Tuesday 27 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.


Anonymous said...

You've gained a new disciple with this eulogy.

Bob MacDonald said...

embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance

thanks for this - I can't help thinking of Pascal's wager when I read those lines

Michial Farmer said...

Of the many tributes to Updike I have read today, this is my favorite--even better than the wonderful one from the Associated Press. I am extremely skeptical of any reading of Updike that does not draw heavily on theology; one cannot understand him without having at least a basic grasp on Karl Barth.

There's a wonderful collection of academic essays edited by James Yerkes. It's called "John Updike and Religion: The Sense of the Sacred and the Motions of Grace." If you've not read it, give it a shot. I think you'll find a group of kindred spirits re: Updike and theology.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for this. Beautifully done. I haven't read as much Updike as I should've done, but his "Seven Stanzas" is a constant companion of mine. And I think you may be right to discern a connection between his keen understanding of sexuality and his acceptance of the scandalous bodyliness of the resurrection.

Erin said...

Thank you for this. I love that scene from Rabbit, Run - I've quoted it often.

Erin said...

As an lit. undergrad until now, I had no knowledge whatsoever that Updike read Barth. (Or who Barth was, for that matter). But run, rabbit run always haunted me.

Anonymous said...

Brilliant, just brilliant. I haven't read any other obituaries yet, but I can't imagine one that so goes to the heart of the matter - unless written by Marilynne Robinson (being an American gives her an edge, as Updike is so firmly set in the tradition of American letters).

Roger's Version is an astonishing novel, astute, canny, and so quotable. I read it not long after my ministerial "training" (sic) and loved the acerbic description of divinity school:

"believing souls are trucked in like muddy, fragrant cabbages from the rural hinterland and in three years of fine distinctions and exegetical quibbling we have chopped them into cole slaw salable at any suburban supermarket. We take in saints and send out ministers, workers in the vineyard of inevitable anxiety and discontent. The death of Christianity has been long foreseen but there will always be churches to serve as storehouses for the perennial harvest of human unhappiness."

And, near the end, this terrific aphorism:

"There's faith and there's faith, and what we think we believe is really a very minor part of what we do believe."

Now the torch passes to Robinson.

Thanks again, Ben.

Bryce P Wandrey said...

Wow. I have never read any Updike but thanks to this post I am going to have to soon. Thanks Ben.

Anonymous said...


The scene between Rabbit and the preacher on the golf course is one of my favorite pieces of writing ever, but I never could find in myself any sympathy for Rabbit's choices in that novel. So, I did not read others.

Now - thanks to your praise of him - I'm going to go back and read that novel again.

Anonymous said...

Well said. when told my wife that Updike had died the first thing she did was pull down and read "Seven Stanzas at Easter"

He will be greatly missed

God Bless

Steve in Toronto

Anonymous said...


You have a nice written style. Love it! Thanks..

Anonymous said...

After reading this, I went straight to the second hand bookshop on my street and just came back with "In The Beauty of the Lilies" and "Seek My Face". I'd thank you now, but I need to read the books first :)

Anonymous said...

Interesting to hear what others make of Updike -- I just finished the 'rabbit' series this month, and found the books to be both terrifying and depressing... although very well written.

I'm curious, Ben, have you read any Bukowski? It would be interesting to hear you compare Bukowski and Updike as I find that the content of their novels seems rather comparable (especially when it comes to sex).

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Very, very nice, Ben. Thank you for that.

Anonymous said...

Dan, terrifying and depressing. I'm with you on that.

Anonymous said...

Yes, terrifying and depressing. That's why i stopped reading Updike as an agnostic American Lit undergraduate.

Then I converted to Christianity and kept away the terrifying and depressing voices for many years--only to find out in mid-life, I need to face them again--full on!

A grim thanks to Ben and his posse for insisting that we must not close pandora's box too soon.

markpowellwired said...

my favorite is "a month of sundays." it was a comfort for these old bones to know that he was still there, working. the news hour did an 11 minute tribute to him last night, ending with one of his poems. very powerful stuff.

Amy said...

What a nice piece to read. Thanks for that.

Since hearing about his death, I keep thinking of his poem "Perfection Wasted," -- a favorite of mine. I read it as a celebration of life (talk about some lovely images), but the "wasted" part in the title has always bothered me a bit. Any thoughts on that, anyone?

Perfection Wasted

And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
which took a whole life to develop and market--
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That's it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren't the same.

Anonymous said...

I took two books to read on holiday and one of them was Updike's 'A month of sundays'. It has been sitting on my shelf for over 10 years on the 'must read' list in my mind. Now I have read it and on return from holiday discover he is dead. I hope there is no relation between these two facts. After all the other book I read on my holiday was by Kim Fabricius.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Thanks for this Ben.

Concerning your comments on his intermingling of sex and theology: well, he also managed to link sex with neutrinos, very amusingly (and instructively) I might add, but without any plausibly natural connection. It's a lovely conceit, but it's not deep. So I'm not sure how much weight I'd put on the (more justifiable) connection with theological matters.

Anonymous said...

Hi bruce (hamill),

No, I'm not dead yet (though some might say, "How can you tell?"). I am only glad that reading my book didn't kill you!

My wife doesn't allow me to read theology on holiday. The prohibition dates from our honeymoon on Santorini, when she caught me on the beach reading Jim Garrison's The Darkness of God: Theology after Hiroshima. She thought it might be an allusion to our wedding - and our future.

Anonymous said...

I haven't fallen in love with all of Updike's work, though i do enjoy his candid writing style; his passing is a sad loss indeed

Holly said...

do you know where i can find the quote from Updike about church in America?? it starts off with him describing a sacred place of vast proportions that is clean and heated for use only 1 or 2 hours a week...? thanks!!

Anonymous said...

Garrison Keillor quoted the same on this week's Prairie Home Companion and more than one person has posted a request on the website for it to appear in print there. Tune in to the Prairie Home Companion website to see if they oblige.

Miss Whistle said...

I also heard Garrison Keillor quoting that lovely piece and have been looking for it all day! I found in as part of an essay by Charles E Cole in the Quarterly Review. I've posted it on my blog if you are interested.
-- Miss Whistle

Anonymous said...

In amongst the well-deserved eulogy, I'm a bit surprised no one has noticed, what a friend pointed out to me, namely the grammatical slip at the end of 7 Stanzas.

"lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,"

Perhaps while he was writing it, the parenthetic clause made him miss the problem (that's happened to me). But I'm surprised it wasn't corrected. I've seen this text elsewhere, so I guess it's the established reading. But the more I read it, the more the slip bothers me.

Concerning this & a couple of other points about poems & their mechanics, I'm sad I can't ask him.

Best wishes.

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