(Note: for simplicity, the term “Christian fiction” in this post is used to refer to Evangelical Christian fiction.)
Ask many Christians what’s wrong with Christian literature, and you’re likely to get an earful. The list of bad Christian fiction is long, and one author tops most lists: Frank Peretti, most notably author of This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness.
The criticisms of Peretti have quite a range: to some people he’s too overtly Christian, to others he focuses too much on the occult. For some the characterization of the people in his novels in the problem, and others find his plots too cliché. His books almost always include a dramatic conversion, angelic warfare, and New Age rituals that turn out to be Satanic in origin.
Some of this criticism is fair. Peretti isn’t the best of Christian authors, but then he never claimed to be. (He has repeatedly stated that he enjoys writing about demons and the occult because he has had a life-long love of monster stories. When he realized that demons were the ultimate monsters, he decided to write about them.) The characters in his earlier works do tend to serve in fairly standard Christian roles (pastor, teacher, etc), and there is rarely a truly unexpected turn of events.
However, Peretti deserves far more praise than criticism. When This Present Darkness was published in 1986, the only other openly Christian stories on the popular market were historical romances, modern romances, and children’s books. Peretti dared to try something new, something that was not a sure sell with his audience.
Peretti’s stories had real spiritual and physical danger, and his characters didn’t always survive intact. Spiritual threats were taken seriously. There was little to no romance in the books (a very welcome relief to some), and Peretti’s characters grew more complex over the years. The Visitation picked up on many of his old themes about demonic activity (though no demons actually show themselves) but also told a highly compelling story of disillusionment with the established church and life in the Christian community.
Though some of his writing is cliché, Peretti’s characters do manage to come to life on the page, and speak in their own voices. No-one who read his books would confuse Travis Jordan, the burned-out pastor from The Visitation, with Hank Busche, the struggling pastor in This Present Darkness. Though both characters have similar roles, Peretti manages to make each of them distinct and unique-a more difficult task than most people realize. He creates memorable locations and towns, and has a talent for creating an atmosphere of believability.
Why are we so quick to dismiss Peretti? Even at his most clichéd, his writing is no worse than the formula fiction that stocks airport bookracks. Perhaps we cringe at Peretti’s writing because it is hard to defend in a materialistic world: he makes no bones about the reality of supernatural. While much of Christian fiction implies the presence of the supernatural, Peretti not only tackles it head-on, but sets a significant portion of the action in the world of the spirit. He defends that which is most indefensible in a skeptic’s world.
Though they might not rise to the heights of literature one hopes to see from Evangelical fiction, Peretti’s early books did something very important: they opened a door. With the popularity of This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, up and coming authors were more free to branch out, to explore, to use other genres of fiction. In any Evangelical fiction catalog, one can now find detective fiction (The Danielle Ross series), comedy (The Wally McDoogle books), adventure stories (The Heirs of Cahira O’Connor series), and many more. It is even arguable that Peretti’s ground-breaking stories allowed Christians to be more engaged with the Harry Potter, Golden Compass, and Twilight series. Such books are no longer “off-limits,” but open for reading and debate.
It is to be hoped that one day Christian fiction will no longer be a genre unto itself, but will have branched into all genres, with masterpieces in each. When that day comes, we should thank Frank Peretti. ‘