Do Ya Ken It? Stephen King’s Parables of Grace in Action

A thrill to see Grace in Practice mentioned on CNN! John Blake posted an article […]

David Zahl / 6.4.12

A thrill to see Grace in Practice mentioned on CNN! John Blake posted an article on the network’s Belief Blog entitled “The Gospel of Stephen King,” and one of his chief interview subjects was our intrepid podcaster/father figure. The Christian subtext of King’s work probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s read The Stand (David Foster Wallace’s second favorite book!) or watched the substitutionary fable known as The Green Mile, but it’s still nice to see it articulated with such feeling and warmth.

The same unfortunately cannot be said for the comments on the piece (nearly 1100 popped up in the first 24 hours!). The viciousness will blow your hair back – the vast majority fall into the oxymoronic “Christians are stupid and judgmental” category (i.e. ignorant and hateful comments about how Xians are ignorant and hateful), but it’s nonetheless a little disturbing vis-a-vis the amount of unchecked rage out there. It goes beyond woundedness–almost enough to make a person want to retreat into an ideological ghetto–a sad little counter-argument to those of us who might like to believe the Internet is bringing people together rather than dividing them more sharply. In other words, probably best to steer clear, unless you’re Mr. King himself, in which case you’ll find plenty of fodder for your next novel!

“People tend to think that Stephen King is anti-religious because he is a horror writer, but that’s completely mistaken,” says [Paul] 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.

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.”…

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.”

“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.”…

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.”


Are you a Stephen King reader? If so, what are your favorites? My top-five list would go like this:

  1. The Stand. One of my favorite books, period.
  2. IT. Still frightening after all these years. Tim Curry surely didn’t help matters. But the coming-of-age aspect has stuck with me just as much.
  3. Different Seasons. Shawshank and Stand By Me in one book! King is a storyteller, first and foremost — horror is simply one of the genres he employs.
  4. Salem’s Lot. A child shall lead them!
  5. Hearts in Atlantis. His most underrated book?

Honorable Mentions: Wolves of the Calla, Needful Things, and, of course, Michael Jackson’s Ghosts