In Defense of Frank Peretti


(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. ‘

  • Tom Gilson

    I would add this in defense of Peretti: he’s entertaining. Isn’t that one of the purposes of fiction?

  • Joi Weaver

    I definitely agree with that! Peretti knows how to write a page-turner.

  • Chris Ebenezer

    The problem is that he writes about a world in which the God figure operates mainly along Deistic principles. There’s a sort of slot machine approach to ‘pray and the angels get help’ mechanism operating in a lot of his books.

    Related to this is a very weak portrayal (in general) of grace of any kind – the instances of ‘grace’ are almost always due to some kind of mechanistic consequence of some other spiritual activity happening elsewhere.

    Finally, by turning a struggle against the world, the flesh and the devil into a struggle with (mainly) the occult. He tends to underplay the reality of the struggle against sin in the lives of Christians.

    In that sense, I’m not entirely sure how Christian his books are.

  • Godbot

    Peretti “entertaining?” LOL!!! Fact is, all “Evangelical Christian” literature is, literally, fiction!

  • Tim

    This Present Darkness and The Door in the Dragon’s Throat are BY FAR the most vivid books I’ve ever read. Reading them was very much like watching a movie.

  • Joi Weaver

    Tim: I loved the Cooper Kids series, at least the first 3 books. Wasn’t fond of #4, and haven’t read any of the others, but the first three were great!

    Did you ever read Prophet? I think you’d like it.

    My favorite is probably either Piercing the Darkness or The Visitation, but both Prophet and The Oath come close.

  • Tim

    Joi: Ditto on the Cooper kids! I especially liked how he built speculative stories around obscure Scripture verses.

    I didn’t care for Prophet as much as his other works. A little to internal for my taste.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I’m sorry, Joi, but Peretti is the Christian equivalent of pornography. It offers a false vision of reality that defies reality in which the good always suffer merely superficially and temporarily, and the bad get their just desserts. While that might be good, simplistic training for children it’s disingenuous. Even the first Harry Potter book gets the complexity of suffering and redemption much more accurately than these ‘adult fiction’ books.

    The huge problem with Peretti, apart from the general “Facing the Giants” wickedness (the Christian pornography), is his obsession with the spirit world. His books don’t edify the Christian to adopt characteristics of Christlikeness, as all end times prophecies in Scripture do, they encourage us to take a back seat to the spiritual battle, to bail ourselves out praying to Peretti’s version of demonology and angelology rather than cultivate real spiritual virtue.

    Plus, he’s a horrible writer. :)

    Sorry to part ways with my fellow Doctor Who fan, but Peretti’s books represent something deeply wrong with evangelicalism. I’m baffled to find someone who loves great literature and thinks about it so well defending them.

  • Rhology

    Lindsay Stallstones said:
    –It offers a false vision of reality that defies reality in which the good always suffer merely superficially and temporarily, and the bad get their just desserts

    Absolutely agree 100%.
    I mean, just look at The Oath. Levi Cobb survives 100% intact, Steve Benson’s brother Cliff was actually never killed by the dragon, and Tracy the deputy sheriff is chewed by the dragon but her impenetrable skin actually cause the dragon to turn into a pussycat!
    Or The Visitation. Travis Jordan pretends to be burned out, but he’s actually Kenneth Hagin in disguise. His wife didn’t die of cancer – far from it! She actually turns out to be the Princess of Monaco. The Cathedral of Life’s pastor’s daughter never really had an affair with the antagonist Cantwell, and never had marital issues because of it.

    In other words, Lindsay, you must be thinking of a different writer.
    And calling it “porn” is reaching just…a…bit.

  • Mumon

    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.

    You’re leaving out the Bible, and of course anything written by Josh McDowell, which would have to go under the title of “Christian fiction,” by your definition.

  • David Rasmussen

    Tim, you obviously haven’t read C.S. Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength”, of which “This Present Darkness” is a blatant if pathetic imitation.

    Chris Ebenezer, you have hit the nail on the head. Far worse than his plagiarism is Peretti’s magical notion of angels getting more force when the Christians pray and getting weaker when they don’t. I’m not sure if it is Deistic or just plain pagan: the idea of supernatural power as something that human beings can tap into and control.

    One would like to point out that the atheist trolls on this thread have apparently never actually read the Bible, but one wonders how much we Christians have read it. How can you be read Moses, David, Isaiah, and Luke, and call Frank Peretti’s pulp “Christian stories”?

  • Lineswine

    Christian fiction? Well, that would be “the bible”.