James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.
The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 43-46. Used by permission.
In his masterpiece In the Beauty of the Lilies, John Updike attempts ‘to make God a character,’ although in ways that illuminate the spiritual emptiness in American life.
For the Reverend Clarence Arthur Wilmot, the loss of faith was accompanied by a distinct sensation: "a visceral surrender, a set of dark sparkling bubbles escaping upward." The Presbyterian minister "was standing, at the moment of the ruinous pang, on the first floor of the rectory, wondering if in view of the heat he might remove his black serge jacket, since no visitor was scheduled to call until after dinnertime, when the Church Building Requirements Committee would arrive to torment him with its ambitions."
Thus does John Updike report on Wilmot’s abrupt and irreversible deconversion experience at the outset of In the Beauty of the Lilies, a four-generation saga which is partly a fictional version of Updike’s family history, partly an account of the decline of religious faith in America, and partly a reflection of Updike’s own angry, personal struggle to find religious meaning.
Those who have followed Updike’s multilayered theological struggles since his first novel, Poorhouse Fair in 1959, will find Updike at his best in Lilies. He describes with poetic precision characters whose actions provoke the reader to beg them to choose another path; writes dialogue that reveals the pain brought on by false moves; and creates images with painterlike acuity. Here, for example, is the faithless Wilmot: "a tall, narrow-chested man of forty-four, with a drooping sand-colored mustache and a certain afterglow of masculine beauty, despite a vague look of sluggish unhealth."
In his memoir Self-Consciousness, Updike refers to the phrase from the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" that supplies the title, "In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea," as "an odd and uplifting line" that "seems to me to summarize what I had to say about America." He told Publishers Weekly that in this novel "he has attempted ‘to make God a character,’ although in ways that illuminate spiritual emptiness in American life."
With his loss of his faith and his career in ministry, Wilmot begins a terrible downward plunge that reduces his family to near poverty. His voice leaves him in the middle of a sermon as he argues for a theology he does not believe. His wife rushes forward to finish the sermon. Later, much to the horror of his wife, who enjoys the prestige of her husband’s profession, he confesses to his church session that he is no longer able to preach and must leave his assignment "at the corner of Straight Street and Broadway" (just one of many references to the conflict between God and Mammon).
Before Wilmot can relinquish his post, however, he must confront his ecclesiastical superior, presbytery moderator Thomas Dreaver. "Pale and rounded in feature, with short fair hair brushed away from a central parting, he wore a single-breasted, slate-blue business suit and was businesslike in manner, save for an extra smoothness, a honeyed promissory timbre to his voice that marked him as an executive of Christian business." Such a man cannot understand why Wilmot’s belief that "the God of the Pentateuch was an absurd bully, barbarically thundering through a cosmos entirely misconceived," would cause him to leave the ministry. "Relativity is what we must live by now," says Dreaver. "Everything is relative, and what matters is how we, we human creatures, relate to one another."
Dreaver argues that Wilmot’s lack of faith should be viewed as but a momentary blip on the path of a career of considerable promise in a prosperous institution that does good for others and rewards its clergy handsomely. The modern church knows how to adapt:
Think of how our two seminaries relate to their surroundings—Union in the middle of the nation’s biggest city and from the most savory part of Manhattan at that, but drawing vitality and the pulse of reality from it. Princeton sitting down there in fox-hunting country, surrounded by estates and lettuce farms, cut off from the real, urban, industrial world… . Change, Mr. Wilmot—from the nebulae to the microbes change is the way of Creation, and it must be our way, but for God’s sake don’t destroy your essential self. Don’t give up your calling. I promise you, there is nothing in your beliefs or unbeliefs that can’t serve as the basis for an effective and deeply satisfying Christian ministry.
Wilmot is not persuaded, and soon is trudging door to door selling encyclopedias. Before long he is dead of tuberculosis, leaving behind a family destined to search for an alternative to the faith that Wilmot lost on that hot July afternoon.
In Self-Consciousness, Updike describes his grandfather, Harley Updike, as a man who left the ministry because of what his 1923 obituary called "a throat affection." The story of his grandfather, Updike told Publishers Weekly, became "part of family mythology, a kind of blot on the common vitality of the Updike clan." It also became the germ of this novel.
Updike links Wilmot’s loss of faith to the rise of movies. At the exact moment that Wilmot gives up on God, Mary Pickford faints while making a film under the direction of D. W. Griffith. These two famous names from the era of silent films are invoked to suggest that the movie industry fills the void left by an absent deity. Hollywood is the new repository of values, and its stars provide the models of behavior.
It turns out, then, that Wilmot’s granddaughter becomes a movie star who personifies this modern idol-making institution. Alma DeMott gains fame because she knows how to play the game, and has no scruples. Alma stutters under pressure (a trait she shares with Updike himself), but she rises above this flaw and is a huge success playing opposite such stars as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and William Holden. There is an emptiness to her success, however—a void that cannot be filled by a succession of lovers, marriage into wealth, or worldwide acclaim. (If, as the clues suggest, Alma is the Updike figure in the novel, he is being unusually hard on himself.)
Alma’s son joins a Colorado religious commune which bursts into public view in a Waco-like confrontation. She rushes to the site and, not incidentally, conducts frequent press conferences, simultaneously grieving over her child while being acutely conscious of the camera angles. Updike does not appear to care for Hollywood. Several of his novels have been made into movies, none successfully. Neither his metaphorical, poetic style nor his theological probing is the stuff that Hollywood likes to shape into box-office successes.
What are we to make of Updike’s saga of faith lost and never found? It is possible that our most revered God-searching Protestant author-theologian is suggesting that he would trade all his best sellers and public acclaim for the chance to go back and tell Clarence Wilmot that God is still here and wants to be in touch. It’s also possible he is saying that we cannot begin to locate the God that Wilmot lost until we confess that there is no substitute for belief in the Christ who was born "across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me."