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The Gospel of Stephen King
Is this a vampire from Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot” movie or a character from one of the author’s "sermons"? Both, pastors say.
June 2nd, 2012
10:00 PM ET

The Gospel of Stephen King

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - When the horror novelist Stephen King was once asked why he wrote such gross stories, he said he did it because he had the heart of a small boy - which he kept in a jar on his desk.

With his beady eyes and I-just-killed-the-cat grin, King looks and sounds like a horror novelist. But when the Rev. Paul F.M. Zahl read several of King’s novels, he learned something new about the author: There’s a lot of faith behind his fright.

Zahl says some of the most stirring affirmations of Christian faith can be found in the chilling stories of King. The horror master has been preaching sermons to millions of readers for years, only most of King’s fans don’t know it, he says.

“People tend to think that Stephen King is anti-religious because he is a horror writer, but that’s completely mistaken,” says Zahl, a retired Episcopal priest who has written about King’s religious sensibility for Christianity Today magazine. “Several of his books are parables of grace in action.”

Want to read a powerful meditation on Jesus’ sacrificial love? Check out how King links the death of the mammoth death row inmate John Coffey (note the initials, J.C.) to Jesus’ crucifixion in “The Green Mile.” King’s “Storm of the Century” is a creepy retelling of Jesus’ eerie encounter with the demon called “Legion” in the  Gospel of Mark’s fifth chapter. And King’s epic apocalyptic novel, “The Stand,” reads like a contemporary retelling of the Book of Revelation, with a little Exodus thrown in, Zahl says.

Zahl’s claim about King's faith may sound ludicrous. King, who just released his latest novel, “The Wind Through the Keyhole,” has written at least 50 horror novels such as “Carrie” and “Misery.”

Yet there is an actual body of literature devoted to King’s religious sensibility. Several pastors and authors say King displays a sophisticated grasp of theology in his books, and his stories are stuffed with biblical references and story lines taken straight from the Bible.

“If God brought lawsuits, Stephen King would face a charge of plagiarism,” says J.M. Rawbone, an English horror novelist who has written an essay about the Christian themes in “The Stand.”

King, whose publicist did not answer a request for an interview, has talked about his faith before. He describes himself as a Christian on his website and elsewhere has said he was raised as a “hard-nosed” Methodist taught to believe in the Antichrist.

Some of his literary influences are Christian authors. In one interview, King said he was shaped by C.S. Lewis, author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” and J.R.R. Tolkien, author of “The Lord of the Rings.” Both Lewis and Tolkien were devout Christians who layered their fiction with Christian themes.

“I’ve always tried to contrast that bright, white light of real goodness or Godliness against evil,” he said in a 1988 interview. “I’m not a proselytizer, and I hate organized religion. I think it’s one of the roots of real evil that’s in the world. If you really unmask Satan, you’ll probably find that he’s wearing a turnaround collar.”

The best way, though, to understand King’s faith is not through his words, but through his stories. There are at least three biblical themes that run through them.

A child shall lead them

Every horror writer seems to write a vampire story eventually, and King is no exception. “Salem’s Lot” is one of King’s most popular novels. It depicts a vampire’s attempt to colonize a modern-day New England town.

Traditional vampire stories are loaded with Christian symbolism, but King inserts another biblical theme into “Salem’s Lot” that would reoccur in many of his books.

It comes in a scene showing a standoff between a priest and vampire. Father Callahan tries to protect a teenage boy with him by brandishing a cross. The vampire dares the priest to toss the cross away and face him on faith alone.

Father Callahan hesitates, his faith long diluted by alcohol and skepticism. The vampire wrenches the cross from the priest’s hands, while the boy escapes and becomes one of the vampire’s most formidable enemies.

When the Rev. David Squyres read this passage from “Salem’s Lot,” one of Jesus’ most popular sayings flashed before him: “… Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In the moral universe of King, children get God better than the adults, Squyres says.

“The vampire humiliates the priest because the priest doesn’t have real faith, but the kid has real faith,” says Squyres, pastor of the Palms Baptist Church near Palm Springs, California.

“The priest represents the Pharisees. They believe in relics. But the children, and the teenager, have a simple faith. They don’t put their trust in institutions. They trust in the Lord,” says Squyres, who has written about King’s Christian sensibility at his website, "talkstephenking."

Many of King’s most popular novels are filled with young heroines driven by faith. It’s a reflection of a famous passage from the Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament: “And a little child shall lead them.”

In “The Talisman” and “It,” King features adolescent heroes who risk their lives battling evil, according to Marylaine Block, who wrote about King’s religious sensibility in an essay called "Something Wicked This Way Comes."

“In both novels, the adults are incapable of understanding the evil that is about to envelop and destroy their world. They see the signs, but choose not to understand them. Only the children know what is happening, and know that it is up to them to save the people they care about,” she wrote.

God can be cruel

King’s most explicit Christian novel is “Desperation,” which features another adolescent hero driven by faith. The boy, David, is converted by a miracle and prays to God for help. King depicts his faith without irony and with reverence.

“Desperation,” though, contains an unusual description of God that reveals some heavy theology from King, several pastors say. During the bloody climax of the story, a character tells the boy that God is “cruel.”

That line caught the attention of Zahl, the Episcopal priest. It speaks to what he calls “the answerable sovereignty of God.”

Zahl says King is depicting a side of God that’s woven into the Bible. It is not the God whose eye is on the sparrow, but the Holy Other, incomprehensible, the one who allowed Job to suffer.

It’s the same side of God that the narrator in “The Green Mile” reflects on when he reminisces about the death of the innocent John Coffey, the Christ-like figure who never hurt anyone, but perished while a villainous guard lived on.

Zahl points to this passage from ”The Green Mile”:

“Yet this same God sacrificed John Coffey, who tried only to do good in his blind way, as savagely as an Old Testament prophet ever sacrificed a defenseless lamb. ...  If it happens, God lets it happen, and when we say, ‘I don’t understand,’ God replies, ‘I don’t care.’ ”

Zahl says King can say things about God in books that pastors can’t say in the pulpit. In King’s novels, people often suffer while doing good.

“Americans generally want to hear that everything is really terrific all the time,” Zahl says. “Americans want to control and manage everything, and they’re eager for anything that pumps them up. When you preach a message from the Bible that life is much more difficult, and there’s a huge amount of suffering, those messages don’t always go down well.”

'God chose the weak things'

As a teenager, King used to collect scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings detailing the crimes of serial killers, says Stanley Wiater, co-author of “The Complete Stephen King Universe: A Guide to the Worlds of Stephen King.”

King's mother grew so concerned that one day she asked him why he kept the scrapbook.

Wiater says King answered with: “I think there’s evil out there. I want to know what it is, so when it comes, I can recognize it and get out of the way.”

In King’s books, characters can’t avoid evil. They have to confront it, but they often don’t fit the conventional definition of heroes.

“The Stand,” another explicitly Christian novel, illustrates this pattern. A plague has wiped out mankind, and a group of unarmed survivors are dispatched via a vision from God to confront a satanic figure called the Darkman.

The group seems to have no chance. One is an elderly, genial professor; another a deaf mute, and a third figure is a genial man with the mental capacity of a child. Against them: the Darkman’s ruthless army, which literally crucified its foes.

The makeup of the group underscores another popular religious theme in King’s work that’s reflected in this line from the apostle Paul in the first Book of Corinthians: “God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

Zahl, the Episcopal priest, says so many heroes in King’s books are broken people: physically frail, alcoholic, disabled and lonely. Even the evil people are rendered with compassion.

“King understands grace at a deep level,” says Zahl, author of  "Grace in Practice." “He typically concentrates on the marginalized and the outsiders who ultimately carry the day. God often does his work where people are the most messed up.”

King may have converted Zahl, but the priest and others admit there’s a risk invoking the horror novelist in the pulpit.

When Zahl mentions King in church, he says many listeners think first of books they want to keep away from teenagers.

Still, there are secret converts.

“Half of the other people in the congregation have read Stephen King, though they may not want to shout it out to the world,” he says. “They know what I’m talking about. They come up later and they say I’m really thrilled that you know about him.”

The doubters shouldn’t be surprised that King’s stories contain religious themes, says Rawbone, the English horror novelist and author of "Bunker."

The Bible is filled with terror: demons, ghosts, floods wiping out mankind and the rising of the dead.

“Good horror examines the struggle between good and evil,” he says. “The Bible is the history of that struggle.

“The Bible is in many ways the ultimate horror novel.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Books • Celebrity • Christianity • Jesus • Movies

soundoff (1,461 Responses)
  1. Jeff

    What's the big deal, Fiction Writer looks at other Fiction for inspiration about horror, death, and evil.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • DarthOkiri

      having faith in god is much more than being a member of a religeous group...is much more than reading the bible and living by what it says...i personally think religeon ( including christianity) is irrelevant since most religeons are the construct of mankind. yet i belive in god..god is far beyond the construct of men! all i know is that while im alive i want to do good in this world.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  2. mokenk

    The bible is the creepiest book ever written. Full of blood, slavery, sacrifice, murder and fear. How can Stephen King compare to such horror?

    June 3, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      mokenk, the Bible, Jesus' truth about life and the hereafter. Go figure, hah?

      June 3, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  3. BIGBADSMELLYSWEATYBALLSONYOURCHIN

    I feel horrible for muslim women.They have to wear those snuggies.This must be brutal after 10 cent wing night.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:33 pm |
  4. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 3, 2012 at 12:32 pm |
    • mokenk

      Prayer is for lazy people. Doing changes things.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • Doing without a plan is for idiots

      Prayer provides a plan.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm |
    • martog

      Prayer is a plan for being lazy

      June 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • FrayedJeff

      Prayer: How to do nothing and still think you're helping.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:29 pm |
  5. CNNNN

    I didn't know he was a sky fairy worshipper. How disappointing.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
    • Hitchens

      The guy was a talented artist until YOU discovered he had beliefs? What a nasty pathetic piece of hate for you to spew.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:35 pm |
    • Know What

      It sounds like he's more of a Deist than a typical "worshipper".

      “I don't believe in any actual thinking God that marks the fall of every bird in Australia or every bug in India, a God that records all of our sins in a big golden book and judges us when we die – I don't want to believe in a God who would deliberately create bad people and then deliberately send them to roast in a hell He created-but I believe there has to be something”
      ― Stephen King

      June 3, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
    • sally

      Uhh, he didn't spew any hate. He said it was "disappointin".

      You sure did, though!

      June 3, 2012 at 12:44 pm |
    • Hitchens

      Calling God a "sky fairy" qualifies for hate speech to the entire civilized world sally .

      June 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm |
    • johnfrichardson

      Hitchens, you're an imbecile. Now go cry to mommy about how mean I was to you.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, bushwa, hitchybit@hy. It's nothing of the sort, you ignoramus.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
    • martog

      Calling god a sky fairy isn't any differnt than saying Santa Claus doesn't exist. Neither is hate speech. It's opinion, just like religious beliefs'.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
  6. aluminum monster

    It bothers me that after Whitney Houston's death, the government still refuses to make it mandatory for black people to wear life jackets while showering or taking a bath.How many more blacks will you allow to perish before you take action ? Is it not evident that they can't swim ? How many more US government, how many more ?

    June 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  7. lindaluttrell

    Maybe I'm missing the point here. I have never thought of any religious references while reading Mr. King's books. He is a prolific writer, who in my opinion, writes great scary stories that I enjoy. It is a beautiful, simple relationship between writer and reader. Why mess with that??? Mr King's personal belief system is just that...his. I do not have the right to judge him one way or the other. I enjoy his works for what they are to me: a great read & a good scare!

    June 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
    • lyrra

      A good writer writes on many levels – that's the beauty of good writing. You can read it for the great story, analyze the themes, ponder the nature of the characters and enjoy it any way you want.

      June 3, 2012 at 12:51 pm |
  8. oldguy

    What does Stephen King say about this ? One of the things I find suspect about literary analysis, is others trying to analyze what the author means. If the author is still alive, simply ask him/her. Otherwise, I get the feeling the conclusion conforms to the beliefs of the analyst.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:28 pm |
  9. ForgetHummanityLets SaveBears

    The Bible tells us that people who drive tiny smart cars absolutely love huge,rigid,stiff throbbers.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
  10. Mr.Nasdaq

    @kellyshere What are you talking about? You have an English degree so that makes you better than the average King reader? Secondly, have you ever even read "The Stand"? The antagonist, Randall Flagg is referred to as "The Darkman" several times throughout the novel. If anything, your comment should be taken with a grain of salt.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:22 pm |
  11. Ted Crunchy

    I just ate 6 sloppy joes.Now I have to take a giant duke.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:19 pm |
  12. Yosef Bruin

    I come to America 2 years and seek wife.Finally I get married.Why wife always have headache when it night time.Is this a common in America ?

    June 3, 2012 at 12:16 pm |
  13. MarilynMansion

    I'm saddened to announce the Slapper family has elected to put down Theresa's smelly beaver.After a grueling 33 month battle with the odorous beaver, all options were exhausted, thus prompting swift and just action.Many of the townspeople and neigbors had complained about Theresa's smelly beaver.Some feared it had grew rabid and capable of chewing through wire fence. Many have publicly stated that it smelled as a cross between rotten egg salad and animal remains in a hot Arizona desert. ' We just couldn't allow this beaver to prevail ' Theresa's father Josep is quoted as saying.Our prayers and thoughts are with the Slapper family.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
    • BRUCE

      BIEBER IS VERY SCARY

      June 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm |
  14. Death

    Stephen King is one of the worst writers I have ever read and that picture shows a lack of discernment on the part of CNN.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  15. debbie

    One more thought.it is not enough to say some little prayer and believe that you are better than anyone else..Salvation does NOT work, or act like that!! Hell- Oh!

    June 3, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  16. debbie

    Ok..lol.Most of the comments on here are actually hysterical..That said, I will say as a Believer in God, that the term "Christian" means very little..People who cling to the name and act as fools need to understand why peole run from God.and YOU! Not to mention post some of the most hysterical comments..For those who do not believe in God..that is fine..You have a right to that belief..My concern is more toward those who claim God and who do and say the most horrific things..then have the gall to tell other people they are going to hell! Lol A word of advice to those who do not believe in God..Don't let " men" teach you about God..Let God teach you! To those who claim..Stop the crap! You do more damage than good to mankind! God loves all people..and before you point out the sin of another..take that 2×4 out of your own self righteous eye! Ya might want to really read that book and ask God to reveal who you really are, and convict you of you own sin!! God is good..and he has a heart for all his children..All He ask is that you accept His love! Christians have made a mockery of God..The 2 most important commands of God is to love Him with all your heart..and to love one another as you love yourself..yeah! Ya might want to look in that pride filled mirror dear hearts..And if you see something ugly looking back at cha..that is EXACTLY what everyone else see's!! Yeshua (Jesus) also see's you! Ya might wanna give that a second thought as well dear hearts.. : )

    June 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm |
    • Bob

      debbie, let's not forget some of the other commands from "loving" Christian god according to the Christian book of nasty horrors AKA the bible. Fine stuff like this:

      Numbers 31:17-18
      17 Now kiII all the boys. And kiII every woman who has slept with a man,
      18 but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.

      Deuteronomy 13:6 – “If your brother, your mother’s son or your son or daughter, or the wife you cherish, or your friend who is as your own soul entice you secretly, saying, let us go and serve other gods … you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be first against him to put him to death”

      Note that the bible is also very clear that you should sacrifice and burn an animal today because the smell makes sicko Christian sky fairy happy. No, you don't get to use the parts for food. You burn them, a complete waste of the poor animal.

      Yes, the bible really says that, everyone. Yes, it's in Leviticus, look it up. Yes, Jesus purportedly said that the OT commands still apply. No exceptions. But even if you think the OT was god's mistaken first go around, you have to ask why a perfect, loving enti-ty would ever put such horrid instructions in there. If you think rationally at all, that is.

      And then, if you disagree with my interpretation, ask yourself how it is that your "god" couldn't come up with a better way to communicate than a book that is so readily subject to so many interpretations and to being taken "out of context", and has so many mistakes in it. Pretty pathetic god that you've made for yourself.

      So get out your sacrificial knife or your nasty sky creature will torture you eternally. Or just take a closer look at your foolish supersti-tions, understand that they are just silly, and toss them into the dustbin with all the rest of the gods that man has created.

      Ask the questions. Break the chains. Join the movement. Be free of Christianity and other superstitions.
      http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

      June 3, 2012 at 12:14 pm |
  17. ramsaxon

    Many music composers and probably writers as well get inspired by indulgince in "Wacky Tobacky" etc.. We also must remember that the Chalice was made for wine consumption, hmmmmm???

    June 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  18. kellyshere

    When reading about literary interpretations, one should take the points with a grain of salt. I've been reading his books for over 15 years - I read my first, Cujo, when I was 13. There are some Christian undertones. But King has not been secretly "converting" anyone.

    He's been known for saying that his books are the literary equivalent to a Big Mac and fries. Quick, easy, fast-food-type, cheap, and junky. And as we all know, Americans love things that are cheap, easy, and taste good (but are so bad). We're a nation of people that won't read a book if it isn't easily graspable and transparent and filled with simple sentences. The fact that King's books are filled with Biblical references only increases the likelihood that Americans would catapult him to the bestseller lists. I don't read him much anymore since I graduated with an English degree. But The Shining is still one of my favorite books.

    And as someone who's studied literature I have to say that this article is suspect to me. The author has not read Stephen King and thus can easily slant the facts any which way. The Stand, for example does not feature any character known as "the Darkman."

    As I said, grain of salt.

    June 3, 2012 at 12:02 pm |
  19. mikithinks

    On an old Dnna Reed show, she went on and on to an author how a beaver represented toil, and the stream was hardship, and so on. The author turned and said that "the beaver is just a beaver". When Robert Frost was asked about the meaning of one of his poems, he eaid it means what it says. He did not want to make an obvious statement, but a careful, complicated statement. This does not serve King, who could have been obvious if this is what he had wanted to say..

    June 3, 2012 at 11:53 am |
  20. shep

    Didn't Stephen King write the Book of Mormon?? No wait. the Book of Mormon is far scarier than anything King has ever written. Do a wiki search and find out.

    June 3, 2012 at 11:52 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.