from the Christian Research Journal, Winter/Spring 1990, page 30. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller. A Summary Critique
This Present Darkness by Frank Peretti (Crossway, 1986)
This Present Darkness is a novel about how a few Christians fight for the soul of a small town named Ashton that is being taken over by a conspiratorial form of the New Age movement. Author Frank Peretti expands the reader's perspective of the fight beyond just the human level to the spiritual -- where demons influence humans and battle angels. This expansion is Peretti's imaginative interpretation of what Paul might have had in mind when he wrote Ephesians 6:12, "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (RSV).
Peretti's book has become a commercial success, selling more than 1,122,000 copies. Since 1988 This Present Darkness has been at the top of the best seller list of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. (At press time, it is listed as the number one best-selling religious paperback.) There has been talk, moreover, of making the book into a motion picture. Plus, a sequel entitled Piercing the Darkness has been published and presently occupies the number two position on the best seller list.
I especially appreciate three things about This Present Darkness. First, it is fascinating reading. Once one begins the book, it's hard to put down.
Second, it spurs the reader on to prayer, which was apparently one of Peretti's primary purposes for writing the book. In an interview with Charisma magazine, he said that "whether people like it or not, there is a spiritual war going on. The main thrust of my book is encouraging believers to engage in intercessory prayer and to open their eyes to spiritual realities." (Dan O'Neill, "The Supernatural World of Frank Peretti," Charisma and Christian Life, May 1989, 48, 50.)
Third, Peretti has portrayed the work of the pastor in a tremendously positive light. Considering that Peretti is himself an Assemblies of God pastor, this is understandable. Nevertheless, in light of the raw deal the secular media usually gives the pastor, reading Peretti's rendition is refreshing.
Besides these notes of appreciation, I want to sound three cautionary notes. First, Peretti portrays the New Age movement as a conspiratorial movement. Dan O'Neill, who interviewed Peretti, commented that "Peretti is the first to admit that some Christians have a morbid preoccupation with New Age conspiracies" (p. 52). But "a morbid preoccupation with New Age conspiracies" is precisely the kind of response Peretti encourages in his book. While one subplot in the novel does involve an individual (Sandy) being entangled by the philosophical web of the New Age, the main plot has to do with the inexorable movement of the New Age juggernaut as it rolls over the town. New Agers have, for example, taken over Ashton's grocery store, the police department, the courthouse, and a liberal church; they are in the process of taking over the Bible-preaching church, the newspaper, and the local college.
There is a place for understanding how the New Age movement has influenced and infiltrated our society. But some Christians have become so preoccupied with labeling that which is New Age in our culture that they have pushed aside the biblical mandate to evangelize the lost -- which includes the New Ager. Such Christians have created a we/they mentality which works against seeing the New Ager as someone seeking spiritual truth and needing to hear the gospel. It is precisely this kind of we/they mentality that Peretti's book fosters. New Agers are portrayed as so totally surrendered to demonic control that they appear beyond God's reach.
My second caution has to do with Peretti's portrayal of the purpose of prayer. One gets the impression in This Present Darkness that the primary purpose of prayer is to give power to angels. For example, toward the beginning of the book, Tal -- the leader of the good angels -- refuses to fight the demons, knowing that the "prayer cover" of the Christians is insufficient (pp. 148-49). For a book billed as being anti-New Age, such a concept of prayer -- in which it somehow supplies power to the angels -- is amazingly "New Ageish." Prayer as interpersonal communion with God, on the other hand, is sorely missing.
Third, Peretti verges on giving too much power to demons in their ability to influence people's thoughts and actions. In his interview, Peretti "cautions against finding a demon 'under every bush,'" and of "blaming everything on demons" (p. 52). Once again, though, what Peretti says and the response his book encourages are two different things. For example, Peretti pictures the newspaper editor, Marshall Hogan -- who is despondent over being rejected by his daughter -- as having the demon named Complacency digging its "taloned fingers" into his leg to encourage his despondency (pp. 39-40). According to Peretti, demons even have the power to cause cars to malfunction (p. 138). (Now that I can believe!) Such demonization, moreover, is a major theme in the book. The factor of humanity's inclination toward sin (a major theme of Scripture) isn't given much consideration until page 312 out of a 376-page book.
Literary license gives Peretti the right to emphasize demonic influence in order to open our eyes to such a reality. But he does so almost to the point of disregarding individual responsibility for sinful acts. Peretti's book has given a shot in the arm to those who do find a demon under every bush and who jump to the remedy of exorcism for every spiritual malady.
In all fairness, though, I must also say that while Peretti might have overemphasized the power of demons, he has not gone beyond biblical bounds -- that is, he doesn't give them the power to coerce people to act against their wills. The Bible, too, says demons can influence our thoughts (cf. Eph. 2:2; 6:10,16) -- but not to the point of coercion. Demons are able only to tempt and encourage us along the path to which we are already inclined because of our sinful nature.
All in all, Peretti is more successful in awakening the reader to the possible workings of the spiritual realm than in encouraging and equipping the Christian to expose those caught in the darkness of the New Age movement to the light of the gospel.
What's New in New Age Books
A recent visit to the Bodhi Tree, the largest New Age bookstore in Southern California, was an experience I will not soon forget. Burning incense filled the air, and an endless flow of contemplative New Age music created a meditative atmosphere. The place was brimming with New Agers -- browsing through seemingly endless shelves of books on channeling, crystals, visualization, reincarnation, astrology, empowerment, and much, much more. (Curiously, I saw a copy of Walter Martin's The Kingdom of the Cults in the mythology section.) With assistance from a salesperson, I selected the following four books for review. They are representative of the kinds of books that are selling well among New Agers.
The Seat of the Soul
(Simon & Schuster, 1989)
Gary Zukav, whose book The Dancing Wu Li Masters brought him notoriety in 1979, has written a new best seller -- The Seat of the Soul. In it he suggests that humanity is now evolving from a "five-sensory" species that pursues external power (i.e., domination over the environment and other people) into a "multisensory" species that pursues authentic power (based on the perceptions and values of the spirit, especially as related to the soul's evolution through reincarnation and the law of karma).
Zukav seeks to help people on a practical level. He argues that a multisensory outlook can help people understand and cope with their problems (we just need to remember that karma brings "healing" to the soul), revolutionize psychology (with an appreciation of how past lives can affect present living), develop a reverence for life (for all is sacred and divine), and make sense of the problem of evil.
Zukav is at his worst in dealing with the problem of evil. He says we must not presume to judge when people suffer cruelly, for "we do not know what is being healed [via karma] in these sufferings..." (p. 45). "Non-judgmental justice" relieves us of having to be judge and jury regarding apparent evil; the law of karma will bring about justice in the end.
Would Zukav have us believe that when soldiers in Ceylon shot a nursing mother and then shot off the toes of her baby for target practice, this was somehow bringing "healing" to her and her child's souls? When Shiites in the Soviet Union ripped open the womb of a pregnant Armenian woman and tore the limbs from the fetus, does Zukav really expect us to place our faith in "non-judgmental justice" instead of being morally outraged? Where is the divine and the sacred in this?
Moreover, if reincarnation and the law of karma are so beneficial on a practical level, as Zukav alleges, how does he explain the immense social and economic problems -- including widespread poverty, starvation, disease, and horrible suffering -- in India, where reincarnation has been systematically taught throughout its history?
Empowerment: The Art of Creating Your Life as You Want It
David Gershon and Gail Straub
(Dell Publishing, 1989)
How would you like to have everything you ever wished for in life? You can, according to David Gershon and Gail Straub. In their new book, Gershon and Straub tell us that "empowerment" is the key, for this will give you the ability to create your own reality by the power of your mind. What "manifests" in your life will be a direct result of the thoughts you affirm -- either on a conscious or unconscious level.
The authors offer a game plan for achieving empowerment that focuses on making effective use of affirmations (positive self-talk) and visualizations (mental pictures of what you want to create). Detailed guided imagery exercises are provided in successive chapters for letting go of unhealthy emotions, enhancing personal relationships, enjoying sexuality, getting in tune with your body, and improving attitudes toward money, work, and spirituality. By using these affirmations and visualizations, the authors assure us that we will attract the worldly "nutrients" needed to have our "mental seed" grow to "fruition."
In the chapter on spirituality, the authors (who embrace reincarnation) provide a list of "limiting beliefs" and accompanying "turnarounds." By affirming the turnarounds, they tell us, we can dispose of unhealthy spiritual beliefs that limit us. Here's an example: "Limiting Belief: God is a male figure with a lot of power who will punish me if I don't do the right thing. Turnaround: I create God as a loving, kind, playful, wise, powerful friend. We play together co-creating the universe" (p. 200).
Gershon and Straub's mind-over-matter techniques are blatantly occultic and non-Christian. And, like other New Agers, they deny wholesale that man (including his imagination) is fallen (Gen. 6:5). Thus they are blinded to the reality that they are using faulty equipment that can lead them astray. How much better it is to trust in the sure promises of a loving God for provisions in life rather than having to depend on one's visualizing prowess (cf. Matt. 6:30).
Spirit Communication: The Soul's Path
Kevin Ryerson and Stephanie Harolde
(Bantam Books, 1989)
In this book, which Shirley MacLaine praises as the clearest and "most comprehensive book on the phenomenon of channeling I've read," Kevin Ryerson compares channeling to a radio broadcast. If two stations are competing for the same frequency, by slightly adjusting the dial we can tune one down and the other will come in more clearly. "Kevin Ryerson," he tells us, is the channel that gets tuned down; this allows the other frequency (spirit entities) to come through. Ryerson provides readers with guidelines on how to "adjust the tuning" so that they -- like he -- can become channels.
Over half the book is a collection of the central teachings of the entities who communicate through Ryerson. These entities repeat the same old lies: you are God, you have unlimited potential, you create your own reality, and there is no death.
Regarding the possibility of demon possession, Ryerson asserts: "I personally believe there's a psychic lock on the frequency or vibration of each person's physical body that only we, ourselves, can match. It would be impossible for someone else to 'inhabit' our vibration" (p. 46). Besides, says Ryerson, "I trust the transformative process of the inner divine...I believe that God acts as our personal bodyguard" (p. 48).
God, of course, is not the "bodyguard" of the channeler or medium, for He detests mediums: "Let no one be found among you...who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord..." (Deut. 18:10-12). Scripture attests not only that demonic possessions occur (Matt. 8:28), but that "Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light" (2 Cor. 11:14) -- and is hence capable of impersonating benevolent spirit entities.
Imaginary Landscape: Making Worlds of Myth and Science
William Irwin Thompson
(St. Martin's Press, 1989)
Cultural historian William Irwin Thompson suggests in his new book that the myths of ancient times are not mere parables but represent the cumulative wisdom of past generations who were more observant of the world around them than people today. The insights the ancients had about the patterns of nature are only now being rediscovered, says Thompson, by recent advances in the sciences.
The foundation from which Thompson builds is "the Gaia hypothesis," formulated by atmospheric chemist James Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis and named after the ancient goddess of the Earth. This hypothesis contends that all living matter on Earth constitutes a single living entity.
Most significant, says Thompson, is how the Gaia hypothesis is moving the worlds of science and myth much closer together. "In invoking the ancient goddess of the Earth, these scientists have summoned up the spirit of myth, and the New Age movement, with its complex ecology of feminism, mysticism, environmentalism, and plain sentimentality, has responded by adopting the hypothesis as one of its own" (p. 54).
Subscribing to the Gaia myth (as a belief system) necessarily involves discarding the Christian belief system (which New Agers also view as a myth, but an outdated one). Thompson and other New Agers view the Gaia myth as serving our planetary culture better than the "Christian myth." The question of whether belief systems are objectively true is irrelevant in their thinking.
The big problem with this is the assumption that there are no fixed, unchanging elements in a belief system. Unlike New Agers, Christians base their belief system on special revelation from the God of truth (Rom. 3:4). Their world view is rooted in the objective, propositional, unchanging truth of Scripture, and their faith is founded on the historical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines imaginary as "having existence only in the imagination." In this sense, Thompson's Imaginary Landscape is appropriately titled.
The Atheist Syndrome: A Psychopathology of Unbelief
John F. Koster
(Wolgemeth & Hyatt, 1989)
"The fool hath said in his heart, 'There is no God.'" So wrote David in diagnosing the problem of unbelief three thousand years ago.
But is foolishness the only problem? Might it not be compounded by something else, something over which the skeptic has no control? John Koster thinks so. And he tries, in The Atheist Syndrome, to establish his case.
Koster's thesis is that the major proponents of atheism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries all have suffered from a form of mental illness that he dubs "the atheist syndrome." Applying Freudian psychoanalysis to the likes of Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud himself, Koster concludes that their fear of domineering and abusive fathers transformed itself into hatred of the God their fathers represented to them. That hatred led to an irrational rejection of biblical truth and an embracing of falsehood -- whether scientific materialism, occultism, or delusions of grandeur.
Koster further argues that their obsessive hatred was not limited to their fathers and God: self-hatred emerged when these brilliant men recognized in themselves what they hated in their fathers. Then came clinical depression, sexual perversion, psychogenic diseases, and ultimate collapse.
Christians who are tired of seeing the faith bashed by devotees of evolutionism, scientistic humanism, nihilism, and Freudianism will not be able to help finding Koster's analysis appealing. Clarence Darrow, Adolf Hitler, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Ulyanov Lenin, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus all seem to wither under his gaze. In the final analysis, the thesis might be right.
Unfortunately, Koster fails to prove his point in this book. The argument is simply too laden with logical fallacies, evidential gaps, and systematic inconsistency.
The proposed syndrome and its symptoms, for instance, are so loosely defined as to be nearly impossible to identify with certainty. As Koster describes them, underlying causes of the syndrome are ambiguous, inconsistent, and -- in some case histories -- simply missing. In the best cases (Darwin, Nietzsche, and Robert Ingersoll), the underlying causes are weakly substantiated; in most, hardly at all; and in one (Karl Marx) they are so contrary to the theory that Koster has to suggest that we "turn the atheist syndrome on its head" (p. 161) -- which ultimately looks like little more than abandoning the theory altogether.
Not only are the causes and symptoms not found consistently in the case histories Koster presents, they also are not reliable predictors of the syndrome even where they are found -- and the causes' absence is no guarantee that the symptoms will be absent as well. Most sons of abusive, domineering fathers don't turn out to be atheists and don't develop the clinical depression and self-destructive psychogenic diseases that are part of the syndrome; some sons of loving, kind fathers do. Many (perhaps most) atheists never develop the clinical depression and psychogenic diseases that are key symptoms of the syndrome; some theists do. In short, the hypothesis is a case of hasty generalization based on faulty induction from insufficient sampling.
More deadly to the hypothesis is its self-defeating foundation. The hypothesis assumes the theory of Freudian psychoanalysis, complete with hereditary and environmental determinism. Yet, in picking Freud apart, Koster debunks this theory, showing that -- in its allegiance to naturalistic evolutionism -- it misreads the nature of man. Hence, Koster is stuck wielding a weapon he himself argues is useless.
The Atheist Syndrome, despite these weaknesses, is loaded with damning information about the famous (or infamous) people it analyzes. Much of that information can be of use in undercutting their credibility, so long as we don't assume that the mental illness charge (except in Nietzsche's case, where the mental illness is more likely attributable to syphilis than to the syndrome Koster describes) can be made to stick without far more proof than we find here. It's about time the heroes of secular humanism got cut down to size, and within limits Koster does a good job of cutting them down. Readers who can distinguish the good information from the often faulty arguments based on it will profit from the book. But if the faulty arguments gain vogue in Christian circles, it won't be long before sharp critics point them out and damage Christian credibility.
The logical flaws in Koster's argument don't mean his conclusion cannot be right. Perhaps it is or perhaps it's very nearly right. A more thorough critique of these men, taking into account the lines of analysis Koster suggests, might avoid the logical pitfalls and deal a crushing blow to these enemies of the faith.
Meanwhile, Koster does tell us enough about these champions of atheism to prove them prime examples of David's ages-old judgment: atheism appeals only to fools.
About E. Calvin Beisner
Formerly a Research Consultant for CRI, E. Calvin Beisner writes on theology, ethics, and apologetics. He is the author of Answers For Atheists: A Dialogue Between a Christian and a Skeptical Inquirer (Colorado Springs, CO: Campus Crusade for Christ/Northstar, 1988).
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