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What Stephen King Has Taught Me About the Real World

What Stephen King Has Taught Me About the Real World

It was 2015. I was on a camping trip with my family, lying in a tent in the mountains of Colorado. It was dark, everyone else was fast asleep, and if you’ve ever slept in a tent in the woods, you know how loud the nature noises can be. It was already the kind of night ghost stories are made of. It also happened to be the night I was reading my very first Stephen King book. I started with a doozy, The Shining, which takes place in a haunted, isolated place in the mountains of Colorado. Yikes.

I’d always avoided Stephen King, mostly because I don’t much enjoy being afraid. Now here I was, shivering in a dark tent, wind rattling the sides, feeling very much exposed. I’m sure it was just the cool mountain air that caused my goosebumps. Nope. I was scared. And I have been on a quest to read everything by him ever since. 

Now here is the disclaimer. Stephen King is NOT for everyone. I’ve convinced my wife, at least one campus pastor, and a few select friends to read some of his books, but this is not an apologetic to start reading him. Some of his books are truly terrifying, and the content isn’t always PG. Or even PG-13. A few of them are downright rough.

Even so, I have become a fan, and not just for the entertainment. Stephen King has expanded my imagination and taught me several important lessons about the real world. I might even go so far as to say that his writing has increased my capacity for faith, but if I did, you might accuse me of pushing it (although I really think it has).

As of now, I’ve read thirty-three of his books, and if that sounds like a lot, he’s written more than eighty since his debut with Carrie, in 1974. While some of them are absolutely terrifying, I’ve been surprised by the diversity within his writing style. People often assume it’s all horror but in my experience, most of them are just suspenseful mysteries. He’s also written some good dramas (Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption), a little fantasy (The Eyes of the Dragon), and at least one that reads like historical science fiction, if that’s even a real category (11/22/63).

He’s super funny, unbelievably creative, and has a surprisingly good window into the human experience. I’d be hard pressed to tell you my favorite, but my top five so far are: The Shining, Misery, It, The Green Mile, and 11/22/63. Oh, and definitely Shawshank. And maybe Dolores Claiborne. Did I forget The Stand? I could keep going, but I’ll stop there.

If there is any living celebrity I could have over for dinner, Stephen King would be very high on the list (his memoir, On Writing, makes him seem surprisingly normal). I’d love to talk with him about what he actually believes about the universe. He clearly has a decent grasp of the Bible and the Christian faith, and it sure seems like he has a profound belief in the supernatural. But what does he actually believe?

I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that Stephen King has taught me more about the real world than I ever expected, and it is these things that keep me coming back.

 

There is more to life than what I can see

First, his writing has reinforced my belief that there is more to life than what I can see. To me, this has been one of his greatest gifts. Now, I’m a Christian, so of course I believe in the supernatural. But I’m also a 21st century Westerner, and according to philosopher Charles Taylor, I live with what he refers to as the “immanent frame.” Like most of us, Christian or not, I live much of my life believing only in what I can see.

Sure, I believe in God. I pray and I expect him to respond. I also believe in supernatural evil actively seeking to destroy everything good. This is what Christians are supposed to believe, right? But it is so hard to maintain that faith when we humans arrogantly and regularly assume that we can find a rational explanation for everything.

Not when I read Stephen King. His writing makes the supernatural plausible. He allows for mystery and tension that defies explanation; that there are things in this world that can’t be explained, that maybe shouldn’t be explained. That there isn’t a formula or lab or a logical argument to answer every question. And that we humans don’t actually know everything.

The Bible also doesn’t answer my every question. The gospel of Jesus contains tension and mystery and things I cannot explain. I don’t have to see in order to believe. I don’t have to fully understand in order to trust. Stephen King expands my capacity to be ok with that.

After all, it says in Hebrews 11:1, Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (NIV) I know his books are fiction (Right?). They’re even outlandish sometimes. Yet they make faith somehow just a tiny bit more plausible. He’s helped me see that maybe, just maybe, there is more to the universe than the things I can see. 

 

There is real evil in our world

Second, he’s made it easier to believe in serious, objective, evil. There is real evil in our world. I think we know that simply by turning on the news, and our Christian faith confirms it, and even offers some explanation for it. But Stephen King helps me feel it, helps me hate it, and even shows me my own propensity for it. 

Nobody can create a villain quite like he can, and as Christians, we believe there is true supernatural evil seeking to destroy us. Peter reminds us: Be sober-minded, be alert. Your adversary the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for anyone he can devour (1 Peter 5:8). The devil is real. Demons, darkness, and hell are as real as the chair I’m sitting in, but so hard for most of us to believe in. 

Yet ever since reading It, I can’t even look at a sewer grate the same way, and while I don’t believe in Pennywise, I do believe in a cosmic enemy who is even more evil. Seriously. Even more evil than Pennywise! There are few villains I’ve ever hated more (or feared more) than the ones Stephen King has created, and it has reminded me to have an appropriate fear and hatred of the real supernatural evil in our world. The devil is non-fiction.

But it’s not just supernatural evil. There is real evil alive within each of us. It’s not just Pennywise I’m afraid of, it’s also Nurse Annie in Misery. It’s the evil that lives within the human heart (including mine) that’s also scary. Stephen King understands this, having battled his own demons of drug and alcohol addiction. He understands physical pain, after having been hit (and almost killed) by a fast moving van. Evil isn’t fiction, you shouldn’t trifle with it, and Stephen King has expanded my imagination for our need for rescue. We all long for a hero.

 

Good will ultimately triumph

Which leads to the last thing I’ve learned about the real world from Stephen King. Good will ultimately triumph. No matter how bad the story, no matter how harsh the evil, there is goodness in our world that seeks to overcome it. There is good that resists the evil, and sometimes even a hero who will help overcome it. 

Ultimately, I believe that hero is Jesus. He is the Promised One of Genesis 3 who will crush the head of the serpent under his feet. He is the Victor of 1 Corinthians 15 who had defeated the ultimate enemies of sin and death. He is the One we long for, and he is coming back to make this world right (just read Revelation 19:11-16!).

I don’t know what Stephen King believes. I don’t know what he thinks about Jesus. But I’m grateful for the unexpected ways he has strengthened my belief and my hope and my longing for Jesus.

Yes, there is more to this world than we can see, and some of that is remarkably scary, but the end of our story is good. Evil around us and within us will one day be defeated and even be eradicated, through the work that Jesus has done for us. While it might sound silly, I praise God that at least for me, Stephen King has made all of that just a tiny bit more believable.

Are We Building the Altar?

Are We Building the Altar?

In 1 Kings 18 we find one of the most dramatic Old Testament accounts. Elijah, the prophet of the one true God of Israel, challenges the prophets of the Canaanite god, Baal, to a contest to demonstrate whose God is real. 

 

The terms of the contest were simple. The prophets of Baal and Elijah would each prepare an altar and each would sacrifice a bull on the altar. But neither would set a fire on the altar. Instead, each would call on the name of their god and whichever god answered with fire, that god was the true God.

 

Tim Keller in his recent article “The Decline and Renewal of the American Church: Part 3 — The Path to Renewal” points out that many Christians have seen this Old Testament account as a helpful metaphor for how God brings about renewal in the church. Keller defines a revival or renewal this way: “Revivals are periods of great spiritual awakening and growth. In revivals, ‘sleepy’ and lukewarm Christians wake up, nominal Christians get converted, and many skeptical non-believers are drawn to faith.”

 

Only God can bring the “fire of renewal.” Human technique and effort alone cannot produce renewal. Nor can the church compel or manipulate the means or timing of God’s work. However, this does not mean there is nothing we can do as we long for a fresh work of God in our lives, churches, and culture. We can build the altar. As noted by Keller,  “Christians looking for revival, they are ‘building the altar,’ praying that God will use their efforts to bring a fire of renewal with a movement of his Spirit.” 

 

In the first two installments of his four-part series of articles, Keller gives an account of the decline of both mainline and evangelical Christianity. Both articles are lengthy and nuanced and well worth careful reading. Keller’s point in both articles is summed up this way: 

 

Virtually everyone agrees that something is radically wrong with the church. Inside, there is more polarization and conflict than ever, with all factions agreeing (for different reasons) that the church is in deep trouble. Outside the church, journalists, sociologists, and all other observers either bemoan or celebrate the church’s decline numerically, institutionally, and in influence.

 

While the church is always in need of reforming and refining, it seems like this moment in American Christianity is in need of something more than refining. This seems to be a moment when something like renewal or revival is needed.

 

Over 30 years ago Christ Community was founded with the longing and prayer that this local church would be a catalyst for spiritual renewal in Kansas City. That longing and prayer still endures today.  

 

How can Christ Community build the altar?

Keller suggests three altar-building practices. 

 

Recovery of the gospel

It is all too easy for pastors and congregation members alike to functionally forget the radical good news of grace. This is the news that in Jesus we are completely known and loved — not because of anything we have done — but because of what Jesus has done for us. 

 

Theologian Kelly Kapic in his wonderful book You’re Only Human invites his readers to consider two questions. First, do you believe God loves you? He suggests that most Christians would say of course, God loves me. But then he poses a second question: does God like you? How would you respond? He writes: 

 

Have you ever felt that your parents or spouse or your God loved you, and yet wondered if they actually liked you? Love is so loaded with obligations and duty that it often loses all emotive force, all sense of pleasure and satisfaction. Like can remind us of an aspect of God’s love we can all too easily forget. Forgetting God’s delight and joy in us stunts our ability to enjoy God’s love. Forgiveness, as beautiful and crucial as it is, is not enough unless it is understood to come from love and lead back to love. Unless we understand the gospel in terms of God’s fierce delight in us — not merely a wiping away of prior offenses. Unless we understand God’s battle for us as a dramatic, personal rescue and not merely a cold forensic process, we have ignored most of the Scriptures as well as the needs of the human condition.

 

It is this understanding of gospel love and grace that is the keystone in the rebuilding of the altar.

 

Corporate prayer

The second altar-building practice is corporate prayer. While private individual prayer is vital, a quick survey of the history of renewal moments shows a common thread: Christians gathering together to pray for God to work and move.

 

As we seek the renewal of our churches and communities, prayer is critical. And not just corporate prayer within Christ Community but with other like-minded Christians and churches, especially across racial and socio-economic dividing lines. 

 

Creativity

Finally, altar-building is marked by creativity. No two renewal moments have looked exactly the same. Building the altar isn’t a matter of simply trying to reproduce the methods from previous moments. It is about looking for fresh insights into this particular moment, discerning how the Spirit is working. A fantastic resource for understanding this cultural moment and sparking creativity is Mark Sayers book Reappearing Church: The Hope for Renewal in the Rise of Our Post-Christian Culture. Get a copy and read it with a group of other believers.

 

Conclusion

In the story of 1 Kings 18, not only does Elijah build the altar but he saturates it with water. The more soaked the altar is, the more dramatic the demonstration of God’s work and word. As we approach deeply contentious election seasons in 2022 and 2024, and face violence, war, and economic challenges in our nation and world, it is obvious; no mere human can light the fire. 

 

But we trust the resurrected King Jesus who, when He had ascended to the right hand of His Father in Heaven, sent the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in Acts 2 appeared as flames of fire above the heads of those gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost.

This is my prayer: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we pray, we ask, we plead: do it again! For your glory and our good, make yourself known to us, renew us, heal us. Make us faithful to build the altar. We trust you and your timing for the fire. Amen.

A Liturgy Against Shame Before Creating

A Liturgy Against Shame Before Creating

The greatest enemy to creativity isn’t lack of time, money, tools, or training. The greatest enemy of creativity and productivity is shame. More than distraction or busyness, shame steals the energy and courage required to create. And even more disastrously, shame disrupts the relationships that are necessary for creating and producing together. Even creative tasks that are undertaken alone are always done in dialogue with other minds, in conversation with other image-bearers. Shame disrupts creativity and productivity causing us to hide from one another. Shame breathes lies. Shame lies and says:

You’re an idiot. You have no business doing this work. You’re going to fail. You always fail. You’re never good enough. You never will be good enough. You’re a fraud. This is so derivative, so unoriginal. Nobody will care about this work. Nobody should care about this work. It’s trash. People will laugh at you. People will steal your work. People will think what you are doing is dumb. 

The louder the voice of shame, the more energy it takes to overcome it and create something good and beautiful. It robs us of energy we could otherwise use to create. This is a major theme in Curt Thompson’s work. Curt is a Christian psychologist and author who writes on the themes of shame and creativity, andt Christ Community recently had the privilege of hosting him for an evening conversation. You can watch his talk HERE and read more in his books The Soul of Shame and The Soul of Desire.

All of us are creating even if we aren’t professional graphic artists or creative writers. Making dinner is a creative act. Building a presentation slide deck and building a deck on your house are creative acts. Putting together spreadsheets and spreading fresh sheets on the bed are creative acts. 

And wherever there is the potential for creativity and ushering goodness and beauty into the world, shame is lurking — seeking at all costs to choke and strangle that creativity. I want to offer you a practice for combating shame when you’re preparing to create. This is a liturgy, a prayer, for combating shame that you can use when you begin a creative endeavor. 

Liturgy Against Shame Before Creating 

All:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
You are the Creator and Sustainer
of everyone and everything,
You uphold the universe by the Word of Your Power.

Leader:
You have made us creative collaborators in your image;
Male and female you have created us. 

Created us to be creative.
Created us to draw out all the fulness and beauty
of the world you have lovingly formed and fashioned.

Yet now as we stand on the precipice of this creative endeavor,
the threshold of this good work,
this good work, O Lord, which you have prepared for us to do,
we find ourselves haunted by shame.

In the face of this shame,
we shrink back, we hide;
we grow suspicious of others,
contemptuous of ourselves.

King Jesus, who for the joy set before You despised the shame of the cross,
teach us now to despise this shame.
Against the lie of shame which says, I am worthless.
We speak the truth of Your voice:

We are fearfully and
wonderfully made.

Against the lie of shame which says, I have nothing to offer.
We speak the truth of Your voice:

We are God’s handiwork,
created in Christ Jesus to do good works,
which You prepared in advance for us to do.

Against the lie of shame which says, They can’t be trusted, they will hurt you.
We speak the truth of your voice:

We are all baptized by one Spirit into one body,
we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, defend us now
from all the assaults of shame.
And shepherd us into the green pastures of your goodness and beauty.

Amen.