World-weary and worldly-wise, John Updike is in his winter years. He's lost his boyish look of shy awkwardness. He still has the thin skewed smile, as if waiting for a schoolroom prank to come off, but he's wizened and ashen now. There's a shadow of caution in his eyes.
At 70, he's well established among élite U.S. writers. His latest novel, Seek My Face (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), comes atop a massive oeuvre and a wall-full of prestigious literary awards, including a Pulitzer. But he's not won a Nobel to complete his crown, and likely won't. His best work is probably behind him. His detractors think not even that much: that he never produced anything that lived up to the flawed but dazzling promise of his early accomplishments.
And then there's the sex. Updike is notorious for his novelistic randiness. Most people who've never read him know him as that man who writes dirty books. And, to be sure, some of his novels—Couples, Roger's Version, A Month of Sundays—seem only thinly disguised excuses to parade the gaudy excess of America's sexual fetishes. Even when you know he's up to something else—that his sexual explicitness has a cultural critique, even a theological agenda, behind it—it's pretty hard to stomach.
Still, Updike is rare among his ilk. He is, if not a "Christian" novelist, certainly North America's most theological one. Nearly his 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.
He also does it, apparently, with vested interest. Unflinchingly using words like infralapsarianism, he turns arcane theology into vivid drama. And the outcome matters.
The Hawthorne Heritage
Updike is literary heir to Nathaniel Hawthorne, that grim fabulist of the Civil War era. Hawthorne asks what happens when a people try to establish theocracy, enforcing Old Testament law in Old Testament ways. Would such faith transform the community and its members, or deform it and them? Hawthorne critiques the Puritans on the grounds of their own theology: those who condemn never fully recognize their own fallen condition. We always sabotage our own best intentions, Hawthorne implies, and never so much as when those intentions are rooted in dogmatism driven by fanaticism.
What does this have to do with Updike, born three generations after Hawthorne, and exploring themes that on the surface seem a thousand generations removed from him? Simply this: Updike answers the flip side of Hawthorne's questions. Updike sets most of his novels in a contemporary American culture that has thrown off its Puritanism with a vengeance (though a residue remains). His characters inhabit a world with at most a saccharine coating of Christian faith and deeply eroded ethics.
If Hawthorne portrayed a world in which Christianity had become rigid and tyrannical, Updike portrays one in which it has shriveled to slogans and sentimentality. And do people in his world fare better?
Hawthorne's protagonists seem fallen from a great height. They are tragic figures. Updike's characters seem merely stumble-prone, tangled up in their own feet, aimless and bored. They are quietly, subtly, pathetic.
If we stop believing in God, are we free or ensnared? Do we become more courageous, or more anxious and timid? Do we become rulers of our own destiny, or victims of our own boredom and wantonness? Do we slip the burden of guilt, or become consumed by it, unrelieved by grace?
Updike, like Hawthorne, is ambivalent about all this—he is no more nostalgic for Puritanism than Hawthorne was. But he is clear that in losing our sense of being a people under God—even if that God was the stern and meddlesome deity of Hawthorne's Puritans—we have lost something vital to our souls.
Doubt and Certainty
His books are not, as some have seen them, celebrations of our sexual coming of age. They are closer to laments. They are elegies for a world where so much has been trampled, squandered, forgotten, there is nothing left to profane.
Seek My Face, however, marks somewhat of a thematic departure for Updike. Mainly it allows him to display his impressive erudition on 20th century art, though the moral themes still lurk in the background.
The novel consists of a dialogue between Hope, an 80-something artist, and Kathryn, a 20-something journalist. Kathryn's main interest in Hope is that she was once married to Zack McCoy (a dead ringer for painter Jackson Pollock) and then Guy Holloway (a dead ringer for pop guru Andy Warhol). The conversation unfolds, with intricacy and delicacy, over the course of a single day.
Even here, though, Updike's concern for the loss of faith is not far beneath the surface—Hope threw off her austere Quaker upbringing as a young Bohemian artist but mourns its loss. Kathryn, two generations younger, meets Hope's religious nostalgia with either bewilderment or testiness. And the title is an allusion, cited in the book's epigraph, to Psalm 27: 11, a verse that comes as a call to seek God when foes taunt and strike, when friends betray and disappoint, when all false securities give way.
Updike's Rabbit series (Knopf, 1960, 1971, 1981, 1990)—four books that follow a single character from his 20s to death in his 60s—directly chronicles the erosion of personal identity, destiny, and faith through American Everyman Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom. He begins as a high-school basketball hero, trips headlong through the sexual and cultural tumult of the '60s, and then slumps into middle-aged, middle-class mediocrity. Along the way, Rabbit has brushes with God. But they are random, half-hearted, tepid. He's a spiritual drifter.
Roger's Version (Knopf, 1986)—the most Hawthornian of Updike's works—pits a diabolical theology professor, serpentine in his cunning, against a naïve evangelical student who is intent on proving God's existence mathematically. The student, to be sure, is barely recognizable as an evangelical. And the novel contains some of Updike's most elaborate sexual passages. But it also contains some of the most brilliant theological dialogue in any novel anywhere. The rich-textured debate on the relationship of doubt and certainty in religious faith is stunning.
Updike's masterpiece is In the Beauty of the Lilies (Knopf, 1996), a family saga that spans the 20th century. Through one family line, the book ingeniously refracts the culture-wide story of losing our religion.
The novel unfolds in four long chapters, each recounting the life of one family member in the lineage: Chapter One focuses on Clarence, a mild-mannered clergyman who loses his faith. Chapter Two follows his timid, listless son Theodore. Teddy, who becomes a postman because it's the path of least resistance, avoids church out of a vague but stubborn loyalty to his father. Chapter Three details the life of Teddy's daughter, Essie, who becomes a '50s glamour queen with starring roles alongside such icons as Rock Hudson and Clark Gable—then fades fast.
The last chapter follows Essie's only child, Clark. He is a lost boy. Frittering away his days with sex and cocaine, Clark is lured into an apocalyptic cult in the mountains of Colorado. He falls under the spell of its leader, Jessie—a blend of the Branch Davidians' David Koresh and Ruby Ridge's Randy Weaver, with a dash of Jim Jones and Rock Theriault thrown in.
What happens, over time, over decades, over generations, when a father no longer has a faith to pass on to his children, and his children's children? What do the apostate's descendants inherit? The wind. Each generation diminishes—in progeny, in identity, in purpose. Each generation becomes more lonely, despondent, self-obsessed. They are driven or apathetic, chronically dissatisfied, both famished and bloated. Clark will consume almost anything—drugs, pornography, fringe religion—to fill the void in himself.
His strange passivity absorbs his life; he sees it from the outside, as if he were watching a movie. Finally, his aimlessness becomes destructive. Paradoxically, inevitably, his passivity breeds violence. The novel climaxes in a blaze: a horrific, Waco-style cataclysm, complete with a shootout, a suicide pact, and an fbi siege gone horribly awry.
The book ends chillingly with a television news story of the siege and its aftermath that Clark's grandfather Teddy watches with his insipid detachment. The survivors, the terrified women and children, emerge from the smoking compound. Updike ends with a description of these survivors, "scared they're going to be shot, then stepping into the open, squinting, blinking as if just waking up, carrying or holding on to the hands of their children, too many to count. The children."
This final sentence is a jarring fragment, a shard of memory and warning.
The children. It takes four generations for Clarence's lapse of faith to come fully to roost. Ironically, Clarence had adopted just one creed: "Don't harm anyone." Updike suggests that Clarence's apostasy—losing his religion—was his worst violation of that creed. For what will become of his children?
Flannery O'Connor was once asked why, in her short-story fiction, she created such freakish characters. She responded, "To the almost blind, you must draw very large, and to the almost deaf, you must shout loud."
John Updike assumes no such prophetic role. His characters are richly and subtly drawn, with a care for verisimilitude that trumps, every time, any ideological or even theological crusade he might be on. His art overrules any temptations to preachiness. If he seeks God's face, it's through a glass darkly.
But to the stone deaf, Updike's writing may be a vibration in the bones. To those on rabbit trails to God, he offers vague signposts. But at least they invite wayfarers to stop and ask if they're going in the right direction.
Mark A. Buchanan is a pastor on Vancouver Island, Canada, and author of Things Unseen: Living with Eternity in Your Heart (Multnomah, 2002).
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Earlier Christianity Today articles by Mark Buchanan include:
Dance of the God-Struck | There's something about worship that can drive even a king to strip down and leap up. (Oct. 25, 2002)
Life Is Unfair (and That's Okay) | Even when life disturbs, disfigures, or destroys, God whispers, "If you do what is right, it will go well with you." (May 5, 2001)
Jesus Wept | God's love, mercy, passion, grief, and anger are chiseled down to two words. (Mar. 6, 2001)
Benefit of the Doubt | The disciple Thomas reveals an important truth about faith. (Apr. 7, 2000)
Running with Jonah | Do we really want to be closer to God? (Nov. 3, 1999)
Stuck on the Road to Emmaus | The secret to why we are not fulfilled. (July 12, 1999)
Trapped in the Cult of the Next Thing | If ever there was a cult that gave us stones when we asked for bread, this is it. (Sept. 6, 1999)
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