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A confusion of demons

January 1995 | by Geoff Thomas

When, in the late 1980s, evangelical book reviewers commended Frank E. Peretti’s novels it was because they felt. (a) they were a good read, and (b) they were leading sellers in Christian fiction, and readers needed to be aware of what was happening in that sphere. One could appreciate the sense of dark evil that Peretti conveyed in his first book (the only one we’ve read): that same feeling is found in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. That This Present Darkness was a mega-seller was unchallengeable. In its first year (1986) it sold only 4,000 copies. By the end of 1987 the numbers had risen to 24,000. Then in 1988, Christian pop singer Amy Grant was recommending the book at her concerts. Peretti became a household name in evangelical circles overnight. His sequel Piercing the Darkness was published with an unprecedented first printing of 1,500,000 copies. A motion picture contract has been signed, and in 1992 his third blockbuster Prophet was released. He has become a millionaire and his publisher, Crossway Books, is also doing very nicely.

The books are spiritual thrillers, ‘docudramas’, with the message that what passes as quite ordinary and unexceptional in the world is in fact the work of unseen spiritual forces, both angelic and demonic, with exotic-sounding names like Ba-al Rafar and Guilo. Angels ‘corkscrew’ through the air, leaving behind them bright vapour trails, flashing their swords, descending upon the earth and blasting off from it, sometimes transforming themselves into ordinary-looking guys. Everything that takes place in the world, the books claim, is the outcome of invisible conflicts being waged by supernatural beings. In his first book Peretti tells of a New Age conspiracy attempting to take over a small town and its college. In the second book the plot is the same, an organization calling itself the American Citizens Freedom Association is a front for satanic forces attacking the Good Shepherd Community Church for permitting prayer and corporal punishment in its Christian school.

Pulp fiction

Whether Peretti is a ‘good read’ depends on your tastes. John Seel in The Evangelical Forfeit has written that, ‘Though Peretti is marketed with hyperbolic adulation, these books are no better than pulp fiction’ (p.43). Jim Hart wrote in Third Way magazine, ‘The regrettable truth is that Peretti’s novels are pastiche compilations from the gigantic outpouring of American trash literature over the last half-century or so – costumed hero comics, thrillers and war stories. They are badly written and repetitive – “puffed wheat” literature in which the tiny grains of content are inflated to five hundred or more sides’ (July-August, 1991, p.23). David Wells’s judgement is also bleak: ‘Peretti’s characters are two dimensional and undeveloped, his plots are contrived and his writing style is flat’ (God in the Wasteland, p.177). Yet is Peretti popular! When Christianity Today readers were asked ‘What is your favourite novel of all time?’ This present darkness ranked third behind Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

Why so successful?

What is the reason for the success of Peretti’s books? Seel says that Peretti ‘tells a story of small town America, of disenfranchised evangelicals who face satanic conspiracies masked behind multinational businessmen, university professors, welfare social workers, ecological fanatics and New Age Gurus. In spite of their apparent intellectual and cultural impotence, these beleaguered believers shape the course of history through their “prayer cover” that empowers God’s angels against Satan’s demons’ (p.46). In other words, evangelical Christians basically feel that they are failures, without influence in a godless age, marginaliz.ed and living on the fringes of the public square, dislodged from a place they once occupied in the world. They are the victims of politicians and conspiracists, and feel a resentment at this. Peretti’ s books confirm these feelings: they are ‘statements of cultural grievance’ says David Wells. There is probably a potentially self-fulfilling prophetic element about them.

So, while the places and people in the books are fictitious, the world-view is intended to be taken literally and a key to what is going on in the world today. But that explanation system comes through a cosmology that is more Gnostic, or early Jewish apocalyptic, than Christian (see Robert Guelich’s ‘Spiritual Warfare: Jesus, Paul and Peretti’ in Pneuma 13 [Spring 1991]:58). That is, Peretti attributes all of life’s activity to either the angelic or the demonic: either pure light or pure darkness at war. This dualism is Zoroastrianism in modern garb. But true Christians, we must acknowledge, are not perfect; they are capable of telling lies, indulging in gossip, committing sexual sins and finding it difficult to believe God’s Word-as the New Testament letters make perfectly clear. And unbelievers can be grand people, devoted family members, men and women who can act with honesty and compassion. When these facts are ignored Christians will end up in the error of perfectionism, and non-Christians get demonized.

No presence of God

The most damning indictment of Peretti’s books, as David Wells sees it, is that they are empty of the presence of God ‘Human beings are more or less incidental to the warfare that rages between the opposing forces of demons and angels-but so, too, is God. The outcome of the battles appears to be in doubt because God is a far-off presence who has delegated the fight against evil to angels.

So what we really have here is the introduction of the angelic hosts as a surrogate for God and his providence. Like the evangelical world in which they attained great popularity, these books are conspicuously supernatural on the surface but, ironically, quite secular underneath. The outcome of his fictional battles is so indeterminate: the engagement with the demons arises not so much from a conquest already won by Christ but from a desire to win a conquest for Christ. While I am sure it is not his intent to empty the cross of its accomplishment, that is the result of his strategy’ (op. cit, p.180).

Territorial spirits

One result of Peretti’s popularizing of angels and demons is the spreading credulousness about the existence of territorial spirits. Peter Wagner, in the Fuller Church Growth headquarters in California, teaches that the reason some congregations are declining is because their leaders are not battling against satanic power. Wagner thinks that there are demons assigned to particular places, villages, neighbourhoods, cities nad countries. Each national unit, he claims, has one or more demons attached to it, and divine authority should be demonstrated by casting out these dominating evil spirits in ‘power encounters’.

Charles Kraft, a faculty colleague of Peter Wagner, has written in one particular chapter of his recent book Defeating Dark Angels that Christians should obtain information from demons by interviewing them. The quickest way to get essential information that God wants us to have is often to get it straight from the demons themselves. Listen to God first, he cautions, and then go to evil spirits to learn more. This teaching about territorial spirits has slipped around the world with the characteristic speed of error. On his recent visit to England, missionary Trevor Routley of Argentina related how there the latest ecclesiastical fad, leap-frogging the ‘slayings in the spirit’, was driving out community demons.

This absorption with evil spirits is another distracting cul-de-sac for the Christian church to explore for a few years, and seeking to gain information from demons is a hideous concept. If this were possible, who could trust what a demon said? It is an insult to God to imply that in order to do his will more effectively we should sit and listen to the devil.

New Testament practice

How did Paul turn people from darkness to light and from Satan’s power to God? Invariably he did it by preaching the gospel, planting churches and praying for the Spirit’s transforming work in the lives and hearts of believers. They became light in a dark land. When people asked Paul for signs he would not perform them. He was determined not to know anything except Jesus Christ and him crucified. That was the apostle’s strategy.

The Reformation was a powerful period of battling against spiritual wickedness and the church again did it by the Word of God. The reformers underlined the importance of the sufficiency of Scripture. That is, that in all spiritual matters God has placed in Holy Scripture everything that we need to know for salvation, as well as for the growth and protection of the church. The Bible contains all the information that God intends us to have about the unseen world, and beyond that we ought not to probe.

Biblical guidelines

With respect to spiritual warfare, all Christian workers have such truths as these to appropriate.

1. Everything the Bible teaches about Satan and his kingdom should be taken seriously. How dated within forty years seems Bultmann’s dismissal of the New Testament’s awareness of demons. However, Frank Peretti, who sees them everywhere, is another extreme also to be shunned.

2. Never go beyond Scripture in investigating Satan and his kingdom. We tread on forbidden territory when we build demonologies based on information obtained from demons or pagan religions.

3. In every encounter with Satan’s kingdom, keep in mind Christ’s victory, and our own victory through him.There is indeed a battle out there, and Christ is winning it.

4. Build your own prayer life, for that is where the real action is in spiritual warfare. Prayer is not behind-the-lines activity, prayer is front-line combat in spiritual warfare. Make sure that your praying rests on sound theology and a biblical, not a secular, world-view. The bottom I i ne in spiritual warfare may be whether we pray to a sovereign God who controls the universe and all the forces in it, and whether we believe he does, through the cross of Christ, give us victory over Satan and his devices.

5. Focus on our victor, Christ, rather than on evil powers. Luther perceived this so clearly that he fumed it into doxology, that although this world is filled with devils, we need not fear because our God is a mighty fortress, his kingdom is for ever, and he has willed his truth to triumph through us.

6. The best means of combating demonic powers is to proclaim the gospel. Rather than giving publicity to demonic powers, we need to remember the one who defeated Satan’s hosts as part of his reconciling work. In short, the church has always found that preaching the Word and calling people to faith in Christ – in any and every territory – is the singular means of exorcizing that place of the works of the devil.

7. A rather polite but timely rebuttal of the whole notion of territorial spirits is found in Mike R. Taylor’s Do demons rule your town? (Grace Publications), though written before Kraft encouraged demon interviews.