Voices

The God trip

Stephen King retraces his "dark" Christianity

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

This is the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Stand by bestselling horror writer Stephen King. The gruesome tale of a plague that wipes out most of the population seems prophetic to some people, who see it anticipating AIDS, biological terrorism, ecological Armageddon, the breakdown of America, and the rise of fundamentalist religion.

Strangely, though, in King's novel, the fundamentalists are the good guys. In secularist eyes, conservative Christians are far scarier than Cujo or Christine or any of King's other monsters. But in his introduction to the novel, King called The Stand a "long tale of dark Christianity."

In the story, a fatal mutation of influenza escapes a secret military laboratory and spreads from person to person, killing as it goes. A handful of disparate individuals, though, is unaccountably immune from the virus. One group gathers in Las Vegas, under the leadership of the demonic Randall Flagg. Another group gathers in Boulder, Colo., where they follow Mother Abagail [sic], a 108-year-old black woman. She is a Moses-like prophet who preaches the Bible, works miracles, and ministers to the survivors so they can build a new social order. Eventually, Mother Abagail's ragtag followers must make a "stand" against Flagg and his monstrous followers.

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The Stand is filled with horrific violence, bad language, twisted sex, and nightmare-inducing imagery. It is not for children or for most adults. But Mother Abagail is a compelling literary Christian. In a recent interview with the online magazine Salon.com, King was asked about his religious beliefs. "I was raised Christian, and I was raised to believe in the idea of the Antichrist," he told novelist John Marks. "A lot of us grow up and we grow out of the literal interpretation that we get when we're children, but we bear the scars all our life. Whether they're scars of beauty or scars of ugliness, it's pretty much in the eye of the beholder."

King praised the moral teachings of Christ and commented on the existence of God. "If there is one, it's mysterious and powerful and awesome to even consider the concept, and you have to take it seriously," he said. King said that he has always been taken with the notion "that God is cruel." God did not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land because of one seemingly minor transgression. King believes this seeming cruelty has a profound significance. "First, that the myths are difficult and suggest a difficult moral path through life, and second, that they are ultimately more fruitful and more earth-friendly than the god of technology, the god of the microchip, the god of the cellphone."

The Stand, he said, is an effort to say, Let's give God His due. "I wanted to explore what that means to be able to rise above adversity by faith, because it's something most of us do every day. . . . I wanted it to be a God trip."

So is The Stand an example of "dark Christianity"? Dark theism, maybe. But while King, at least in his novel, recognizes God's existence, His moral order, and the spiritual warfare between good and evil, Christ, while occasionally referred to, is noticeably absent.

Bringing Christ into The Stand would mean a figure who took into Himself the disease that plagued the world, who died and rose again, and who redeemed the monsters.

Comments? Email Ed Veith at gveith@worldmag.com.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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