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John Updike and Christianity

Danny E. Olinger

In 1989 the acclaimed author John Updike wrote Self-Consciousness, a memoir that contained six autobiographical essays.[1] Updike’s ordering of the essays, as much as the memories he shared in them, revealed two of the themes that framed his fiction. The first of the six essays, “A Soft Spring Night in Shillington,” focused on the importance of the sense of place in his writings. The last essay, “On Being a Self Forever,” focused on Updike’s belief that his Christian faith, as he defined it, had enabled him to proceed with confidence as a writer.

The fact that Self-Consciousness was not a standard autobiography has allowed Adam Begley to fill in the gaps in Updike, the first full scale biography of Updike since his death in 2009.[2] Following Updike’s lead in Self-Consciousness, Begley expertly picks up on how Updike’s sense of place functioned in his fiction. Begley chronicles how what was happening in Updike’s life paralleled what Updike was writing in his books and short stories. That aspect of Begley’s biography is excellent.

However, Begley’s appreciation of the Christian thread running throughout Updike’s literary corpus is not as strong. That is not to say that that Begley fails to recognize that faith permeated Updike’s writings. He acknowledges Updike’s belief that faith in Christ freed him to write boldly about life. But Begley writes with sparse insights about the Christian themes that marked Updike’s fiction. It is as if Begley knew it was mandatory to say something, but agreed in principle with Harold Bloom’s criticism that the religious aspects were the weak link in Updike’s fiction.[3]

Understandably, many Christians react in the opposite direction when measuring Updike as a writer. They struggle with the legitimacy of Updike’s faith claims due to the fact that his fiction contained graphic sexuality. Ralph Wood describes the reaction:

The first thing that nearly everyone remarks about Updike’s work is its obsession with sex. It is either the silent undercurrent or the rippling concern of almost every story and scene that Updike has ever written. His fascination with the genital—and hence the spiritual—difference between men and women has put many critics off. They regard Updike as an arrested adolescent, a brilliant stylist who has squandered his talent on the obvious: the fact that we are carnal creatures.[4]

Examples abound of the tension that resulted for those interested in studying the Christian aspects of Updike’s writings, but were put off by his sexual realism. When a prominent Reformed seminary held a special class examining Updike’s novels, the students nicknamed it “the dirty books class.” Reportedly, Updike once accepted an invitation to speak about his books from the English department at Gordon College, the evangelical institution located near where Updike lived in Massachusetts. However, when the Gordon president found out, he revoked the invitation saying that he didn’t want “that pornographer” to speak to the students.[5]

Updike himself recognized the discomfort his sexual frankness created for many Christian readers. He said, “My art is Christian only in that my faith urges me to tell the truth, however painful and inconvenient, and holds out the hope that the truth—really—is good. Good or no, only the truth is useful.”[6] He also understood that literary critics like Bloom would always see the theological nature of his novels as a hindrance. Updike said, “As to critics, it seems to be my fate to disappoint my theological friends by not being Christian enough, while I’m too Christian for Harold Bloom’s blessing. So be it.”[7]

In what follows, I will examine the tension that Updike created for a Christian audience, particularly at the beginning and end of his literary career. On the one hand, Updike deliberately placed Christian themes at the center of his stories. On the other hand, his commitment to realism left his writings with little regard for decency, almost openly flaunting his indifference to the law character of Scripture, much less the seventh commandment. Mark Buchanan summarizes the tension well when he writes of Updike, “Even when you know he’s up to something—that his sexual explicitness has a cultural critique, even a theological agenda, behind it—it’s pretty hard to swallow.”[8]

Early Updike: The Influence of Karl Barth

During his adolescent years, Updike was terrified of death and for comfort created a logical syllogism of the existence of God.

  1. If God does not exist, the world is a horror show.
  2. The world is not a horror show.
  3. Therefore, God exists.[9]

Updike admitted in retrospect that the syllogism was flawed, and that his faith was often small, but he also claimed that he never stopped believing in God. Updike said that when he battled the inevitability of death in early adulthood, he would read the Reformed theologian Karl Barth and fall in love with other men’s wives.[10] According to Updike, Barth showed him how saving faith could overcome the nothingness of life. In his autobiographical poem, “Midpoint,” Updike penned the line, “Praise Barth, who told how saving Faith can flow / from Terror’s oscillating Yes and No.”

Updike’s first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, written in 1957 when Updike was reading Barth daily, shows this influence. Poorhouse Fair looked at America’s future, Updike asking, “What will become of us, having lost our faith?”[11]

Set in the early 1980s, the elderly residents at a nursing home are preparing for the annual summer fair where they sell crafts and other goods. With the threat of rain coming, Conner, the young prefect running the home, cancels the event. Hook, a ninety-four-year-old Christian, objects. Hook, who represents the past, places his hope in God. He views death positively, believing that it is the very thing that gives meaning to life. Conner is a prophet of the emerging new faith, secular humanism. He places his hope in mankind and views death negatively, as it doesn’t contribute anything to the service of humanity.

But Conner’s daily actions at the Diamond County Home for the Aged reveal the emptiness of his claim about the service of humanity. He doesn’t care about people. The elderly grasp his indifference to them, and following his encounter with Hook, they stone him with pebbles. The pebbles bouncing off him, Conner spreads his arms mocking Christ on the cross and says, “I will forgive them.” Conner’s statement rests in the belief that he and his fellow moderns will bring about a utopian future where planned cities will be clean and the poor will be no more.

The residents know better. There is nothing optimistic about the future with Conner in control. He is not the Savior, but Pontius Pilate, the representative of another world, young and secular, set over against them. They rage because they know that their mortality is near, that death is approaching, and Conner’s gospel offers no way to overcome it.

On the twentieth anniversary of the publishing of The Poorhouse Fair, Updike wrote that the book was his answer to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the atheistic Orwell argued that the ultimate fruit of the future is non-existence. Clues that Updike is writing an anti-Orwell novel are not only Hook’s faith, but also Hook’s background. Hook’s schooling indicates that his birth was around 1890, which would have placed the time frame for the story around 1984.”[12]

Begley sees Poorhouse Fair as exhibiting traits that would characterize Updike’s fiction. He agrees with Whitney Balliett’s verdict in his review of Poorhouse Fair in The New Yorker that Updike “is a writer’s writer,” a prodigious talent who exhibits a poet’s care and sensitivity in choosing every word. He also sees it as projecting onto paper Updike’s spiritual struggles, particularly, his anxiety about death. But, given the “yes, but” nature of the story—Updike saying yes to the joy of persistent existence and no to social homogenization and the loss of faith[13]—Begley finds great value in Balliett’s parenthetical comment that reading Poorhouse Fair, “curiously, one never thinks of liking it or disliking it.”[14]

What Begley underplays with Updike’s early writings was that Updike agreed with Barth’s criticism of liberal theology. Updike’s stinging criticism of liberal theology can be seen in his short story that followed The Poorhouse Fair, “Pigeon Feathers.”

In “Pigeon Feathers,” young David Kern reads H. G. Wells’s dismissal of Christianity. According to Wells, a myth developed around the man Jesus who had survived his own crucifixion before dying a few weeks later. Shaken in his faith, David goes to his pastor for assurance that Wells has wrongly maligned Jesus. In particular, David asks him if he believes that heaven is real. Reverend Dobson replies, “David, you might think of heaven this way: as the way the goodness Abraham Lincoln did lives after him.”[15] David realizes he has been deceived, that Dobson’s answer “amounts to saying that there isn’t any heaven at all.”[16] His pastor is a fraud who doesn’t believe the words that he uses in worship.

Thrown into a spiritual crisis of not knowing who to trust, David’s faith wavers until his grandmother orders him to rid the family barn of the pigeons nesting in it. Shooting the pigeons with his rifle, he felt like a beautiful avenger. But then, when collecting and burying the pigeons, he looks with amazement at the color and shape and texture of the feathers, no two being alike, and has an epiphany that restores his faith. He believes the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would also care for him eternally.

Later, Updike commented that “Pigeon Feathers” was the most important ecclesiastical fiction he ever wrote. David reflected Updike’s own shock when he found out that the nice liberal Lutheran minister in Shillington who was confirming him didn’t really attach any factual reality to Christian doctrines.[17] Updike’s conclusion was that liberal theology with its message of social uplift could not confront the problem of nothingness. Only the historical reality of Christ bodily rising from the dead could confront nothingness and give meaning to life. Updike exclaimed, “Perhaps there are two kinds of people: those for whom nothingness is no problem, and those for whom it is an insuperable problem, an outrageous cancellation rendering every other concern, from mismatching socks to nuclear holocaust, negligible.”[18]

Updike returned to writing about David Kern in his short story, “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car.” David, now living around Boston as an adult, finds out that his father has been hospitalized. Driving back home, David warmly recalls his youth when he and his friends would play daily, creating worn paths to their favorite play places before being summoned home. David reflects, “The earth is our playmate then, and the call to supper has a piercingly sweet eschatological ring.”[19]

When he arrives at the hospital, David finds out that his father, though greatly weakened, will recover. What has been lost is his father’s Christian faith. David doesn’t say anything in reply because he has lost his own faith as well.

Faith’s place in his father’s life has been usurped by attending movies and doting on his car. David tells his mother, “It worries me the way he talks about the movies all the time. You know he never liked them.” But, what is most obvious is the place of worship his father’s car now holds. David’s father says to him:

“… The only thing that worries me is that she”—he pointed at my mother—“will crack up the car. I don’t want anything to happen to your mother.”
“The car, you mean,” my mother said, and to me she added, “It’s a sin, the way he worships that car.”
My father didn’t deny it.[20]

Rabbit, Run and The Centaur

At the same time that Updike was publishing “Pigeon Feathers” and “Packed Dirt,” he was also writing the novels that would establish him as a major literary talent, Rabbit, Run and The Centaur. Updike saw the novels as opposites, a contrast between a rabbit running loose and seeking self-gratification and a horse steadily doing its duty.

In Rabbit, Run, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom laments his position in life. Feeling trapped in a stale marriage and a menial job, Rabbit wants to feel as alive as he once did playing high school basketball. In search of this feeling, he leaves his pregnant wife, Janice, and moves in with Ruth, a part-time prostitute.

The authority figures in Rabbit’s life, his old basketball coach, Marty Tothero, and the liberal Episcopalian pastor, Jack Eccles, are totally ineffective in persuading Rabbit to do the right thing. Tothero is the one who first introduces Rabbit to Ruth. Eccles has nothing useful to say to Rabbit because as Rabbit observes, Eccles doesn’t really believe in anything.

Eccles, though, has opinions, and mainly dislikes the Lutheran pastor in town, Fritz Kruppenbach. Eccles sees Kruppenbach as rigid in creed and a bully in manner. Kruppenbach, for his part, criticizes Eccles in trying to help Rabbit by playing golf with him and not telling Rabbit he is sinning. He asks Eccles, “What do you think it looks like to God, one childish husband leaving one childish wife? Do you ever think any more of what God sees?”[21]

When Rabbit does attend worship services, Eccles’s preaching is so lacking force that Rabbit scarcely listens. Still, Eccles’s preaching allows the narrator to express the faith problem that confronts Rabbit. “Harry has no taste for the dark, tangled visceral aspect of Christianity, the going through quality of it, the passage into death and suffering that redeems and inverts these things, like an umbrella blowing inside out.”[22]

Rabbit only goes back to Janice after she gives birth to Rebecca, their second child, but he remains restless. He demands that Janice act like Ruth. Janice accuses him of treating her like a prostitute, and he leaves. Distraught over her situation, Janice begins drinking and accidently drowns baby Becky in the bathtub. At Becky’s funeral, Rabbit proclaims his innocence but continues running—literally, away from Eccles in the graveyard, and figuratively, from caring for either Janice or Ruth.

Updike said that he meant to show that Rabbit saying yes to his urgent inner whispers, results in the social fabric collapsing murderously.[23] And yet, tellingly, Updike refuses to condemn Rabbit at the story’s end. James Schiff writes, “Harry never returns home and Updike provides no moral to placate the reader. It would be as if Peter Rabbit were to end with Peter running panicky into the night.”[24]

With Updike concluding the book in an ambiguous manner, Wood argues that Updike was matching Barth’s view of what a novel should be. Barth believed fiction should not educate, but rather should leave the reader questioning what had just happened. Wood writes, “He [Rabbit] is a protagonist who poses a problem rather than a solution, who queries us more than he teaches us a lesson.”[25]

The theological nature of Rabbit, Run, however, played a secondary role for many to Updike’s raw language. When British publisher Victor Gollancz read the original manuscript, he believed that the book might be labelled obscene, and that legal punishment might ensue for him and his American counterpart, Alfred Knopf, if they went forward with publication. Updike said, “My theory was not so much that I was trying to make a point about censorship, but I did feel that this particular hero lies so exclusively in the realm of the present and the sensational that, once sport was gone, sex was about the realist thing left to him.”[26]

What is lost today, in light of the fame that Rabbit, Run brought for Updike is that his next novel, The Centaur, was more critically praised at the time, even winning the 1963 National Book Award. Updike wanted to present a counterpart to Rabbit, Run that would also serve as a record of his father. Rather than a rabbit running towards instant gratification, Updike’s father always did his duty with the reliability of a plodding horse.

Updike encourages a theological reading of The Centaur by placing a quote from Barth’s Dogmatics in Outline as the epigraph: “Heaven is the creation inconceivable to man, earth the creation conceivable to him. He himself is the creature on the boundary between heaven and earth.” To emphasize the interplay of heaven and earth, Updike utilizes Greek mythology. The protagonist, George Caldwell, a general science teacher at Olinger High School, is also in alternating chapters a centaur with the head of a man and the body of a horse. When asked why he chose the mythic form for The Centaur, Updike said, “I was moved, first, by the Chiron variant of the Hercules myth—one of the few classical instances of self-sacrifice, and a name oddly close to Christ.”[27]

George, the son of a Presbyterian minister but now turned Lutheran, looks around and comes to a conclusion that he believes is irrefutable—things, cars, people never fail to fail. Doctrinally, George believes,

there are the elect and the non-elect, the ones that have it and the ones that don’t, and the ones that don’t have it are never going to get it. What I could never ram through my thick skull was why the ones that don’t have it were elected in the first place. The only reason I could figure out was that God had to have somebody to fry down in Hell.[28]

His theological musings also extend to the difference between Lutherans and Calvinists. “The Lutherans say Jesus Christ is the only answer and the Calvinists say whatever happens to you, happens to you, is the answer.”[29] George ponders such thoughts because his job is a necessary burden, a daily martyrdom in order to support his family. He suffers so that his son, Peter (Prometheus), will not suffer. George’s self-sacrifice serves the “yes” of The Centaur. The “but” is the pain he endures as his life dwindles.[30]

Although Bloom does not mention The Centaur by name, undoubtedly it was one of the books that he had in mind when he wrote that Updike had a kind of supernatural smugness allowing Updike to say “the natural is a pit of horror” and “one has nothing but the ancient assertions of Christianity to give one the will to act.”[31] Updike, however, considered The Centaur his “gayest and truest novel.”[32]

Couples

The novel, however, that would put Updike on the cover of Time magazine and make him a national celebrity was his 1968 best-seller, Couples. For many Christians, it was also the breaking point when it came to reading Updike. The cause for both was Updike’s revealing take on adultery in the suburbs.

Couples begins on Friday, November 22, 1963, the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. In Tarbox, Massachusetts, a party planned in advance is not cancelled, so dominant are the sexual appetites of those attending. They dine and dance, as it were, on the top of Kennedy’s polished casket. Almost everyone at the party will be unfaithful to his or her spouse as the story unfolds.

The central figure, Piet Hanemas, calls himself a Calvinist, but his Calvinism is a mix of fatalism and freedom. He believes in a sovereign God, but openly cheats on his wife, Angela, with Foxy Whitman. Piet’s reasoning is he can do whatever he wishes: God has already determined the outcome, salvation or damnation are accomplished facts. When Foxy tells Piet that she likes being with him because he didn’t judge her, Piet replies that only God judged.

Piet decides to leave Angela and marry Foxy, and doing so must leave Tarbox for the nearby city of Lexington. But, as he prepares to begin his new life, the Congregational Church building at the center of Tarbox is struck by lightning and destroyed. Updike commented:

When the Church is burned, Piet is relieved of morality, and can choose Foxy … can move out of the paralysis of guilt and into what is a kind of freedom. He divorces the supernatural to marry the natural … so that the book does have a happy ending. There’s also a way, though, I should say (speaking of “yes, but”) in which, with the destruction of the church, with the removal of guilt, he becomes insignificant. He becomes merely a name in the last paragraph; he becomes a satisfied person and in a sense dies.[33]

Among the adulterous couples, only Piet and Foxy are regular churchgoers. Modern life without faith had a left a void that the couples try foolishly to fill with sex. Updike said, “The book is, of course, not about sex as such: It’s about sex as the emergent religion, as the only thing left.”[34]

Updike could talk about the usurping of the church by sex as the theme of the novel, but as Begley observes, the title of Wirt William’s review of Couples in the Los Angeles Times, “America’s Most Explicitly Sexual Novel Ever,” reflected what everyone else thought.[35] Diane Trilling’s review in the Atlantic Monthly followed the same path. Calling the book “fancied–up pornography,” she wrote, “I can think of no other novel, even in these years of our sexual freedom, as sexually explicit in its language … as direct in its sexual reporting, abundant in its sexual activities.”[36]

After Couples, Updike would write an additional twenty plus novels, including two Pulitzer prize winners, Rabbit is Rich (1982) and Rabbit at Rest (1990), but his emphasis tended more towards sexual exploration. Even in a book like A Month of Sundays (1975), where the main character is a minister, Updike stated that he wanted to make the book offensive and abrasive.[37] Updike justified his emphasis upon sex in A Month of Sundays as an effort to have the reader think about the Christian faith. He stated, “In this particular book, one can question, is it right for this minister to seduce his parishioners? Is his brand of Christianity the only kind left?” According to Updike, Mansfield, the minister, “is a Barthian grown old. He has faith, but not much in the way of works.”[38]

Critics, however, were not persuaded with Updike’s reasoning. A consensus was gaining momentum that Updike had started not only to write about sex exhaustively, but also to write about sex badly. Reviewing the book in the New York Times, Anatole Broyard saw it as sex-laden book “packed with bad puns and Freudian slips of the banana peel sort.”[39]

In the Beauty of the Lilies

In 1996 Updike returned to examine the place of the Christian faith in American culture in the twentieth century with a pre-Couples like novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies. The American exchange of God as the object of worship for entertainment (movies) and possessions (the car) that takes place in “Packed Dirt” in the early 1960s is re-examined in light of the three and a half decades that had passed. Updike had hinted in Self-Consciousness, his 1989 memoir, that he was considering writing such a book. He commented:

In the Beauty of the Lilies Christ was born across the sea—this odd and uplifting line from among the many odd lines of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” seemed to me, as I set out, to summarize what I had to say about America, to offer itself as the title of a continental magnum opus of which all my books, no matter how many, would be mere installments, mere starts at the hymning of this great roughly rectangular country severed from Christ by the breadth of the sea.[40]

The story begins in 1910 with Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister in Paterson, New Jersey, a Dutch Calvinist ghetto, losing his faith while in the pulpit. Wilmot, who had studied under B.B. Warfield at Princeton Seminary and owned Calvin’s commentaries, becomes undone after reading a historical-critical attack on the veracity of the Bible. When he reports this to the liberal moderator of his presbytery, the moderator tells him that he doesn’t need to believe anything in order to serve in the church, but Wilmot only despairs more.

Around the same time in Paterson, a more newsworthy event is taking place, the filming of the movie The Call to Arms, with the actress Mary Pickford. Pickford falls from a horse and loses consciousness, which is national news. According to Schiff, Updike telegraphed the theme of the novel in these two episodes. Schiff writes:

Mary Pickford’s loss of consciousness and subsequent fall from a horse during the filming of The Call to Arms, and Clarence Wilmot’s sudden loss of faith and fall from grace (incidentally, the plot of the movie concerns “a lost jewel beyond price,” which suggests the plot of Updike’s novel: the loss of faith). The moment that yields these two “falls” is highly symbolic and points to the dominant theme in the novel: the rise of the cinema, which through its powerful projection of images has inspired faith and devotion, and the related decline of religious belief. Pickford loses consciousness at the moment of the “facial close up,” which suggests that the human face, divinely enlarged on the big screen, replaces the face of God in the eyes of a worshipping public.[41]

In his new life away from the faith, his motto now being “there is no God,” Wilmot finds solace in a new sanctuary, the movie theater. His granddaughter, Essie Wilmot, also loves attending the movies. But, with an exalted sense of self, she is not content with remaining a spectator. Her desire is to be a movie star. Believing there must be a God to love her as she deserves, she climbs from beauty pageant contestant to starlet.

Her son, Clark, drifts until he finds purpose in life in the Temple of True and Actual Faith. The cult comes into conflict with the authorities and a Waco-like shootout follows. In the battle, Clark lays down his life to save the children of the cult.

Schiff sees Updike asserting in Lilies that the faith is not dead in America, but has been transferred, Americanized. However, such an exchange reduces the grand spiritual yearning that once defined America to images on a screen, which in turn leads to individuals, like Clark, who will follow self-proclaimed messiahs. America is now “shaped by the image it creates and broadcasts.”[42]

Did He Go Too Far?

Updike said that the true test for any of his novels would be if they floated after twenty years.[43] Although it has only been eight years since his death, it appears that Updike’s literary star is diminished. Part of the problem is that his sex scenes, which made him a millionaire, Couples alone selling 4.6 million copies, are found practically unreadable by friend and foe alike.

The upshot is that Updike has become an author whose books are only read once, if read at all. The exceptions for me are Olinger Stories, which is what I recommend first when someone asks me what to read by Updike, and In the Beauty of the Lilies. Both show most clearly Updike’s religious theme at its best, the displacement of Christian faith in American culture and its consequences. Adam Gopnik on the occasion of Updike’s death astutely commented in The New Yorker:

Throughout all [his] varied work, one theme rose and was repeated over and over. Updike’s great subject was the American attempt to fill the gap left by faith with the materials produced by mass culture. He documented how the death of a credible religious belief has been offset by sex and adultery and movies and sports and Toyotas and family love and family obligation.[44]

I cannot remember enjoying a single page of Rabbit, Run, but after reading it I was convinced that Updike had taken a page from my life. The captured rhythm and description of life in rural, Protestant mid-century America is eerily accurate. You grow up in such a place as I did, and you know that he has gotten the scene right. But, in receiving the good news by faith and resting upon Christ for salvation, I wanted to leave that scene behind, not the people, but the behavior.

Such realism is what Updike was hoping to attain, but did he go too far in doing so? He claimed that he only wanted to write about an imperfect world, which he believed was why so many readers found his books depressing.[45] He further stated that his books were intended to be moral debates where an issue is examined and the question is asked, “What is a good man?” or “What is goodness?”[46]

I appreciate those aspects of Updike’s books. But, I also believe that his novels would have been better served if he had dialed back his writing about sex. Theologian Albert Mohler has a point when he comments that Updike’s “God–plus–sex” model all too often ends up with Updike becoming a “pagan celebrant” of sex.[47]

Begley picks up on this, noting that critic James Wood in his review of Updike’s 1998 novel, Toward the End of Time, “added his voice to the chorus of critics who objected to the sexual content of Updike’s fiction; ‘a lifelong distraction,’ he called it.”[48] In reviewing Updike’s short stories in Licks of Love two years later, Wood wrote that Updike’s descriptions of sex “have recurred and overlapped thickly enough in his work to constitute, now, the equivalent of an artist’s palette: this is how Updike chooses to paint the world.”[49]

For his part, Updike believed he had no choice but to write the way he did. Updike’s aim was “to write about sex on the same level, as explicitly and carefully and lovingly as one wrote about anything else.”[50] In describing sex, he believed he had to get himself dirty, even if that meant going against his Christian duty.[51]

In this regard, Updike’s fiction matched Barth’s theologizing. Both asked to be absolved from any duty to provide biblical morals. Updike said, “Barth has been a guide and comfort for me not only in his assertive fundamentalism but in his Antinomianism, his lovely and tolerant acceptance of the wide world beyond the church walls.”[52]

But, did Updike’s sharing of Barth’s antinomianism expose an inconsistency that Updike recognized indirectly? In Self-Consciousness, Updike stated he had not read Barth much in the 1980s after reading about Barth’s view of the afterlife in an interview. Barth had stated that he imagined the afterlife as somehow this life in review or viewed in a new light. Updike said of Barth’s view, “I had not been as comforted as I wanted to be. For is it not the singularity of life that terrifies us? Is not the decisive difference between comedy and tragedy that tragedy denies us another chance?”[53]

The separation that Barth put forth between the work of Christ in history and one’s faith, the separation that made Updike uncomfortable, parallels the separation between doctrine and life found in Updike’s life and fiction.[54] Updike claimed to love attending worship services, even proclaiming that when absent he began to hunger for it; but there is no indication from Updike himself or from any commentators that Updike held that believers in Christ are redeemed from guilt and shame and called to holiness.

There is also nothing of this to be found in Updike’s literature. For Updike, such determinations would have strayed from the “middles” that he loved.[55] Like Flannery O’Connor, he would have had to condemn his characters, something that he philosophically did not want to do. Updike once explained the difference between his approach and O’Connor’s approach when he commented upon O’Connor and Graham Greene:

What strikes me when I think about Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene is how far they are willing to go in presenting a suffering, apparently Godless world. That is, the very scorchingness with which God is not there is something that I don’t feel in my own work. It amazes me. In other words, there’s something kind of Jansenist—I was going to say Calvinist—in both of these writers. I think there may be a Protestant emphasis on the individual conscience and on attempting to locate a consecrated or a graceful inner state of mind that perhaps is not necessary for these Catholic writers. My heroes, at least, are all struggling for some kind of inner certitude, illumination, or something.[56]

O’Conner is after something that Updike is not, namely, conversion. She aimed to sting the world into a reforming act of self-recognition regarding Christ.[57] After reading Rabbit, Run, O’Connor called it “the best book illustrating damnation that has come along in a great while.”[58] Updike was less dogmatic. He wanted to explore the human condition in light of the cosmic battle between God and nothingness. Consequently, Rabbit Angstrom, reprehensible in O’Connor’s eyes, was sympathetic in Updike’s eyes in that he continued to struggle. Joyce Carol Oates further elaborates on how this contrast played out in the fiction of Updike and O’Connor:

Because O’Connor’s Catholic faith was unshakable, she could invent for her allegorical people ghastly physical-historical fates, assuming that their souls, encompassing but not limited to their egos, were unkillable. Updike’s faith is possibly unshakeable as well—which, judging from observations scattered throughout his writing, in a way alarms and amuses him—but his sympathies are usually with those that doubt, who have given up hope of salvation as such, wanting instead to be transparent, artists of their own lives.[59]

In a best-case reading of Updike’s spirituality, Ralph Wood argues that this transparency was why Updike was an ironist of the spiritual life. The realities that constrict the freedom of moderns—marriage, children, church—also enhance that freedom and lead to the discovery of grace, which is not from arbitrary Fate but a benevolent God.[60]

The debate will surely continue about the nature of Updike’s Christian faith and the impact that it had on his writings. But, Updike saw it as real. When he was diagnosed with cancer, he turned to writing poems, the last one, Fine Point, being about the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ. Updike asked in the first stanza, “Why go to Sunday school, though surlily, / and not believe a bit of what was taught?” Alluding to Psalm 23, Updike answered:

The timbrel creed of praise
gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips.
The tongue reposes in papyrus pleas,
saying, Surely—magnificent, that “surely”—
goodness and mercy shall follow me all
the days of my life
, my life, forever.[61]

Endnotes

[1] John Updike, Self-Consciousness (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1989).

[2] Adam Begley, Updike (New York: HarperCollins, 2014).

[3] Bloom opined, “John Updike, perhaps the most considerable stylist among the writers of fiction in his American generation, is one of the group of contemporary novelists who are somewhat victimized aesthetically by their conventional religious yearnings. His is the Protestant case.” Harold Bloom, ed., John Updike (New Haven: Chelsea House, 1987), 1.

[4] Ralph Wood, The Comedy of Redemption (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988), 179.

[5] See, Jon Busch, “Getting Over Updike,” Curator, January 14, 2011, http://www.curatormagazine.com/jonbusch/getting-over-updike/.

[6] Jeff Campbell, “Interview with John Updike,” in Conversations with John Updike, ed. James Plath (Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 1994), 104.

[7] See, Stephen H. Webb, “John Updike the Blogger: Reading Karl Barth with John Updike,” First Things, August 15, 2014, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/08/john-updike-the-blogger.

[8] Mark Buchanan, “Rabbit Trails to God,” in Christianity Today, July 1, 2003, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/july/4.42.html.

[9] Begley, Updike, 39.

[10] Begley, Updike, 223.

[11] Ibid., 175.

[12] John Updike, “Introduction to the 1977 Edition,” in The Poorhouse Fair (New York: Random House, 2012): xi.

[13] George Hunt, John Updike and the Three Great Things: Sex, Religion, and Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), 20.

[14] Begley, Updike, 178.

[15] John Updike, “Pigeon Feathers,” in Olinger Stories (New York: Vintage, 1964).

[16] Ibid., 37.

[17] Jan Nunley, “Thoughts of Faith Infuse Updike’s Novels,” in Conversations with John Updike, ed. James Plath (Oxford, MS: University of Mississippi, 1994), 249.

[18] Updike, Self-Consciousness, 228.

[19] John Updike, “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car,” in Olinger Stories, 154.

[20] Ibid., 178–79.

[21] Updike later commented that Kruppenbach was “meant to be Barth in action” and the touchstone of the novel. Picking up on this insight, Hunt observed, “Like Evangelist in The Pilgrim’s Progress, it is Kruppenbach who offers thematic direction and delineates the issues of the novel’s ongoing debate. Kruppenbach’s appearance is unusual in that he is the only character that Rabbit does not encounter directly in the novel; he appears, instead, from off stage as it were, entering like a Greek chorus to add clarifying comment upon the dramatic proceedings, thus embodying that ‘main beam’ of the Apostles’ Creed that supports all else.” Hunt, John Updike and the Three Great Things, 43.

[22] John Updike, Rabbit, Run (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960), 197.

[23] Hunt, John Updike and the Three Great Things, 20.

[24] James A. Schiff, John Updike Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1998), 36.

[25] Wood, Comedy of Redemption, 207.

[26] Melvyn Bragg, “Forty Years of Middle America with John Updike,” in Conversations, 223.

[27] Hunt, John Updike and the Three Great Things, 62.

[28] John Updike, The Centaur (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1963), 189.

[29] Ibid., 188.

[30] Hunt, John Updike and the Three Great Things, 20.

[31] Bloom, John Updike, 1.

[32] Hunt, John Updike and the Three Great Things, 49.

[33] Ibid., 126.

[34] Ibid., 117.

[35] Begley, Updike, 294.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Elinor Stout, “Interview with John Updike,” in Conversations, 75.

[38] Ibid., 75.

[39] Anatole Broyard, “A Month of Sundays,” New York Times, February 2, 1975, http://www.nytimes.com/books/97/04/06/lifetimes/updike-r-sundays.html.

[40] Updike, Self-Consciousness, 103.

[41] Schiff, 145.

[42] Ibid., 144.

[43] Hunt, 212.

[44] Adam Gopnik, “John Updike,” The New Yorker, February 9, 2009, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/02/09/john-updike.

[45] James Yerkes, “As Good as It Gets,” in John Updike and Religion, ed. James Yerkes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999): 24.

[46] Hunt, John Updike, 31.

[47] R. Albert Mohler, “John Updike Strikes Again,” Albert Mohler’s website, June 26, 2006, http://www.albertmohler.com/2006/06/26/john-updike-strikes-again/.

[48] Begley, John Updike, 459.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid., 203.

[51] John Updike, “Remarks upon Receiving the Champion Medal,” in John Updike and Religion, ed. James Yerkes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 5.

[52] Stephen H. Webb, “John Updike the Blogger: Reading Karl Barth with John Updike,” First Things, August 15, 2014, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/08/john-updike-the-blogger.

[53] Updike, Self-Consciousness, 241.

[54] Louis Menand questions why the faith convictions of characters in Updike’s fiction should be equated with Updike’s own faith convictions. The value of Begley’s biography is that he proves that William Maxwell’s description of Updike as “a conspicuously autobiographical writer” was correct. As one example of the matching of Updike’s life and writing, Begley chronicles at length Updike’s adulterous ways while married to his first wife, Mary, while living in Ipswich, which became the basis of Couples. See, Louis Menand, “Imitation of Life,” The New Yorker, April 28, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/04/28/imitation-of-life and Begley, John Updike, 256–94.

[55] When he appeared a second time on the cover of Time magazine in 1982, Updike said, “I like middles. It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly runs.” Peter Stoler, “John Updike: Going Great at Fifty,” Time 120, no. 16 (October 18, 1982).

[56] Campbell, “Interview with Updike,” in Conversations, 95.

[57] Wood, Comedy of Redemption, 178.

[58] Ibid., 208.

[59] Joyce Carol Oates, “Updike’s American Comedies,” in John Updike, ed. Bloom, 58.

[60] Ibid., 179.

[61] John Updike, “Fine Point,” The New Yorker, March 16, 2009, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2009/03/16/fine-point-3.

Danny E. Olinger is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as the General Secretary of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, June–July 2017.

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