Christians have a unique relationship with the works of Stephen King. On hearing his name, most think of his wildly popular horror novels -- characterized by brutal violence, adult themes, and harsh profanity. To mention “Christian themes” in his work seems oxymoronic at best, if not downright ludicrous. Surely there’s not much more to be said about the creator of Carrie, It, and The Shining; the mandate of Philippians 4:8 seems clear enough.
Readers of his work, though, may have a slightly different perspective. Not all of King’s books are created equal, and amid all the graphic savagery, some surprisingly profound themes emerge. A recent CNN Religion article concurs, pointing to three major Christian themes throughout King’s work: the pure and powerful faith of children, the seemingly “cruel” sovereignty of God, and the sweeping power of grace for the broken. For the most part, the article is an excellent treatment of King’s work, though it does sidestep the dilemma many Christian readers face: How can deep spiritual meaning be reconciled with abject moral depravity in a work of fiction?
Acclaimed Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor (a devout Catholic) was also known for her dark—at times shockingly dark—short stories. Her best-known work, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is a story of roadside murder that draws on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment:
"Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead," The Misfit continued, "and He shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said and his voice had become almost a snarl. (O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”)
Throughout her work, O’Connor emphasizes the terrible cost of embracing Christianity—the painful sacrifice of earthly gains as a component of redemption. She is famously quoted as saying, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” To conceptualize this grace—and fully appreciate its overwhelming extent—O’Connor depicts both the horrors of godlessness and the trauma of self-denial.
In a similar fashion, the appeal of King’s work goes beyond the merely macabre. By depicting complex spiritual themes against a backdrop of the grotesque, he casts good and evil into uniquely sharp relief. By contrast, modern Christian fiction too often is characterized by an almost pathological aversion to stark depictions of sin.
In his introduction to the expanded edition of The Stand (a dark sci-fi epic depicting an American apocalypse), King calls his book a story of “dark Christianity.” This is a fair characterization. Throughout the novel, King dwells on the shocking and morbid elements of the Gospel story: the torturous Passion of Christ, the nihilistic vainglory of evil, and the sacrifice of innocents, among others. Yet alongside this bleakness rests a strong sense of divine purpose, and it is this subtext that sets King’s books apart from their genre. For King, life is meaningful, even if that meaning is sometimes opaque:
“Best not to look back. Best to believe that there will be happily ever afters all the way around—and so there may be; who is to say there will not be such endings? Not all boats which sail away into darkness never find the sun again, or the hand of another child; if life teaches anything at all, it teaches that there are so many happy endings that the man who believes there is no God needs his rationality called into serious question.” (King, It)
When was the last time a major Christian novel failed to offer clear-cut answers by the story’s end? In mainstream Christian fiction, too often are the messy details of life and redemption brushed aside—understandable, given the likely target audience, but also unfortunate.
Admittedly, King’s depictions sometimes veer into blood-spattered excess. His books are not for everyone, and Christians should not be too quick to embrace them. King’s writings do, however, wrestle with hard questions that Christian fiction must engage more effectively: Has God abandoned this fallen world? How can deeply flawed Christians stand against the seemingly infinite power of evil? Is faith in an unseen God justified in a world where horror is all too tangible?
Embracing Christianity frequently comes at a great cost, and earthly questions often seem unanswerable, as both O’Connor and King have observed. If nothing else, perhaps today’s Christian writers could start by better affirming that reality.
John Ehrett is a marketing and program assistant at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.He currently attends Patrick Henry College, where he is studying international politics and policy.