Darkness seem localized in the Ashton Community Church; those in Piercing the Darkness in the Good Shepherd Church. Both are independent, fundamentalist, Bible churches. Those attending the Ashton United Christian Church, a clearly "liberal" denominational congregation, whose pastor is part of Omni Corporation's machinations, appear less than bona fide believers. Those who truly know God, it seems, are magnetically drawn to the "remnant" joined with Pastor Hank Busche and thereby aligned with the angels. Though it's not a major theme, it's a judgmental message clearly articulated: only those who share Peretti's worldview (fundamentalistic; separatis¬tic) deserve to be labeled "Christian." This message doesn't appear in Piercing the Darkness, however, since no churches other than The Good Shep¬herd Community Church play any role in the action.
Both books, however, clearly portray colleges and universities as fertile fields, virtual hothouses, for demonic activities. They both feature professors who are deeply involved in New Age/occult activities and who adversely influence some of the protagonists. To a degree, I share Peretti's concern here, for institutions of higher learning, encouraging as they do an elitism which easily degenerates into intellectual pride, certainly cultivate the "secular humanism" and "ethical relativism" which tend to subvert Christian doctrines and standards. Yet I doubt, all things considered, that educational institutions are any more demonic than corporate board rooms or athletic locker rooms . . . or local church board meetings, for that matter! Still more, one could gather from Peretti that anyone interested in non-Christian religions or concerned with ecological ethics is automatically hand-in-glove with demonic powers. I'll grant that some occult activities do seem rooted in Oriental religions; some environmentalists have reverted to a pagan reverence for Mother Earth. But consis¬tently linking environmental sensitivity with de¬monic possession not only strains this reader's patience but runs counter one of the most basic Christian beliefs: God made and sustains the world He called "good."
Beyond my discontent with Peretti's judgment¬alism, the second area which concerns me is doctrinal. I'm no authority on "demonology" (a subject discussed in a host of new books, such as Peter Wagner's Engaging the Enemy: How to Fight and Defeat Territorial Spirits, which apparently argues specific demons have been assigned specific geographical sites, and Wrestling with Dark Angels). But I recently read George Mallone's Arming for Spiritual Warfare (IVP, 1991), and reacted somewhat the same I did to Peretti.
Despite my lack of either personal experience with or in-depth reading about the subject, Per¬etti's lengthy passages describing the various spirit beings and their constant combat, along with a clear portrayal of demonic possession and angelic assistance, leaves me wondering where in Scripture or Church tradition Peretti finds his ideas. To assert such human maladies as "Despair," "Fear," "Gossip, "Adultery," or "Deception" are in fact demons must be challenged. Without question we're tempted to do evil things. There's a demonic dimension to all temptation and sin. But to ex¬plicitly equate human weaknesses and sins with specific demons cannot, in my opinion, be allowed. There's a certain Manichaeism, a certain Gnosticism, a certain metaphysical dualism, which seeps into such presentations. Down through the cen¬turies orthodox Christians have had to continually struggle to maintain the central affirmations of the Faith: God is good; creation is good; the Incarnation really shows that God entered into this very physical world and assumed a very real human nature.
The very notion that a demon, or demons, can fully enter into and possess a person (as, for example, "Stongman" possesses the main villain, Kaseph, in This Present Darkness, or Amethyst pos¬sesses Amber in Piercing the Darkness) runs counter to much traditional theology. For as one of the great spiritual masters, Francisco de Osuna, in¬sists, "in the spiritual nothing except God can penetrate and infuse the essence of something else. Like a light the pierces glass or very clear water, God penetrates and infuses the essence of the soul, or an angel, in such a way that even the soul thus affected does not know how this is accomplished, only that it is done" (The Third Spiritual Al¬phabet, p. 185). If only God can spiritually in¬dwell the essence of a person, no demon, not even Satan himself, can fully possess a human being. Evil beings may tempt, or influence, but since they are not God they cannot rival his power. Now Osuna himself asserts: "If you wish to be spiritual you must regard yourself as a spiritual warrior," (ibid., 202), so he knows the reality of spiritual warfare. He understands that the demonic powers attack us from without, not by entering into our very being. Still more, "As Saint Bernard says, our enemy is weak and can vanquish only the people who wish defeat" (ibid., 203).
In defense of Peretti, Jesus did cast out a multitude of demons from the demoniac on the shores of Lake Galilee. But that seems to me to be an exception, not the rule, both in Jesus' ministry and in the record of the Early Church. Just as some Christians err by disbelieving or disregarding Satan and his subordinates, so too others err in believing too much, or too readily, in them. Peretti's constant references to spirit beings, whose actions regularly impact the very physical world we humans indwell, claim too much, far too much. In time, quite frankly, I just skim¬med through the sections detailing the discussions and activities of the two contending spiritual "armies." To have written as subtly about demonic and angelic activities as they seem to actually be would have made the "supernatural" sections of the book much less dramatically evident--and their treatment more believable.
Rightly read, by folks who allow Peretti lati¬tude to range far afield in his imagination, the "spiritual warfare" passages may be tolerable, if less than artistically satisfying. But some readers--young readers especially--may, in fact, take Peretti as literally as they take Scripture. Thus they're tempted to see devils in every human failing, demonic possession in every chemical or emotional addiction, and God somehow impotent (ex¬cept insofar as his saints pray and thus empower angelic beings to slaughter their adversaries). Still more: whereas C.S. Lewis' demons, either invisible or appearing as well-manicured stock-broker types, prove credible, Peretti's, sometimes described as reptiles, insects, or other nefarious animals, sometimes smelling up the place they occupy, removes them to the land of unreality (for this reader, at least).
Those who need to consider the reality of angels and demons, unfortunately, will rarely read this book. Many who do, equally unfortunately, already pin demonic labels on diseases and dis¬couragements, on assorted human failures, and short change both our ability to freely function and God's prevenient grace, everywhere efficacious in restraining evil and illuminating good.
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