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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. Gumby

    If you look at the King catalog very few of his books are actually horror. Most are good vs. evil; the Stand, The Dark Tower, The Green Mile or simply stories like The Body (Stand by Me) or Shawshank Redemption. Most of his novels have a main character that is a child or disabled, not always adults. As someone born in the early 50s, that read Lord of the Rings in my teens, I found that the Dark Tower series took LOTR place as a series I could read over and over and each time I find some Christian themes but also beautifully written passages that I simply want to stop and re-read again.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  2. seriously?

    At least the writers of the bible and Stephen King had one thing in common – they both wrote good fiction.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:13 am |
  3. Chris

    This is really, really off base. King has said many times that he believes in a higher power but that he finds organized religion distasteful. He was raised methodist my his mother, but he hated it.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  4. petschicago

    The Dark Tower series represents all of Stephen King's magic, reality and mysticism. Roland will always be on his quest and while he may be graced with true friends and understanding, his journey will never end. I think it speaks volumes of kings realization that no matter how much we think we know or understand there is an element to the universe that will not allow us true enlightenment because it might be too real or scary to embrace. Roland 's ka-tet is part of my universe now and my friend has called me Detta. I take all of that as a beautiful blessing.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:54 am |
  5. Na

    Hey, Obama's a self-avowed born-again Christian too who prays every day to the very same God that inspired Bush to invade Iraq. Let's not forget this!

    June 3, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  6. Muffinman

    Prayer changes nothing; I've been praying for 45 years that salty potato chips, oreos and cake would become as nutritious as carrots and celery and what? Nothing!

    June 3, 2012 at 8:52 am |
    • Mrs. Katz

      Hee hee!

      June 3, 2012 at 8:53 am |
    • Hitchens

      Spoken like a person who has no clue as to what prayer is all about.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:58 am |
    • NoTheism

      Hitchens, your first name wouldn't happen to be Christopher, would it?

      June 3, 2012 at 9:04 am |
    • Hitchens

      Yes

      June 3, 2012 at 9:07 am |
    • roger

      actually- it works, but self discipline and self sacrifice are factors as much as sincerity. the ultimate power is beyond human logic

      June 3, 2012 at 9:10 am |
    • GardenGrl

      There you go Mr. Hitchens... life after death :->

      June 3, 2012 at 9:11 am |
  7. Mrs. Katz

    I have to agree. There was something very deeply spiritual about Jack Nicholson's line, "Wendy............. I'm home!".

    June 3, 2012 at 8:51 am |
  8. Dan

    Not doubting King's faith, but such inspiration lies outside the Bible. Man isn't inspired by the Bible. It is the other way around, yet Christians, once again, try to take credit for all that is good or inspirational in the world.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:48 am |
  9. Keksi

    What a BS story.

    There is NO gospel in horror and Satanism.
    Just because someone "quotes Bible" doesn't mean he is Christian,its all about INTENTIONS.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • GardenGrl

      Romans 8:28

      Life is big, rough, and more than a little scary at times. God is not something that you put in a box and visit sometimes, God is bigger than events around us and bigger than the storms that turn our lives and households upside down. Satanism is premised on a small God who lives in a sheltered place and who is constantly under threat from without, but not on God Who stands in the breach.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Darren

      And, on the flip side, you can say that just because someone write about the horrors of this world – Satanism included – doesn't mean that they are anti-Christian.

      We should simply take the article for what it's worth. It shows one side of the coin. If Mr. King would like to come out in an interview or in an article of his own discussing what has been brought up by this article, then we won't know the other side.

      Looking at a lot of these comments it seems that too many people take the wrong things too seriously.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:23 am |
  10. Deuce

    Everyone that's really read King's works has known that there was a deep spirituality within them.

    Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, the novella which was later adapted into the film The Shawshank Redemption with Morgan Freeman and Tim Robbins, was basically a Christ metaphor in itself. The power of prayer is featured across almost all of his books in one way or another...

    Those who have never read his work simply don't know what they're missing.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Caliostro

      I've read it, multiple times in fact in two languages, but yet, I still don't see any resemblance to Christ, bible or anything religios. It's a great story about human spirit, not Jesus.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Caliostro

      I'm talking about Shawshank Redemption, just fyi

      June 3, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  11. Catnippy

    One of the things I so love about Stephen King's writing is that it has many layers beyond the obvious horror story. And his characters are wonderfully developed human beings with all their flaws. He also has grasped that their is fundamental evil in the world and many people are weak enough or willing enough to serve as its tools. Unlike horror writers like Dean Koontz, he is not overtly religious. He's really more of a humanist, because he sees good and evil in the universe working through people. He has always been one of my favorite authors–I have read everything he has written. He also is somewhat a product of his times and because he is in the same age group with me, I can identify with him even more. Rock on, Stephen, and thank you for sharing your thoughts and your art with us.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:45 am |
    • Catnippy

      Sorry, should read that "there' is fundamental. Please forgive my early morning writing flaws.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • Mrs. Katz

      Meow........

      June 3, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • mijnomrah

      I totally agree with these comments. What I have always loved about his work is that they are not just scary stories, it's more about that characters and the decisions they make. His characters always seem to come to life and often are making choices about good and evil.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  12. Mrs. Katz

    I wonder what King would have done with "Notre Dame des Fleurs"..........

    June 3, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  13. Kyle

    What a ridiculous article. These are literary themes that have existed through all of written history.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:41 am |
  14. deano

    If Stephen King had written the "Left Behind" series it would have been considered a horror trilogy.....and everyone would be standing in line to see the movies. And no one would be laughing.......

    June 3, 2012 at 8:39 am |
    • KBAV``

      THAT is a brilliants statement! O.o

      June 3, 2012 at 8:45 am |
  15. John Paul

    Stephen King fancies himself someone of power in his New England community. He is a writer of redundancy whose said redundancy is fancied by many who enjoy nonsense writing.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Marcus

      Speaking of nonsensical redundancy...

      June 3, 2012 at 8:49 am |
    • freeb

      Sounds like someone's jealous.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:57 am |
    • Acegirlshusband

      In all fairness to your critique, there are about 300,000,000 people who thoroughly disagree with you.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:12 am |
  16. JR

    Anyone with any religious background whatsoever would recognize the themes in his work. So often it's about battling evil in some way, either externally or internally. I've read King since he started with Carrie in paperback and if there was any doubt, when The Stand came out, it was a blatant tale of 'the devil' vs 'god'. Good vs evil. Average people taking a stand for what is right, with the stakes being darkness ultimately winning if they didn't take a 'stand'. And those of little faith, falling by the wayside, one by one until only true good remained.

    I'm not a church goer, but I was raised as one and his religious themes glow neon to me. I've had a myriad of reactions to some of his tales, some are great, some not so great. But one thing is for certain, the man can write and one shouldn't kneejerk away from his work because of some stereotypical religious negativity.

    Btw, also with The Stand, the book was better than the mini-seriies. But with King, that is always true. His ability to get into the inner workings of a person's mind is notable.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:33 am |
  17. Mrs. Katz

    Christians are so full of demons, it seems.......

    June 3, 2012 at 8:28 am |
    • George

      More Generation R bullsh-t. Yeah, we Gen X'ers as you so lovingly called us have grown up and turn about's fair game. You are the weakest generation. Slave to work with no backbone, quai faith again, with no backbone. Have a backbone pu-ssies... like the generation before you and the one that came after us.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:33 am |
    • McBob79

      Here it comes. Bashing Christians again for nothing. Not a peep out of the radical left about Muslims, but mention anything about Christians and its a free for all. Must be odd to worship at th alter of government or worse no alter at all. Feel sorry for those.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:36 am |
    • Mrs. Katz

      By the way........ I was being sarcastic. So defensive so early in the morning........

      June 3, 2012 at 8:40 am |
    • Josh

      Please explain; how you were being sarcastic? Snide, a touch elitist, but not sarcastic if your other posts are any indication. If you have an argument to contribute to the discussion then by all means add it, but if all you want to do is drop the barely droll comment I would recommend keeping your comments to yourself. As this medium does not allow me to privately point out your folly I can only hope you will learn when or if one should comment over time. I am not insulting you and I intend no hard feelings, but your comments only illicit emotions that add nothing to the debate and fail to provide any effect other than name calling. You may have the right to say anything you want, well what the government will allow you to say, but you should think before you make foolish and derisive comments as your words reflect your character.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  18. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    June 3, 2012 at 8:27 am |
    • KJHill67

      No, it doesn't

      June 3, 2012 at 8:30 am |
    • Mrs. Katz

      Money changes things........

      June 3, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Dan

      A life in prayer changes things. Pay it forward

      June 3, 2012 at 8:46 am |
    • GardenGrl

      Actually, prayer does change things, there have been studies done, mostly by the medical community.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:47 am |
    • NoTheism

      GardenGirl, you are right and prayer does change things, when people are aware they're being prayed for–for the worse. See Harvard prayer study.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:59 am |
    • Hitchens

      Harvard couldn't do a credible study of wet if the whole group was standing in a pond.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:09 am |
    • NoTheism

      Hitchens, you sound like you know you should back up your claims with some kind of premise. Additionally, the study I pointed to is, in fact, the most reliable of its kind (over 3000 people involved).

      June 3, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  19. Fifi

    He likes fiction...and the Bible is fiction! Makes sense.

    June 3, 2012 at 8:25 am |
    • Dan

      Why so hostile against Christianity? I assume you feel the same about the Torah, Koran, Etc..?

      June 3, 2012 at 8:43 am |
    • NoTheism

      @Dan, in one word, yes. But it is not hostility... would you be offended if I said that Harry Potter was fictional? Of course not..

      June 3, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • Rich

      @Dan: of course. Fifi doesn't understand ANY historical event that is depicted in the Bible, despite vast archaeological evidence – ergo, it must be all fiction. Heck, the city of Troy was thought to be mere fable – then we found it. Fifi doesn't get it, and probably never will.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:42 am |
    • mcdanel

      Dan, I think we take shots at Christianity because it is "ours", the tradition with which we were raised. I'm not going to take issue with Islam or Judaism because they have not been at the core of my life, nor have they influenced the culture in which I live. Like Mr. King, I loathe organized religion. The millions of people who have died over the "right" way to worship is a horror, a blot on humankind, and not any God's intention. That said, neither am I an atheist, I've simply cut out the "middleman". Religious organizations, like any other human organization, eventually revolve around money and influence, it cannot be helped.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  20. Fifi

    Wow...so that is how Mr. King writes his novels? Plagiarism? Not cool!

    June 3, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • spoton

      He refuses to communicate with admirers if they have a story idea.

      June 3, 2012 at 8:28 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.