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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. Barry Banger

    Is it true that Elizabeth Warren claimed to be a minority to gain an unfair advantage ? I mean, I do realise she's a democrat,therefore using race isn't exactly a new concept ; but that's just awful. She's about as much indian as I am part bulldog.I wonder why the left doesn't call her out for being a manipulative,lying,schemer.Even the left's God ( Billy Maher ) did a nw rules where he said ' if you have to declare what percentage indian you are, you're not indian ' years ago.What she did was criminal,offensive,and telling of how democrats operate.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  2. minhajarifin

    Growing up in Pakistan, stories of Jins, magic and miracles were very common. It was weird because they did two opposite things at the same time. We were scared of Jins and witches, but we were also made brave by the feeling that if we prayed, we would be safe from them. So this Tom & Jerry game continued and still does to this day. Marriages are called off because someone with special powers spoke to a Jin who said 'she's not the one for you.' Some people openly claim to see through walls and even provide a 'lost and found' service. Some houses are considered so haunted that real estate agents actually use that as part of their negotiations. I even know of a man who claims he travels through time and is fairly respected in society and consulted on important matters! Chivalrous men often accompany a scared lady into an area of the house that is considered occupied by a demon. One thing that is common between a lot of these creatures is that they are invisible which makes verification a difficult process. Most recently in Karachi, an educated girl told me that a tall witch visits Bar B Q tonight (very tasty restaurant near the sea) on some chosen day of the week. The waiters who know she is no ordinary human, serve her food and then move away. I wanted to ask her what she eats, if she likes pepsi or does she get a side order of fries. But details always kill the mystery and with it the fun. You need faith and fear to keep this party going.

    Minhaj Arifin
    Author of
    How Desis Became The Greatest Nation On Earth

    June 3, 2012 at 9:58 am |
  3. twitter.com/whybs

    On the other side, Stephen Hawking wrote

    A Brief History of Time
    The Universe in a Nutshell
    The Future of Spacetime
    The Nature of Space and Time
    The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time
    The Cosmos Explained
    On the Shoulders of Giants

    For sure the two Stephens will be discussing religions with those Pharaohs, and Hawking nailed it – God is unnecessary! 🙂

    June 3, 2012 at 9:55 am |
  4. GrimPeeper

    I loved King's book about a society that becomes so backward, they elect a community organizer with no experience to run the country.I can't recall the name of it but it was a scary book.In the end, the same crazy people vote for him again while chanting ' yes we can ' like rabid wolves.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:50 am |
    • Bryan Danek

      Do you really want to play that game? If you would admit the truth that George W. Bush should not have been elected President based on his abyssmal record as both a businessman and Governor then I will admit that a former community organizor that then became a State Sentor for 11 years followed by being a U.S. Senator should have been more qualified to be President. I think if we both can agree on that point than we would probably agree that our last great President thus far has been Bill Clinton and that we need to change the way we elect Presidents.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Keith

      Sequal coming in 2012

      June 3, 2012 at 10:13 am |
    • Bryan Danek

      Oh and just to clarify – Yes, I do assume you did vote for George W. Bush both times (thanks for that) and that you voted for McCain. I do admit that McCain is a very good man though and I would have trusted him to at least do the right things on most accounts except he tends to be a Neo-con which I think Amnerica has no place pushing Democracy (or anything for that matter) by military force. I just wish that the people who voted for two terms of Bush would sit out these terms and not say anything until history judges President Obama as we were left to do with George W. If Obama truly screws up the country as much as Bush did then it will be our turn next time to sit on our hands and take our medicine.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Bryan Danek

      Oh almost forgot....

      Stephen King 2012!

      June 3, 2012 at 10:18 am |
  5. PumpNDump

    "team jesus" is so logically challenged, ignorant and utterly useless.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  6. Welled

    Hes a slick writer no doubt. His are probably the last novels I have read as television and the movies are more convient. He can spin a tale and keep you waiting for the next page and wanting to accomplish the end of the book. I liked Carpenters The Fog in movie form really well done. Kings Misery and there was another I forget the name. Actually 2 other movies were really well done also. He could have written the bible I suppose. Jesus could only go so far as an alien. I'm still looking around for the mud n' spit cure he used on the blind guy. He could use a little more Lazuras stinkith humor of course (funny as the bible every got). Except for the I did not laugh yes you did line with Sara. He's a very, very intelligent person of course King is. God knows what hes writting maybe Jesus 2 the wrath, destruction and pillaging of the earth. Take a trip to Saudi Arabia Steven check out the volcanic action. Its a sight you won't soon forget.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:49 am |
  7. Bluidshay

    I think if you grow up steeped in something, it makes sense if the "something" will be evident in patterns in your work as an adult. King is not the only author where these themes occur; I'd say that it is pretty prevalent in American horror writing. Dean Kuntz' Strangers, Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain, Anne Rice (although granted she's pretty blatant in her convoluted relationship with Christianity), Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes....all have themes of broken people, children (or childlike animals in Kuntz' case), and good vs. evil. To me this article is more like the people who see Jesus in their jelly jars....if you are looking for something, you will see it everywhere.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • Kaitlyn

      Well, Bluidshay, you had best keep looking andif you can locate Redrebelred, take her/him along for the search!

      June 3, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  8. Deborah

    Since becoming a Stephen King fan in the mid-seventies, I have always enjoyed his religious aspect of "good vs. evil". Years ago my unlearned mind found the connection between the Bible and his stories, so it's no surprise that experts on the subject are now writing about it. Thank you Mr. King for entertaining us, and especially for bestowing some valuable moral lessons to many unsuspecting, and perhaps, unbelieving readers.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  9. redrebelred

    The Obama deception is a great movie

    June 3, 2012 at 9:48 am |
    • K

      Go back to your redneck bed – your mama is waiting to breed.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:57 am |
  10. Anthony

    Read "The Stand", "Insomnia", and "Pet Cemetary" so far, loved all of them and have a lot of catching up to do, and I find this very interesting as I plan on reading more of his novels.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:47 am |
  11. fastball

    I've read Mr. King since "Carrie"...some of his books are great, some not-so-great – but usually all are GOOD. I'm not sure if this writer (Mr. Blake) is using a lot of literary license in this article – but the war between true faith and true evil is the plot of most MOST books, not just King's. Is our literary hero a "true" hero, or does he just talk the talk? Is he pure of heart and soul? Modern authors have thrown open the doors to all types of heroes – even flawed ones. Ones that have fallen and are now looking for acts of redemption. Now you've got vampires as the good guys, for crying out loud.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  12. mary bangs

    What a great article. I do believe you have to be careful of what you allow into your mind nut often Christian novels are mostly read by Christians which is great but we need to reach non Christians and they would most likely read those novels which could peak their interest to learn more. I am going to have to read some of them.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  13. OhNoYouDitnt

    It's been discovered that Elizabeth Warren is .00000000000000000001 % gremlin.Her great great great great great great great great great great great grandmother once had relations with a gremlin in Egypt.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:44 am |
    • PumpNDump

      Give it a rest, nitwit.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:51 am |
  14. mendacitysux

    It's amazing the things religion is trying to do to remain relevent. Latching on to Kings name for free publicity.
    However, their books do read the same as his and are just as believable. Think how much more rich he would be if he followed L Ron Hubbards lead.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:44 am |
  15. #1fan

    I partly agree with tsm but still find nothng more exciting than finding a new SK novel on the bookshelves, he's still the best
    and Stephan if you're reading this, you must be freaking bored

    June 3, 2012 at 9:43 am |
  16. OhNoYouDitnt

    Did you know that Elizabeth Warren is .00000000000000000000000000000000000001 african American ?

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

      Now the tea party will want to see her birth certificate

      June 3, 2012 at 9:46 am |
    • Mrs. Katz

      Aren't we all?

      June 3, 2012 at 9:50 am |
  17. mike

    Good article, but I think it is fairly obvious to anyone who read the books. In Desperation for example, it is solely about God vs. Tak, with David being the one he speaks and acts through. His novels do have some cynicism about religion thrown in as well. It is a very honest and even-sided presentation of someone's faith. I think it adds to the quality of the novels, although I'm sure some would disagree. Regarding tsm's comment – I agree, the newer books aren't that great compared to his early works.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:35 am |
  18. Kat

    They reference "Green Mile" throughout, though one of his strongest biblical references is in "The Shawshank Redemption." Religion is a running theme, with the prisoners being required to read the bible. Andy uses his to carve out a hiding place for his rock hammer, and prior to his escape, ironically uses the warden's own words: "Salvation lies within."

    June 3, 2012 at 9:33 am |
  19. breathe deep

    Stephen, if you're reading this, I am still a fan because I am able to decipher between reality and the world depicted in your novels. You've made great stories in history, and the only way to keep those stories alive is to blur the ones between fantasy and reality as you have done so well with in the past.

    June 3, 2012 at 9:30 am |
  20. tsm

    Stephen, if you're reading this...I use to be a number 1 fan. I've read most all your books since The Shining came out. Can you go back to writing good books? In your early books, I cared about the characters. In your recent works the characters are totally disposable. Plus, your stories start out okay and then the endings are just thrown together and I'm left with a sense of "what the hell was that all about?"

    June 3, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Mrs. Katz

      Stephen just called me, and his answer is, "NO!".......

      June 3, 2012 at 9:27 am |
    • Kathy

      I want to second that thought, tsm.

      June 3, 2012 at 9:29 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.