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The spirit of Updike

A recent biography of American author John Updike reveals a complex man who found great solace in faith

By John McTavish

Half a century ago, a friend handed me a copy of John Updike’s racy novel Rabbit, Run with the hope that the book would disabuse me of any notions I had of becoming a minister. Alas, the novel succeeded only in bowling me over with its elegant prose and eye-popping realism.

Granted, the ministers in Rabbit, Run are terrible role models, one an exasperatingly wishy-washy liberal and the other a painfully unbending conservative. But I eventually realized that Updike was using them to illustrate how the motions of grace can reach us through the most unlikely channels.

A few years later Couples appeared, and Time magazine ran a cover story on the chronicler of the pill-inspired sexual revolution in Middle America. I now learned that while Updike had been composing Rabbit, Run, he was also experiencing an overwhelming fear of death that he managed to survive, he told Time, “only by clinging to the stern, neo-orthodox theology of Switzerland’s Karl Barth.”

I read these words and blinked, amazed that a writer of Updike’s sophistication was confessing such indebtedness to the leading theologian of the day. Usually one’s cultural heroes have no interest in faith, or at least no interest in sharing it.

John Updike died in 2009 at age 76, leaving behind over 60 books: novels, short stories, poetry, literary criticism. He never won the Nobel Prize in literature, but readers who enjoy him often can’t find high enough words of praise. The British novelist Ian McEwan recently extolled the intelligence of Updike’s sentences, “with that odd little hard-to-define spring. . . . One can open him at random and find some felicity on the page.”

And now the first major biography of the writer has appeared in Adam Begley’s Updike. Riveting, elegant and above all lucid, Begley’s book takes us through Updike’s life in tandem with his writings, reminding us that the celebrated author was also a churchgoing Christian whose faith is reflected in his work. “Surrounded by disbelief more or less politely concealed, he refused to play along,” Begley writes.

Raised Lutheran in Pennsylvania, the grandson of a Presbyterian minister, Updike joined the Congregational church as a compromise with his first wife, who was Unitarian, and later worshipped as an Episcopalian with his second wife. The rituals of church gave him great comfort: “What could be more delightful, more unexpected than to enter a venerable and lavishly scaled building kept warm and clean for use one or two hours a week and to sit and stand in unison and sing and recite creeds and petitions that are like paths worn smooth in the raw terrain of our hearts?” Updike’s narrator muses in the short story Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car.

At the same time, faith was more than a pleasurable habit for Updike. It was an antidote to “existential terror,” as Begley puts it. Updike himself admitted as much in his memoir Self-Consciousness: “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.”

For Updike, this horror of non-existence could only be subdued through belief. “The core of his religious conviction,” Begley writes, was “his lifelong inability to make what he called ‘the leap of unfaith.’” And when the abyss loomed, particularly during an anxious period in his late 20s, Karl Barth’s Christ-centred theology was a lifeline. Neither a fundamentalist nor a liberal, Barth argued that God breaks upon us in Christ in all the fullness of divinity while yet completely sharing our humanity.

“Barth was with resounding definiteness and learning saying what I needed to hear, which was that it really was so, that there was something within us that would not die, and that we live by faith alone,” Updike told an interviewer in 1976. “What he [said] joined with my Lutheran heritage and enabled me to go on.”

Religion is virtually omnipresent in Updike’s work, shaping novels like Roger’s Version, which explores the intersections of theology and science, and In the Beauty of the Lilies, a generation saga that suggests if too much faith is murderous, a little is needed or we die. He celebrates the church in The Deacon and other short stories, while poems such as Fine Point (“The timbrel creed of praise / gives spirit to the daily; blood tinges lips”) testify to his robust faith.

But this doesn’t mean that Updike’s fiction forces a Christian message on the reader. On the contrary, he always believed that his basic duty to God was to write the most truthful and fullest books he could. “I don’t want to write tracts, to be more narrow in my fiction than the world itself is; I try not to subject the world to a kind of cartoon theology which gives predictable answers,” he once reflected. Fallen clergy, self-centred philanderers: no one escaped Updike’s penetrating eye.

Perhaps Updike’s finest religious story is Pigeon Feathers, about a teenage boy’s quest for faith amid panic over mortality. Early in that story, young David can be found holding up his hands in the dark and begging Christ to touch them. He feels nothing and yet wonders if he may have been touched all the same: “For would not Christ’s touch be infinitely gentle?” Later, as he buries dead pigeons in the yard, the infinitely gentle touch of the birds comes as a revelation. He marvels at the beauty of their feathers, marked with “idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.”

The awesome complexity of the humble pigeon’s feathers distils Updike’s own philosophy of writing: “to give the mundane its beautiful due,” as he phrased it; to celebrate reality, both human and divine.

Rev. John McTavish is minister emeritus at Trinity United in Huntsville, Ont.

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