Fighting the demons
Frank Peretti's new novel is his best and most perceptive, teaching readers to battle bad theology
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Doubt not Frank Peretti's courage. There is nothing writers fear so much as their next book. So it was an act of bravery when Mr. Peretti told WORLD in TK 1998, "I don't know if I'll ever become that great of a writer that I could actually write what could be called 'literature,' but I'd like to see how close I could get."
That was an act of bravery because no writer wants to build up expectations for a new book; Mr. Peretti knew that the time would come when reviewers and readers would measure his latest book against his own words. Is Mr. Peretti's latest, The Visitation, "literature"? Time will tell, but Mr. Peretti can breathe again; it's closer, much closer.
The Visitation (just released at the Christian Bookseller's Convention) is his finest work to date and shows that he's kept his promise of attempting higher things. To be sure, The Visitation is another typical Peretti novel, complete with supernatural characters as actors, and Christians as more than merely spiritual warriors. The writing is sometimes less than artful, such as in the line, "She had believed everything Joey the trucker told her about love, and how she was that girl silhouetted on his mud flaps." That might work as camp or as lyrics to a country song, but not as character exposition.
Yet the moments that might make a reader wince are few-far fewer, in fact, than in Mr. Peretti's previous novels. They are offset by moments in which a reader will realize, with a smile, that Mr. Peretti is mastering his craft as he takes readers through what happens in Antioch, Wash., the site chosen by a false christ to begin--and ultimately to end--his "ministry." This false christ fools nearly everyone, except for two Pentecostal ministers--one middle-aged and disillusioned, and one young and on fire "to take this town for Jesus."
An all-but-useless ministerial alliance meets to discuss this new phenomenon, this young man who has appeared in their town and begun to heal the sick. He seems to know too much about the townspeople, particularly Travis Jordan. Travis is the disillusioned preacher--a man who left his pastorate after his wife died and hasn't been back to church since. In this character, Mr. Peretti shows some admirable restraint. Travis is not a spectacular wrongdoer, but simply (and there's art in simplicity) a saddened, burned-out man who left his ministry because he could no longer answer his own questions.
Into his life comes Kyle Sherman, who fills the pastorate that Travis left empty. Again, Mr. Peretti, a former Assemblies of God pastor, shows restraint. Kyle is not a handsome, idealistic firebrand--he's simply young and a little headstrong. Mr. Peretti stays safely on the right side of the line between a character and a caricature.
Travis and Kyle begin looking into this Brandon Nichols, who has come to town with signs and wonders. Travis realizes, though, that Nichols has looked into him--hoping to find, perhaps, a supporter. Nichols appeals to Travis's disappointment, doubts, even grief, and the novel builds around Travis's efforts to understand--and eventually to defeat--Nichols, who quickly builds a large and devoted following.
For Travis, understanding Nichols means coming to terms with his own disappointments. That's where Mr. Peretti's novel shines. About half the book is the story, told in flashbacks, of Travis's life. Mr. Peretti shows where Travis's brand of faith has failed him.
Ultimately, The Visitation is really about the dangers inherent in not sticking closely enough to the Bible, and in too readily accepting signs and prophecies that come from the mouths of men--because men can be wrong, or misguided, or worse.
The false christ finds so many willing victims because they lack sound Bible doctrine. At one of Nichols's first public appearances, he tells a small crowd, "We tend to be a little unconventional up here. Jesus was unconventional for His times--or, if you will, I was unconventional ... but whatever your religious background or belief system, don't worry--there's something here for each of you."
That should have been all any believer needed to hear, but Mr. Peretti deftly shows how believers can mistake psychobabble for biblical wisdom. One liberal female minister in The Visitation preaches love and acceptance of all beliefs until her own son gets sucked into this false christ's cult. And then, she finds, truth matters.
Mr. Peretti hasn't made a complete break from the formulaic novel: The lady preacher is a widow, and Travis, predictably, was also widowed. Their romance is inevitable and tiresome.
And yet, some serious flashes of wit indicate Mr. Peretti is mastering his craft. He describes a Texas town, with its beef and oil industries, as smelling like "a herd of cattle tarring a roof."
He also does a good job handling miracles, with which Christian authors sometimes play fast and loose. (I once counted four separate resurrections in a Christian romance novel.) But Christians should be the last to employ deus ex machina (the old literary trick of getting out of a plot tangle by having some deity coming down from a machine to save the day). We know the Deus and know that His chosen machina, in most cases, is the ordinary person, and ordinary means. The conversion of Norma McCorvey, Roe in Roe vs. Wade, is much more dramatic in that it was a loving child who led her to Christ, not a literal burning bush or a supernatural vision of the resurrected Jesus.
While he avoids the excesses of other Christian authors, Mr. Peretti doesn't deny miracles, either. He walks the wise middle ground: Trust-but verify. The miracles of the false christ seem wonderful, but Mr. Peretti eventually--and patiently--shows that a healed body is nothing if the soul is perverted. The Visitation is a fine summer read, finer for showing that Mr. Peretti is serious about perfecting his craft and perfecting his readers' theology.
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