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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. Phllyphan

    Where is the Christian message in Cujo or Pet Semetary?

    June 4, 2012 at 2:46 pm |
    • Regis990

      Well, they like to pick and choose from the bible...so why not pick and choose from King as well?

      June 4, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      Okay, I'm sure not all of his books were influenced by his faith it is hard to deny that some/most of it was.

      June 4, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      In CUJO, the murderer from DEAD ZONE escapes hell and comes back as a dog; in SEMETARY, the narrator tries to interfere with God's plan. The message in CUJO is "pray all you want; the monsters DO get you in the end," which is true. In PS, it's "you are NOT smarter than God."

      June 4, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  2. Bill

    "But the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn't anger me." –Mark Twain

    The bible is one of the scariest books you'll ever read, and except for Christ himself, much of the history of what passes for Christianity is frightening.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
    • BoldGeorge

      "The bible is one of the scariest books you'll ever read..."

      You are SO right my friend. And the reason for that is because the Bible is like a mirror that reflects our very soul. It is like a mirror which will show you the dirtiness and deprave nature of humankind. The only thing that I have always found interesting and unfathomable is that being it like a mirror, no one seems to want to clean their act up...just like you would when you view yourself in the mirror and fix-up the things that need fixing-up.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @BoldGeorge

      More like the bible is scary because it gives the supposed story of people who commit attrocities that are either in line or directly commanded by a self described "all-loving" god. I have more morality and compassion than the god of the bible supposedly does, and will assert that all day long.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:58 pm |
    • BoldGeorge

      @ Hawaiiguest

      You can assert all you want, but just remember this (a biblical truth that even some atheists assert at times): You reap what you sow.

      June 4, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      OOOoooooo so scary. So what's your point?

      June 4, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • A Frayed Knot

      Bold George,

      "Truth from the Bible - You reap what you sow."

      Natural consequences. Like we needed a "holy" book to figure that one out. By 12 months of age, even babies have discerned several of those.

      There is no verified evidence of supernatural consequences.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      To Frayed: That's why they're called supernatural

      June 4, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      @Bill Deacon

      Then there's no justification to believe that any of it exists.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:09 pm |
  3. jimbo

    Why not just wait till he is dead then you can say anything you want and attribute whatever philosophy to him you want? Then you can use it to speak out against Evolution, Dinosaurs, or whatever. Just like the Einstein thing I read (there is no cold, no dark, etc) a couple of weeks ago that made him into a Christian prodigy that questioned the basics of science like evolution, brain mapping, etc. He won't be there to clarify, so why not just make it his position. People won't look it up, they will just go around saying that Einstein was an ardent Christian who knew at a young age that science was only a different type of faith really.

    /Sarcasm.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
    • Tex71

      Only in this case, King is alive and well, and far from refuting the claims of religiosity, he affirms them.
      I don't like organized religion any more than Stephen King does, but you are not thinking clearly here, jimbo. Remember you are what you hate. Try not to hate.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:55 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "Why not just wait till he is dead then you can say anything you want and attribute whatever philosophy to him you want? "

      Oh, they will, trust me. And then they will believe it, because it was revealed to them as truth.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  4. Vicki

    God is sovereign, but in His sovereignty, He gave man free will. He doesn't allow evil to happen to us, we allow it. When we disobey God, we step outside His realm of protection, and we put ourselves in harm's way. God is good...He is not evil and He doesn't cause evil to happen. There is a devil who is alive and well and working all the time to steal, kill, and destroy. God can only intervene when we ask Him to. That's why prayer is so important. He doesn't override our free will. God didn't allow Job to suffer, Job allowed it when he lived in fear for his children. Job said, "The thing I have greatly feared has come upon me." Fear is the connection to evil because it is the opposite of faith, and the Bible says it is impossible to please God without faith. I am so sick of God getting blamed for all the evil that happens, and I talking about from Christians, not unbelievers.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:40 pm |
    • HawaiiGuest

      Your god must not be all powerful if he allows the devil to live then. Or is it that he doesn't want to destroy the devil? Or did he create the devil to wash his hands of "man's choice"? Which apologetic answer will you give I wonder.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "I am so sick of God getting blamed for all the evil that happens, and I talking about from Christians, not unbelievers." You must kill all who do not honor God in your way, and then you will get an extra big halo when you go to Happy Lollypop Land In The Sky. Remember, only YOU know the TRUTH.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  5. selfevolved

    I think this is very obvious to anyone who reads the books. It's not exactly hard to notice. But if you're basing your entire opinion of King on watching movies based on his books, rather than reading the books, you wouldn't ever know.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
    • PG13

      The primary motive of a novelist is to sell his stories. To sell stories he needs to write about something gripping that his readers like to read.

      If KIng draws from the dark, murky themes of the OT, so be it. His readers seem to like horrific paranormal tales.

      However, it is amusing how Christians see a parallel between King's dark themes and their religious texts. Why don't they want to step into the light? Why celebrate the dark corners of human pathology? Are they admitting that their texts are fiction too?

      June 4, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      "If KIng draws from the dark, murky themes of the OT, so be it." Carrie's mom is drawn from the dark, murky themes of reality, I'm afraid.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  6. Dan

    Why is this a big deal? The man writes awesome fiction, and he incorporates a huge part of his philosophy into them, that's kind of how writers work. I love the music the misfits made when Michale Graves (not a spelling error, he spells it that way) was the lead singer, and he's a conservative. The fact that I disagree with his political stance has absolutely no bearing on how much I love his music.

    This shouldn't be a factor at all, just sit back and enjoy the work he does. When he starts telling us to condemn gay people and bomb abortion clinics in his novels then I'll start boycotting him, but until then I consistently look forward to reading his releases. Cell is still one of my favorite books.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
    • Older Sista

      Huh. Isn't that interesting? 'Cell' is one of my least favorites along with 'The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon'. Stephan King stories and born again Christianity came into my life pretty close together about 28 yrs. ago. I've always been able to see the Christian references and he says he was raised a Christian but that doesn't mean he's sold out to Jesus....then again, maybe he is. I think my favs to date are 'Tommyknockers' which is the 1'st of his I ever read, 'Doloras Claibourne' and the whole Dark Tower series which (I was amazed to realize) took over 25 yrs. to release. Now I'm hung up waiting for George Martin's Fire & Ice series to finish and looking forward to whatever Mr. King puts out next.

      June 4, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • dave harris

      If only King were an equal opportunity hater. He never protrays Jews, Hindus, Buddhists(sp) or Heaven fordid MUSLIMS in a poor light. Nope, it's always Christians (along with conservatives and Nixon) that he writes snarky things about.

      His hatred of Christianity is acceptable by the MSM and the East Coast crowd he runs with but he was really anti-religon he would be anti ALL religoin and not just Christianity. And for what it's worth I'm agnostic, not a Christian.

      June 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      Dave, King was raised Christian. His crazed, brutal, believers are very true-to-life portraits of people he worked with and lived near. If he'd lived somewhere where Muslims made his life miserable, he'd probably include them.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:18 pm |
  7. Boberino

    Holy cow, CNN... this is still up? And on the front page?

    You've been informed multiple times of the inaccuracy and outright fabrications contained in this article, yet you keep floating it to the top like the turd it is without so much as a simple correction. What the heck happened to this news agency?

    June 4, 2012 at 2:20 pm |
  8. VT

    I'm writing my first book, a work of inspirational fiction. This story is awesome.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:12 pm |
  9. Billy C

    "he had the heart of a small boy – which he kept in a jar on his desk"

    Um ... Robert Bloch maybe?

    Wasn't CNN just crying about how nobody employs copy editors and fact checkers anymore. Physician, heal thyself.

    (Um, that last bit comes from the author of the Gospel According to Luke, not Billy C. Not that you'd bother to check.)

    June 4, 2012 at 2:09 pm |
    • Bible Clown©

      ""he had the heart of a small boy – which he kept in a jar on his desk"
      Um ... Robert Bloch maybe?"

      Nice call! Bloch it is, indeed. I've stolen that one 100 times myself. You win today's internet.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:19 pm |
  10. Easy E

    If God is indeed cruel and the "answerable sovereign" then said God is not worth worshipping. It is better to perish than to spend an eternity with a wanton sociopath.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:05 pm |
  11. catholic engineer

    If it is true that King's intent is to use story to illustrate Christian truth, then he us using a very old technique. Enemies of Christianity constantly redicule the "myths" and "fables" in the Bible. Those old authors OT use often used stories to express deeper truths, truths which cannot be shown effectively except in story. You can describe Christianity as a series of dogmas, or do it King's way – by showing how Christianity is lived out and how it manifests in human exprience.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
    • Hoopla12

      Christianity as well as Judaism and Islam are religions which worship evil god...

      June 4, 2012 at 2:04 pm |
    • Easy E

      So Christianity is lived out by being involved in one bloody, gory scene of chaos and depravity after another?

      No thanks. If God is not content to lead the way by reason, love, and kindness, then I'm not interested.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:08 pm |
  12. Hoopla12

    Christianity is one big horror story... Evil God who murders millions and requires unconditional love. Only insane can follow this religion.

    June 4, 2012 at 2:00 pm |
    • SRS

      Who are you? Are you God? No mere moral has the right to question God.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:22 pm |
    • Reason

      SRS-Oh yeah? Then why did he give us free will? Hmmm?

      June 4, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • dave harris

      Get back to me when Christians start blowing up mosques, flying jets into office builidings and begin keeping slaves in the 21st century – all things that Muslims have done and do to this very day.

      Until then you own up to the evil that is practiced by certain muslims you will be only an ignorant, anger, uninformed person and not to be taken seriously.

      June 4, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
  13. Kirk

    My question to the author of this article is: Have you interviewed Mr. King regarding this? King is alive and you should not put words in his mouth without asking him. Speculating about his creed sounds comedic when King himself has not made any statements regarding what his books are all about.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      Whether you like it or not, whether he meant it or not, at least some of King's stories have very clear and obvious Christian Themes. That is true of The Green Mile, The Stand and other King Novels. I don't think anyone needs King to confirm this.

      June 4, 2012 at 2:39 pm |
  14. LauraJT

    I don't think calling him a "Christian writer" is far-fetched at all. As the story states, the bible is the first horror story written by people who were considered highly educated during their life span. I actually think it portrays a more cynical version of life than reality for most people. Then again, I can only consider it from my own perspective.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:54 pm |
    • dave harris

      1) An atheiist/deist writing 'Christian themed' stories and books? That would be anathema to his beliefs wouldn't it?

      2) Would you call the Koran a horror story? And no, I'm not a Chistian.

      June 4, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
  15. New Gawker

    Where better to study horror and evil than the church.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • LauraJT

      Very well put Gawker! We surly wouldn't "need" religion without raping and pilaging and crime now, would we?

      June 4, 2012 at 1:56 pm |
    • Nemo

      Right on New Gawker! Those Christian jerks are always spreading food and supplies to starving third-world countries! Shut down those church-run soup kitchens! It was only a week ago that I saw a group of Christians visiting some lonely patients in a nursing home. What fiends!

      June 4, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
  16. Pan3

    The Christian themes are not original themselves! they've been copied from the "Old Religion" Paganism.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:44 pm |
  17. Bob

    You can find "Christian themes" EVERYWHERE, if you look long and hard enough – so what???

    June 4, 2012 at 1:39 pm |
    • Get Real

      Yep, even in Aesop's work, and Buddha's and Hammurabi's code... oh wait, those were proffered long BEFORE Christ's.

      June 4, 2012 at 1:43 pm |
  18. Rev Phil White

    Something that was left out of this piece, and may not be well known is this. Mr King lives near what used to be the campus for Bangor Theological Seminary. I have been told that he has used the seminary library at times, and I have seen him at some of the public convocations held by the school. He has been a significant contributor to the seminary. As a seminarian who lived a short distance away I often walked past his house (mansion?) on the way to or from class. He has also been an incredibly supporter of the Red Cross (an amusing irony, I suppose) providing snacks, and signed books for blood donors. King is a remarkable guy whose faith may not manifest in usual ways, but it is clearly well considered in everything he writes. I don't think he could write these books without having a sense of the profound and the uncanny in life.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
  19. Mrs. Katz

    Wendy! I'm home............

    June 4, 2012 at 1:37 pm |
  20. From the Rector

    Reblogged this on From the Rector.

    June 4, 2012 at 1:36 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.