How Not to Write About Stephen King’s “Theology”
As a longtime fan of Stephen King’s sprawling stories—which, contrary to popular belief, run the gamut from horror epics to mainstream dramas like The Shawshank Redemption—I’ve often noticed that the specter of the sacred is never far from view in his tales. Whether religion is engaged critically—as in the hypocrisy of a fundamentalist minister—or sympathetically, as in the martyrdom of a prisoner who may be Jesus Christ, its presence looms large in the lives of King’s characters and in the stories he spins.
Accordingly, when I first learned of Douglas Cowan’s 2018 volume America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King, I immediately knew I had to read it. It is long past time for a thoroughgoing academic treatment of King’s distinctive theology (or quasi-theology), a work that draws together the tangled conceptual strands throughout King’s colossal canon and weaves them into a cohesive picture. But alas, America’s Dark Theologian is a crushing disappointment—one that not only leaves crucial themes of King’s work almost completely unaddressed, but that suffers from methodological weaknesses so profound as to render it hardly worth the reading time investment.
Cowan, a professor of religious studies at Renison University College, does not attempt to draw out any unifying theological currents of King’s work, nor to place King’s metaphysical schema into conversation with theological paradigms past or present. Instead, he chooses to concentrate with laser focus on the explicit attitudes expressed toward organized religion in King’s novels—and, unsurprisingly, he sketches a portrait of the author as a Dawkinsesque critic of belief inhabiting a starkly uncaring world.
That portrait, however, may resemble Cowan himself more than it does King. Cowan’s definition of “religion” tracks pragmatist philosopher William James’s definition of “religion” as “the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.” (I must note in passing that this is a definition with which Cowan, ironically, never seems particularly comfortable: metaphysically speaking, what are scientific laws and evolutionary processes but principles of James’s “unseen order,” to which human beings may be called to adjust themselves for their own good? On that definition of “religion,” who of us is actually nonreligious?) And Cowan goes on to, ostensibly, explore such motifs as liminality, religious instruction, ritual practice, and the ordaining will of God against the backdrop of King’s novels. But Cowan’s opinion of the plausibility of that “unseen order” is never in doubt. Though it’s never articulated explicitly, the overarching thesis of the volume seems to have very little to do with King’s stories themselves: at bottom, religion is something people do to cope, and King’s work is useful insofar as its skepticism of organized religion exemplifies that thesis.
Notably, Cowan’s treatment of King’s overt cynicism towards institutional religion is not a particularly interesting or insightful conclusion to draw on the basis of the evidence: as anyone who’s read even a few of King’s novels is likely aware, the author’s attitude toward “orthodoxy” ranges from ambivalent to scathing. A genuinely interesting analysis of King’s “theology” requires moving past the low-hanging fruit.
Even more questionable, in this vein, is Cowan’s decision to exclude from his study any treatment of King’s non-“horror” novels. That automatically rules out consideration of a novel like 11/22/63, which confronts fundamental moral-theological issues of causality and responsibility (that happen to be highly relevant to the question “why would a good God let this happen?” which King’s characters so often ask). Also ignored almost entirely is the project that happens to be the single most extensive elaboration of King’s cosmological vision.
To wit, the entire metaphysical architecture of King’s cosmos is centered on the Dark Tower, a kind of “spoke” of ultimate reality that anchors the manifold worlds of finite experience. “Gunslinger” Roland Deschain’s quest to protect the Tower from its adversaries forms the backbone of King’s seven-volume fantasy opus, The Dark Tower Series, but characters and references to the Dark Tower cosmology are pervasive throughout King’s writings—even in works that seemingly have nothing to do with the broader mythos. Outside the great cosmological structure built around the Tower is the endless todash darkness, the void of chaos from which monsters emerge. (If you can imagine a gigantic wagon wheel, with the Tower at its center and with worlds and civilizations lining its many spokes, suspended over an infinite abyss seething with horrors, you have the basic idea.)
Viewed with the Dark Tower mythos at its center, the moral dialectic at the heart of King’s cosmos is a primeval, almost Jungian opposition between order and chaos. In certain contexts, King’s talk of metaphysical order can bear an analogical resemblance to traditional Christian language of an omnibenevolent Creator and ordering Logos. But that analogy can be stretched to the breaking point, such as when the cruel hand of all-determining destiny snatches away loved ones too soon. (Note that the metaphysical concept of ka—a determining power, situated somewhere between fate and Providence—is a recurring concept in King’s works, but Cowan never explores this at all.)
As I see it, it is the collapse of this uneasy correspondence relation between divine order (affirmed) and divine compassion (questioned) that gives rise to the questions of theodicy and divine indifference that so frequently torment King’s characters. Cosmic purpose, after all, is a principle that offers far colder comfort than the love of God. Yet Cowan’s book engages with none of this. Instead, in considering how King’s characters repeatedly struggle with the silence of God, Cowan simply finds a demonstration of the inability of religious belief to make sense of a world that (we are repeatedly assured that everyone really knows) is purposeless and indifferent. This reading does not follow from King’s actual canon as a whole—11/22/63 directly centers on the idea that an action to prevent an evil might well unleash a far greater one, which implies a kind of “greater good” theodicy—but Cowan has intentionally excluded such material from the start.
As the book progresses, this reductive impulse repeatedly requires Cowan to try to force King’s novels into an analytical mold that fits them poorly. Consider, for instance, Cowan’s treatment of a one-off exchange between two children in It, following a shared vision of the eponymous monster’s prehistoric descent to earth. One compares the scene to a descending spaceship, while the other speaks of Lucifer’s fall from heaven. For Cowan, the scene is interesting as an example of the power of religious socialization to structure the interpretation of experiences (which, it is strongly implied, are otherwise devoid of such meaning). No doubt Cowan is correct to an extent; phenomena are never approached from a standpoint devoid of prior assumptions. But the book’s analysis simply stops there, without any consideration of what, in King’s story-world, “It” actually is.
Readers of King’s novel eventually come to learn that “It” is in its essence an eldritch power called the “deadlights,” a being of the todash associated with insanity and disruption. And yet for all its power, “It” is not exempt from the metaphysical rules that govern all things: through an ancient rite known as the Ritual of Chûd, which draws on the cosmological principles embodied in the Dark Tower itself, “It” can be bound and suppressed. In the novel It, then, it is beyond question that the “unseen order” in the novel operates by a logic that can be instantiated and invoked in ritual practice. “Religion,” here, is not a therapeutic veneer over an ultimately indifferent materialist cosmos—as Cowan’s framing implies—but rather something that has a genuine ontological correlation to the fundamental structures of reality. This interpretive discontinuity is pervasive throughout America’s Dark Theologian: Cowan is seemingly so determined to read King as a harsh critic of “religion” as such that the interesting contours of King’s own “unseen order” are largely lost from view.
Indeed, the book frequently suffers from what seems to be an unwillingness to distinguish folk piety, or the crudest forms of fundamentalism, from the vast heritage of metaphysical theology across religious traditions. For one thing, Cowan tends to characterize religious belief as a catalog of stories (understood literally) that adherents tacitly know to be untrue, but cling to nevertheless as a safeguard against existential despair. As countless religious believers are well aware, though, this is far too simplistic. The stories that emerge within religious traditions range from the literal to the metaphorical and analogical: one can affirm the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus without thereby committing to defend the facticity of Satan’s dispute with the Archangel Michael over the body of Moses. For another, Cowan seems surprisingly uninterested in the fact that the monsters of King’s stories are real, in their narratives—such that in many ways, King’s writings serve as a sharp critique of eliminative-materialist approaches to the cosmos that would deny the reality of the unseen. The Platonic-Hindu-Lovecraftian-archetypal picture of the world that emerges from King’s novels may not be a conventional religious metaphysic, but it is a far cry from a secular one.
Perhaps most disappointingly of all, Cowan has nothing to say about the hints of eschatological optimism that flicker through the darkness of King’s novels. Most significantly, while the Dark Tower series ends with a cyclical repetition of what has come before—Roland must once again pursue the Man in Black across the desert—this pattern is no samsarawithin which enlightenment can only be sought via a fundamental shift in perspective. Rather, it is more akin to a new chapter in a book that can conclude: Roland’s possession of the Horn of Eld, at the saga’s ending, opens up the possibility that this repetition will be the last, that the great quest for the Dark Tower will finally come to a resolution.
And similarly, for all its grimness, theologically speaking It ends on a positively Hollywood note:
Best to believe 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. . . . Drive away and try to keep smiling. Get a little rock and roll on the radio and go toward all the life there is with all the courage you can find and all the belief you can muster. Be true, be brave, stand. All the rest is darkness.
At the very least, it seems to me that Cowan’s evaluation is strikingly incomplete: if King’s characters’ complaints of an absent God are relevant to the question of his theology, so too are the glimmers of expectant hope—interpreted within an explicitly theological register—that refuse to die in the shadows.
I could say more, but frankly, a book on Stephen King that contains a sentence like “King offers little in the way of a coherent or consistent vision of the unseen order, and fans would be hard-pressed to generate anything like Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, a single dark theology” seems so totally to miss the mark, interpretively speaking, that further treatment is unnecessary. In leaving enormous—and highly relevant—aspects of King’s oeuvre entirely unexplored, America’s Dark Theologian simply cannot be the literary-religious study it intends to be. Part of me wonders whether an actual theologian, rather than a sociologist of religion, would have been better suited to write this book, given the extent to which it fails to reach the philosophical heights promised by the volume’s title; focusing narrowly on the ways in which King’s characters talk about religion, rather than on the larger questions of cosmic order implicated by his stories, strikes me as a woefully impoverished view of King’s “religious imagination.”
In any event, those of us awaiting a thoroughgoing theological exploration of King’s intricate world sadly must keep waiting for a fuller treatment. That field is ready and waiting for laborers.