John Updike, 1932 – 2009

In 2004, novelist John Updike spoke at the Center for Religious Inquiry at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York City. Read Benedicta Cipolla’s report.

After 21 novels and countless short stories, John Updike still creates characters who behave in the usual Updikean fashion, embarking on ribald sexual escapades and wrestling with spiritual and moral angst. His latest book, VILLAGES, published in October to mixed reviews, returns to the themes — first mined to full effect in the 1960s in works such as RABBIT, RUN and COUPLES — of mortality, salvation, and lots of sex. John Updike the man, however, seems to have mellowed with age, reaching peace after his own professed search for existential comfort.

At a talk on religion in his work Thursday evening (Nov. 18) at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Manhattan, Updike told the audience of 300 that his Christian faith had “solidified in ways less important to me than when I was 30, when the existential predicament was realer to me than now. … I worked a lot of it through and arrived at a sort of safe harbor in my life.”

While much of his earlier work contains traces of Updike’s furious immersion in Christian theology, he said he looked more to the congregation of his hometown Massachusetts church as the rock of his faith today.

“When I haven’t been to church in a couple of Sundays I begin to hunger for it and need to be there,” he said, standing at a podium in front of the altar, against a backdrop of Byzantine-style mosaics and dressed in a gray suit befitting one of America’s elder statesmen of letters. “It’s not just the words, the sacraments. It’s the company of other people, who show up and pledge themselves to an invisible entity.”

As a young man studying at Oxford in the mid-1950s, Updike said he devoured new translations of Soren Kierkegaard at Blackwell’s bookstore, discovering him “so positive and fierce and strikingly intelligent, like finding an older brother I didn’t know I had.” He pointed to his classic character Harry Angstrom, of the Rabbit tetralogy, as an example of the Danish philosopher’s influence. The Swiss neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth informed another character in the first book of the series, the Lutheran minister Fritz Kruppenbach, who faces off with an Episcopal priest in a scene Updike chose to read. Upon going to Kruppenbach’s house to discuss Rabbit’s desertion of his family, Rev. Eccles is treated to a diatribe against meddling in others’ affairs. Kruppenbach sounds like a stand-in for Barth himself.

“When on Sunday morning then, when we go before their faces, we must walk up not worn out with misery but full of Christ,” he tells a disconcerted Eccles. “Make no mistake. There is nothing but Christ for us. All the rest, all this decency and busyness, is nothing. It is Devil’s work.”

Speaking in the narthex bookshop as Updike diligently signed books following the talk’s conclusion, the Rev. J. Christopher King, associate rector of St. Bart’s, mentioned the passage from RABBIT, RUN as the evening’s most gripping excerpt for him. “I couldn’t help but hear Kruppenbach addressed to me,” he said. “He’s talking about a certain kind of formation where we’re led to think of ourselves as fixer-uppers. If it happened to me I think I’d behave very much like Eccles. The reason Eccles is angry is because he knows the truth has been spoken to him.”

Offering his lifelong “tour of Protestantism” as the tongue-in-cheek reason he could address an audience on the topic of religion, Updike explained that he had been raised Lutheran in Pennsylvania, the grandson of a Presbyterian minister. He said he joined a Congregational church with his first wife, the daughter of a Unitarian minister, “as a good midway point between our sects.” Since marrying his second wife in 1977, he has worshipped as an Episcopalian. For good measure, Updike added, to much laughter from those listening, that his first girlfriend was the daughter of a Methodist chaplain.

Updike’s studies of theology and Scripture have led him to form strong opinions, though he remains reluctant to position himself as an authority on anything except his own oeuvre. Asked which of the Gospels was his favorite, he answered, without even a beat to reflect, that he liked Luke’s stories the best, but trusted Mark “as the earliest and least prone to wishful thinking.” Updike paused for a moment. “It’s also the shortest,” he said, before critiquing Matthew as legalistic and “the most full of hellfire,” and John as “almost too much of a Platonic philosophy.”

Responding to a question submitted from the audience on whether orthodox Christian theology’s invocation to accept God’s will runs counter to progressive politics, Updike concluded, “I think there is a quietism, at least in the Lutheran faith, that you can see in Luther’s own life.

“Yes, I think to a certain degree it mitigates against trying to change the world, instead trying to find a peaceful, satisfactory place within the world that exists,” he said. “It is consoling to think that if not every detail is the will of God, there is a kind of will bigger than your own. You can’t change everything. You have to accept the world as it is.”

Introducing a poem from the 1950s, “Burning Trash,” he called wonderment at one’s own existence and that of the world “one of the seeds of religious consciousness,” offering the fear of death as the other. After describing the poem as an attempt to convey “the sense of being suspended in space, in an endless darkness,” Updike mused that “maybe when you’re young is the time to think about your death.” For a man famously averse to expounding on himself in interviews, who once said that “when the subject is myself, I want to jeer and weep,” the comment suggested that now, at age 72, he prefers to console himself in the “safe harbor” of his faith.

–Benedicta Cipolla is a writer in New York City.