Stephen King’s 2014 release of Revival provides readers with a unique insight into King’s religious reflections. King has, no doubt, written on religion before, and as his books often delve into the depths of the dark and supernatural, religion is hardly absent. But not until Revival has King placed religion – particularly Protestant Christianity – at the front and center of his narrative.
Revival is King’s way of exploring the question of the afterlife, the basis of belief, and the question of whether there is a good God behind this chaotic, wrecked, vile world.
PLOT (*No Spoilers)
The story follows the entire life of Jamie Morton from around 6 years old into his mid-60s, Revival explores the full range of human experience with the divine: From naïve acceptance of parental and cultural religion to knowing rejection of the same when life’s pain unavoidably shatters such religion. As the story opens, Jamie is a young boy playing with his toy soldiers out on a dirt hill when a shadow crosses over his play area. He looks up and for the first of many times he encounters Rev. Charles Jacob, the newly appointed Methodist minister. Though a series of conversations, Jamie’s young, naïve faith is reaffirmed as Rev. Jacob and his young family (a wife and son) play the dutiful role of perfect Christian family. They even improved the experience of the young people going to church by highlighting the entertainment value of religion with the social value outside the walls:
“There were games and activities as well as sermons, because, as he pointed out regularly, most of Jesus’s preaching happened outside, and that meant there was more to Christianity than church.”
But this world is broken, and perfection can never truly survive. In a gruesome scene, Rev. Jacob’s wife and son are killed in a freak, but preventable, car accident. A local famer with a history of seizures crashes his tractor as Mrs. Jacob and her son, Morrie, are driving down the road. Their deaths mark the beginning of chaos and the breakdown of naïve faith for both Jamie and Rev. Jacobs. For both, their world had be ordered and good. Religion justified a certain social order, a nice middle class existence, and everything good with the American Dream. But when Rev. Jacob’s family dies unnecessarily, brutally, and unnaturally, chaos is introduced to the previously pristine narrative, as Jamie reflects:
“That morning he had awakened next to his wife, and had eaten breakfast across from his son. They talked about stuff, like people do. We never know. Any day could be the day we go down, and we never know.”
Aside from Rev. Jacobs, Jamie alone in the town and in his family willingly reflects on the deep and unsettling nature of chaos. Everyone else refuses to take the presence of pain and evil seriously. The devout Christians, untouched as they are by tragedy, merely maintain that God must still somehow be good in spite of the evidence. The cultural Christians are mostly concerned that Rev. Jacob’s first sermon after the funeral, the “terrible sermon,” disturbs their nice, easy religion. One man even accuses Rev. Jacob’s wife of infidelity and suggests this is the divine reason for her demise.
But Charles Jacob (and Jamie through him) merely attributes it all to chaotic, God-less randomness:
“Sometimes death is natural, a mercy that puts an end to suffering. But all too often it comes as an assassin, full of senseless cruelty and lacking any vestige of compassion.”
Both Rev. Jacob and young Jamie refuse to settle for cheap and easy answers. They refuse to blame the victims. They lay the blame at God’s feet. But because the only God they believe in his “good,” the only possible answer for them is that no god exists because no good God could be behind such a tragedy.
For the rest of Revival, God is dead. God is as dead as the reverend’s wife and son. A dead, non-existent God cannot provide answers. And while “people always want a reason for the bad things in life. Sometimes there ain’t one.” This, ultimately, will be the message of King’s book.
King uses this story as an opportunity to explore the questions of faith, religion, and the divine, particularly in relationship to Protestant Christianity. Revival at times seems to be part biography, an attempt to answer the question of suffering in King’s own life. As someone who wrestles deeply in all his works with the nature of evil in the world, the ultimate evil being that of death, King challenges the docile religion of his childhood which asserted a good God even in the face of everything pointing to the contrary.
When Jamie Morton asks a the question, “Death, where is thy sting,” he answers with King’s voice, “Every-fucking-where.” When we move beyond the naïvete of cultural religion and truly wrestle with the problem of evil, the questions of pain, and the chaotic nature of our world, religion seems often terrible insufficient to provide answers. In fact, to King, religion is not only terribly insufficient, it’s a scam. As says through Rev. Jacob:
“Religion,” he tells his stunned congregation in the wake of the accident, in a diatribe known forever after as the Terrible Sermon, “is the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam, where you pay in your premium year after year, and then, when you need the benefits you paid for so — pardon the pun — so religiously, you discover the company that took your money does not, in fact, exist.”
Through the rest of Revival religion never finds redemption. While King will reflect on the nature of the afterlife, God/gods, and the supernatural, in good Boomer fashion, King rejects organized religion with its cheap answers. And he further rejects those “rubes” who rely on religion for anything:
“They don’t deserve the truth,” he rages. “You called them rubes, and how right you are. They have set aside what brains they have — and many of them have quite a lot — and put their faith in that gigantic and fraudulent insurance company called religion. It promises them an eternity of joy in the next life if they live according to the rules in this one, and many of them try, but even that’s not enough. When the pain comes, they want miracles. To them I’m nothing but a witch doctor who touches them with magic rings instead of shaking a bone rattle over them.”
THE QUESTION OF PRAGMATIC RELIGION
In my criticism (if that’s even the right term) of King’s thinking in what follows, I think I should make a few things particularly clear.
- King, through his characters, rightly questions the division of the church with its “babble of conflicting beliefs…(that) cancel each other out and leave nothing.”
- He rightly rejects the hypocritical ignorance of the anti-intellectual strains of American Christianity.
- King rightly assesses the temptation of many Christians to merely contract into themselves in face of suffering instead of asking tough questions of our faith and the God we believe in.
- I further concede that King rightly judges the hypocritical social nature of many Christians who have a tendency to “be comfortably prejudiced in matters of race and religion.”
- And maybe most shockingly, I’m going to affirm King’s observation that the religious storyline of many Christians is a fantastical story that makes the story of “Sanat and the Tooth Fairy look like gritty realism.”
But precisely because I agree with King’s judgments, I’m all the more aware of a set of questions King never seems to address. In fact, it almost seems as if he’s unaware of them. At its root, I want to suggest that one of the many reasons King is so pessimistic about religion is because he fundamentally misunderstands the purpose of religion. Of course, as an American Protestant Christian, I cannot speak to the nature and purpose of religions not my own, but as King is dealing with Protestant Christianity in his book, I believe I have something to contribute to the discussion.
King’s base assumption regarding religion is that it must have pragmatic value. That is, Rev. Jacob’s faith was shattered when God didn’t protect his wife and son. Later, when Jacob becomes a faith-healer (without the faith, of course) in the Pentecostal revival circuit, the people who come to him have pragmatic concerns, mostly the desire to be healed. And that’s the difference between religion and Jacob’s “secret electricity.” The secret electricity can do everything God either can’t or won’t. It, not God, is the source of all Jacob’s signs, wonders, and healings. Clearly what is of value to King and his characters, and of course many Christians, is what works.
How very, well, American this approach to religion proves to be in the end. Indeed, how very Boomer it is. The fundamental value of anything in the Boomer world is determined by whether or not it works. Clearly there are great benefits to this question. And as a Gen-Xer/Millennial, I have greatly benefited from living in a pragmatic culture. But one of the places our pop-pragmatism is most hurtful is in the question of the Divine.
If the God of Christianity really is as He is described, then whether or not He works for me is a secondary or tertiary question. Again, this is not to say God doesn’t work or that he doesn’t help or heal. But it is to say by using pragmatism as the primary standard by which God is judged, we have a tendency to make God a cosmic lapdog. And when that lapdog doesn’t jump, sit, beg, or protect when and how we think he should, then we reject him.
But what if we’re rejecting a false image? What if the primary purpose of religion isn’t to work?
This is not to negate the sincere and necessary “why” questions associated with faith. I ask them all the time; they’re worthwhile questions. This is also not to fly off into an anti-intellectual religious blindness. It is to assert that, if God is who Christians say He is, then He ought to be loved for His own sake, not merely loved for what he can do for me.
I know all too well the problem of suffering and evil Rev. Jacobs wrestles with in his book. And I have screamed at the heavens in my pain. I don’t think I’ll ever have answers to my questions…at least in this life. But if God is, then He is whether or not I like how things have turned out.
I wish King would have taken the time to see that his dichotomies are false. The “screenwriter” of our lives is not “fate or coincidence,” but a God who gave us freedom to turn from him, to disobey, to take the world into our own hands. Yes, King is right to reject any notion of “fate,” for that would mean there is a Fate-Creator who is malevolent and therefore intends to do evil, would eradicate light and goodness and show them to be foolish illusion. Such a god ought to be rejected.
But after fatalism is rejected, we’re not only left with the option of randomness and chance. There is such thing as a God who gives us free will, allows that free will to be exerted against Him and His creation, a God who loves us enough to allow us to reject him and destroy His creation all while putting together a rescue plan to save us from ourselves.
I’m okay with Stephen King rejecting God. That’s his use of free will at play, and I believe God loves him enough to allow him that rejection. But I do wish he’d put more of a sincere effort into understanding the God he’s rejected. He might even find that that God suffers with us in our pain. That He is a God acquainted with grief. That the “terrible sermon” preached by Rev. Jacobs would not have seemed all that terrible to the God he railed against.
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS (*Spoilers*)
In the end, I’m not sure King ultimately settles on either fatalism or chance. But his final eschatological vision is particularly telling of his view of God/gods. If we assume King’s thoughts are speaking through Jamie and Rev. Jacobs, then we’re left with 1) an inability to reject the supernatural, 2) a strong belief in the afterlife, 3) but a rejection of anything good within the afterlife.
This is what makes King both compelling and appalling. I’m personally weary with pop-religion in America that assumes the afterlife is a big amusement park where everyone, no matter their character, beliefs, or actions, goes to ride rides for eternity.
King also seems wearied with this nonsense. In its place, King understands there is something like conscience guiding our actions in the present, “This is how we bring about our own damnation, you know-by ignoring the voice that begs us to stop. To stop while there’s still time.” Nevertheless, for King, this conscience has almost no direct connection with the afterlife or what happens. For him, the world is broken and chaotic because its Maker/s are malevolent. In the final chapters of Revival we catch glimpses of his horrifying eschatology, an afterlife where human beings exist (if that word even means anything) to serve the Great Ones and their minion ants. Those who die have merely “gone to serve the Great Ones in the Null. No death, no light, no rest.”
This is the common fate of everyone. And it’s the eschatological vision of a man who rejects the idea that a good God could be behind this broken creation. King rejects randomness and chance, but he, of all people, knows well how evil this world is. “Once upon a time, I would have said we choose our paths at random: this happened, then that, hence the other. Now I know better. There are forces.”
And this is how his story concludes. No redemption. No resurrection. No goodness. No hope. Just forces that control and manipulate. One wonders how in the world his stories could ever have a happy ending if everything is this meaningless and malevolent.