Sat 15 Mar 2008
Frank Peretti is often described as “The Christian Stephen King.” In many ways, it’s accurate: he writes apocalyptic fiction that’s a little bit too fantastic to achieve mainstream appeal. Granted, he’s sold a lot of books, but he’ll never be able to reach the same cultural status that the Left Behind series has garnered.
Peretti’s angels and demons duel mercilessly with flaming swords while his flesh and blood monsters skulk about in the shadows. It’s a touch too out there — especially for a demographic that loves stories about brave militia men and pornographic detail about their firearms. Peretti might as well be writing about pink unicorns. His fantasies are destined to be viewed as effeminate.
On the other hand, the comparison is unfair to Stephen King. Frank Peretti never has to be quite as good. The brutally-oligarchic world of Christian capitalism saves him from having to compete on a level playing field: “Don’t read Stephen King, he might lead you down the wrong path and you may never recover. But here’s a nice equivalent with 99% of the same themes. You can even offer it to your friends as a witnessing tool!”
Thus the champ of Christian Professional Wrestling doesn’t have to compete with Hulk Hogan.
The best Christian skateboarder doesn’t have to be as good as Tony Hawk.
The best Christian Romance Novelist doesn’t have to contend with Danielle Steel (let alone the Bronte sisters).
And Peretti certainly doesn’t have to match Stephen King to be mentioned in the same sentence as him.
Nevertheless, I do hold a deep affection for Peretti. When I was a kid, he scared the hell out of me in a way that no secular author could, being that he could leverage my eternal soul. I kind of miss those days. Horror just isn’t the same after you fall off the bandwagon.
Frank Peretti’s also a genuinely good guy. He’s written books about bullying and is generally sympathetic to outsiders in a way that most writers in his shoes decidedly are not, even though he does get a kick out of “redeeming” us. Still, you get the sense that he cares irrespective of whether or not you come over to his point of view.
I recently picked up his 2005 book, Monster, to see where he is now. I thought it might be a good way to see where I am now, too. We’ve both changed over the years, one has to assume.
I wasn’t disappointed though: in the running for a world record, Frank Peretti managed to absolutely terrify me before his book even began. Stephen King couldn’t accomplish that feat in his wildest dreams.
It was an acknowledgement-page that did the trick. Not only did Peretti thank his family physician for contributing medical expertise for forensic details, and a local mountain man for advice on how wilderness trackers operate, two additional names were given:
Jonathan Wells, postdoctoral biologist and senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, whose book, Icons of Evolution, first got my creative wheels turning, and who helped me clarify my main story idea over a pleasant lunch.
Dr. David DeWitt, director of the Center for Creation Studies at Liberty University, who, besides being a brilliant scientist and technical advisor, is quite an imaginative story crafter in his own right.
Monster is a Bigfoot story.
As far as Bigfoot stories go, it’s a fairly good one: an internet forum of Sasquatch fans was quite satisfied with Peretti’s treatment of their favorite beastie and his due diligence in keeping with their accepted lore.
As far as stories go, it’s not a very good one at all. The pacing is off and all the hunters tromping about the woods, searching for the Bigfoot and the young woman it kidnapped, is never quite as fun or as interesting as Peretti seems to think it should be.
It’s also a Christian Bigfoot story, although it doesn’t quite reveal itself as one until halfway through.
To be sure, there are hints leading up to the big reveal: whenever something happens, characters emote in a predictable pattern of silent prayer. The formula goes something like this “God, why me? Why do you hate me? Why did you let the bigfoot shred my last roll of toilet paper?” For real. This initial anger is followed by acceptance, submission, and then thankfulness. Different scenarios breeze through the steps at varying speeds but the end result is that devout of Monster have some of the most boring internal monologues in the history of fiction.
The kidnapped young wife (and wives are always young, it seems), the same who lost her toilet paper, winds up living with an entire clan of Sasquatches. After observing their personalities and familial roles, she — naturally — sees an exact alignment with the biblical family of Jacob. She names the rest of them Rachel, Leah, and Reuben in accordance.
While all the forest frolicking might appear to be the main story of Monster, all of that is really just a coat rack to hang the story that Frank Peretti really wants to tell — the story that he had to cozy up with the Jerry Falwell crowd to research.
Each of the four main characters has a vocation that is essential to the plot. Except, of course, for the young wife, whose only purpose in life is to be kidnapped. (Although her personality is fleshed out with an affected stutter given to her dialogue; if you didn’t know, that means she’s shy.) Her husband just happens to be a police officer. His best friend just happens to be a forensic examiner. That friend’s husband just happens to be a former biologist at a local university. He might be last in the chain but he’s far from least.
Biblical literalists in America are waging a two-pronged assault on science. While so-called fundamentalists might consider themselves an oppressed minority, they’ve been remarkably successful in using pop-culture and Astroturfed (fake “grass roots” planted by corporations) initiatives in controlling public opinion. A majority of Americans don’t believe in evolution; that’s akin to 51% of our population believing in a flat earth.
For the majority of my life, I was one of these people.
I believed that carbon dating was utterly unreliable, that people really did walk with dinosaurs (the “young earth theory”), and that evolution is a highly controversial belief in science. It was “just a theory.” Of course, gravity is just a theory, too.
In the same way, I believed that global warming was a highly contested idea in science: how could mere humans mess up God’s vast creation? But as most of us, even the devout (and many self described fundamentalists who have been inspired to “go green”), have recently discovered, that controversy didn’t much exist among scientists. That controversy, the very idea of controversy, was just something that was planted in the public consciousness with large sums of money.
The war against evolution is waged in a similar fashion. Creationists — and their insipid rebranding as Intelligent Design proponents — have scores of glossy websites and books that put the Spartan websites of academia to shame. All of that costs big money, of course.
On a high school level, they want to create seeds of doubt. They donate their books to schools that cannot afford new science texts (this is made even more convenient by conservative pushes to reduce public school funding). They work with laypeople on school boards to reframe science as the will of public-opinion. They recycle arguments that have either been put to rest or are entirely irrelevant when it comes to the scientific community: the goal isn’t the advancement of science but to spread the belief that science itself is untrustworthy.
At the university level, they hang their hat on the First Amendment.
They want to buy tenure for professors who can then use the title of Ph. D. to lend credibility to Creationist rhetoric. (It is believed that the same Jonathan Wells that Peretti thanked had his advanced degree paid for by Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.) While many of these Intelligent Design proponents chafe under the claim that they never publish in peer reviewed journals — or that when they do, it’s material completely unrelated to biology — it’s not their job to be scientists but perpetual victims.
While what they say might not be science, it’s certainly speech, and their right to say it has to be protected.
As the secular world refuses to honor their personal beliefs as science, thus calling into question their identities as scientists, they get to complain that they’re being bullied by fascists who are unwilling to engage competing points of view. As churches have been spreading the idea that universities are out of touch with common folk (even the exceedingly rich and powerful “common folk” who hide behind the Intelligent Design movement) for going on six decades now, it’s quite easy to convince the public that something unseemly is going on. A conspiracy is afoot and God fearing scientists are being oppressed!
It’s precisely on this model that Peretti crafted his character, Dr. Michael Capella.
“Cap,” a professor of biosciences, was drummed out of his Corzine University because he “kept finding problems with Darwinism.” In Monster, he doesn’t so much find problems, but instead asks a series of flawed questions in rapid fire that, when not answered with perfect satisfaction, gives him the excuse to exclaim “a hah!” as if it were some sort of discovery on his part. It’s all easy enough as his beliefs don’t require evidence and aren’t required to make predictions of any sort: his role as a scientist is to play the part of the martyr and speak truth to power. Peretti transcribes the belief that the academy works to silence dissenting opinions, oppressing people of faith, on page 248:
Merrill smirked. “A word to the wise, Dr. Capella — if that term means anything to you: we are all scientists here, and that means we deal in facts. You are a creationist, and now have the added liability of being a trespasser and a burglar. Before you say anything to anyone, please give careful regard to which of us has the credibility —and the power to destroy the other.”
Creationist. Merrill used that word as an insult. Cap had seen this power trip before, and he was fed up with it. “Is this a scientist I hear talking?” [emphasis original]
Merrill smiled. “In every way, Dr. Capella; in the eyes of my peers and, most of all, in the eyes of the public. I have my responsibilities, foremost among them, not allowing science to be undermined by detractors like you.”
“Science? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call it ‘the only game in town’?”
The most prized of Cap’s convictions is that mutations are never a mechanism for evolution, as they inevitably negative in result (benign, harmful, or fatal): this is the theme that Peretti built his Bigfoot tale around.
He uses the story of Cap to tease the reader that the Sasquatches might be the result of a mad-scientist (a former co-worker of Cap) and his experiments. While the mad scientist gets his just desserts at the end of the novel — after a protracted speech specifying the details of his depravity, an episode unintentionally comical post Austin Powers — his experiments never actually worked. All he managed to do is create a Bigfoot-like monster that could barely move and feed itself.
Of course, due to the necessities of plot, the almost immobile monster was able to launch an attack on the Bigfoot conclave early on, in a deliberately murky set of scenes that amount to little more than hints in the prologue. Indeed, the first few chapters had me convinced that the book was going to be a brawl between Bigfoot and the New Jersey Devil (transported to the Seattle area somehow), yet the latter was deliberately ignored and forgotten until the final few pages of the novel in order lend gravitas to the big reveal in the finale.
I feel safe “spoiling” the ending as Peretti’s big reveal isn’t so much storytelling as it is pedagogy: the Bigfoot clan wasn’t created in a laboratory, they are natural, God’s creatures. While this is consonant with Peretti’s claim that mutations are never positive — and in his view, even if a scientist did succeed in creating a beneficial mutation, it still wouldn’t be proof of anything as it happened under an intelligent designer, not under completely “natural” circumstances — this does open the door to other problems.
How did Noah smuggle Bigfoot onto the Ark? How did they get to the New World? How is there no direct physical evidence despite the various giant myths (yeti, ogres, etc.) throughout human history? But Peretti’s science isn’t required to explain anything, only to ask pointed questions at those who dare to try.
Save for a few Bigfoot fans who can’t get enough of the big guy (or gal), everyone seems to be in agreement that Monster isn’t a very good book. It’s not a good book in the grand scheme of literature; it’s not even rated as a good Frank Peretti book.
It is, however, a significant book. Its purpose is to further the belief that American Protestants — unlike Christians throughout the rest of the world — are required by their faith to denounce evolution.
This proof of fealty has little to do with science or religion, but human greed and politics: to denounce evolution is to swear allegiance to a particular way of life and the socio-political actors who make it possible.
Many today think that evolution and the Big Bang theory go hand in hand (indeed, one school board acting on behalf of the Intelligent Design movement targeted the Big Bang theory as a fundamental aspect of evolution, confusing biology and physics). American conservatives talk about the theory as if its name were pornographic (undoubtedly spurring a television sitcom to adopt the name in liberal-kneejerk agreement), an abomination. Yet the Big Bang model of cosmology was in part proposed by a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaître, who believed it to be theologically sound. It proposed a beginning for the universe, after all, in stark contrast to the always and unending Steady State theory.
Unflinching hatred for evolution is used in our society as currency. It marks you as plain folk, ever trustworthy and loyal to America and its corporations, not a heathen, communist, or even a Catholic. Denying a basic scientific fact says that, when push comes to shove, you will stand with the strong as they march against the meek. It stands for some rather un-Christ like ideals that are somehow acceptable so long as they are American ideals.
While this oath of obedience is currently sworn on the battered body of evolution, it could just as easily be affirmed by taking any number of other positions on any number of other things. Evolution is just the most active and visceral site for that conflict today. Tomorrow it will be something else.
As even evangelical congregations have moved beyond “the myth of global warming,” resistance to the basic fact of evolution cannot hold out forever.
Frank Peretti’s monster is a mayfly.
For information on the battle over evolution, two of the most comprehensive and understandable sources are the Pulitzer winning Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner, and Nova’s Judgement Day: Intelligent Design on Trial.