Jewish Journal

CT writer: Updike was ‘North America’s most theological’ writer

by Brad A. Greenberg

February 2, 2009 | 5:26 pm

When John Updike died last week, I published only this short obituary from the AP. A lot more meaningful remembrances were published since—including one from John Irving and another from Updike’s New Yorker editor, Roger Angell.

Certainly worth reading is this article resurrected from the Christianity Today archives. In “Rabbit Trails to God,” the author refers to Updike as “if not a “Christian” novelist, certainly North America’s most theological one.”

An excerpt is after the jump:

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.

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