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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. Amazing_Grace_how_sweet_the_sound

    GOD loved you so much HE gave HIS one and only SON.

    Well, if HE can love all of you – so can I.

    June 4, 2012 at 5:52 pm |
    • Cq

      His one and only son? Why does the Bible refer to the "sons" of God in Gen. 6:2 ,Job 1:6 and Job 38:7?

      June 4, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
    • fred

      Cq
      Gen 6:2 are the sons of Seth although some think it means Angels. Job verses are Angels even though the Hebrew would be Sons of man.
      Either way Christ was the only begotten Son of man.

      June 4, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • Cq

      fred
      If the sons of Seth are the sons of God, then we all are, right? If the Job verses refer to angels then Jesus was an angel. Either way, Jesus wasn't special in being called that.

      June 5, 2012 at 12:05 am |
    • fred

      Cq
      Not all the kids were sons of God (i.e. followed God) so not all us are either. The usage of Son of God and or son of man was different when refering to Jesus. Personally I cannot keep it straight and rely on "Hebrew" experts so I stick with the basics.

      June 5, 2012 at 12:41 am |
  2. herethereeverywhere

    I think all the negative posters here are just jealous because obviously they are not able to be a writer, whether it is like Stephen King or any other well known novelist. Their only claim to fame is what they post on the Internet.

    June 4, 2012 at 5:44 pm |
    • Brandon W.

      As one who also writes, all I can say is that King's novels read like rough drafts. Every single one I've read would have gotten bad reviews if his writing ability was the main point of the review. He writes sloppy, puts in tons of filler, and is not really all that good a writer, but his fans are not writers, but readers who are more interested in the subject than in the presentation.

      June 4, 2012 at 7:13 pm |
  3. Follower of Christ

    The blinded always get so angry about any topic that has to do with God. Constantly asking for proof when the proof is this world, everything in and out of it. The human body is proof, proof is everywhere. Now my question to the non-believers is what solid proof do you have that God doesnt exist? And what proof do you have that this exceedingly sophisticated life started from explosions or mere coincidence? Romans 1:20- "From the creation of the world, God's invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly observed in what he made. As a result, people have no excuse."

    June 4, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
    • CosmicC

      You have faith, which is belief without proof. Those of us who are rational thinkers need proof. We have plenty of proof of the laws of the universe that don't require a supernatural explanation. Where we don't have an explanation, we accept that as inadequate knowledge, not proof of something that requires faith to accept.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
    • Cq

      CosmicC
      You forgot to mention that we skeptics need proof because people have been duped so very often by con men asking their victims for precisely the same kind of faith without proof. People have been sold bad investments; and (supposedly) false religions and even false gods by charlatans all demanding the same faith that Christians do. Isn't it only reasonable to be skeptical then?

      June 4, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Follower of Christ

      cosmicc so wouldnt you consider yourself to have faith as well? Because no one can prove that God does not exist, but this is your strong belief. The faith Christians go by or the definition we go by is "confidence or trust in a person or thing".

      June 4, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Brandon W.

      Follower, you should seriously think about doing some reading on confidence men, swindlers, hatemongers, fearmongers, demagogues, and others of that ilk.
      There is a common thread to those who fall for the lies of others: gullibility or a lack of proper skepticism.
      You have been trained like a dog to accept only certain things from certain types of people. It is your blind adherence to the lies of others that makes you a potential danger to others. All it takes is for someone to convince you that God says to do this or that evil thing and you will swallow it whole and do evil with the "best" of intentions.

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

    Perhaps those touting King's religious themes failed to notice that every religious person in every King book I've ever read has been evil, corrupt or incompetent.

    June 4, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • Cq

      The little old lady in The Stand, Mother Abagail, is actually the kind of Christian you'd wish they all were, but even she had her bad moment.

      June 4, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
  5. BoldGeorge

    It is obvious that Stephen King is not a true Christian in the true sense of the word. However, he is still in time for it. He has not dies yet, so he is still redeemable.

    June 4, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
  6. An Atheist Soldier

    this article is one of the dumbest ive ever read in the history of ever... besides the bible

    June 4, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • CosmicC

      I'm not sure I agree completely. After all, it does end appropriately: "The Bible is in many ways the ultimate horror novel"

      June 4, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  7. Atheist Hunter

    If he is such a big Christian then why do his works repeatedly take God's name in vain. His works degrade God and glorify gore.

    June 4, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
    • An Atheist Soldier

      so, are you hunting atheists, or are you a hunter that is an atheist?

      June 4, 2012 at 5:20 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      Got one hooked!

      June 4, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • Atheist Hunter

      When hunting is not good and can't bait one up, I just come to this honey hole!

      June 4, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  8. Jablonski

    This article is moronic. Tim LaHaye is a Christian writer. Stephen King is a secular writer. It's that simple.

    June 4, 2012 at 5:04 pm |
    • NeedNewGov

      try to open you mind once.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • NeedNewGov

      try to open your mind once. It's never good to pigeonhole people, for they do surprise sometimes.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  9. freethinker321

    Actually, Robert Bloch originally made the remark about a heart on his desk. Stephen King does co-opt it from time to time, though.

    June 4, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      So you aren't allowed to quote anybody else?

      June 4, 2012 at 5:06 pm |
  10. Baranga the Great

    The Bible is just one tool Stephen King uses in his writing, nothing more or less than that. Also, the villian of Storm of the Century was actually an ancient wizard, but you'd have to read the screenplay to know that. The story of the demon Legion was thrown in just to explain the threat Andre Linoge used of making the townspeople walk into the sea if they did not give him what he wanted. In a way it was kind of like King stating, hey, this is where I got this idea from, a horror writers way of citing his references. Anywho, BARANGA THE GREAT HAS SPOKEN!!!

    June 4, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Candlewycke

      I think you are giving the Storm of the Century a narrow reading. The villain was not just a wizard. He was a wizard who represented a powerful negative force that commands only the most violent aspect of nature and even then only to seduce people into compliance with his will. The story was much more about the responsibility of parents and of communities. Consider that this wizards only reason for being there was to convince the town to willingly give up a child to a world of darkness. This was a subtle retelling albeit a much more sinister one of the christian sacrifice. Linoge (legion whose name is many) was just an easy way for the wizard to say that he was actually the end result of the townspeople if only they followed his will. He was many because the towns decision to sacrifice one of their own, one of their innocents, was the decision of many. And it is very important to consider that he was said to have made one other attempt at Roanoke and the people there refused to follow his will and were led to their deaths in the sea.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  11. kaligaclark

    These priest and preachers found 'god' in the bible, another book of fiction, they can find religion in King's work! They will always find what they want! Ignore parts of the bible to push others....

    June 4, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      These atheist and disbelievers can't find God anywhere. They will use anything they can to deny transcendence and try to sway people's minds that man is the highest being.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:12 pm |
    • YeahRight

      "They will use anything they can to deny transcendence and try to sway people's minds that man is the highest being."

      Really I think the jury is still out on that especially since they are finding life on other planets and there are billions and billions of galaxies out there. It would be a waste of space if there are just as intelligent beings as us on other planets. Yeah.. won't that be a kicker when you find out.your god didn't just create one. LMAO!

      June 4, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  12. kaune

    Christ myths and jesus-like characters and stories have been around as long as there have been storytellers. "Christians" didn't invent these stories. To claim that King is modeling elements of stories that originated with jesus and bible fables is a tad disingenuous. It does, however, give christians the opportunity to claim they are relevant somehow and grasp at unearned legitimacy. I understand why they feel the need to do that.

    June 4, 2012 at 5:00 pm |
  13. tony

    We need to put together a charity that sends free rattlesnakes to all pastors. That's real rattlesnakes of course, not conservative politicians.

    June 4, 2012 at 4:55 pm |
    • An Atheist Soldier

      total win dude!!

      June 4, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  14. shiloh

    This is completely ridiculous

    June 4, 2012 at 4:52 pm |
  15. Amazing_Grace_how_sweet_the_sound

    A true horror is the sin that hinders us from having a personal relationship with GOD, through HIS SON. JESUS.

    For those who think the bible is full of or is a bunch of myths – either you do not own and read one or you total believed your college professors versus the ONE who created you.

    Ask, with an open heart, for GOD to reveal HIMSELF to you.

    You may want to reconsider your view point on the true GOSPEL... GOOD NEWS ABOUT JESUS CHRIST OUR SAVIOR.

    June 4, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • Keith

      thats funny.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      I've read the Bible several times. Every time I read it my doubts about whether or not the Judeo-Christian god existed grew. Reading the Bible in a critical light is the quickest way to become an atheist. The only thing you need to know about the Bible is that the Exodus NEVER happened. Well, there goes Judaism out the window. If you throw Judaism away, you can throw Christianity away too since Christianity received it's origins from Judaism.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • just sayin

      Amazing,

      Nice comedy. lol Thank you for the laugh.
      Signed Former Christian

      June 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Lilith

      When you CAPITALIZE the words GOD and HIS SON. JESUS you get extra brownie points for God!! Score!

      June 4, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • just sayin

      Where is the archaeological evidence that directly confirms that the events in Exodus took place?

      June 4, 2012 at 4:49 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      just sayin, there isn't any. You would think with all of the people wandering around in the desert, there would be some evidence.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
    • Magic

      Those Exodus Hebrews were just really good little environmentalists, I guess. You do know that they had Magic Manna, don't you? This resulted in around 2 million folks tramping around the desert for 40 years without anyone ever dying, defecating or leaving any other trace of their habitation!

      June 4, 2012 at 5:14 pm |
    • An Atheist Soldier

      prove any of it, that all im saying, prove any of it... any of it

      June 4, 2012 at 5:18 pm |
    • Elspeth

      @jacques Prove Exodus didn't happen. You have stated it as fact, so prove it.

      Can't?

      Then stuff it.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:22 pm |
    • CosmicC

      Okay, let me get this straight, you think a bunch of nomads wandering through the desert for just 40 years over 3000 years ago would leave an identifiable trace? I'm not arguing for Exodus, but if you're going argue against it you need a better argument.
      Let's stick with the easy argument: Miracles don't happen, barring the 69 Mets of course.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  16. Johnny 5

    King should read a book on fossils. You can find them in the science section which would be non-fiction of course.

    June 4, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
  17. Mike

    I doubt that King uses his writing to promote Christianity. He writes in a way to convey meaning that many of his readers will understand, often that means co-opting Christian (and other faith's) symbols. At times he does this in a way that is very respectful of those that follow that faith while at other times it portrays them as being ignorant hypocrites, so it reflects the range of actual people claiming to practice this faith.

    June 4, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  18. Tim

    Well, I just lost allot of respect for Stephen King. Christianity, as well as all religions, is just stupidity at its worst. Gods don't kill people. People who worship gods kill people.

    June 4, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Christianity looks stupid doesn't it? I mean really, a perfect man saying "I love you so much I am willing to die for you." That just looks stupid to the world. Maybe I should think about it for a while.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:34 pm |
    • MarylandBill

      I don't deny that much evil has been done in the name of various religious faiths. I do however deny that religion is the underlying cause of the evil that is done. Shoot, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot (to name a few) were willing to kill millions (each!) without any notion of God to motivate themselves.

      Its simple, there is something in humans that allow us to do very great evil for any particular reason we choose or no particular reason at all. To blame it all on religion is really quite silly.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      MarylandBill .. I agree that one cannot use religion as a blanket cause for all evil in the world. However keep in mind that everyperson you've mentioned was, at some point, exposed to religion to some degree. Stalin was in fact raised an orthodox christian and educated in an orthodox college where he studied theology. It could easily be said that one thing they all had in common was religious exposure at an early age .. something to consider.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • Johnny 5

      Well said Tim. Bill, perfect doesn't exist. The fantastical myths added to the story of Jesus were created by his closest followers to compete with the mythical stories with that of Caesar. IF Jesus existed at all.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Jacques Strappe, World Famous French Ball Juggler

      Bill, good people do good things and bad people do bad things. It takes religion to make good people do bad things.

      June 4, 2012 at 4:46 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      How trite

      June 4, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      OK Johnny. ANY man then. Any man who recognizes that you are condemned, and you know in your heart that you are guilty. But this man steps forward and accepts the punishment on himself which he does not deserve but you do. I mean you're not perfect are you? But this other man says, " I will lay down my life so that you can live." I have to respect that. More than that, I have to worship that. I have to acknowledge truly, this is the Son of God.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:19 pm |
  19. If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

    Religious themes, or at least substories, are an easily used tool. Religion comes ripe with "no way to fight back" terror of the supernatural. Notice he also uses animals, aliens and time. If you want to sell books, give the people what they want .. a religious flavor that can be interpreted as the reader chooses.

    June 4, 2012 at 4:28 pm |
  20. NickyB

    Stephen King, is by no stretch of the imagination, a christian writer. Like all of us he has grown up in christian nation. Of course he has undertones of Christianity in his writing. Leave the religion out of it. He is a great writer and that is all he is.

    June 4, 2012 at 4:28 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.