Presented at Dordt College, in Souix Center, Iowa at the Prodigal Love of God: Reencountering Dordt at 400 and Beyond conference, on April 6, 2019.
So we’re talking about sexual violence and Protestant reading practices, interpretation practices, and I want to talk about an aspect of sexual violence that I think is not talked about as much. I want to talk about fantasies of false accusation. I really started noticing false accusation fantasies around the controversy over the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In the debates about the accusations of Christine Blassy Ford, and whether or not to believe her, and how seriously to take accusations, in this case but also generally, there was this sort of culture-wide conversation about the correct hermeneutic posture in a democracy, and I started to hear how many men—how many, many, men—have fantasized about false accusations.
I think it’s worth noting when an incredibly rare occurrence, like a false accusation, seems more vibrant and vivid and real and just plausible to people, more plausible than an incredibly common occurrence, like rape. How do we make sense of that? It’s true that false accusations happen, and we should talk about the history of false accusations, which is different than you might think or what Brett Kavanaugh thinks, but they are incredibly rare, and sexual violence is not. It’s not rare. But the common, common occurrence gets doubted. The uncommon occurrence gets believed. What do we make of this?
As this conference considers the “broader Reformed tradition,” I want to argue that one thing that happens in Reformed theology is the development of worldview thinking, which provides people with and really popularizes a cultural script, a narrative of doubt and the benefit of the doubt, that can be run and put on and lived into, and it justifies or maybe just tempts us, tempts us in these cases to intense skepticism towards accusers, extreme gullibility towards the accused.
I am of course not saying that Reformed traditions are uniquely evil when it comes to sexual violence or covering up sexual violence. No temptation has befallen you that is not common to all men. I am also not saying this is the only possible way to live Reformed theology nor, and I’ll make this explicit at the end, that this is the only possible Reformed hermeneutic. But this narrative is quite popular, and quite powerful, and it is part of the worldview thinking that comes out of Reformed thinking, and if you look you find these scripts of false accusations, and invitations to readers far and wide to imagine what it would be like to be falsely accused.
Here’s an interesting example. A popular example: Frank Peretti’s spiritual warfare fiction.
The first one was This Present Darkness published in 1986. The sequel Piercing the Darkness, came out in 1989. Both bestsellers. This Present Darkness sold 2 million copies by 1996 and in 2006, Christianity Today named it one of the 50 most influential books in American evangelicalism. Today, without any advertising, any promotion, the publisher Crossway sells 8,000 new copies every year. Crossway publishes a lot of Reformed thinkers: John MacArthur, John Piper, and people like Kevin DeYoung and D.A. Carson, but this is the best seller. Year in, year out, 30 years—8,000 copies.
This Present Darkness is a novel of belief imagined as worldview conflict in a small American town. It’s the story of an occult conspiracy in a town that’s like a Normal Rockwell painting. There’s the fictional Ashton, and the elite, the civic leaders, are all part of a secret New Age, neo-pagan group. The faculty of the local liberal arts college, the law enforcement officers, city council members, and liberal ministers, “a cross section of Ashton’s best,” have formed a local branch of the Universal Consciousness Society. They are working towards a sort of New Age parousia, a coming of the Universal Mind.
The human conspiracy is connected to a spiritual one, as well. As one character warns, “You have no idea who you’re really dealing with. There are forces at work in that town—political, social … spiritual too.” The conspiracy is really the work of a demon known as the Strongman. His plan, as the novel starts, includes taking over the college at the center of the town, and then the town. He will turn the town into a beachhead for a New World Order. The demons have infiltrated, preparing for this takeover.
The novel cuts between human conflicts and scenes of unseen demons and angels, clashing in the sky above the town. The demons inhabit physical space and are described by Peretti in visceral, fleshy terms. The Strongman is described as looking like “a monstrous, overweight vulture.” He resides at the center of a violent, churning swarm of gargoyle-looking things. Individual demons often have particular features fitting specific tasks of torture. One has “knuckles honed into spikelike protrusions,” while another is “like a slimy black leech.” They are presences and also absences in the novel’s reality. One demon is described as a “breach torn in space,” a shadow that “crawled, quivered, moved along the street.” They’re literally behind the scenes. The people of the novel have to learn to see them, or if not see them to know that they’re there.
For example, they have to learn to suspect a conspiracy when the one person who resists the occult plot—the brave, praying pastor, the hero of the story—is accused of rape.
In the novel, one of the members of the congregation is awakened by angels. The angels are crowded around her bed, standing as high as the ceiling. They’re glowing, golden, beautiful men, with robes and jeweled swords. They tell her to pray and rally others to prayer. They say, “Your pastor … has fallen prisoner. He will be delivered through your prayers.”
She only learns later he’s in prison—“fallen prisoner”—on rape charges. And it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t believe it. The pastor has bite marks on his body from the woman who says he raped her. When he is arrested he’s wearing a torn shirt, and the woman has the torn piece. But of course it’s a set up. He’s being framed by demonic forces, and the reader knows this. The narrative never, never allows the reader to think the woman might be credible, and the characters who are held up as heroes in the story also don’t believe her. She’s a troubled woman. Even when she has this incredible amount of physical evidence that should make her credible—incredibly credible!—they never give her the benefit of the doubt. They never think the accusations are even plausible.
As one villain in the novel says to another: This rape business. You blew it. Few buy this rape business.
In the second novel, the same thing. There’s a town that’s a Norman Rockwell dream of normalcy, but then the demons and the conspiracy. This time, its the school board instead of the college, so the students are younger and more vulnerable, and the hero catches on to the plot and starts to oppose it and he is accused of abusing his children. His children are taken away, pending an investigation. An investigation, again, that the reader doesn’t need because the reader knows it’s false, the characters learn it’s false, and the reader learns that such accusations are not to be taken seriously. In the world of the novel, any investigation—taking witness statements, collecting evidence, assessing that evidence—is just ruining the reputation of a good man.
Where does this novel, with its conspiracies and false accusation fantasies come from? A few places. Peretti is writing in a literary tradition of horror that writer H.P. Lovecraft, the great and terrible H.P. Lovecraft, called the “spectrally macabre.” This was horror that imagines a world just like the readers’ everyday reality, but then disrupts that mimetic representation with otherworldly forces, scratching at the edge of reality. Lovecraft, a master of this tradition, said Americans wanted horror with a supernatural touch. It gave them a shiver of the numinous. That shiver seems not infrequently connected to the way the horror reasserts racial hierarchies and enforces gender norms.
Peretti is also writing in the tradition of conspiracy theory novels, which boomed in the 1980s. The bestseller list was well stocked with Cold War stories from John le Carré, Robert Ludlum, Ken Follett, Frederick Forsyth, and others. The most successful writer to bring the traditions together was Stephen King, starting with ’Salem’s Lot up to last year’s novel, The Outsider.
Peretti’s writing is doing this too, but he’s also part of a religious community. As his publisher announced in 1989, “He has written a book for the so-called moral majority. They can hold this up and say, ‘This is how I see the world.’”
How did they see the world? Peretti would say in terms of worldview.
Peretti’s pentecostal but he’s always said his great influence was Francis Schaeffer, the Reformed thinker who popularized pressupositionalism, culture war apologetics, and worldview thinking.
The Christian worldview, in Schaeffer’s account, starts with the foundational, pre-rational assumption—or presupposition—of God’s existence. God’s existence then entails ideas of objective reality and absolute truth, which serves as the basis for rational thought. The “antithesis,” a word Schaeffer used to mean an irreconcilable opposite, is secular humanism. Secular humanism starts from human experience. In this system of thought, “men and women, beginning absolutely by themselves, try rationally to build out from themselves, having only Man as their integration point, to find all knowledge, meaning and value.”
Schaeffer would grant that secular humanism’s approach to knowledge seemed promising at first. Observation, empirical knowledge, verification seemed pretty good. People were optimistic about what they could know and how certain they could be of what they knew, working only with knowledge that was available to all equally. But, according to Schaeffer, they didn’t have God to guarantee the absolute quality of truth—fix it, make it certain—so that approach to knowledge is ultimately unsustainable. The rationalist project will collapse into anti-rationalism. Because everything you know is only provisional, and you can always be wrong.
Schaeffer thinks this happened historically with Exisitentialism. “It was as though the rationalist suddenly realized,” he wrote, “that he was trapped in a large round room with no doors and no windows, nothing but complete darkness. From the middle of the room he would feel his ways to the walls and begin to look for an exit. He would go round the circumference, and then the terrifying truth would dawn on him that there was no exit, no exit at all!” (A reference to the Jean Paul Sartre play, No Exit).
Peretti, notably, turned this passage about the discombobulated rationalist into a speech he gave multiple times, around the country, on the evangelical lecture circuit. On stage, Peretti acted out the problem, pretending to be blind, waving his arms and walking with exaggerated steps through the imaginary formless void, until finally found what, in his performance, stood for a moral absolute: a chair. From the fixed point of the chair, he could measure and explore the space. The chair could serve as the basis for knowledge as long as it didn’t move.
“In order for a fixed point of reference to be any good,” Peretti said, “it has to be separate from you, and it can’t move…This is the essence of Christian thought, is that we do have a fixed point of reference by which we measure Right, Wrong, True, False, Good, Evil.”
The upshot of the argument is that if you think there is a right and wrong, true or false, and you’re not reasoning from the pre-rational presupposition of the existence of God, you are being inconsistent and incoherent. “There are no neutral facts,” Schaeffer said, “for facts are God’s facts.” There is, therefore, no common ground between worldviews. In fact, common ground is a kind of trick secular humanists use to get good Christians to give up their Reformed inheritance. It’s a conspiracy in a disguise of good faith. You shouldn’t be so gullible!
To learn to think in terms of worldview, then, means learning skepticism. Towards some people. It’s interesting to note that the suspicions of worldview thinking never seems to be reflexive. Never self directed. There are other options, within the Reformed tradition, that emphasize epistemological humility. I’m reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr, who called attention to how self-interest corrupts clear thinking. Speaking from his understanding of Reformed doctrines, Niebuhr said Christians are called to be be suspicious of their own reasoning. The children of light are foolish. Not merely because they underestimate the power of self-interest among the children of darkness, which is what Schaeffer and Peretti would say. No, Christians are naive because they underestimate the power of self-interest in themselves, in their own thinking, in their decisions about who to believe, who to find credible, who to extend the benefit of the doubt.
Schaeffer took Reformed theology and fashioned in into a presuppositionalist epistemology and built, from that, a whole philosophy of cultural conflict, clashes between neighbors, wars of worldviews. This is the thing Peretti dramatizes, in his novels.
Fiction, of course, doesn’t make anyone do anything. That’s not how fiction works. What fiction does is invite people to imagine the world is a certain way, and imagine themselves as the characters, imagine what it would be like to be those characters, in that world, having those experiences, making those choices. If you pick up Peretti, it’s an invitation to worldview thinking.
It invites us to imagine a narrative of doubt and the benefit of the doubt, that works a certain way. Protecting powerful abusers. Disregarding real victims.
It invites us to extra skepticism towards some people, towards some claims. The Reformed tradition is turned to motivated reasoning.
It invites us, finally, to imagine what it would be like to be falsely accused, and imagine that that happens all the time, and that powerful men are regularly victimized for things they didn’t do.
The truth is this is a fantasy. A wildly popular temptation, fed by the the Reformed tradition, that encourages us to take a hermeneutic posture that dismisses sexual violence, hides sexual violence, and diminishes sexual violence as just, you know, “that rape business.”