Wednesday, 28 January 2009

John Updike, 1932-2009: a glance at his theology

I was very sad to hear that one of my favourite contemporary novelists, John Updike, has died. Updike was deeply influenced by Kierkegaard and Karl Barth; he is the most theological novelist you’ll ever come across. In an early essay, he remarks that, at one time, Barth’s theology was the only thing supporting his life; he used to keep Barth’s Romans commentary beside his bed, to read a few pages at a time. Much of his fiction could be read as an extended reflection on Barth’s dictum: “There is no way from us to God…. The god who stood at the end of some human way would not be God.”

Pastors and theologians today could still learn a great deal from Updike’s fiction. Just think of the Lutheran pastor Fritz Kruppenbach in Rabbit, Run (1960), a deeply Barthian minister who utters this thunderous denouncement of pastoral work – in conversation with another minister, he asks: “Do you think this is your job, to meddle in these people’s lives? I know what they teach you at seminary now: this psychology and that. But I don’t agree with it. You think now your job is to be an unpaid doctor, to run around and plug up holes and make everything smooth. I don’t think that. I don’t think that’s your job…. I say you don’t know what your role is or you’d be home locked in prayer…. In running back and forth you run away from the duty given you by God, to make your faith powerful.... When on Sunday morning, then, when you go out before their faces, we must walk up not worn out with misery but full of Christ, hot with Christ, on fire: burn them with the force of our belief. This is why they come; why else would they pay us? Anything else we can do and say anyone can do and say. They have doctors and lawyers for that…. Make no mistake. Now I’m serious. Make no mistake. There is nothing but Christ for us. All the rest, all this decency and busyness, is nothing. It is Devil’s work.”

Or think of Roger’s Version (1986), a novel set in the halls of a fictional divinity school (based partly on Princeton Seminary). The main character is Roger Lambert, a Barthian theology professor (and a Tertullian expert) whose faith is shaken by an evangelical student who thinks he can write a computer program to prove God’s existence. The novel seamlessly weaves together sex and theology – one of the great moments is a lengthy sex scene which simultaneously unfolds as an extended commentary on Tertullian. At one point Roger describes his insatiable reading of theology, and then adds: “Lest you take me for a goody-goody, I find kindred comfort and inspiration in pornography, the much-deplored detailed depiction of impossibly long and deep, rigid and stretchable human parts interlocking, pumping, oozing.”

If Christians are tempted to take offence at Updike’s explicit (at times almost pornographic) portrayal of sex, we should remember that the relation between God and the human body is a central tenet of Christian faith. It’s no accident that the sex-obsessed Updike is wiser than so many theologians when he describes Christ’s resurrection in these terms (in a poem entitled “Seven Stanzas at Easter”):

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

And then there is In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), probably my favourite Updike novel. The story follows four successive generations of an American family, and it provides a gripping and poignant portrayal of the loss of religious faith in 20th-century American society. The first protagonist is Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian pastor who had studied under Benjamin Warfield at Princeton (in the classroom, Warfield was “erect as a Prussian general, with snowy burnsides”). Clarence owns 44 volumes of Calvin’s commentaries, but still loses his faith – he reads a bit of critical scholarship, and then one hot afternoon, in a sudden flash, his faith is gone. He leaves the ministry and becomes an unhappy door-to-door encyclopedia salesman (still peddling “the word,” but with no success). Most importantly, his loss of faith coincides with the emergence of cinema in American culture: Clarence now finds his only solace in the cinema. At every opportunity, he escapes to the cinema and is transported by the screen; in the absence of faith, cinema functions as an opiate, supplying the fleeting memory of a vanished transcendence. In the Beauty of the Lilies is one of the most beautiful and insightful accounts I’ve ever read of the disappearance (and, later, the disturbing reappearance) of faith in modern life.

Updike once offered this account of his affection for Karl Barth: “Really, Barth’s mind, so invariably earnest, always penetrates to some depth tonic for me; he makes me feel that rare thing, with authors, called love – one loves a man for thinking and writing so well.” In the same way, I loved John Updike, and I am sad that he is gone.


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