Professor Mike Leeming and his wife Karen Leeming were missionaries to Mexico for many years. Presently Mike teaches Cultural Anthropology, English, and Bible courses in Bethany College of Missions, Minneapolis. He is an avid reader of Christian fiction.
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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai
ANTIOCH AND ANTICHRIST:
FRANK PERETTI'S VISITATION FROM ABOVE AND FAITH
(Frank Peretti. The Visitation. Word Publishing, Nashville, TN. 1999.)
1. PERETTI STANDS ALONE, ON HIS OWN
In the world of Christian fiction, Frank Peretti has earned himself a place where he stands alone and on his own. Over six million copies of his books have been sold, with his first, This Present Darkness, having been translated into several languages. And for anyone who has read his gripping novels, this should be no surprise. Peretti's books are page-turners.
2. PERETTI'S WORLD
The unusual character of Peretti's first two books, This Present Darkness, and the compelling sequel, Piercing the Darkness, is that he tries to pull back the curtain between the seen (or physical) world and the unseen (or spirit) world. One place where this is done in the Bible is in the book of Daniel. In Daniel 10, the prophet Daniel is visited by a heavenly messenger who tells him about the battle that was being waged in the heavens while Daniel had been fasting and praying for 21 days.
Peretti tries to imagine and to portray for us what takes place in the spirit world, and how the events in the physical world are influenced by what takes place in the spirit world, and vice versa. Peretti has come under some criticism for the manner in which he has portrayed some of his holy angels in these first two novels. For example, he has given some angels the qualities of various ethnic groups that exist among men, and there is no pretext for this in the Scriptures. But Peretti has written his novels as works of fiction-a product of his creative imagination-not has a handbook for understanding the spirit realm. The Bible is the only authoritative guide that we have for understanding spiritual things.
3. HEROES AND HEROINES OF PERETTI
One of the refreshing things about Peretti's stories is that his heroes and heroines are ordinary people who simply are trying to do the right thing. Evil, in Peretti's fictitious world, is blatantly evil, almost palpably so.
As a matter of fact, in The Oath, evil is literally a hideous monster that lurks in a Pacific Northwest town and destroys its victims by stealth. The Oath has almost a Stephen King quality to it in its uncanny ability to make sin appear exceedingly sinful-ugly and destructive.
In The Prophet, Peretti tells the story about a botched abortion that resulted in the death of a young girl. The truth was kept from the girl's father, who was also the town's mayor. It's a delicate subject, to say the least, but Peretti does a fine job of weaving together another suspenseful story.
4. THE VISITATION
Peretti's most recently released novel, The Visitation, is the story of a false Messiah who succeeds in deceiving almost all of the inhabitants of an entire town with his remarkable ability to heal and perform miracles. Like all of Peretti's novels to date, the story takes place in a small, rural town called Antioch, "in eastern Washington state, quiet and solitary," "where almost nothing ever happens, until…" Peretti seems to have chosen the name deliberately, for, as we go along, we realize that we live in a modern day Antioch that has tremendous similarity to certain aspects of life and belief in that old city in Syria where for the first times the followers of Jesus Christ were called Christians.
5. ANTIOCH OF SYRIA
Antioch of Syria was no ordinary place. The church in Antioch received the ministry of Paul and Barnabas at least twice. The early believers in Antioch came to Christ not through the preaching of any great charismatic leader. Those who were "scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen" led them to the Lord. Antioch was a community of the Greeks. The Lord's hand was with the ordinary people from Cyprus and Cyrene who brought the Gospel to the community, and "a great of people and turned to the Lord." Barnabas brought Paul to Antioch. "So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people." The Word of God says that "in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers." It was at Antioch that after the elders fasted and prayed, they placed their hands upon Paul and Barnabas and set them apart for the work God has called them.
We see that a church inaugurated by the move of the Holy Spirit, nurtured by the teaching of the Apostle Paul and Barnabas, and encouraged by the presence of prophets and teachers among them, soon becomes a center of conflict and controversy. The members of the Antioch church had already demonstrated their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior, but some men from Judea came to Antioch and were telling the brothers of Antioch that unless they were circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, they could not be saved. This was not the only controversy. We read in Galatians (2:11-12): "When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray."
The parting of ways between the Apostle Paul and Barnabas also took place in Antioch because "they had such a sharp disagreement." The ministers were, in the modern idiom we often use, "burned out." And this state of condition led to a split, a sharp disagreement between otherwise great and loyal friends.
6. IMPORTANCE OF ANTIOCH
The Antioch of olden times was very important not only because of its geographical location serving as the center of trade routes, etc., but also because of its crucial contribution to the development of Christian theology through the good offices of the direct as well as indirect disciples of Jesus Christ. So, it is no wonder that an astute observer and anointed storyteller like Peretti deliberately chose the name of the town to be Antioch, where things started happening all of a sudden. Peretti's interest in this novel is one of the most current controversies of the day. Circumcision has lost its force now. But the penchant for conflict and controversy within the body of believes is still active and alive. Peretti brings the Apostle John's warnings about antichrist into greater prominence in this novel that takes place in modern Antioch.
7. ANTI-CHRIST IN ANTIOCH?
The theme of Peretti's The Visitation is timely. With so many leaders, using their charismatic skills and their physical charm, to make claims for the position of the Messiah or someone like the Messiah, with so many thousands of people falling for them and losing their material and spiritual life, and with the modern media always on the look out for the cult leaders, Peretti weaves a story of deceit, deception, cunning and misinformation indulged in by modern miracle men claiming to be Christ. The story happens in Antioch, with inspiration from the words of the Apostle John, I believe.
The apostle John writes,
"Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us" (1 John 2:18-19).
Consider also the following:
"Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world" (1 John 4:1-3).
8. A THEOLOGICAL AS WELL AS SOCIAL NOVEL
Peretti's The Visitation is about how the faithful, often tentative in their thinking, confused, controversial, and full of prejudice against each other, deal with a situation that for most of them would never occur in their lives. Some of them had already given up any belief in the miraculous, but several others were not sure as to how they would handle it when a dramatic or spectacular unusual incident takes place in their midst. Their theology is wobbly in some sense, but they are ordinary humans, and in their own way love the Lord. They need leadership that would steer them away from the antichrist. Do we still have people who could do this job? Peretti shows us in this beautifully written "suspense thriller" how God uses ordinary and reluctant people to help others see the Truth. The burned out Apostle Paul did not stop his missionary journey. He moved forward by the leading of the Spirit. A burned out pastor, reluctantly, puts together a defense against the antichrist in Peretti's novel. This novel is as much a theological as a social novel.
9. THE STORY
The Visitation is told from the perspective of Travis Jordan, the ex-pastor of Northwest Pentecostal Mission in the small town of Antioch, eastern Washington. Travis has gone through the school of hard knocks. Not only is he generally burned-out on ministry, but he's also suffered the loss of his beloved wife.
Sally, a nineteen year old, "blonde, slightly overweight, and severely unhappy, mainly because she was no longer married," wanted to leave Antioch and gain freedom of her own. She would pray, "Dear Lord, please don't leave me stuck here. If you're there, send a miracle. Get me out of this mess." She had a visitation in the person of a "remarkably handsome man, with olive skin, deep brown eyes, and tightly curled black hair." This young man said: "I'm here to bring you a message…. " And he's gone. "He was gone just like that, as if he'd never been there."
Arnold Kowalski, the unofficial church custodian at Our Lady of the Fields Church, a truthful and dedicated volunteer, wished that "God could pay just a little attention to this arthritis." He was ashamed to think such a thought, but kept thinking that way." He saw a wooden image shed tears, and when the touched the wet trail of the tears his arthritic pain was gone.
Dee, a member of the Antioch Pentecostal Mission, felt that "the Lord has plans for Antioch. I think that the Lord is ready to pour out his Spirit on this town." She sees the Lord. "He is high and lifted up, and his train fills the temple!"
Thus begins the story narrated in Frank Peretti's The Visitation. This story, but for the description of the mentioned sights, is narrated in the first person by a former pastor, Travis Jordan, a burned out pastor, who lives in some sort of anonymity in the small town of Antioch in eastern Washington state. This modern Antioch is agitated not by the theology of circumcision but by the conflicts within the Church, and the sudden happenings of miracle-like incidents. The Miracle Man, later in one place, he appears as the Mower Man, and speaks face to face with Travis Jordan, and confides in the latter his designs of salvation through duplicity.
As soon as the miracles were reported, we see that every denomination tries to interpret it in their own denominational way. The miracles become nationally publicized and the media descends on this quiet little town, to the delight of the residents to some extent. But then there are conflicts within the antichrist camp as well. There are claims and counter claims as to the leadership.
Towards the beginning of the story, Kyle Sherman, a new, young, and zealous man who moved in to fill the pulpit of Pentecostal Mission, pays Travis a visit. The cynicism of the ex-pastor is brought out in their first conversation when the new pastor remarks, with youthful enthusiasm, "We're going to take this city for Christ!"
To which the ex-pastor replies, "Dreams and goals in ministry are fine and good, but spare me this 'take the town for Christ' stuff. I've been taking as much of this town as wants to go for the past fifteen years. I've been there, done that, got the tee shirt, and the town and I are sick of it" (pages 33-35).
It seems to be true that the enemy will always kick you the hardest when you're down. The one person to whom the false messiah seems to confide to any degree is the ex-pastor, probably because he sees something of a kindred spirit since Travis is somewhat fed up with religion that's mostly for show.
The false messiah, who calls himself Brandon Nichols, has his own story, and it's a pretty depressing one. Having been raised by a father who was a legalistic, perfectionist pastor, whose idea of disciplining his son included nailing him to the tree in the back yard, the young man gave himself over to Satan. In turn he was given the power to affect false healings and work mock miracles. He even has his own John-the-Baptist-type forerunner.
Deceiving Mrs. Macon, a wealthy widow who lives on the outskirts of this town, he begins his pseudo-ministry holding meetings under a tent on the widow's property, and even has a worship team. The meetings are centered on Brandon Nichols, and seem to emphasize a "feel-good" humanistic philosophy. His following begins to grow as more and more people want to see and experience miracles.
But before too long the "healings" turn out to be false, the messiah makes loaves of bread, but the bread is filled with worms, and Brandon Nichols is acting more and more selfish and sadistic. And so people begin to see this false messiah for the deceiver he really is.
Isn't that typical of the way the enemy works? There's nothing new on his agenda. It's just a counterfeit of what God can do, except it's empty. Satan's works are all glitter and glimmer, shiny on the outside, but empty within, whereas,
God's gifts are 100% genuine.
The message of The Visitation is that we should be discerning. In the last days, the Scriptures tell us, there will come great deception (Matt. 24: 4, 5, 11). The Antichrist himself is said to come with "all power and signs and lying wonders" (2Thess. 2:9). Actually, discernment would be a good thing to have for today. Appearances can be deceiving, and it seems that this is especially so in the realm of sings and wonders.
Frank Peretti has also written quite a few children's stories and a recent non-fiction book, The Wounded Spirit, based upon his own experiences growing up with a physical handicap.
Frank Peretti lives with his wife Barbara in the Pacific Northwest. Peretti is due to publish some new fiction works this year, and we certainly look forward to reading them.
*** *** ***
Frank Peretti. The Visitation. Word Publishing, Nashville, TN. 1999.
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