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.