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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. Delores Kirkwood

    As a writer, and a Christian, myself I am not sure I buy all this man of faith talk in this article. Admittedly, Stephen King is a genius with ideas, but although I like many of his books (as movies – The Green Mile) I will not read his books due to the filthy language. As much as he weaves this language in his books, I have my doubts he is a Christ-like man. One of faith should never forget that Satan (and atheists) know the Bible very well since they twist its words so often.

    I am not making a judgment on Stephen King; I hope he is a Christian, but I don't understand the need for the constant filthy language in a book of interesting ideas. As an English professor he knows how to put words together to make the plot interesting without the use of the F word, or S word all the time. My only other conclusion is false faith to make it seem that cursing is acceptable to the faith? Not to my faith.

    June 3, 2012 at 3:19 am |
    • ala-kat

      While he does use these words, he does not use them to excess. Sad to say, I hear more spoken daily than I've ever read in any book he has written.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:31 am |
    • cdsrm43

      The F word the S word are just that words, they are only "filthy" because one day someone decided they were. Tomorrow the blue could be deemed as such, we already know what happened to the word Santorum. Christians theoretically are supposed to Christ-like. Christianity is supposed to be about the new covenant, Christ liked everyone and accepted everyone.

      Symbolism and meaning can be found anywhere, even with an F bomb.

      June 3, 2012 at 4:24 am |
  2. Mike P

    So much of King's books' worth is from their unflinching portrayals of horror themes. He refuses to water down the legendary aspects of his monsters - e.g., vampires can't cross running water - and nevertheless makes them scary as all-get-out. I would be disappointed if he were to portray religious themes any less unflinchingly.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:57 am |
  3. moribundman

    Just FYI, Mr Blake, it was not Stephen King but Robert Bloch who said, 'Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.'

    June 3, 2012 at 2:54 am |
  4. Jen

    Wonder what comments his minister daughter might make? I don't try to analyze King too much, I've just enjoyed his stories since I was a teenager reading Carrie. Have liked most of his works, some more than others.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:53 am |
  5. erica

    I know I love god ...im thankfull....and I try to see the good out of everything that comes out bad...people are who they are ...they can hurt u ....thats why I try to keep the bad ones away....and I understand what he does...bc I believe the bible....and if u dont know god your,not going to understand....

    June 3, 2012 at 2:49 am |
  6. Let's be honest

    He hasn't been scary in years, the end of the world in December is more scary to people than what he writes.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:45 am |
    • ala-kat

      He did go from scary to sci-fi, and kinda lost me there. Not much of a sci-fi person. Preferred the horror 🙂

      June 3, 2012 at 2:52 am |
    • ala-kat

      oh, pffft. It's not the end of the world. It's the end of a VERY long calendar. We go through one a year here, they're just short ones 🙂

      June 3, 2012 at 2:53 am |
  7. Howard of Alexandria

    I noticed that none of those ministers cited "Silver Bullet" where a vampire masquerades as a man of the cloth. Talk about putting down organized religions.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:40 am |
    • Howard of Alexandria

      My error. It was a werewolf, not a vampire.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:42 am |
  8. Wcatholic

    Whatever ones' beliefs, myths are among the greatest conveyers of truth about the human condition. Cynicism and post-modern subjectivism are, fortunately not universal. I hope that at least someone has read this article in a thoughtful and reflective manner.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:38 am |
  9. Zoe Jean

    ...Well, duh...

    June 3, 2012 at 2:36 am |
  10. So it goes

    For those who question his capacities, I challenge you to write a novel. Be sure to read his guidepost, 'On Writing,' first. King is a much greater craftsman than I initially assumed.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:28 am |
  11. ala-kat

    I like me some Stephen King. Been reading him for decades. Some good, some not so good, but always read them. He has a way to take me somewhere (consistently) that I wouldn't normally go. I never tried to read into his work any more than I wanted to take out of it. If he was/is sending some 'message', I'm missing it – probably on purpose. I read many years ago that his goal was to write a book that people could not finish. He came very, very close to that goal with me. I don't remember the name of the book but it was the one with a person handcuffed in a remote cottage, and no one around. That one took me some time to get through.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:27 am |
    • readereye

      I think the name of that book was possibly Geralds Game? I couldn't finish that book either. It's been so long ago, but something about the main character really turned me off. I have no idea how it ended.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:07 am |
    • ala-kat

      It WAS "Gerald's Game". I can't tell you how it ended although I did finish the book. There was that one page, that one situation, that took me several tries (and days) to get past. And it wasn't some pie in the sky horror, but something that COULD happen to just about anyone. The description was just too.... real. And scary, and painful, and, and, and.... He hit a nerve there with me. Good job, Stephen 🙂

      June 3, 2012 at 3:17 am |
  12. Jim K.

    Stephen King is pure pleasure; maybe not great writing but he does have a way to tell a story that is just plain fun to read. He is certainly not Steinbeck, Dickens, or even Louis de Bernieres (Corelli's Mandolin) but King has a way to pull you into a world totally removed from reality and makes it possible to believe the unbelievable. Funny, while it has never worked quite the same for me, apparently the Bible and the Koran has done this very thing for a great many people.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:09 am |
    • tallulah13

      I think people tend to downplay King's skill because of the genre he represents, but I believe his best books are reveal just as much about human nature as any of the authors you name.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:19 am |
  13. Suki

    King's writing contains archetypal themes. I wouldn't necessarily catagorize them as Christian.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:06 am |
  14. blessedgeek

    What is "real" faith? Everybody claims their own perceptions as the "real" thing. How do you know the priest did not have "real" faith? He lived his lived in his reality, believing what he is heading towards. Even for priests who molest boys, that is their reality in which they place their "faith".

    "The priest represents the Pharisees" – thanks again for bringing up the Christian Bible's "truth" of criticising Jewish rabbis. Thanks for your "real" faith that places ancient Jewish rabbis as power hungry christ-killing Jews.

    June 3, 2012 at 2:06 am |
    • David

      There was no ctriticism of Jewish rabbi's ; only of those who choose tradition over heart felt, childlike faith.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:23 am |
    • blessedgeek

      "There was no ctriticism of Jewish rabbi's".

      When you say that "the priest is like the Pharisees", what does that mean but to say the priest is as spiritually impoverished as the Pharisees. That means, saying that ancient Jewish rabbis are spiritually impoverished. That is what your Christian testament says "those Pharisees".

      Don't twist and turn your perception like Mitt Romney. Don't etch your sketch about your Bible.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:29 am |
    • Don'tBelieveTheLiesOfReligion

      Everyone claiming to have religious "faith" has "real" faith. Faith is believing something to be true in the absence of evidence, and it often is even believing something is true in the presence of evidence to the contrary. Essentially, faith is the decision to make something up to satisfy an emotional need. It is many people's response to ignorance and their desire for "answers". That's why religion works so well – it offers simple "answers" to difficult, possibly impossible, questions.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:29 am |
  15. Andrew

    So all this time when we thought he was brilliant hes been ripping off the bible!

    June 3, 2012 at 2:00 am |
  16. Lel

    Why is religion on the front page every day! It's like CNN is just fishing for 10000+ comment articles

    June 3, 2012 at 1:57 am |
  17. hap

    I'm 51years old. i have been reading stephen king since i was 17. i have tremendous faith and sometimes when reading king's stories, i have to count on that faith to get me through some of his stories. because of the intention he sets out to do, to scare the s&%! out of me! and scare he does! that's why i read him. no more no less. so pick my comment apart n see if i or stephen king really care. have fun! oh yeah: BOOOOO!

    June 3, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If you want a real scare, read the ghost stories of M.R. James. Much better.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:54 am |
    • Andrew

      If you want even more of a scare than reading a book read some more news. Especially in the politics section.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:01 am |
    • brad1001

      I second what Hap said.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:23 am |
  18. The Lord of Excess

    On more reason not to read another King novel, I haven't bothered in a few decades. Trite junk you find on the shelves of grocery stores, Walmarts, etc. as for faith ... it makes sense ... one has to have a vivid imagination to believe in a magic bearded man in the sky and buddy Christ.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:51 am |
    • Excaliber

      Faith in nothing is something.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:20 am |
    • tallulah13

      I'm an atheist and I find much of his writing to be quite compelling. Perhaps because his characters are very true to human nature despite the fantastic and often horrific settings. But everyone has different taste.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:22 am |
  19. Bob

    King may be "spiritual" but he is certainly not "religious," as he has stated many times. He includes references to the Bible for the same reason nearly all authors do, religious or not–because it's a reference the public is familiar with. If his books included metaphors from Ulysses, he would not be a bestselling author.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:51 am |
  20. Ed

    I feel for Stephen King the same way I do for Tom Clancy – their books are usually translated into great movies that bypass the long-windedness for which these two authors are known.

    June 3, 2012 at 1:48 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I have to disagree here. While there have been some decent movies based on King's books, a lot have been crummy. Of course, some of his books aren't terribly good, either.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:52 am |
    • Bob

      I can count the number of good Stephen King movies on one hand. I would need more than 2 hands to list all of his great books. While not everything he has written is wonderful, he has done pretty well overall, considering the vast number of books he's written.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:58 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.