Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Stephen King’s American Apocalypse

A few days ago, I was searching online for a Stephen King quote for this post, and came across this article on I've read a lot of writing on Stephen King's supposed theology, most of it garbage, trying to shoehorn King into some easily defined doctrinal mold. And all operating under the assumption that King has some theological axe to grind, and that he does so consciously and intentionally.

I disagree. I think he is well informed theologically; and as a thinking man, is probably quite conscious of his own perceptions of God and how they affect his life and writing. But I don’t think you can automatically or directly infer from his writings what those perceptions are.

Why am I writing in my journal/blog about Stephen King’s theology? Well, I’ve read a lot of his work. I’m of the opinion that, after he’s gone, he will be justifiably recognized as one of the Great Writers In American History. I know he’s already one of the best selling, and even in this article a distinction is made between taking King seriously as an economic force, doing “little more for humanity than keep the publishing industry afloat,” and taking him seriously as a literary force in our culture.

But the real reason for this post is because, in Douthat’s article, I begin to see a little of myself in his supposed Kingian Theology. (How long before that becomes a course title at Harvard? – or more likely the University of Maine). I wrote in this post about death and resurrection. The impetus for that writing is my own struggle with questions of mortality, legacy and purpose. For the last two years I have had some nagging health concerns that have at times (subconsciously at all times) scared me pretty badly. It causes me to think about things like my own mortality, what will I leave behind for my son when I’m gone (whether that’s sooner or later) and what do I really believe God thinks about this stuff? Is he/she concerned at all with my wellbeing? With my son’s future? There is a lot of suffering in this world, and it’s nigh on impossible to look at the suffering, even from afar, and see any justice or compassion in it. From up close it’s just paralyzing.

I was raised in and out of fundamentalist churches and schools. I attended a conservative Baptist school through most of my primary years, and at the same time went to Pentecostal churches with speaking in tongues and Holy Spirit Baptism… and I grew up with the notion that God Cares. That he is concerned with my well-being. That he is intimately connected with my affairs, and that I can, in times of doubt or uncertainty, lean into His Faithfulness as a strength and a guide.

But these last few years have been difficult. In the space of five years, my wife, my son and I have experienced financial ruin, severe health problems for all of us, and not just job changes, but career crises. The last two years have been sort of the cherry on the top; causing me (in light of everything else) to really question whether I believe God’s on my side here (anyone’s for that matter) or, as CS Lewis said, “a cosmic bogey,” above these concerns and untouchable.

So when I read Douthat’s article on King, and specifically his delineation of the theology that emerges as a thread through his work, it looked familiar to me. What kind of God would let me get sick and possibly leave my family, my young son and sweet wife behind? The same one of whom King’s character says in Desperation:
“You said ’God is cruel’ the way a person who’s lived his whole life in Tahiti might say ’Snow is cold.’ You knew, but you didn’t understand. . . . Do you know how cruel your God can be, David? How fantastically cruel? . . . Sometimes he makes us live.”

And when I want to pray for the safety of my family, for healing that the Pentecostal churches told me was mine if I only had enough faith… another God presents himself in my mind. One who distinctly resembles a passage in The Green Mile:
“I think back to the sermons of my childhood, booming affirmations in the church of Praise Jesus, The Lord Is Mighty, and I recall how the preachers used to say that God’s eye is on the sparrow, that He sees and marks even the least of His creations. Yet this same God sacrificed John Coffey, who tried only to do good in his blind way, as savagely as any Old Testament prophet ever sacrificed a defenseless lamb, as Abraham would have sacrificed his own son if actually called upon to do so. . . . If it happens, God lets it happen, and when we say “I don’t understand,” God replies, “I don’t care.”

I can’t worship this God. I can’t spend any more energy trying to appease him, or examining my faithless heart for a shred of authenticity that would justify me in his eyes. I’m not talking about the Church here… I’m talking about what my heart believes is real. No systematic theology, but a personal theology… because what good is a systematic theology in the end if it’s not personal?

But I do believe in a God of some sort. And I do believe that there is compassion out there. That in life, and even in death there is balance, and that it can make sense. In the Sufi traditions, and the Native American stories, and in almost all the writing of real faith that I read, I feel it. But it is not in me. It does not give me hope from inside. And that’s what I have to find. A place of belief that fuels Hope in me. Hope for my son, for my wife, for my self, and for the world. Because the rest is just despair.

I don’t know what King believes about God. In the end I don’t care, really. I know that the God he writes about sounds a lot like the one I have believed in. And I’m trying not to believe in that God anymore.

Maybe that’s why his writing scares the shit out of us… because we’re afraid that God is really like that, and that we’re stuck with him. But just because it’s written doesn’t make it so. And just because he writes that way doesn’t even mean he believes it. Maybe he’s grappling with the same question, trying to make sense of it himself… writing from the place of his own deepest fear, and trying to find his own hope in the world.

For me, it’s a mirror. And it’s a good thing. I can look at that picture of myself and say, “No. I will not be that person anymore. I will not remain in this state, poisoning myself and my family… bringing about my own ruin as self-fulfilled prophecy. I will change. I will hope, and I will move on.”

A guy I know, in a recent article that basically ended his public speaking career on the evangelical circuit, wrote this:
“Some might say I would be wise to swallow my misgivings about such stuff [like God's sovereignty, wrath, hell, etc.], remain orthodox, and thereby secure my place with God in eternity. But that is precisely my point: If those things are true, then God might as well send me to Hell. For better or worse, I simply am not interested in any God but a completely good, entirely loving, and perfectly forgiving One who is powerful enough to utterly triumph over evil. Such a God may not exist, but I will die seeking such a God, and I will pledge my allegiance to no other possibility because, quite frankly, anything less is not worthy of my worship.

Please, don’t get me wrong. I am well aware that I don’t get to decide who God is. What I do get to decide, however, is to whom I pledge my allegiance. I am a free agent, after all, and I have standards for my God, the first of which is this: I will not worship any God who is not at least as compassionate as I am.”

The king is dead. Long live the king.

No comments: