Assets increase, but the soul slides nearer bankruptcy.

Christians who read john updike are often eager to speculate on the writer’s religious faith. “Oh, he must be a Christian,” some say. “Look at the theology in his books.” But no one ever says point-blank, “Yes, John Updike is a Christian. I heard him say so.”

A 1968 Time magazine cover story on Updike included a short reference to a religious experience he had around 1960. It said Updike was raised a Unitarian amid Lutherans and Amish of southeastern Pennsylvania, joined the less-liberal Congregational church in 1959, and a year later, when the awareness of the passing of time pressed closely upon him, he felt a constant sense of horror about death. The fullblown religious crisis lasted several months, and Updike got through it only by clinging to the stern theological teachings of Karl Barth.

One might conclude that, yes, Updike may have had a conversion experience. Whatever the case, his works of poetry and fiction seem to be shot through with Reformation theology. Many articulate a powerful sense of sin and its far-reaching effects on people.

In his novels Rabbit Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), and now the Pulitizer Prize-winning Rabbit Is Rich (1981), this sense of sin exists in its most graphic and troubling form. The books develop a tragic character, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, who has led a steadily decaying existence since his glory days as a high school athlete.

In Rabbit Is Rich, Harry has become a prospering Toyota dealer. At middle age, he is making a financial go of it, while the rest of the world seems to be running down, and on empty. But there is counterpoint here: as Harry’s assets increase, the equity of his soul slides nearer bankruptcy. Harry knows this ...

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