More on John Updike

M. Cooper Harriss, a junior fellow in the Martin Marty Center and a Ph.D. candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School, reminds us that John Updike was one of the faithful in the most recent Sightings, and notes how this influenced his writing:

Beyond such purely intellectual theological debts, however, Updike was a churchman-no doubt an anomaly among his contemporary literary peers. David Lodge suggested that “If there was ever such a species as the Protestant novelist…Mr. Updike may be its last surviving example.” His preachers, as literary characters, certainly reflect the diversity and complexity of late-twentieth-century mainstream American Protestantism while continuing an American literary tradition of problematic preachers, a lineage extending at least from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Arthur Dimmesdale to Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry to James Baldwin’s John Grimes, to highlight but a few examples. Consider the dueling conceptions of ecclesiology and clerical authority represented in the Lutheran Fritz Kruppenbrach (a Barthian in no uncertain terms who appears in Rabbit, Run) and his foil, the young, personable, and disconcertingly pastoral Jack Eccles (who turns up throughout the Rabbit Tetralogy). Consider Updike’s conflicted lothario Tom Marshfield (whose own relationship to a certain “Ms. Prynne” invokes Dimmesdale and The Scarlet Letter) in A Month of Sundays (1975), or the Presbyterian preacher Clarence Wilmot from In the Beauty of the Lillies (1996), who undergoes a crisis of faith and yet continues to peddle both “the word” and “cosmology” as an encyclopedia salesman. Updike’s preachers are ordained to God’s service, yet continually compelled by the messy, and corporeal, limitations that confront humankind. For an author whose sexually charged narrative communicates a coherent and strident theological vision, one can’t help but find some kindred sympathy between Updike as a wordsmith and his own ministers of “the Word.”

An offhanded comment of Updike’s, from a 2006 interview in Chicago with WTTW television’s John Callaway (re-aired this past week), speaks volumes for the broader contours of Updike’s theological vision. After sharing a joke with his subject about the pitfalls of growing old, Callaway interjects a leading question: “Are you a man of faith?” Updike recounts his lifetime tour of Protestantism-his Lutheran upbringing in Pennsylvania, his marriage to the daughter of a Unitarian minister and their move to New England Congregationalism, and his final move to the Episcopal Church, where he claims to feel very much at home. Following a couple of other observations about the value of faith and a community with whom to share it, Updike, in an unacknowledged nod to Pascal’s wager in the Pensées, claims that there’s something to be said for belonging to a group whose members are willing to stake it all on the same “bet.” Through Updike’s theological imagination perhaps we sight our own valediction. Within routine acts, allegiances, and even (or especially) alienations, all tended by external circumstance and the hardness of the human heart, humankind engages in what Pascal called (in a phrase that Updike fittingly employed in the epigraph for Rabbit, Run [1960]): “the motions of grace.” By this grace does the ordinary become extraordinary. Updike, whose fiction so capably narrated these motions, lent resonance and specificity to such grace in an age characterized by tremendous ambivalence and ambiguity. Long may he run.

Read it all here.

Past Posts