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. Give me a break

    Dear christians,, we do not attack you, that is part of your psychosis in which you think people attack you. You need good therapy, is all. Many wack-os in life believed they were attacked, we call then mentally unstable. The notion of people attacking you is just scary..

    BTW, you are no different than muslims, either – get therapy so at least your children have a chance to grow up normally.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  2. Jacob

    Not sure King has yet to top the horror found in the Bible. What could be more horrifying than a god who with the temper of an angry two year old and responds by slaughtering innocents?

    June 3, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Give me a break

      we see that behavior in dictators today, the same behavior of the regimes who wrote the bible.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:34 am |
    • scoobypoo

      But wait, this is an all-loving and merciful god, who will do anything/everything for you including blissful eternal life in heaven.
      That is, unless you don't love him back, in which case you will burn and suffer horribly for all eternity in hell.
      Hmmm.... that doesn't sound loving or merciful...

      June 3, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  3. just a person

    thats such bull crap.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:30 am |
  4. smartbean

    Funny that the article doesn't mention "Children of the Corn," which is displays a grotesque, cruel religion with many parallels to radical Christian faiths. In any case, Stephen King is a bit of a hack, don't you think? His stories are the horror equivalent of romance novels: predictable and formulaic.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  5. Brad

    "The beauty of religious mania is that it has the power to explain everything. Once God is accepted as the first cause of everything which happens in the mortal world, nothing is left to chance…logic can be happily tossed out the window."

    – Stephen King, Novel Writer.

    Nice try.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:26 am |

    Anyone know how to get rid of a smelly beaver ? It's smelled like egg salad for the last 4 days now.I have a big date.HELP!!!

    June 3, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Frank

      Yes. You just need to tell her that it's time for her to leave and go home.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:22 am |

    My hole itches.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:20 am |
  8. NationOfCowards

    It's safe to attack christians.DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT attack muslims or jews.Stay in the shallow end where it's safe.Do not go in the deep end and attack jews or muslims.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:18 am |
    • scoobypoo

      All organized religions are ridiculous, not to mention dangerous.
      This article specifically talks about christianity so specific criticism is not out of context (as your mention of judaism and/or islam is).

      June 3, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Give me a break

      actually, christian/muslim, they are all the same.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • Frank

      When Muslims become 80% of the population, try and push creationism and other myths into our science classes, force their god on our currency, take over our government as you Christians do then they'll be in the bulls eye. Stop with the pathetic persecution complex already. It just makes you Christians look more silly then you already are.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • ReasonablePerson88

      Jews and Muslims are just a whacky as Christians. They all believe in myths fabricated by ignorant humans who barely crawled out of their caves. There, happy?

      June 3, 2012 at 10:30 am |
    • Keith

      Why not, Yahweh was a Bedouin war god from the deserts of Edom, Allah just means "the god" but is commonly interrupted to mean Elohim the God of Abraham, then the Christians mixed the two of them up and added one more so they have three gods “the trinity” for just in case.

      There is really no problem making fun of any of you, all of you are following myths of some bronze age goat herders, and some of you believe those stories are the literal truth.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:33 am |
  9. ObamaCanWalkOnWater

    Everyone should kneel before Obama.He's the chosen one.He is the greatest human being of all time.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Give me a break

      I see.. you are one of the uneducated fools who feel the government should make the economy safe for all.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  10. Boberino

    What a load of crap. Christians will look to and find anything by which to attach their faith to the coat-tails of successful pop-culture. I cannot wait to hear the justification for how the Twilight series is a dramatic retelling of some heretofore unpopular Biblical allegory.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • Give me a break

      remember, the religious were scared into believing. It is a psychosis.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • Frank

      I've noticed this too. But what do you expect from a religion that stole all its myths from previous cults and gods? And also stole all the its holidays from pagans?

      June 3, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • qqqqqjim

      Ain't that the truth!! If I thought that King was all that religious, I'd never read another one of his books!

      June 3, 2012 at 10:22 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Boberino, do you think Rod Sterling sitting in the dark to record his thoughts to create his stories isn't biblical aka those that refuse Jesus' truth are in the dark, his followers that love Him stay in his light.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  11. Follower of Christ

    Creation is proof that there is a living God. To say you need more proof than the proof that is right in front of your face clearly shows that you are blind. Science is made up of more theory than proof, and i am not quick to believe any mortal/finite man saying he found the answers to the universe which is infinite. Look at the engineering of this world, everything in it, and everything outside of it. Anyone who has the balls to deny the Creator, and give His credit to coincidence simply denys life. Anyone who denys life does not belong to the Creator and is therfore cursed. All who are cursed may God have mercy on you on that day. Remember its never to late to turn to God, do it while He is still allowing you to live. And remember this quote "I would rather live my life as if there is a God and die to find out there isn't, than live my life as if there isn't and die to find out there is.” Romans 1:20 "For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God." I pray that God opens your eyes and blesses you....

    June 3, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Boberino

      This book is true because this book says it is true. What wonderful circular logic you have, grandma.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • scoobypoo

      Yes, we've heard your silly diatribe before and it is so full of... holes. The biggest hole being your main premise that the fact that the universe exists is proof that there is a god that created it.
      But using that logic, then something must also have created god. Who did this? And then who created the god-creator ? And into infinity. So silly.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • qqqqqjim

      And the Sky Monkey created Islamists so they could kill Christians. You're sick, brother!! Save your babbling crap for church and keep it off these pages!!

      June 3, 2012 at 10:25 am |
    • old golfer

      Believe as you will. But, please quit preaching to other's about your book. Any religion that puts fear into a child is not good. Yes, I was raised with your book and scared to death for my first 12 years. After that, I said to hell with it, no hope for me. Of course, now I know better. Religion is bad for you.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • Frank

      That's like saying fairies cause rain so every time it rains is proof of fairies. You're such a hypocrite ,concerning science, as you sit there on your PC, using electricity, commenting your bullshit on the Internet for all to see what an imbecile you are.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • HeavenSent

      True science uncovers Jesus' truth. True science and Jesus' wisdom have always and will remain in harmony.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  12. Barry Bonds

    It's not cool to believe in God these days, therefore, you shouldn't.I feel everyone should sip $11 coffee's at trendy coffee shops,listen to underground acoustic music,care more about polar bears than humans,wear black framed glasses to look really kewl and smurt,jog in place at red lights,drink Pabst blue ribbon,hate God, and be ironic.It's the kewl and smurt way to be.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:11 am |
    • Give me a break

      don't confuse 'cool' with 'common sense'. If you do, then I'd have to say it isn't cool to do 'blood letting' these days as a cure for sickness.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:14 am |
    • qqqqqjim

      I'm 75 years old and never have believed in a 'sky monkey' so I guess I'm way cool dude!!

      June 3, 2012 at 10:26 am |
    • scoobypoo

      What is "not cool" is to blindly believe something that is clearly irrational.

      Most people are brainwashed from birth to believe whatever their parents believe, and then the cycle continues.
      Some of us have "woken up" to reason. I hope you do too.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:31 am |
    • HeavenSent

      scoobypoo, do you truly believe what you posted are your original thoughts? LOL. It's the mantra of the non-believers played over and over again for you to believe as you continue your sinful, shameful ways sucking up oxygen on our God given planet.

      June 3, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
  13. TG

    Starting with Satan's seduction of Eve in the Garden of Eden, the intermingling of distortions and lies have existed with what is the "truth". Jesus said of Satan, that "he did not stand fast in the truth, because truth is not in him. When he speaks the lie, he speaks according to his own disposition, because he is a liar and the father of [the lie]."(John 8:44)

    For example, in the 1st century C.E., a group of people called the Gnostics (from the Greek word gno′sis, meaning “knowledge”) claimed superior knowledge through secret revelation and boasted that they were the “correctors of the apostles.” Gnosticism intertwined philosophy, speculation, and pagan mysticism with apostate Christianity.

    Mr Stephen King has done the same thing. The apostle Peter wrote that some made up "artfully contrived false stories" and fed these to individuals as "truth".(2 Pet 1:16) These have made up their own form of "Christianity" and displayed for everyone to see. The apostle Paul wrote: "For what fellowship do righteousness and lawlessness have? Or what sharing does light have with darkness ? Further, what harmony is there between Christ and Be´li·al (or Satan) ?"(2 Cor 6:14, 15)

    He then continues, quoting from Isaiah 52:11: "Therefore get out from among them, and separate yourselves,’ says Jehovah, ‘and quit touching the unclean thing’”; “‘and I will take you in.’” “‘And I shall be a father to you, and you will be sons and daughters to me,’ says Jehovah the Almighty.” (2 Cor 6:17, 18) A true Christian never adds (or subtracts) to "the truth" of the Bible, but closely adheres to the command to "quit touching the unclean thing", of which Stephen King has not done.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:10 am |
    • Give me a break

      the religious are one scary bunch, I agree.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:12 am |
    • Leila

      You are really walking on dangerous ground, practically accusing King of being the Antichrist himself! His novels are NOT meant to be prophecies! They are stories with a bit of theological a d spiritual undercurrents. They have biblical allusions with themes of redemption. More novelists ought to master this literary strategy. Who are you to judge who God uses to convey messages of faith and redemption? Read a few more of your own Watchtower publications and critique the messages there. By the way, how long did it take you to write your comment? Did you record your "time" to the Watchtower Society as "witnessing"?

      June 3, 2012 at 10:28 am |
  14. James R. Hunt

    I am rather saddened the writers of this article only glanced at the surface of King's works and selfishly trying to label and declare his books to be of Christian Value. King writes using basic human arch types of good vs evil which far predate Christianity. They stimulate the most primitive of our fears and also our hopes. Thus he can resonate with a large diverse audience. He has also shown very dark aspects of Christianity. The evils of fanatics and hypocrites. The mother from Carrie. Father Callahan did not find his faith in the shallow trappings of his organized religion but from understanding the divine (the white) in himself. in kings universe "Man Jesus" was both god and man. But so are all of Kings Characters. To close in "The Stand" Mother Abigail and Nick Andros (who is portrayed as being at lest agnostic) have a discussion (through Ralph reluctantly translating for Nick) about his belief (or lack of) in the Christian god. Mother Abigail say's it basically doesn't matter because God (who is only part of bigger divinity called "The white") believes in him. SK's religion does not fit into anyone flavor but can touch all flavors and show them we are all human and we all do fear what goes bump in the night.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:10 am |
  15. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Just because an artist may happen to sample some preexisting work doesn't mean that person believes in or even likes what he sampled.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  16. Pilson Whillips

    How come black people love handouts so much ? Boy, if mooching were a sport, they would dominate.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:08 am |
    • Give me a break

      you must be a christian, Pilson.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:09 am |
  17. Give me a break

    Kings beliefs and writings have zero influence on fact. He can not prove their is a god, nor can the christians or muslims. The bible is no different that any other bunch of books written by man and even excludes the writings that didn't sell at the time.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:07 am |
    • Consequence

      When it comes to the big questions, nobody can prove much of anything...neither science nor religion. at the end of the day, it comes down to faith. If you think organized religion takes God out of true faith as King seems to suggest or whether Science takes God out of Nature as atheists suggest or whether you see God in both organized religion and in nature, as Christians suggest – you have to pick your faith and which body of work you will lend the most credence to. For me, I have no reason not to believe the witness of so many people who knew Jesus in his life on earth and testified of his teachings and his sufferings on our behalf. but, then, that is just me and maybe a billion others.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  18. Yaakov Mench

    Obama's presidential is the scariest story every written.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:06 am |
    • Give me a break

      Yes, he was left a scary mess.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  19. mklsgl

    What a 'No Duh!' Every literary text is essentially borne of The Bible or another, similarly sacred book.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:04 am |
  20. djg

    Sad that religious folk now have to look to Stephen King for validation. Pickings are poor these days I guess.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Barry Banger

      Agreed.Just like it's sad that the left looks to Billy Maher.It's all quite pathetic.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:03 am |
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About this blog

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.