Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

This Present Darkness
by frank e. peretti
crossway, 375 pages, $14.99

As a teenager, I was convinced that a spirit of false prophecy had attached itself to my neck. This spirit’s name—according to one of our youth group leaders—was Python, after the ­Pythia, or Oracle of Delphi. I did not think that the Python, the great serpent of the earth’s navel slayed by Apollo, had deigned to visit itself upon me. But I believed that one of its ilk had wrapped its serpentine body around my spine to whisper vaticinations into my ear. You see, I had the spiritual gift of prophecy—as a multiple-­choice questionnaire I filled out at church assured me—and it was only natural that the Enemy should seek to subvert the Lord’s work. Occasionally, when in prayer or at worship, I would feel a tightening in my neck, a quick little spasm reminding me of Python’s presence.

“I bind you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ,” someone would say over me, anointing me with frankincense oil. “By the power and authority of his blood I cast you off.” Sometimes I would attempt to cast Python into the sea or the abyss. I could do this, of course, having been granted with all other believers the power to bind and to loose, to trample serpents and scorpions. And I should add that, having been sealed by the Holy Spirit, I was not possessed but merely oppressed. This was nothing so dramatic as exorcism proper—just your workaday spiritual warfare.

Back then I attended a largish, mostly healthy nondenominational church in small-town Indiana. We were garden-variety Evangelicals and not part of the Pentecostal, Charismatic, Renewalist stream in American Christianity. We believed in the charisms of the Spirit, of course, but speaking in tongues during a worship service would have earned removal by an usher rather than a chorus of “Amens.” The Pentecostals were the people with the big white church on the north end of town who had spent tens of thousands of dollars to erect a fifty-foot-tall cross that bathed the highway in red neon at night.

How then had my church’s spiritual imagination been colonized by the taxonomies of Pentecostal demonology? The answer, I believe, is Frank Peretti. This was the early 2000s. By then the Evangelical consciousness had been thoroughly saturated by This Present Darkness, Peretti’s 1986 debut, which has since sold more than 2.5 million copies. A slew of Christian thrillers followed in its wake. Even though Pentecostals and Charismatics made up only 23 percent of American Protestants at the time, Peretti’s popularity had mainstreamed their theology of “deliverance” in the same way sales of Scofield Reference Bible had mainstreamed dispensationalist eschatology nearly a century earlier. Today’s booming demand for ­exorcisms, investigated recently by The Atlantic, is due in part to ­Peretti’s influence.

This Present Darkness concerns a small town beset by demonic forces that intend to use the local college as base of operations in a global conspiracy to establish the New World Order. The human villains under demonic sway include corrupt civil servants, an apostate megachurch pastor, an international oligarch with ties to the United Nations, and a liberal psychology professor who seduces students into devil worship through New Age meditation and implants false memories of sexual abuse. It’s a synthesis of 1980s fundamentalist anxieties.

Our human heroes include a downtrodden but unremittingly faithful pastor of a tiny church and a couple of scrappy investigative reporters who, through angelic intervention, uncover and confront the globalist conspiracy afoot in their town. Behind every misdeed is a caricatural demonic puppeteer whose appearance and name matches its function; and cheering on every act of righteousness is a seven-foot-tall, Thor-chested angel with blue eyes and golden hair. The angels are dependent for their power on the prayers of the one faithful church in town, and no definitive victory can be won until the Strong Man—the arch-demon who possesses the ­shadowy oligarch—is “bound” and cast out. Imagine C. S. Lewis’s That ­Hideous Strength scrubbed of its cosmic lyricism and Arthurian echoes and ­invaded by the cast of Magic Mike and the goblins from Jim ­Henson’s Labyrinth.

Why did Evangelicals, who traditionally spurn dark content, respond so avidly to Peretti’s novels? For all its faults, This Present Darkness succeeds as a briskly paced thriller while hitting the right doctrinal notes and eschewing the worldly content many Evangelicals see as disqualifying. Peretti takes an enviable childlike delight in storytelling. Despite his immense success, he remains a genuinely humble man and openly admits his shortcomings as an artist: “I don’t know if I’ll ever become that great of a writer that I could actually write what could be called ‘literature,’ but I’d like to see how close I could get.”

A former Assemblies of God pastor, Peretti sees his storytelling as a ministry. In one interview he explains that he felt God saying, “Frank, you’re a builder. . . . It’s your job to build, edify, and equip.” But he has also expressed ambivalence about his work’s effect on the church. In an interview with WORLD, ­Peretti says he was “alarmed” when people took his Darkness novels as manuals for spiritual warfare. He was so troubled by this that he fixed a disclaimer to the title page of his next novel, Prophet: “This novel is a creative work of fiction imparting spiritual truth in a symbolic manner, and not an emphatic statement of ­religious doctrine.”

Peretti has tried to downplay the idea that his Darkness novels depict how things actually work in the heavenlies. But his fictive vision lines up perfectly with the demonology of the movement in which he was a minister. This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness are straightforward dramatizations of “Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare” (SLSW), a Renewalist idea. It stipulates that a territorial “strong man” must be bound before the gospel can go forth effectively in a given city or region. SLSW long predates Peretti’s novels but had really come into prominence in Renewalist circles during the 1980s, thanks to the ministrations of people like Fuller Theological Seminary’s C. Peter Wagner, whose anthology Engaging the Enemy: How to Fight and Defeat Territorial Spirits illustrates SLSW’s global reach.

It should surprise no one that American Evangelicals treated the Darkness books as spiritual manuals. The Evangelical struggle against reading fiction as fiction is as old as, well, Evangelicalism. “Evangelicals retain an old, mid-19th-century understanding of fiction as a utilitarian instrument,” James Van Wyck, a literary historian specializing in nineteenth-century Evangelicalism, observes. “A work of fiction does something to you. They want fiction to make you think right, feel right, and act right—to guide you on your pilgrimage to heaven.” For today’s Evangelicals—no less than those of the mid-nineteenth century—fiction is written and read for the emotional inculcation of propositional truths. The clearer the message, the more valuable the novel.

This ethic of reading affects the kind of writing Evangelicals do. “We Christian novelists have a strange advantage in the Christian market,” says Peretti. “We don’t have to be good writers necessarily as long as our message is firm and clear.” In This Present Darkness the effort to accommodate “Christian” sensibilities yields absurdities like a hardboiled, not-yet-Christian reporter who doesn’t cuss, and incarcerated hookers who talk like Victorian schoolmarms. Much worse, it prevents the depiction of serious, true-to-life battles with sin. When the pastor-hero is tempted to adultery by a woman in his congregation, we’re given no interiority and no physical details that depict him as actually tempted. The admirable desire to avoid tempting the reader comes at a literary cost.

The unreality is reinforced by ­theology. Renewalist doctrine ­creates the impression that humans lack agency in the battle against sin. Because all temptation is demonic in origin, all character transformations are accomplished deus ex machina. Exorcism, it would seem, cures drug addiction, promiscuity, acedia, and a host of other moral ills.

Peretti’s art fails, and it does so for the simple reason that his representations of angels and demons are not strange enough. His novels just aren’t scary because they fail to be true to the irreducible particularity of human life, which means we don’t see the dangers as real. In the end, readers are left only with what propositional meanings can be gleaned from the surface. They’re left with “Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare” and a somewhat muted sense of their own culpability in sin. Horror and temptation are made manageable with certain techniques.

As a college freshman I was still convinced of Python’s reality. More than that, I was convinced that the demon had gained a “foothold” through my love of ­Tolkien. I’ve always felt a kinship with Gandalf—to the point of making myself an enormous wizard’s staff out of a cedar sapling. (I still have it.) The idea of the lone prophet-warrior couldn’t be more romantic. Throughout high school I dreamt of living in Middle-earth and battling orcs and demons with sword and sorcery. I even cultivated a strange sense that Middle Earth was the real world and our waking life was a Cartesian illusion. The same youth leader who “discerned” Python’s presence also discerned this foothold. He was convinced that the demon had become attached to my early-edition Lord of the Rings paperbacks. Cursed objects should be burnt. And so I burned them.

This had no discernible effect on the spasms in my neck. The Renewalist hunt for demons under every rock can be thrilling. At its best, it can renew one’s sense of the enchantment of material reality. But its manner of doing so tempts us to redirect our ­vision—and our affections—away from the Spirit’s presence and work within the immanent and toward the simplifications of dualistic fantasy. I fell prey to this temptation. To this day, I’m convinced that the greatest trick the Enemy has ever played on me was getting me to turn (temporarily, thank God) against Tolkien.

Justin Lee teaches undergraduate writing at the University of California, Irvine.