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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. Give me a break

    Satan was the coolest character in religious fantasy. Satan never wrote his own bible explaining his side of the story, yet christians call him evil. As usual, christians have to persecute others by being unfair to them.

    June 3, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Personally, I like Onan. He was mandated by Yahweh to pork his brother's wife. Mmmmmm. And he has a nice adjective named after him.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:05 am |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      D'oh, i meant noun.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:08 am |
    • DrDiomedes

      Azazel and Samyaza are pretty cool too

      June 3, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  2. Kevin

    I haven't read much of his horror but loved the short stories that became Shawshank Redemption and Stand By Me on film.

    June 3, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • DrDiomedes

      Both short stories btw were strongly influenced by King's Christian beliefs (kidding)

      June 3, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  3. Dave Harris

    While King does sometimes draw on Christian mythology (what Western writer can avoid that?), his outlook is certainly not Christian. For example, in his novel "IT", he posits the supreme being to be a cosmic turtle. Although there is often a sense of things happening for a reason and a guiding force behind events, Jesus has never once shown up in any of King's stories that I've read. Christians like to imagine that their religion is behind everything, but it just isn't true.

    June 3, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Terry

      Read "Desperation"

      June 3, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • Give me a break

      remember, chistians live by fear. They are scared easily, which now makes perfect sense that king might get ideas from the christian fantasies.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Dave, go onto your favorite search engine and put "fear of the Lord" to learn what the word fear means. I suppose future generations will have to search what was meant by "crib" when referring to the place you live.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:41 pm |
  4. Kebos

    The one thing Stephen King novels and the bible have in common .... both are a work of fiction written by those with wild imaginations.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Hello

      For more details on that bible

      Read Caesar's Messiah...by Joseph Atwill

      Hint.. is a crowd control joke book..

      June 3, 2012 at 11:02 am |
    • penny

      While obviously deficit in your belief, at least you have the sense not to bill S. King as a "prophet" for Christianity.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  5. penny

    James 2:19-20

    19-20 Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That's just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands?

    CNN, sell stupid somewhere else; this "person" is no prophet of God. I am sure he is laughing behind his "cat got the canary" grin at just how easily led people truly are.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • tallulah13

      Did you read the article or just the headline?

      June 3, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Jeff

      How do you know King is complacent? What do you know of his deeds?

      June 3, 2012 at 11:03 am |
  6. Give me a break

    Wait.. I see now. The pic of the guy with a blue face looks like the pope.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:58 am |
    • Ricky L

      Don't quit your day job.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • Give me a break

      you're right, the pope is much scarier.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:04 am |
    • DrDiomedes

      Looks like a right-wing Calvinist to me

      June 3, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  7. faboge

    You have to be a disciple of Satan to see the "religious" quality in Kings work!

    June 3, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Give me a break

      guess what? There is no satan either.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • G. Zeus Kreiszchte

      Well, since there is no Satan....like there is no Pennywise the Clown

      June 3, 2012 at 11:00 am |
    • tallulah13

      Have you ever read "The Stand"?

      June 3, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  8. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    I wouldn't be surprised to discover that Zahl was also into something as bogus as numerology. Oooh look at all the magical relationships between the count of the letters in King's name and x, y, z from the bible .....

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

    Wait. So the only words King actually is quoted as saying is that he 'hates organized religion' and in his stories you find religious leaders as the great villains (prison warden in Shawshank Redemption) and this article concludes he is a great proponent of religious faith? By showing how some parts of his stories have parallels in the bible's stories? Did a 6th grader do this as a book report? Wow.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:50 am |
    • Jeff

      You don't understand the difference between "organized religion" and faith in God?

      June 3, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • lisaleev

      It says he identifies himself as a Christian and you can be a person of faith without belonging to an organized religion.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • Give me a break

      they are both silly, religion and belief in god.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:57 am |
    • DrDiomedes

      The difference is that religious has associated rites and ceremonies whereas faith is does not

      June 3, 2012 at 11:07 am |
    • Hello

      Christianity is an organized religion.. rooted in Jewish myth... created to fool the Jews to be docile and obey / accept Roman rule.
      Read Caesar's Messiah for more details.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:07 am |
  10. Jeremy

    Mr. Zahl appears to be making a real stretch here. King was Methodist, so sure, has a background in religion and he's used that to create and sell some great books.
    Trying to highlight his religiosity is misplaced and seems a desperate attempt on Zahl's part to somehow wrap King's success around Christianity.
    If King had been raised with any other religion, he likely would have used those sets of values to write awesome books.
    He's a phenomenal writer that plays to our base-fears, which in America happen to be largely rooted in biblical events.
    Capitalizing on that fact makes him a clever writer... not an evangelist.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  11. DrDiomedes

    King's novels share similar ideas with the bible because they both come from the same source - the collective unconscious. The answer is in Joseph Campbell's book "A Hero with One Thousand Faces".

    June 3, 2012 at 10:42 am |
    • Hello

      Read Caesar's Messiah by Joseph Atwill on the creation of the Christian Myth.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • DrDiomedes

      And read Carl Jung, Eric Von Neumann, etc.... I am sure there are many viewpoint that are logically consistent. Thanks for the pointer

      June 3, 2012 at 11:14 am |
    • Debbie

      I think this is an insightful comment and would prefer that you write an article highlighting this connection instead of the "Christianity" behind King's works.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:20 am |
    • Candlewycke

      I say this as an admirer of Joseph Campbell. He was a brilliant thinker and but his work is most valid only to those who agree with him, just as is the case for Jung. Where they fail is that they tend to ignore some of the very profound differences between various myths in favor of the similarities. So the Hero with a thousand faces, while a great work of scholarship is a far cry from a definitive answer to world myth origins. It would be better called the thousand heroes we have given one mask to wear.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm |
  12. rtbrno65

    I stopped reading King years ago when I started noticing that the characters all seemed the same.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  13. Josef Bleaux

    Stephen King has always been a second or third class author. I've never seen the attraction to his books and movies. They're not well written. I was aware he was a Christian, it's obvious in some of his books. The Stand for example. If he wants to include ancient mythology and ignorant superst!tion in his writing, that's fine, it goes along with the genre – fiction.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • tallulah13

      Some people tend to underestimate King's skill as a writer because of his choice to write in fantastic settings. I think that's simply snobbery. King may not be the most consistent writer, but his best works contain intelligent and beautifully written observations about humanity that transcend genre.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:15 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Yes, Stephen King does use his God given gifts.

      Amen.

      June 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  14. Keith

    This was just silly, I couldn't even find any Christians to attack in the Comments.

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

      CNN, please use common sense and disable comments from some stories. You know you will get nothing but non-believing bloggers on every religious story. This is a nice little piece, well-written, and in the belief blog . . . but, once you scan down a bit further, the story gets slaughtered by the same-ole, same-ole gang of people making judgements on people's beliefs. I feel bad for the story's writer, he obviously did research.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:06 am |
  15. palintwit

    I am Palin. Therefore, I am filth. Give me bath salts. Please.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  16. Give me a break

    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 10:34 am |
    • Jeff

      I'm a Christian, and I don't think I'm under attack. Those who do think they're under attack tend to have extreme rightwing politics in common. As for you, seek help for your bigotry toward everyone who doesn't think exactly like you.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:59 am |
    • Candlewycke

      So Christians are not under attack, they are just suffering from psychosis and are just wackos who are mentally unstable who cant raise children who will grow up normally? Wow, sounds like an attack to me. You remind me of a WW2 era B-17 bomber with a pretty lady holding flowers painted on the nose named Peace, love and happiness. Of course the belly of that particular beast was filled with some pretty big bombs. Just like your hiding behind I don't attack anyone while going to great lengths to attack them.

      June 4, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  17. jk

    It would take a pretty foolish reader not to have noticed this. It's part of the reason that King is a namby-pamby hack who writes about prosaic suburban scares. He often directly rips off H.P. Lovecraft, who was far more authentically chilling in part because he was a relentless honest and illusion-free atheist and materialist.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:33 am |
    • Jill

      What the heck is a namby pamby?

      June 3, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • Ricky L

      Maybe Lovecraft was just one more cynical, disillusioned lost soul with no more truth in him than can be found in any bar room in America.

      And maybe you just agree with him.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Nunez

      They have this thing called a Dictionary. . . and internet also.

      June 3, 2012 at 11:32 am |
  18. G. Zeus Kreiszchte

    Oh I know! Any movie that had three parts must be a parallel to the birth, death and resurrection of Jeebus! YES! The Matrix. Star Wars (4, 5, and 6), etc. Back to the Future? Sure. If any movie in 3 parts can be generalized as Good-Evil-Good, then it must be about the triumphant resurrection of Heebuh-Jeebus!

    June 3, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • ?

      i get your point but stars actually is (somewhat) which is not surprising being he must have stole it from some where since he hasnt done any good stuff since then

      June 3, 2012 at 2:43 pm |
  19. Mick

    Why is the picture of the blue colored vampire of such low quality? It looks like a frame grab from a VHS tape. C'mon CNN this isn't up to your standards.

    June 3, 2012 at 10:32 am |
    • Mo

      CNN doesn't have standards anymore.

      June 3, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  20. Mark

    I used to read SK all the time, some time a few times to make sure I didint miss anything. There are plenty of stories that show the triumph of both religious and human spirit. They also show the other side of that equation as well. You simply cant have one without the other, and the sad truth is that more often than not, the bad side wins. Not in the majority of his stories though.

    I find the news media far more disturbing than anything SK ever wrote, because they arent stories, they are true. SK isnt causing it, people are. Religious people arent exempt, but in fact have a history of horrors that make SK stories look tame. The bible is no exception with its jealous, angry God laying waste to an entire planet, saving only his favorite.

    Anyway, if you actually read his books, you will find they are stories where good prevails. When it doesnt, it is usually man that is evil. Sounds like the Bible to me. Whats the problem?

    June 3, 2012 at 10:31 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.