return to religion-online

John Updike’s Theological World

by Robert K. Johnston

Robert K. Johnston, Ph.D., is Professor of Theology and Culture, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena CA 91182. Prior to that he was Vice-President and Dean of North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago. This article appeared in the Christian Century November 16, 1977, p. 1061. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission . Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org.  This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


To the casual reader, John Updike might seem just another writer clever in his use of words and in his ability to capitalize on sex. His best-selling novels and short stories are filled with puns and pudenda. But Updike’s purpose is something other than mere titillation. Sexuality has been for him a mode of human activity through which to explore society’s present sterility and its future hope. It has provided him with a subject matter capable of reflecting life’s mystery, and this theme he has rendered with stylistic power and architectural precision.

A Religions Consciousness

To the critics, Updike is an enigma. Some have understood him to be a somewhat aloof commentator on American life, exploring such phenomena as rural life in an urban age, suburban anomie, clergy dissatisfaction, aging and marital infidelity. Most of his novels reflect a precise historical situation. The Centaur is a Truman book, Rabbit, Run is set in the Eisenhower era. A Month of Sundays takes place in the time of Nixon’s unraveling. And Marry Me (Updike’s latest) has the Kennedy administration as its background.

But though Updike writes of contemporary life, most critics have seen his interest in it as more than sociological and have rightly affirmed the novelists religious underpinning, even while disputing the exact nature of his beliefs. Kenneth and Alice Hamilton’s major study, The Elements of John Updike (Eerdmans, 1970), regards his vision as stemming from historic Christianity. Others have located his “religious” center in a form of theistic existentialism. Still others have understood Updike to be involved in a continuing quest for belief. All agree that he is writing in reaction to a modern Protestantism once comfortably ensconced in small towns (like Shillington, Pennsylvania, where Up-dike lived as a boy), but now caught up in the secularism of the expanding megalopolis. However defined, Updike’s religious consciousness informs all of his work; a close reading of his fiction supports the claim that he is seriously involved in enfleshing that marginal belief which underlies life for an increasing number of Americans.

Updike’s novels and short stories are not “religious” in a narrow understanding of that term. There are no Christ figures in his works (except perhaps George Caldwell in The Centaur) or other sacred symbols; and when the Christian church is portrayed, it usually comes off as an archaic, lifeless institution, run by inept, bungling, morally and spiritually bankrupt clergy. The epigraphs that introduce each of Updike’s books, however, should alert the reader to the need for sensitivity concerning religious elements. The Poorhouse Fair quotes Luke 23:31; Museums and Women, Ecclesiastes 3:11-13; A Month of Sundays begins with Psalm 45 and a quotation from the theologian Paul Tillich; The Centaur is introduced by a quotation from Karl Barth; Couples quotes Paul Tillich again; and Rabbit, Run uses Pascal to set the mood for what follows. Such theological stage-setting belies what might otherwise superficially pass for “secular” fiction.

If one is to understand the fictive world of John Updike, his theological world view cannot be ignored. This world view might be summarized in the words of Pascal’s Pensée 507, which Updike quotes at the beginning of Rabbit, Run: “The motions of Grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances,” This epigraph may serve as a brief outline of Updike’s literary effort: his theologically concerned fiction seeks to portray (1) external circumstances, (2) the hardness of the heart, and (3) motions of grace.

External Circumstances

First, external circumstances. Updike tellingly portrays the vacuousness of life in present-day America. Harry Angstrom (whose situation is one of Angst) in Rabbit, Run must switch gears: no longer the high-school basketball star, he must now support a family by selling used cars and MagiPeel peelers. Harry, or “Rabbit” as he is called, still watches Jimmy the big Mouseketeer on television. On one program, Jimmy offers the viewers a homily based on Socrates’ advice, “Know thyself.” Jimmy tells them that this means that everyone must work hard to develop one’s own talents. When Jimmy, our generation’s version of the wise man, finishes his little speech, “he pinches his mouth together and winks.”

That was good. Rabbit tries that, pinching his mouth together and then the wink, getting the audience out front with you against some enemy behind, Walt Disney or the MagiPeel Peeler Company, admitting it’s all a fraud but, what the hell, making it likable. We’re all in it together. Fraud makes the world go round [Rabbit, Run, p. 12 (all citations are from Fawcett paperback editions)].

Realizing it’s a fraud but making it likable, the advertising men of our technological age peddle their unnecessary products to a gullible public.

In Rabbit Redux, the sequel to Rabbit, Run, the vacuousness of modern life remains, but the likable veneer has worn thin. Harry Angstrom is ten years older; his mother is being kept alive by the drug L-dopa; the bar he visits is decorated with cactuses in plastic pots though the room is unnaturally chilly; the siding on his house is made not of wood but of green aluminum clapboard; the living room furnishings include a fake cobbler’s bench and a driftwood lamp. Artificiality and superficiality are everywhere evident, down to the TV dinners and the beer cans with pull tabs that break off. The historical setting is now the space age, and Updike introduces each section of his book with some fragment of the recorded conversation of American or Russian astronauts. Harry watches news segments of the astronauts’ efforts but finds them meaningless, for they are “all about space, all about emptiness.” The newscasters keep comparing the astronauts with Columbus, “but as far as Rabbit can see it’s the exact opposite: Columbus flew blind and hit something, these guys see exactly where they’re aiming and it’s a big round nothing” (p. 28). Such is our contemporary age -- an age which sings “a material hymn to material creation” (The Centaur, p. 14).

Hardness of Heart

One could add further examples of banality from each of Updike’s books -- wife-swapping in suburbia, “American religiosity,” impersonal old people’s homes, concrete cities, clergy rehabilitation centers. Given external circumstances such as these, it is no wonder that one’s heart turns hard. A loss of faith in traditional beliefs and patterns seems almost inevitable. In Rabbit Redux, for example, Harry turns on the television and sees a comedy sketch parodying his boyhood favorite, the Lone Ranger  -- someone always on “the side of right.” But now Tonto, his trustworthy sidekick, is the secret lover of the Lone Ranger’s wife, who confides to the audience: “I’ve always been interested . . . in Indian affairs” (p. 30). Our old stories no longer seem to hold true, given our present chaos. What was once sacrosanct has proven more hollow than hallowed.

In Rabbit, Run, the stained-glass window in the church across the street is symbolically darkened. Harry doesn’t know if it is because of “church poverty or the late summer nights or just carelessness” (p. 254). In Couples the church burns, and the old spire has to be torn down. The new church building, however, is not to be “a restoration but a modern edifice, a parabolic poured-concrete tent-shape peaked like a breaking wave” (p. 478). The old verities must give way to the natural undulations of life. In A Month of Sundays, the Reverend Marshfield writes in his diary that churches “bore for [him] the same relation to God that billboards did to Coca-Cola: they promoted thirst without quenching it” (p. 30). Updike portrays faithless individuals who play with the old religious stories and beliefs with no depth of experience or commitment to back them up. Theirs is a “pornography of faith” (p. 246).

Clergymen are particularly vulnerable to Updike’s barbs. Eccles, the ecclesiastic in Rabbit, Run, lacks all certainty about his faith and seems “soggy,” to quote Rabbit. Eccles’s grandfather and father were both successful and popular clerics, but Eccles is good only at drugstore conversation with teen-agers about “how far” you can “go” on dates and still love Jesus. Ruth, the prostitute with whom Rabbit now lives, concludes:

. . . the damnedest thing about that minister was that, before, Rabbit at least had the idea he was acting wrong but with him he’s got the idea he’s Jesus Christ out to save the world just by doing whatever comes into his head. I’d like to get hold of the bishop or whoever and tell him that minister of his is a menace [p. 125].

Ruth doesn’t carry out that impulse, but one of Thomas Marshfield’s parishioners does just that in the novel A Month of Sundays, after Marshfield has an affair with the church organist. Incredibly, Marshfield is not replaced when this “indiscretion” is uncovered. He is instead sent for recuperation and retooling to an Arizona resthouse for fallen clerics. There Marshfield is able to rationalize his adultery, and even writes a sermon defending the practice. After a month in the sun, he returns home unrepentant, having taken his therapist to bed on the final day of his sojourn. Such is Updike’s portrayal of the vacuity of church life in America.

Many of Updike’s characters, like Marshfield, would like to believe but seem unable to do so, given their circumstances. They are like Freddy Thorne, the agnostic dentist in Couples, who says concerning Christ’s miracle at the wedding at Cana:

“Christ, I’d love to believe it ... Any of it. Just the littlest bit of it. Just one lousy barrel of water turned into wine. Just half a barrel. A quart. I’ll even settle for a pint” (p. 156). Contemporary men and women would like to believe as their parents and grandparents did, but they cannot. They are like Peter Caldwell in The Centaur. A struggling New York artist living with his black mistress, Peter lacks the sense of vocation, the sense of place, that his father came to know as a small-town teacher. He reflects on the past three generations of Caldwells: “Priest, teacher, artist: The classic degeneration” (p. 201). Peter now seeks the spiritual through art. His move from small-town Pennsylvania to big-city New York has made it difficult, however, for him to lead either the religious or the moral life. All that remains is the aesthetic.

Motions of Grace

It is in this context of sterility and personal emptiness that Updike portrays the faint lines of what he believes is left of humanity’s spiritual existence. For despite our circumstances as an American people, and despite the hardness of our hearts, there are yet motions of grace available to us. In his short story “Dentistry and Doubt,” Updike portrays Burton, an American priest plagued by uncertainty, residing in England while he writes a thesis on Richard Hooker, the 16th century churchman. When Burton’s dentist asks him to quote something -- anything -- that Hooker has written, the only quotation he can remember is this: “I grant we are apt, prone, and ready, to forsake God; but is God ready to forsake us? Our minds are changeable; is His so likewise?” (The Same Door, p. 44).

In Rabbit, Run, despite Rabbit’s desolate life, and despite a minister’s attempt to rationalize away any sense of the transcendent, Rabbit can nonetheless say:

 “Well I don’t know all this about theology, but I’ll tell you. I do feel, I guess, that somewhere behind all this” -- he gestures outward at the scenery; they are passing the housing development this side of the golf course, half-wood half-brick one-and-a-half-stories in little flat bulldozed yards with tricycles and spindly three-year-old trees, the un-grandest landscape in the world -- “there’s something that wants me to find it” [P. 107].

In Updike’s story “Packed Dirt, Churchgoing, a Dying Cat, a Traded Car,” David Kern reminisces about four events that suggest to him that life has larger patterns not of one’s own devising. One of the vignettes concerns a dying cat which David discovers on the highway at the same time his wife lies in labor at the hospital. He stops and ministers to the cat, even writing a note to its owners in the event they later find their cat dead. But as he huddled over the animal, David later relates, “It suggested I was making too much fuss, and seemed to say to me, Run on home. Later that night the phone rings telling David of the birth of his daughter. Human life has, at the moment, an increased significance. David describes this event of cat-plus-baby-daughter as “supernatural mail.” He says it “had the signature: decisive but illegible” (Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories, pp. 172-174).

Such an experience is not uncommon in Updike’s fictional world, stemming perhaps from the author’s childhood: his family, Updike has said, was inclined “to examine everything for God’s fingerprints” (quoted in “Can a Nice Novelist Finish First?,” by Jane Howard, Life, November 4, 1966, p. 74). One finds this legacy enfleshed, for example, in Updike’s story “Pigeon Feathers,” which describes how David Kern as a youth observes the design on the feathers of several pigeons he has shot and in the process is able to overcome his fear of death. David concludes “that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever” (Pigeon Feathers, p. 105).

Again, in an essay which appeared in the New Yorker, Updike comments: “There is a goodness in the experience of golf that may well be . . a place where something breaks into our workaday world and bothers us forevermore with the hints it gives” (“Is There Life After Golf?,” New Yorker, July 29, 1972, pp. 76.78). Those familiar with Updike’s books think immediately of the conversation between Rabbit (Harry) and Eccles as the humanitarian minister cynically probes after what Rabbit seeks in life: “What is it? What is it? Is it hard or soft? Harry. Is it blue? Is it red? Does it have polka dots?” Eccles is belittling Rabbit’s quest for transcendence, and Rabbit has no answer until he steps to the tee and for the first time hits a perfect drive. “‘That’s it!’ [Rabbit] cries and, turning to Eccles with a smile of aggrandizement, repeats, ‘That’s it’ (Rabbit, Run, pp. 112-113). Here is another of those aesthetic signatures of God on his created landscape -- decisive, albeit illegible. When one is willing to go “to Nature disarmed of perspective,” when one’s submission to God’s creation is perfect, God can in his grace speak to us (The Centaur p. 218).

The Sacred and the Sexual

In Updike’s works the hint of the sacred is encountered also in the sexual embrace. In The Centaur Peter recalls that he first confronted the mystery that lies beneath all life as he lay as an adolescent in Penny Fogleman’s lap and declared his love to her, and as she in turn accepted him, skin problem and all. Updike repeatedly portrays the divine mystery of sexuality, though with two important qualifications. First, Updike rejects any notion of sex as contemporary humanity’s panacea. Sexuality can be creative, and it can provide intimations of the divine; but it can prove destructive as well. In the novel Couples, for example, sex is almost singularly nonredemptive. In the sexual manipulation and coupling of suburban Tarbox, grace remains absent. Rather than finding God through sexual experience, Updike’s characters try to produce God. The God who is love becomes sex itself.

Second, no matter how romantic, human love does not automatically conjure up the divine presence. In his latest novel, Marry Me, Updike relates the affair of Jerry Conant and Sally Mathias, both of whom are married to other mates. Jerry early on admits:

 “What we have is love. But love must become fruitful, or it loses itself. I don’t mean having babies I mean just being relaxed and right, and, you know, with a blessing. Does ‘blessing’ seem silly to you?” “Can’t we give each other the blessing?” “No. For some reason it must come from above” [P. 53].

Marry Me describes Jerry’s attempts to program and manipulate his sexual encounters in order to produce God’s blessing on them. But the transcendent remains silent; God will not be coerced. Nearly paralyzed in will, Jerry finally comes home a broken man, his family life in shreds and his relationships reduced to his fantasy world.

Updike agrees with his Onetime spiritual mentor, Karl Barth: “You do not speak of God by speaking about man in a loud voice.” Nevertheless, he conveys a mysterious and redeeming truth that God does allows us to perceive his common grace as the patterns of life are suffused with divine radiance. Our secular life remains ambiguous; given this fact, it is easy to become dispirited, if not desperate. But the aesthetic transformations of everyday events provide Updike and his fictional world some connection with transcendence, and thus some direction amid life’s uncertainty. Updike has given his readers a glimpse of the human on the boundary between earth and heaven -- a little lower than the angels, held in God’s hand.

Spirituality for a Secular Age

What can we say regarding Updike’s fictional world and its theological underpinnings? Certainly he is accurate in his portrayal of secularity as an indisputable fact of contemporary American life. Secularism takes a variety of forms in America, but perhaps none is as widespread as is our commitment as a people to technology and the machine. John Updike is as perceptive a commentator on this fact as any when he writes in one of his short stories about an American father who worships his cars. As the story ends, his son reflects:

Any day now we will trade it in; we are just waiting for the phone to ring. I know how it will be. My father traded in many cars. It happens so cleanly, before you expect it. He would drive off in the old car up the dirt road exactly as usual and when he returned the car would be new, and the old was gone, utterly dissolved back into the mineral world from which it was conjured, dismissed without a blessing, a kiss, a testament, or any ceremony of farewell. We in America need ceremonies, is I suppose . . . the point of what I have written [Pigeon Feathers, p. i88].

Our machine age, the product of human ingenuity and industry, has produced much -- but, as Updike suggests, it has impoverished the human subject. Governed by machines, the American spirit experiences atrophy. “The more matter is outwardly mastered, the more it overwhelms us in our hearts” (Pigeon Feathers, p. 169).

As Americans we are, even those of us who are religious, secular men and women governed by the spirit of technology. We most often trust our ingenuity and our machines. And yet there is an ongoing quest for some “spiritual” approach to life -- one that can provide our human spirits adequate expression and real significance. For those who find a cosmic reference impossible, for those who can no longer look to the God of special revelation as the source and giver of personal meaning, then the quotidian becomes the most promising area to be plumbed for spiritual clues. And so as a culture we have turned to astrology, explored Jungian archetypes, dabbled with cosmic consciousness movements, and even gone to church for its liturgies. In ways such as these, we seek spiritual answers in a time of secular ascendancy.

It is a strange and paradoxical moment in which we live -- one dominated by the mindscape of technology, secular to its core, and yet a time of frenetic search for the recovery of the human and the holy. Writers like Jack Kerouac have turned to the ideologies of the East for inspiration. Others, like Richard Brautigan, have been overcome by the end of all ideologies and have found the only release for the human spirit to be in the jesting word games of fictions. If we can’t discover anything else about ourselves, we can at least in the midst of our hell play imaginatively with words.

John Updike has faced our contemporary spiritual malaise neither by fleeing to the East for spiritual sustenance nor by retreating artfully into the language game. He has instead explored what is close at hand -- family, tradition, loves -- in the hope of uncovering spiritual truth. His writings echo the remarks of J. Robert Oppenheimer on the occasion of Columbia University’s bicentenary. Commenting on the spiritual impasse Americans are experiencing as secular people who seek meaning in such “diversity, complexity, [and] richness’ that they fear being overcome, Oppenheimer suggested:

Each . . . will have to cling to what is close to him, to what he knows, to what he can do, to his friends and his tradition and his love, lest he be dissolved in a universal confusion and know nothing and love nothing [Reporter, January 13, 1955].

Here is the source of inspiration Updike has turned to in an otherwise dispirited, disparate and increasingly desperate age.

The Wisdom Writers

Such an approach cannot be identified with Christianity, comprehensively understood, though some have tried to do so. Critics have rightly questioned the Hamiltons’ book (The Elements of John Updike) for forcing Updike into a theological mold not entirely his own. Updike’s world view is other than that of historic Christianity, which affirms that humanity is not left with general revelation alone -- with motions of grace. But lest the Christian theologian dismiss too quickly the insight into both life’s reality and the divine reality which Updike’s fiction offers, or lest one wrongly conclude that Updike has totally forsaken his Protestant heritage, let me suggest a biblical parallel to the writings of Updike, one he himself makes repeated use of in his works. It is in the Old Testament’s wisdom literature that Updike’s fictional world finds its closest analogue in the Judeo-Christian tradition -- in Job, Ecclesiastes and Proverbs.

Updike presents the reader of his novels and stories with the pseudo -- wise men of today’s society -- with Jimmy, the big Mouseketeer who quotes Socrates; with the neon owl that advertises pretzels; with Ken Whitman, the scientist living in Tarbox who is considered intelligent in his field but who lacks a basic understanding of life; with Bech the writer, honored in direct proportion to the decline of his literary production; with Connor, the efficient, well-trained administrator of the old people’s home who fails to comprehend as much of life’s mystery as his simple and sometimes senile wards do. On the other hand, Updike also presents genuine wise men like George Caldwell, who accepts the seasons of life as a gift from God, who finds fame, pleasure, and even wisdom to be vanity but who recognizes that all joy belongs to God. He creates Pop Kramer, who quotes proverbs, and the prostitute Babe, who sings from Ecclesiastes. We read of Hook, the retired teacher, who quotes his father’s hired hand, and Elizabeth Heinemann, whose understanding of heaven suggests that she is perhaps meant to be considered in the long tradition of blind ‘seers.” Updike even attaches a quotation from Ecclesiastes as an epigraph to his collection of stories Museums and Women.

Like the Old Testament wisdom writers, Updike believes that God’s signature is written on the patterns of life for the person who will look. Not even death or immorality or suffering can cancel out that reality, as Job and Qoheleth also affirm. The knowledge of life that Updike (or, for that matter, the wisdom writers) presents is based on a close observation of life itself. It is an inductive approach to faith, and as such, a partial one, according to Christian theology. Christians believe that the insights of these Old Testament sages look forward to God’s further gracious revelation in the Christ event. But though incomplete, they are. not to be despised. Perhaps in our day it is wisdom literature (whether biblical or fictional) that can again open secular humanity to the presence or at least the possibility of the divine. Updike’s fiction can serve as a contemporary propaedeutic to the Christian faith.

What we have in Updike’s fiction is a turning to creation, to the natural -- to common life -- for one’s authoritative observations concerning humankind. Here is an important resource for countering the sterility of our contemporary age. Walter Brueggemann’s excellent book on Old Testament wisdom literature is titled In Man We Trust. This, too, is the orientation of John Updike. As secular Americans, if we are to know God, it will perhaps happen only as we give ourselves over to life -- as we trust ourselves to it -- and receive the gift of God’s presence in it.

The Old Testament wisdom writers did not appeal to special revelation -- to God’s unique activity in history. It is for this reason perhaps that they can speak meaningfully and, more important, be heard honestly by secular humans today. Like the Old Testament wisdom writers, John Updike sets before us the choice of life or death; and like them, he challenges us to seek life.


Viewed 32230 times.