UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds

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.



Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!

Interviews

Courtesy of Pixabay

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.

Promotional Image

Editorials

Jocelyn Bell%

Observations: It’s a long road toward full equality for women

by Jocelyn Bell

'It’s a wonder that we continue to see male ministers as normative and attach shame to female ministers’ biology and sexuality.'

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Playing by Heart

by Observer Staff

United Church music director Kara Shaw was born prematurely, became almost totally blind and was later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Today, the 28-year-old showcases her unique musical ability, performing piano on local and national stages.

Promotional Image

Faith

May 2018

Toronto church builds interfaith friendship

by Vivien Fellegi

Faith

May 2018

This parent found no support for her autistic daughter — and decided to change that

by Kieran Delamont

Suzanne Allen talks about raising a daughter on the autism spectrum and bringing all autistic girls together

Faith

May 2018

Church retreat helps first responders with PTSD

by Joe Martelle

Interviews

May 2018

Why this woman is leaving the Catholic Church in her 60s

by Angela Mombourquette

After a lifetime devoted to Catholicism, a Nova Scotia teacher is settling in with the United Church of Canada. Here, she explains why.

Ethics

May 2018

Pregnant in the pulpit

by Trisha Elliott

Ministers who take a maternity leave still face discrimination in their own congregations

Interviews

May 2018

The two words Rev. Cheri DiNovo wants to hear from the United Church

by Alex Mlynek

The Toronto minister talks about her disappointment over the church’s silence when she officiated the country’s first legalized same-sex marriage 17 years ago – and why she wants an apology.

Promotional Image