When I began to reread Stephen King’s The Stand a couple of weeks ago, I didn’t realize it was perhaps the ideal book for this season of Advent.
During Advent, our worship Scripture readings traditionally mix prophecies about the coming Messiah with apocalyptic visions of His return.
The Stand is nothing if not apocalyptic.
In his introduction to the 1990 version of the novel, King called his work “a long tale of dark Christianity.”
I totally missed the Christianity part the first time I read The Stand. The sixteen-year old me just thrilled at the saga of a small group of nondescript individuals who ultimately go on a quest to defeat the darkest evil. Sounds like The Lord of the Rings, doesn’t it? There is general consensus about the Christian themes pervading Tolkien’s trilogy. The Stand’s theological foundation may not be as apparent or as well-known, but after reading it again I am convinced it is just as valid.
In a way The Stand is my Lord of the Rings. As an adolescent, Frodo and his friends never engaged me the way their story transfixed many of my fellow-nerd friends. But The Stand resonated because it felt so real, so about the America I thought I knew beyond my sheltered suburban sphere especially from television and movies. Stephen King’s constant brand name-dropping has been the target of derision by critics, but to a kid saturated by television and especially its ubiquitous commercials and ear-worm jingles, characters resonate when they never take an aspirin but reach for an Excedrin, open the Frigidaire instead of a generic refrigerator, and wipe their noses not with tissues but with Kleenex.
As awesome as I found the battle of good versus evil and the gory parts and the scary parts, it was ultimately the characters that set The Stand apart from anything I had read before. Although the minor characters are often generic types that serve to propel the plot, the primary people grow and change as they struggle internally with good and evil. As a 16-year old, I could admire Stu and Larry while I hoped to grow into a brave leader like they became despite their limitations, and I could hope I didn’t have as much Harold in me as I feared (after all he wanted to become a famous writer and to get a girlfriend – not necessarily in that order – just like me).
King has said he gets letters asking about the characters’ lives now, as if they were real people. I kind of get that – it had been over 30 years since I’d read The Stand, and I remembered the characters probably more clearly than I recall some of my high school classmates.
I admit being a little reluctant to revisit the plot and people of The Stand. Most of us who have crept into middle age have had the experience of watching a movie or reading a book that seemed earth shattering to our younger selves, only to be disappointed as we experienced our memory deflated before us. (I’m looking at you, “Logan’s Run.”). The expanded version of The Stand also was a little intimidating; it’s now well over 1000 pages after King added 400 pages that had been excised at the insistence of his publishing company when it was first released. But my 19-year old daughter had never read The Stand, and I thought she’d like it, so I told her I would read it again if she would give it a try.
The Stand more than stood the test of time and experience. In fact, time and especially experience deepened its impact.
When I read The Stand the first time, I was in the last throes of my relationship with God and the church. The Christian infrastructure of the plot didn’t interest me at all.
But now, rereading the novel through the lens of an unexpected Christian and pastor, I couldn’t help but recognize and appreciate not only the theological undertones (and overtones) in The Stand, but also the theological questions with which King wrestles in the book.
Like the Bible, The Stand is an epic clash between good and evil. But – also like the Bible – The Stand confronts but does not fully resolve issues like free will and the inscrutability of God and the problem of evil (if God is all good, all knowing, and all powerful, why is there evil?).
God is a primary character in The Stand. God is always there, behind the scenes, and even overtly – the “hand of God” makes an appearance in the climax. God has a plan, but it is never fully comprehended and it is always up to people to enact that plan . . . or not.
People are not merely chess pieces moved about by God. Free will works both ways. Characters in The Stand are free to choose to act in ways that advance God’s good plan or that work against it.
At a pivotal and deadly moment, a voice is heard saying, “This is Harold Emery Lauder speaking. I do this of my own free will.” Harold in particular struggles with who he is and who he will be and especially who he will serve. There are multiple times when Harold is portrayed grappling with his choices . . . with his will.
When Mother Abigail sends the small band west to confront Randall Flagg, those who have been selected for the quest ask if they have a choice. She answers, “There’s always a choice. That’s God’s way, always will be. Your will is still free. Do as you will. There’s no set of leg-irons on you. But . . . that is what God wants of you.”
It is of course in Mother Abigail that God most plainly shows up in The Stand. She is the book’s Moses. She is the reluctant prophet and leader of a people in the wilderness:
Her place was not to judge God, although she wished He hadn’t seen fit to set the cup before her lips that He had. But when it came to the matter of judgment, she was satisfied with the answer God had given Moses from the burning bush when Moses had seen fit to question. Who are you? Moses ask, and God comes back from the bush just as pert as you like: I Am, Who I AM. In other words, Moses, stop beatin’ round this here bush and get your old ass in gear.
Like Moses, she is frustrated by the people she has been called to lead and even more aggravated with God. She rails against the apparent cruelty of God, found in the Bible especially in the Old Testament:
I have harbored hate of the Lord in my heart. Every man or woman who loves Him, they hate Him too, because He’s a hard God, a jealous God, He Is, what He Is, and in this world He’s apt to repay service with pain while those who do evil ride over the roads in Cadillac cars. Even the joy of serving Him is a bitter joy. ‘Abby,’ the Lord says to me, ‘there’s work for you to do far up ahead. . . And in the end, your reward will be to go away with strangers from all the things you love best and you’ll die in a strange land with the work not yet finished. That’s my will, Abby,’ says He, and ‘Yes Lord,’ says I, “Thy will be done,’ and in my heart I curse Him and ask ‘why, why why?’ and then the only answer I get is ‘Where were you when I made the world?’”
Not only do clear Mosaic references abound in that short excerpt, but also The Garden of Gethsemane and Job get thrown in for good measure. In fact The Stand echoes Job’s struggle with suffering throughout – within the overarching battle between good and evil (a bet between God and Satan in Job), people suffer.
Like Moses, Mother Abigail is not allowed to see the end of the journey. Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land because he takes credit for bringing water from a rock; Mother Abigail similarly identifies her sin as pride. Neither Moses nor Mother Abigail’s fate seems fair, but God’s ways are not our ways, etc.
But God in The Stand is more than the apparently cruel and capricious God of the Old Testament.
There is real grace in The Stand. And faith. As a Lutheran Christian – saved by grace through faith – those themes certainly resonated.
In an interview with Salon Magazine, King said he wrote The Stand “to explore what it means to be able to rise above adversity by faith, because it’s something most of us do every day. We may not call it Christianity. I wanted to do that, I wanted it to be a God trip.”
The heroes in The Stand are not chosen because they are exceptional. They do not have super powers or great intelligence or especially great faith. At least two of them are professed atheists/agnostics. But God uses them anyway, and by the time of the climactic confrontation those who make the stand against evil not only have received the gift of faith but publicly share it.
One of them, just before he dies, even echoes Jesus on the cross (“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”) when he says to the man about to kill him, “That’s all right . . . You don’t know any better.”
God may not always prevent suffering, but God graciously gives those he allows to suffer faith and it is ultimately faith that saves the world. Or at least what’s left of America.
Sacrifice is at the heart of Christianity. The sacrifice of Jesus is central to salvation. Followers of Jesus are called to sacrifice to further their faith as well as the kingdom.
Sacrifice is at the heart of The Stand. Ultimately it is sacrifice that will be called for to defeat evil. Characters who desire to serve good are called to sacrifice.
As in the Christian narrative, strength is embodied in weakness.
The character that most embodies the Christian journey is Larry Underwood. He is clearly, in Christian parlance, a “sinner.” Or, in the words he keeps hearing in his head, he knows “You ain’t no nice guy.” But Larry is refined through the crucible of the plague and its aftermath. He takes a harrowing hike through a long tunnel filled with corpses and comes out the other side. He completes a purifying walk in the wilderness before fulfilling his purpose. Larry’s problem is that he is human – he is flawed, especially in his selfishness. But over the course of the book he becomes someone God can use. More surprising, he develops into someone who is willingly used despite the possible – probable – consequences.
Larry and the others who make up the heroic band in The Stand ultimately embody an essential element of Christian theology precisely because they are so human, so absolutely unheroic. Throughout the Bible unremarkable people are used by God to do great things – the little shepherd boy who grows up to be Israel’s greatest king (David), the fishermen who follow Jesus and spread the Gospel (the disciples), and on and on. The characters whose God-given quest is to defeat the evil embodied in Randall Flagg are of the same ilk.
Of course the Hero of the Bible is similarly non-descript. It is a baby placed in an animal feeding trough after he is born to a poor family in occupied territory who would grow up to save the world. Because He does not appear in The Stand, it would go to far to say that it is a “Christian novel.” But certainly the themes it explores are most certainly Christian, and it can provide an interesting and unexpected starting point for discussion of those themes.
Especially, perhaps, during Advent.
A word of caution . . . The Stand is a secular book written by a secular author. As with most Stephen King books, there is violence, gore, sexual situations, and language that may be offensive. Please take your own sensibilities into consideration if you are thinking about reading the book . . . in other words, don’t blame me if you find it offensive. Despite all that, it remains one of my favorite books. Your mileage may vary . . .