Peretti: What’s the story?

Walking out of the lounge room on Wednesday nights last year, I always performed a ritual of huge significance: the issuing of instructions to record the latest escapades of Mulder and Scully as they probe the unknown in The X-Files. As for many Australians, this show, with its extra-terrestrials, UFOs, supernatural occurrences, stories of the mysterious, the psychic and the bizarre has become required watching for me. Even though I have no time for the conspiracy theories and stories portrayed and implied, I’m addicted. There is something about this genre which captivates me.

Which brings me to Frank Peretti’s latest offering in Christian fiction. If you can imagine it, The Oath is like rolling The X-Files, Predator and biblical apocalyptic imagery into one huge 550-page yarn. Like The X-Files, the story begins with strange goings-on in some obscure American location. A man has been killed in a manner the locals seemed very keen to link to a grizzly. The man’s brother-in-law, who takes it upon himself to investigate the killing, begins to have serious doubts. At the same time, disturbances in town result in people developing strange black marks over their hearts which lead to death in a similar manner to the supposed grizzly victim.

As the book progresses, we find the cause of death to be a ‘dragon’ which, like the hunker in Predator, can think as well as or better than those it hunts, and can meld in to its background so as to become virtually invisible. This dragon came into existence as the result of an oath made by the townspeople some one hundred years ago after they had massacred a large proportion of the town’s population. The dragon is summoned through the worship of a descendant of one of those responsible for The Oath, and given access to his victims by their sin. Only Christians are impervious to his attacks because they have ‘Jesus in their hearts’, as opposed to sin, which is marked by the growing black stain.

Like biblical apocalyptic literature, this beast has elements of the mythical beasts mentioned in Scripture (e.g. leviathan, Rahab, and the dragon and beast in Revelation). Like that literature, this figure is demonic in nature. However, unlike the biblical literature, the dragon appears to be real rather than mythical.

The book is the story of the hero’s battle with the beast and, in the latter pages of the book, with his own scepticism. Naturally, as with all such Christian literature, the hero eventually comes to faith and the dragon is defeated and destroyed.

I must say that I enjoyed the book immensely. It is a good read in terms of plot development and suspense. However, I can’t say the same in terms of its style and character development. The characters are not developed well, and are fairly plastic and predictable in their presentation. The use of language is unexciting, and the style lacks depth. In these areas, I find some sympathy with the comments of Jim Hart, a British reviewer, who said of Peretti’s previous two novels,

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 tiny grains of content are inflated to five hundred or more sides.

Three years ago I wrote in The Briefing about Christian fiction [Briefing #87, ‘Should we write “Christian” fiction?’]. At that time, I said that I was unsure about the exercise of writing Christian fiction. Narrative has the power to change the way that I think without actually appealingly my reason or persuading me by the word of God. Then I made the point that my problem with Christian fiction was that “its teaching is often under the surface and not open for critical examination. This can be all right when the author is informed by biblical truth. It can be disastrous when the author is not so informed.”

Since writing these words, the shelves of fiction in my local Christian book store have grown and grown, while the shelves of good theology and biblical commentaries have shrunk to the point where I have had to resort to buying my theological books by mail order from overseas. Fiction is obviously what is selling well. Christians like fiction, and unfortunately this means that Christians are learning their theology through fiction.

Where does that leave us with books such as The Oath? A few points come to mind immediately. First, solid theological input (even fictionalized) is totally absent. For example, there is little or no reflection on how Jesus can protect people from the dragon who gains his power over people through their sin. Rather than him being the atoning sacrifice for sin, he appears to be some sort of talisman that people can wave in the eyes of the demonic and have them flee.

Second, the view of God portrayed by the narrative is very poor indeed. God is never probative in the story. As far as I can recall, he is never described as initiating anything. It is as though he were sitting somewhere in the background, seeing the gross sin of this little town, and the murder and destruction of its monster, but remaining disinterested or totally impotent to do anything about it without some human calling upon him to act. The picture of God is of some distant deity who is not active and rarely mentioned except in prayer. At the end of the day, the hero is not God.

This view of God may not be accurate, but it is popular. Read modern hymnody carefully and you will see it again and again. God needs us. We will bring in his kingdom. His cause will triumph because of our dedication or action. Peretti’s novels just serve to confirm us in such a conviction.

But there is another question raised by the growing bulk of Christian fiction: “Why?” Why is it becoming so popular? In particular, why is the Christian thriller becoming so popular?

A number of answers rise up in my mind The first has to do with the place of the individual. The modern thriller encapsulates the triumph of the individual. He or she stands alone against larger than life enemies, does battle, and is victorious. The reason this so powerful for us is that we are anxious about our world and fearful of the powerful forces that seem outside our control. Hence we rejoice at models who take on these forces and survive. John Seel in The Evangelical Forfeit (Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1993) maintains a position akin to this. On asking why Peretti’s previous two books appeal so powerfully to the American evangelical community he answers,

Because they tell a story that describes how evangelicals feel at the close of the twentieth century … Peretti tells a story of small town America, of disenfranchised evangelicals who face Satanic conspiracies masked behind multinational businessmen, university professors, public school administrators, welfare social workers, ACLU lawyers, ecological fanatics and New Age gums. 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.

But I’m not sure that this is all there is to it. I wonder whether we Christians are undergoing some fundamental shifts in the way we think about God. Unfortunately, I suspect that many of us inherited an idea of God that owed rather too much to the philosophers and dogmatic theologians. In other words, it had to do with a distant God who could be speculated about or a God whose ways in the world could be scientifically listed and categorized. While there is much that is helpful in these two influences, their problem is one of not seeing how God is active in our own lives and how our relationship with him is interactive and dynamic in nature.

Narrative helps in this. It has the potential to tell God’s story in tandem with my story. God is not simply something in the world of ideas. He is a person who relates to me. He is the sort of God I see in the narratives of the Bible, whether it be with Abraham, Moses and David, or with the disciples in the Gospels. In this way, Christian fiction functions in much the same way for a modern generation as Christian biographies did for a previous one.

On another level, Christian fiction of the Peretti sort apparently taps into the same sort of hunger in us as The X-Files does. We live in a world where everything seems explainable. However, I wonder whether there remains within us a deep-seated belief that there is another world out there that is as real, but remains hidden. What Mulder does for us is to give us a peek into that world of spiritual forces. Unfortunately for us, I’m not sure that either does so convincingly or authoritatively.

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