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John Updike, 'Theological Novelist,' Dies at 76

The Pulitzer winner surveyed the spiritual emptiness of post-World War II family life.

Prolific American novelist John Updike died Tuesday in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, after a battle with lung cancer. He was 76. Winning the Pulitzer Prize for two books in his best-known Rabbit quartet, Updike's novels and short stories frequently chronicled the spiritual and moral confusion of the middle-class American family adrift of its Judeo-Christian moorings.

Never afraid to explore sexual exploits frankly, the lifelong churchgoer also deftly wove theological themes into many of his novels, most overtly in Roger's Version (1986), In the Beauty of the Lilies (1996), and Seek My Face (2002). He was strongly influenced by the works of modern theologians Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Barth, but in later years credited his hometown church in Massachusetts as his spiritual foundation.

Jesuit magazine America awarded Updike its Campion Award in 1997 as "a distinguished Christian person of letters," and President George W. Bush gave him the National Medal for the Humanities in 2003.

Christianity Today contributing editor Mark Buchanan called Updike "North America's most theological novelist" in his profile of the author from July 2003. He wrote,

Nearly [Updike's] entire life's work is concerned with theological questions, and a good number of his works hinge on these. How many other contemporary authors could - or would - bandy about the theology of Barth, Tillich, or Bultmann in their novels? Or have page after page of dialogue between characters working out intricate doctrinal positions? Updike does this repeatedly and with discernment.

Mark Oppenheimer also profiled Updike in sister magazine Books & Culture in 2004, observing of his angst-ridden protagonists, "Updike's characters were raised in church, and they want truly to believe in God, but the disciplines God requires inhibit the joy he is supposed to bring."

Read more obituaries from The New York Times (which also has a slideshow), the Associated Press, Time magazine, and PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

Kendall Harmon at TitusOneNine posted "Seven Stanzas at Easter," Updike's well-known poem on the Resurrection, last March.

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Posted:January 27, 2009 at 2:54PM
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John Updike, 'Theological Novelist,' Dies at 76