I’ve been struggling for several years, I expect it’s no secret, with how horror and religion relate to one another. Many think the task itself pointless, as if pop culture can simply be brushed off like an annoying bug. But flies keep coming back. They won’t be ignored. Almost a decade ago I discovered Douglas E. Cowan was also walking this spooky path past the cemetery. I also know that as an academic he must demonstrate his chops in technical projects. America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King was extremely welcomed by me. Like many people I’ve read some Stephen King. Like Cowan, I’ve noticed how often and how deeply religion is entangled in his story-worlds. Before King is simply dismissed, we must reckon with the fact that movies based on his novels and stories have a long pedigree and almost canonical status.
This is not the place to analyze America’s Dark Theologian in depth, but it is a place that would highly recommend the book. Cowan takes several aspects of King’s works and shows how they tie explicitly to traditional religious thinking and longing. I haven’t read nearly all the books Cowan cites here, nevertheless, the analysis he offers is compelling. Scholars of disciplines outside religious studies have tended to dismiss it as being moribund. Cowan shows that those who make a living in pop culture disagree. King makes no bones about the fact that he sees the application not only of religion, but also theology, as one of the driving forces for his fiction. We dismiss such observations at our peril. Think of you favorite King novel and ponder; is there religion there?
Clearly religion’s not always the cause, but Cowan gives a careful consideration to much of King’s oeuvre, and there’s no denying he’s onto something. As he points out, King is far more interested in the questions than in the answers. Those who know religious studies—theology, if you must—know that the same is true there. I’ve studied religion my entire intellectual life. One of the reasons students evaluated my teaching so positively, at least I hope, is that because I encouraged the questions and did not privilege the answers. In this field, answers are merely speculations. We only really fall into serious danger when we cease asking questions. Cowan does an excellent job of parsing out some various pieces that will make some kind of basis for a systematic theology of Stephen King’s thought-worlds. We would be wise, I believe, to pay attention.