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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. Red

    This article is akin to seeing the face of Jesus in a tortilla. Why is this a main article on this website? It's rubbish.

    June 3, 2012 at 7:09 am |
    • danabashed

      Aside from not understanging a lot of the crap that Stephen King has written as it is so dumb with nothing new for story content much of which has been made into stupid movies, he has had about three or four half-way good books. Since he is about my age, I grew up seeing that much of the stuff he incoporated into his novels was plagiarized right out of old B horror movies of the 1950's and early sixties!

      June 3, 2012 at 7:18 am |
  2. maximusvad

    At least his stories are more believable than the biblical ones.

    June 3, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • Billy

      Where is the like button? It would make this so much easier.

      June 3, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • Dana

      Good point.

      June 3, 2012 at 7:50 am |
  3. unowhoitsme

    I'll bet Stephen was somehow abused or made fun of when he was a child. It's his way of retaliating in his mind.

    June 3, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Right on all accounts. Now I'm a total boor with no life and nothing better to do on Sunday morning than get up early and make a fool out of myself on the internet.

      You gotta problem wid dat?

      June 3, 2012 at 7:04 am |
  4. TruthPrevails :-)

    Hi everybody. I'm baaaaaaack.

    I have no life. I live in a one bedroom flat. And I have nothing better to do Sunday morning than get up early and make an idiot out of myself.

    I'm sorry.

    June 3, 2012 at 6:48 am |
    • THATGUY

      Well you have nothing to do Sunday morning but insult him while he is just commenting on stuff you seem a lot lower

      June 3, 2012 at 6:49 am |
    • unowhoitsme

      Find a life...it's actually worth doing, but only you can change that.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:50 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      I can't find a life. I'm an idiot.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • THATGUY

      pretty sad impersonating someone saying they have no life when what you are doing proves that you have no life

      June 3, 2012 at 6:53 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-) (The real one)

      Wow, you people are complete idiots if you can't tell a troll from a real person!! CA gets what he gives in this world...his only contribution to this blog EVER is to attack Canadian's.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      I'm an idiot, too. What a coincidence!

      We're both boorish idiots with no life and nothing better to do at 5 a.m. on Sunday morning!

      June 3, 2012 at 6:57 am |
    • THATGUY

      ... i called him out on it

      June 3, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • THAT GUY

      Me too!

      June 3, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • THATGUY

      well that prove you are an idiot there is no space in my name L@ copy paste

      June 3, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • Billy

      Then go back to bed

      June 3, 2012 at 7:03 am |
    • captain america

      For clarification
      Got nothing against Canada, but do take issue with bull sh it canadian posers, that would be steve and its other. Quit hiding your lame name behind a whole nation. Canada has no use for your kinds either. There's your sign

      June 3, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      But I'm still an idiot.

      and i cant rite.

      June 3, 2012 at 7:05 am |
    • you must be an idiot

      look what you are hooked up with

      June 3, 2012 at 7:08 am |
  5. Joe

    King's concept of good and evil and Faith in God,are what have led him to be the most printed, and read author in history. He is saying things that on a subliminal level, most of us believe. That he makes it entertaining is an excellent delivery system.

    June 3, 2012 at 6:10 am |
    • Robert Stephens

      Exactly! I read the tome "The Stand" and could not escape it that this man was a true Christian (non religious) in the biblical sense and it was one of the reasons I became the same in 1972. He is right on and the way most of us feel in heart anyway. Incredible tome. Who can forget Trashcan Man, right out of today's headlines............Good post!–Robert

      June 3, 2012 at 6:30 am |
    • terry

      What makes you think King believes the Jesus Fables? Maybe he's just a good writer giving you a story that supports what YOU believe.

      June 3, 2012 at 7:25 am |
  6. benedictus

    You cannot go broke un estimating the taste of the American people. Mr King merits the summary of Mr Harold Bloom.

    June 3, 2012 at 6:02 am |
  7. jarodbee

    The christian story is plagiarized fiction anyhow. King just continues this tradition.

    June 3, 2012 at 5:52 am |
    • THATGUY

      hey idiot Bible came before the Quran so how is it plagiarizum

      June 3, 2012 at 6:43 am |
    • Billy

      @Thatguy..@Que?

      June 3, 2012 at 7:06 am |
  8. Ryan

    Isn't King's daughter a minister?

    June 3, 2012 at 5:42 am |
  9. fidel

    Is it just me or is captain america a real buffoon?

    June 3, 2012 at 5:41 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      Captain America, Just Sayin, Atheism is Not Healthy=one person, 3 different personalities

      June 3, 2012 at 5:50 am |
    • Joe

      TruthPrevails 🙂

      Captain America, Just Sayin, Atheism is Not Healthy=one person, 3 different personalities

      June 3, 2012 at 5:50 am | Report abuse | Do you mean like the id, the ego, and the super ego?

      June 3, 2012 at 6:22 am |
    • THATGUY

      actually he is considered the greatest hero in the Marvel Universe and admired

      June 3, 2012 at 6:46 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      I'm also an idiot. But you knew that.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:49 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-) (The real one)

      ah cowards that can't use their real aliases and must act like children...to the fake 'me', grow up

      I'm more educated an knowledgeable in this world than CA. CA is an xenophobic who only attacks Canadian's, nothing more. He's a poor representation of anything good in America or Marvel comics for that matter...at least Marvel is enjoyable.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:52 am |
    • captain america

      Got nothing against Canadians , we have against you and your kind. Quit hiding your bull sh it behind your country. There's your sign

      June 3, 2012 at 6:55 am |
    • no matter how you slice it

      captain america is right

      June 3, 2012 at 6:58 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-) (The real one)

      Stop arguing with me! Can't you see I'm stupid?

      June 3, 2012 at 6:59 am |
    • are you three personalities stupid

      or four?

      June 3, 2012 at 7:06 am |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    June 3, 2012 at 5:23 am |
    • jarodbee

      Praying is talking to yourself. It might change you.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:48 am |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      Prayer already changed you

      June 3, 2012 at 6:59 am |
  11. allenwoll

    Warped ! ! ! - BADLY !

    I no longer let him into MY mind !

    June 3, 2012 at 5:19 am |
    • Joe

      Your loss.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:04 am |
    • Billy

      I can only imagine that there are so many things that don't enter your mind.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:59 am |
  12. AdmrlAckbar

    OH ANOTHER BELIEF ARTICLE!~
    Quickly my polarized, evangelical Christian and Atheist brethren, you have been called to arms yet again!

    As always, prepare for battle by:
    1) Copying the same statements you made over and over for the last 100+ Belief articles.
    2) Now paste with haste that prose you did create!
    3) Now pat yourself on the back, while hugging fourteen fuzzy kittens and slowly licking your self-righteous sweat as it slowly slides from your brow to your spacebar... YOU EARNED IT! You have enlightened the world yet again!

    3)

    June 3, 2012 at 5:11 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      I think you've been out of the water too long.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:17 am |
    • captain america

      i think you've been out of your sphere of influence too long steve and no one wants to hear from you. There's your sign

      June 3, 2012 at 5:30 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Oh look...captain troll emerged from under his bridge.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:42 am |
    • Billy

      Way to go Admrl. Well said and huzzahs. I was incredulous at this story, only to find that there was no response from Steven King himself. These are all people who speculate what the written word might mean. Man, I could write, "The bee flew over the flower" and someone could interpret that however they wanted.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:57 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Harrrrrrrr! My name is AthestSteve - whatever that means!

      And I'm a total moron!

      But you knew that.

      June 3, 2012 at 7:02 am |
  13. NickA

    Many Christians scholars have noted to me before, this touch of Christianity King brings to his novels. Many works of fiction touch the good vs evil concept, but King brings it to another level. He is so subtle with it that many non-christian and even christians don't realize the depth of the morality and its link to Christian Philosophy. In the stand for example, where two cities in America are pitted against each other after a deadly outbreak kills the majority of the population. The "immoral" city which is controlled by a satanic character, won't allow its inhabitants to take drugs and is much better organized. At first look some might dismiss this or find it particular that the city controlled by the dark forces does not allow such destructive behavior, but then with some thought one realizes its done in the name of efficiency for its own selfish purposes. It also touches the theme of sometimes having to take a Stand when faced with choices between good and evil, and that even a weaker bodied or mentally inferior individual can have a stronger souls and be much more morally courageous than people who've been handed stronger assets. Today's society everything from politics to entertainment is presented in shades of gray to capitalize on our humanity, but some situations there truly is only black or white, and that's where ones soul, ones fate and ones courage is set to the test. For a Christian, this is much closer to the heart than for someone who has set their own code. If Christianity allows one thing, when practiced correctly, its to see clearly the line between good and evil, and Stephen King exploits this magnificently in his horror.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:59 am |
  14. My

    The bible had no clowns in sewage drains!

    June 3, 2012 at 4:44 am |
  15. Trent...

    King is a fiction writer and the bible is almost all fiction. The original zombie storyline comes from the Bible itself.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Hardly...in ancient egyptian lore the sun god Ra would be eaten by the serpent Apophis at dusk and travel through the underworld only to be reborn each morning to the sky goddess Nut.
      Birth, life, death, rebirth... a very ancient concept.

      June 3, 2012 at 4:36 am |
    • NickA

      Atheism is an even older concept than Christianity, try to digest that for a moment.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:02 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      That's because NOT imagining a supernatural overlord is the default position pf a rational mind.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:06 am |
    • captain america

      Yeah and canadian authors write their drivel on sh it house walls . There's your sign

      June 3, 2012 at 5:32 am |
    • NickA

      Actually, its the primitive state of mind. For you though, primitive seems to be trendy.

      June 3, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  16. Trent...

    Fiction and more fiction...the bible has lots of it.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:19 am |
  17. DrJames

    This guy is the freakiest-looking human ever.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:11 am |
  18. copanut

    This is pure wishful thinking on the part of Christians. The mythos behind King's work, as clearly laid out in his magnum opus The Dark Tower, is fundamentally unchristian, for Christianity thinks it is the singular Truth, whereas King treats it as only one of infinite truths, ans simultaneously one of infinite falsehoods. The overriding theme is good vs evil, or perhaps more accurately, order vs chaos. When a story arc sweeps through the time and dimension of the United States as we know it, Christianity is a typical representation of good / order because it is so commonplace in that "where" and "when". In other contexts, there are different manifestations of good/ order. I should also point out that King frequently uses Christianity as a manifestation of evil/ chaos, as in the mother in Carrie, the evil warden in Shawshank, and many other examples.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:08 am |
    • AtheistSteve

      Truly there is nothing new under the sun. The good vs. evil theme probably dates back to Grog's triumph and escape from being eaten by a sabretooth tiger. Long before the Bible writers picked up the mantra.

      June 3, 2012 at 4:16 am |
    • Know What

      Yes, Steve... Imagination - both a boon and a bane for the human creature.

      June 3, 2012 at 4:23 am |
    • NickA

      I love it when someone tries to argue against something and then ends up supporting the theory they are pitted against in their own argument.

      June 3, 2012 at 5:05 am |
  19. Olga Levin

    I think that horror writers have a better understanding of the battle between good and evil than most of us. Stephen King sure understands it better than most Christians out there because he chose to be at the front row sweat of that battle. I remember getting real cross with my little sister when she told me that she went out to see the movie The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but when she started asking me questions about God and all that, I was kind of thinking, "You know Olga, maybe this is a good thing that Hollywood is spending some money on making horror movies." I've read books and seen movies that do show a light of faith in presentation of horror. Justin Cronin's The Passage has a lot of faith that seeps through all the horror stuff in that book, The Walking Dead graphic novel series is also another great example of that too.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:08 am |
  20. AtheistSteve

    So let me get this straight. King writes fictional accounts of horror that kinda sorta mirrors the fictional accounts of horror in the Bible. Shocker. That just tells me that Kings work is derivative and possibly influenced by his christian worldview. I could find similar common themes with biblical stories in Grimm's Fairy Tales. But on the flip side I seriously doubt any author could pen a story that couldn't be matched up with some cherry-picked portion of the Bible.

    June 3, 2012 at 4:02 am |
    • captain america

      You couldn't find straight with a transit and a level. No one needs your input on anything here or there. There's your sign

      June 3, 2012 at 5:34 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-)

      I see the asylum let CA out for his weekly visit with his kin-folk! Did your sister get bored of you already?

      June 3, 2012 at 5:44 am |
    • captain america

      Try not to impose canadian standards on Americans, we don't live like you folks do we have moral dignity here. There's your sign.

      June 3, 2012 at 6:54 am |
    • TruthPrevails :-) (The real one)

      CA: Jealous? Our country is not fighting over the basic things...healthcare-everyone country wide has it; equal rights-everyone country wide has them. Not so certain how that makes us so bad...it does make your countries political race for president look like a circus act. We also don't question the head of our countries birth place. If you wish to think that fighting over the basic rights of people and not providing life sustaining medical care to all is moral, then your definition of moral is very screwed up. You have plenty of American's who don't agree with what is happening to your country and wish for a system like we have.

      June 3, 2012 at 7:01 am |
    • captain america

      No. Try dumping your sh it in your own yard we don't need it or want it here. There's your sign

      June 3, 2012 at 7:11 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.