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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. longtooth

    Good and Evil are two sides of the same coin. King is a great writer, and a spiritual man who understands this.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      A "great writer"? Compared to whom?

      In my opinion, King is occasionally an entertaining read, nothing more. Hardly great, when compared to the vast lexicon of English literature.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:48 pm |
    • tony

      god, abstract evil and abstract good are three entirely separate and impossible concepts.
      Another is complete individual freedom, when you have fellow beings that your freedom will affect.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  2. Christian Jihad

    I wish Allah was our god. Now there's a real man!

    June 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Christian Jihad

      And I'm a total boob.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • prayer brainwashes children, that's child abuse

      doesn't allah have man b00bs?

      June 3, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  3. Christian Jihad

    Tim Tebow and Kirk Cameron just came out. I hear they pray right before they do it.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Worship Jesus

      to your mom.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  4. prayer brainwashes children, that's child abuse

    ..Many of those who christians call sinners, have mental issues. How mean these christians are. Christianity has zero concept of humanity. More so, the dark ages set science back. However the the black plague became the reality to no god, as many who once worshiped realized there isn't a god. Yes, the black plague became the birth of the non-believer and science began to move forward again. Sad that religion held man back, imagine were we'd be today if knowledge wasn't stalled.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • Worship Jesus

      And you're a total idiot.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • prayer brainwashes children, that's child abuse

      guess you never liked history. Tends to disprove your delusion. Even 10th graders learn in school what I wrote.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Joseph

      Yeah, Brainwashes, Isaac Newton's religion really held him back from making all those discoveries in science. Really held back Kelvin too...

      June 3, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Nii

      I always love it when bigotted and hateful Atheist use being gay as an insult on Christians! It just proves why a gay person wud rather be a Xtian than Atheist. I mean as I'm black if I see u insult a Chinese with the N-word then there's no way u r convincing me of ur non-racist nature.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:02 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Good point Nii. Let he who has eyes see.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
  5. Christian Jihad

    Science and math are the work of Satan!

    June 3, 2012 at 5:43 pm |
    • prayer brainwashes children, that's child abuse

      and moving bow-els too.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Freedom Fighter

      you're the same troll under at least three different names

      June 3, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Wrath of Lucifer

      You know nothing of my work.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  6. Worship Jesus

    What about that part in the bible where Jesus recieves a "hot carl" from that puerto rican guy?

    June 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
    • Worship Jesus

      I sure wish that Rican took the same liking to me!

      June 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
  7. Freedom Fighter

    God bless Stephen King

    June 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  8. Worship Jesus

    Jesus was a girl.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      And I like arguing with myself.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  9. Worship Poseidon

    I love Jesus so much I just want to penetrate his holiest of holes.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      Like my mom's boyfriend did to me last night after she passed out drunk.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, poor little troll! DId WP hurt your widdle feewwings?

      June 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  10. tony

    "1word - Tony, God doesn't want us to die. He wants us to live by Faith."

    A couple of Tsunamis and maybe 300,000 dead is a "mysterious" way of showing it. Especially for the children, who never got to know what living by faith was like.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
  11. Worship Poseidon

    The earth is only 10,00 years old.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      And I'm a two year old.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  12. Worship Poseidon

    Tim Tebow, Kirk Cameron and Jesus all baptize each other using only their seminal fluuids.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      My mom drinks a lot of it, too.

      She works at a truck stop.

      And she's not a waitress.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  13. Worship Poseidon

    noticed. Learn how to read and write please.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      Why? You're doing a fine job of making a fool of yourself.

      Stop arguing with me!

      Oh, how I hate myself.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  14. prayer brainwashes children, that's child abuse

    They don't like the truth.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      You're an idiot.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  15. Worship Poseidon

    Anyone want to buy some magic beans? Jesus approved!!

    June 3, 2012 at 5:30 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      And if you haven't already notice, I'm a complete idiot.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  16. Worship Poseidon

    Mary should have aborted Jesus. There are already too many mexicans in America.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      My mother should've aborted me. But she didn't know who my father was.

      Could've been the whole football team.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
  17. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Good and evil are purely subjective. There is no "evil" that doesn't have some circ-umstance(s) when it might be considered good, depending on your perspective. Wake up from your fatuous slumber. Break those chains that are binding your mind.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Paris Hilton's Terrifying Witch Coven

      Want an excellent example of the relative nature of good and evil? Even the most devout Christian today would find most of the laws of the Old Testament to be absolutely horrific, and yet they were not only considered right; they were God's will. Similarly, Jesus' commands to impoverish yourself and give the proceeds to the poor, and to abandon your family (including children) to follow him are bad morality by today's standards – it is the very very rare Christian who obeys those.

      So even if you are Christian, your God changed what is right and wrong in the Bible. There are no universals when it comes to abstractions like morality.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      I can't help it. I'm a Jesus freak.

      I drive a chartreuse microbus with eleven of my long haired friends.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
    • prayer brainwashes children, that's child abuse

      Many of those who christians call sinners, have mental issues. Christianity has zero concept of humanity. More so, the dark ages set science back. However the the black plague became the reality to no god, as many who once worshiped realized there isn't a god. Yes, the black plague became the birth of the non-believer and science began to move forward again. Sad that religion held man back, imagine were we'd be today if knowledge wasn't stalled.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:42 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;

      Romans 3:23

      Amen.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:01 pm |
  18. Abinadi

    https://www.lds.org/pages/mormon-messages?lang=eng#a-book-of-mormon-story

    June 3, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
    • Paris Hilton's Terrifying Witch Coven

      Pimping Moronism again, Al?

      June 3, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  19. J

    Good exists and evil exists. It didn't come into being by random chance. There is more to this world than what we see with our eyes. If one truly considers oneself intelligent, one wouldn't simply disbelieve in God based on blind faith.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      Evidence? Logic? Anything to back up those profound claims?

      June 3, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      The least intelligent countries in the world are also the most religious.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
    • Bet

      You base your belief in god and the bible on blind faith. I base my non belief in god on science and reason.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:25 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Based on the posts of the believers on this forum, your conclusions are unfounded. Most of the believers here are beyond stupid and many are bordering on illiterate.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:27 pm |
    • Hamlet

      There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:29 pm |
    • Worship Poseidon

      And if you haven't already notice, I am a complete boor.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:34 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Good and evil are not some invisible vapors that inhabit earth, you boob. People commit acts that are wrong; they do evil deeds. There's no 'evil' power floating around just waiting for an opportunity to pounce, moron. What kind of dope are you smoking?

      June 3, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
    • tony

      Disbelief based on zero evidence isn't blind or faith.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:14 pm |
  20. DrJames

    King's face is a horror.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
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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.