The devil is really getting his due these days. With wide-screen exposure in the new Star Wars blockbuster The Phantom Menace, the confrontation between good and evil has reached fever pitch as we approach the millennium. In this atmosphere it's altogether fitting that Frank Peretti's new adult novel, The Visitation, should appear. The battle against the demonic has always been Peretti's principal theme, starting with the publication of his first novel, This Present Darkness, in 1986. The book's thrilling battles between angelic warriors and demons charted a new course in Christian fiction, but it took more than a year for readers to recognize that the spiritual battleground could be their own home town. In 1987 the book reached the top of the Christian bestseller list. Piercing the Darkness, published in 1989, spearheaded the strong interest in spiritual warfare fiction just as conservative Christians were beginning to read fiction in large numbers.

Now, with more than eight million novels in print, including The Oath (1995), Peretti is a bona fide publishing phenomenon. His intriguing stories convince readers of the reality of evil forces and their ultimate defeat.

In The Visitation, however, Peretti may be directing us down a different road. While he maintains his vintage trademarks of fast action and multiple scene changes, signs of a more thoughtful maturity appear in this new novel.

The book chronicles events in the small town of Antioch, Washington, which convince many people that Jesus has reappeared. A custodian and member of the local Catholic church is healed of arthritic pain in his hands by tears from a statue of Christ. A wounded Vietnam veteran, who has operated his hardware store from a wheelchair for years, is suddenly able to walk. A motel owner with faulty vision can now see clearly without glasses. "A wildfire had begun in Antioch," and each flame is linked to a newcomer -- a young man with olive skin and long hair. It must be that Jesus has returned.

Into this ever-increasing turmoil, Peretti casts his principal character, Travis Jordan, the former pastor of a Pentecostal mission church. After 15 years in this vocation ("15 years, 93 souls saved, 23 weddings, 14 funerals, a small retirement account, and no real estate"), Travis is suffering a bad case of burnout. He has resigned from the church with a variety of physical and emotional ills and plays the uncaring skeptic, especially with the young enthusiastic pastor who has succeeded him at the church. Travis's story, told in first person, becomes the main thread throughout the book. As he encounters Brandon Nichols (the Jesus figure) and Antioch's growing frenzy of response, he recalls the ups and downs of his life as a pastor.

"I'm not writing about spiritual warfare here," Peretti explains. "This book is more the story of a crisis of faith. It deals with the deeper unspoken things that most Christians face at one time or another and points back to the heart of the reader, rather than being a battle out there somewhere."

For The Visitation, Peretti used his personal experience in the ministry. He points out that he grew up in a church culture. In his youth he even assisted his father in pastoring a small church. This book is more autobiographical than his earlier novels and includes "eclectic, gathered things from my own life."

The intriguing heart of this book is that both Travis Jordan and the young man portraying himself as Jesus are wrestling with the same problem: "Religious life can swallow us up. It's the same thing but to different degrees," in Peretti's words. In the end the responses of the two characters take absolutely different turns, but not until Travis stirs from his apathy toward the church and fully investigates his antagonist's past. The horrors he finds suggest what is to come in Antioch at the book's end.

That conclusion, and Peretti's bent for the supernatural in all his writing, led me to ask how he would compare his novels with those of Stephen King. "Well, I'm not as wordy, for one thing," and you can hear the smile in Peretti's voice. "At the root of it is King's fascination with character and detail. He gets inside people . . . but he never passes up an opportunity to portray Christians in a negative way. In my writing, I present angels and forces of good as well as the demonic. There is great spiritual conflict, but there are solutions to spiritual problems."

Peretti is a quiet man who wears his fame well. He lives a simple life that includes carpentry, sculpturing, bicycling, hiking, and banjo making. In his early years, he played banjo with a bluegrass group and toured with a pop band. An avid pilot, he often flies his Cessna 182 to gather details for his books. These incidental details give the supernatural elements more impact. "I find out whatever I need to," Peretti says.

He also has a gift for naming his characters, which he developed early in his writing. The name Travis Jordan may remind some readers of the Jordan River and of biblical meaning; a woman named Florence Lynch is mean-spirited, as her name suggests; Justin Cantwell is full of deception; and Morgan Elliott is a female pastor with a man's name in a role usually associated with males. Upon reflection, such names seem to suggest the personalities, and they add to the story's impact.

From his mid-life perspective, Peretti feels Christian discernment has a lot to do with maturity. "This book is a fly-on-the-wall observation of growth as a Christian. Through all his ups and downs, Travis's relationship to the Lord remained the same. Jesus is the constant. He will still be there, no matter what happens. I want this book to be one that helps people sort out the difference between relationship and religion."

Asked about his future writing plans, Peretti said it's back to children's books. The author of eight titles in the Cooper Kids series, he plans now to develop a series with different characters. First, he will be touring across the country to promote The Visitation.

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