Updike’s Middle-Class God

Like all great novelists, John Updike used fiction to explore, explain and expose truth. “One thing that’s given me courage … Continued

Like all great novelists, John Updike used fiction to explore, explain and expose truth. “One thing that’s given me courage in writing,” Updike once told an interviewer, “has been this belief that the truth, what is actual, must be faced and is somehow holy.”

For Updike, who died Tuesday at age 76, that search for holy truth often involved the lives of small-town, middle-class Protestants. His people. Updike was the grandson of a Presbyterian minister. He was raised in the Lutheran church in Pennsylvania, but joined the Congregational church as an adult. In his later years, he became an Episcopalian and dated a Methodist chaplain.

The prolific author liked to joke about his lifelong “tour of Protestantism,” and that he “never quite escaped the the Christian church,” but it’s clear that mainline Protestant theology formed the spiritual foundation of his work. “My subject is the American Protestant small town middle class,” Updike told Jane Howard in a 1966 interview for Life magazine.

In a 2004 talk at the Center for Spiritual Inquiry in New York, Updike said his classic character, Harry Angstrom, was infuenced by his study of Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Christian philosopher. Other characters such as Rev. Fritz Kruppenbach and Rev. Tom Marshfield were influenced by Updike’s reading of theologians Karl Barth and Paul Tillich.

In a 1977 essay in Christian Century, Dr. Robert K. Johnston says Updike is “writing in reaction to a modern Protestantism once comfortably ensconced in small towns … 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.”

Like most people of faith I know, Updike himself seemed to be most influenced by the people he went to church with. “When I haven’t been to church in a couple of Sundays I begin to hunger for it and need to be there,” he told an audience at St. Bartholomew’s Church in New York in 2004. “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.”

I enjoyed Updike’s style more than his substance, but I wish he had written more about that — his own personal, non-fictional search for holy truth.

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  • outlawtorn103

    He was a wonderful soul and will be missed.

  • jsquires

    I was a great a fan of Updike, although I didn’t always like the way he portrayed females. His talent, however, was immense and I agree with the above poster that his was a wonderful soul at work. A true American treasure has left this earthly life.

  • bob2davis

    “…It’s the company of other people, who show up and pledge themselves to an invisible entity.”Unintentionally, Mr. Updike provided the perfect “twilight zone” phrase for opposing religion. What a shame! He could have spent more time writing rather than “worshiping” an invisible entity in a visible cult. If a Harvard-educated man cannot escape the brainwashing, what hope is there for the masses?

  • vermontague

    Bob2Davis might pause to reflect. Indeed, if a thoughtful author, a Harvard-educated man, thinks that church is worth his while…. that an invisible entity is worth his loyalty, then, perhaps, religion isn’t merely the opiate of fools. Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter is a powerful argument for one view–his–of Christianity.

  • spidermean2

    vermontague wrote ” then, perhaps, religion isn’t merely the opiate of fools.”How can it be an opiate when it talks about HELL, idiot. Whoever told you that don’t know Christianity. It’s the atheists, who are escaping the reality of the wrath of God and cling to an INVISIBLE OPIATE.

  • spidermean2

    “…It’s the company of other people, who show up and pledge themselves to an invisible entity.”To the true believers, God is experienced and felt. It seems like Updike is lost. Intelligence is NOT invisible. You don’t see data inside a flash memory but there are lots of data in there if you know how to plug it into the RIGHT DEVICE. Idiots have no idea what that means.

  • coloradodog

    Updike grew up in the same mainstream Protestanism I did. People were prejudiced against gays, blacks, Jews and Catholics but they kept their mouths shut about it especially when they gathered together on Sunday to concentrate on good works together. Now “Orthodox Christianity” has turned into an ugly public display of intolerance and hatred al la Hagee, Dobson, John Mark Reynolds, Perkins and Robertson who all seek glory, fame, power and the almighty dollar.

  • spidermean2

    “Suppose I tell you that wicked people will surely die (go to hell), but you don’t WARN them or SPEAK OUT so that they can change their WICKED WAYS in order to save their lives. Then these wicked people will die because of their sin, but I will hold you responsible for their deaths. ” (Ezeliel 3:18)It seems like many people can’t distinguish the HATRED from WARNING or SPEAKING OUT. Dumb.

  • spidermean2

    “Suppose I tell you that wicked people will surely die (go to hell), but you don’t WARN them or SPEAK OUT so that they can change their WICKED WAYS in order to save their lives. Then these wicked people will die because of their sin, but I will hold you responsible for their deaths. ” (Ezeliel 3:18)It seems like many people can’t distinguish the difference between the word “HATRED” from “WARNING” or “SPEAKING OUT”. Dumb.

  • bob2davis

    For Mr. Updike, or anyone, to continue to believe in the validity of god and religions only suggests or rather verifies that he has spent no time actually considering and researching the precepts of this god/religion. Certainly, one can still maintain the motions of church-going, but the belief system has to vanish after any real study. Sadly, not even a Harvard education ensures an analytical or thoughtful, inquiring mind.

  • spidermean2

    bod2davis wrote “but the belief system has to vanish after any real study. “The prophecy says that it’s the other way around. The atheists and believers of false religion will vanish. The waiting won’t be that long.

  • spidermean2

    The law of nature is elimination of the unfit or idiots. Let’s see and observe who will nature eliminate.Nature can be “prophetic” also.

  • artistkvip1

    hi , i enjoyed reading your words. i saw where you wished that mr. updike had spoken more personally about his religious experiences. in my experience it seems like a lot of people get the intelectuall knowledge of possiblities and truths and are satisfied enough to actually work for have something personal to talk about or share or i suspect even posses. i think it is possible a lot of people never take the time or the ego deflation or what ever it is to allow something larger than the individual, indiviual to in whom’S own mind and thoughts the contemplation is actually taking place in , to take a back seat for a spiritual guiding presence or god. when you speak to people you can tell if they hav ever actually contemplated or tried to do the things neccesary to have a personal spiriual life the way the bible talks about. there aren’t any garenteed quick roads or instant karma or one size fits all. If you do what i did and i garentee you will find what i found is maybe wishfull thinking. i think thats why God made us into individuals so idiots some where didn’t talk us all into buying a book that would in effect turn us into them. i used the word idiot but would it be any less tragic if it was genius and they changed you from what you were supposed to be. the fact that the man seemed to alway indicate his spirtuality by talking about some one else might mean he didn’t have ny of his own. or perhaps he just felt it was a private matter and was much to polite to tell people to mind thier own business either way if a writer does not fully express himself with words i don’t think you could say it was by mistake.

  • spidermean2

    Persiflage wrote “A single book on comparative religions might have changed their minds “Or maybe just the capacity to understand a single sentence in the Bible which describes accurately which countries will battle it out in WW3? And these people claim to be highly literate? There must be a difference between literate and intelligent. You can teach literacy but maybe NOT intelligence. For how is it possible that a bunch of so called “educated” people are so dumb?

  • persiflage

    Spidey – some recommended (and highly entertaining) reading on religion, compliments of the great satirist, historian, and all around social commentator, Gore Vidal – do read: ‘Live from Golgotha’ & ‘Julian’. You could do with a little more educatin’ and a whole lot more humor ….. and these 2 novels are as good a place to start as any. You really need to leave off the bible some one of these days – and read a book rather than the same old shuffled up hodge podge of collected works over and over. Really boring! And literate, intelligent, and perceptive do often go hand in hand – in a person, that is. And work on that levity thing, would ya? And hey, did you know that Darwin and Lincoln were born on the same day?! And another good read by Vidal btw – ‘Lincoln’, that is. Now those two bearded fellas were a couple a geniuses, don’t cha think? I’m partial to beards my own self. No really, it was no big thing – and you’re quite welcome!

  • officermancuso

    When I see the verb “enfleshed”, I disregard anything said by the person who wrote it.

  • Counterww

    Sigh… Another bigoted anti religonist speaks his rants about believing in God. (bob2davis)Get with the program, there dude….-Two Top commandments -Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.If you can’t or won’t do the above, life is a crapshoot and shooting craps is the outcome.Spidey may be crude, but he is right much of the time.

  • hyjanks

    ‘Sounds like Spiderman needs a sandwich board, a street corner and a soapbox to spew forth his insantity.

  • persiflage

    It’s odd to imagine that exceedingly bright Ivy League grads with the cosmopolitan suave faire and higher learning of John Updike and his Catholic counterpart William F. Buckley were unable to escape a conventional (if not small town) religious orientation. Was it based on gnosis or faith – or the comforting forces of habit that most of us live by? A single book on comparative religions might have changed their minds – no wonder Norman Mailer and Phillip Roth were unable to countenence either one of these pious religious mainstreamers. I did enjoy Updike’s work and film adaptations – who could forget Nicholson in the Witches of Eastwick? He was working on a redux of this novel at the time of his death, according to a recent interview. He sincerely believed in the occult, it would appear! Who would have thought that Rabbit Run was influenced by Jack Kerouac’s work?!

  • spidermean2

    Fiction writers are creative people. It doesn’t always mean they are intelligent. Just creative.I think most of them won’t be allowed to take an Engineering course entrance exam. Not only they would waste the time of the person who would check their papers, they would also waste the ink in their pen.The same would be true to evolutionists. People have sense of humor. Now how they (evolutionists) were able to link the evolution of sense of humor from monkeys to humans by just looking at fossils is something fictions are made of.

  • persiflage

    Gore Vidal was particularly scathing with regard to both Updike and Buckley – and his battles with the latter were legendary.

  • practica1

    Religion provides certainties; art considers the difficulty of believing in them.Cheever and now Updike gone – ahead of them, John Gardner, who also worried at the question of what it meant to be virtuous. I had just purchased a used copy of Gradner’s little novella, “Grendel” when I heard on the car radio that Updike had gone.From Updike’s early novel “Couples” I have remembered for twenty years word the author wrote for a wife to say – that she had known what it was to worship the penis as though it was the center of the universe and of her own sexuality, but that as she learned more about herself she was less flattered by her effect on the penis.At the time I thought, and have thought since, ‘how can a man have this astonishing insight? and how hard (and comical) it must be for him to know it.’If his protestantism is right about anything, he’s having a good chat and a laugh with the Creator right now.

  • spidermean2

    rohitcuny wrote “with Socrates and Buddha ending up in hell because they did not seek Jesus (not yet born) as their savior, is mind-boggling “How do you know that Socrates and Buddha will be judged by God the way you portrayed it? God will judge us individually and in a case to case basis. Those who have heard of Christ and believed him will be saved. Those who haven’t heard will be judged on a different basis.If you worry about those people, I suggest that you worry about yours first.

  • rohitcuny

    I am disappointed to find that Updike regarded himself as a Christian. How the religious fate of all of mankind can be tied to some events which took place in Israel 2,000 years ago, with Socrates and Buddha ending up in hell because they did not seek Jesus (not yet born) as their savior, is mind-boggling and at the root of all the Christian intolerance we see. Jesus himself was inspired. his own words are words we should all heed.

  • bartedson

    Spidey,It never fails to amaze me how you have direct access into the Lord’s mind. You seem to know everything he thinks and why, and just how this whole universe operates, and how it’s all going to work out in the end. Science? Bah! Just ask Spidey, he’ll tell you the REAL truth.Really, you are quite amazing. Please keep informing humanity of all you know, so we can all share in your holy wisdom.

  • skewb

    The title of this piece, “Updike’s Middle Class God,” so eloquently captures the fact that man creates god in his own image. After all, when have you ever met a man who worships a god he does not agree with? It is clear that man worships that which he desires for himself, whether true or not. And whenever a religious man does find god disagreeable, he simply converts, or postulates some neo-nonsense version resembling pan-theism, or perhaps a “middle-class god.”

  • 4thwatch

    Feliznavidad“That’s how we come to know the truth of the Bible — by experiencing its truth. I am not Christian because I am too ignorant to know something about analysis — but because I was blessed enough to experience.”That is the Christian life.Jesus said “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”…It is good to be in the Truth.

  • jclarkebis

    Good grief. Are we really in anno hominis 2008? Do we really need discuss the minutiae of Nobodaddy? Aargh.

  • spidermean2

    persiflage, there are false religions and it’s true that they are “entertaining” simply because of their foolishness. There are right and wrong answers, in the same way that there are true and false religions. You would know if a person is idiotic if he thinks that something is wrong, laughs about it but don’t have any solution to offer. There are RIGHT SOLUTIONS. “Search and ye shall find”. Just a reminder. You won’t get it from fiction writers.

  • feliznavidad

    Once in my undergraduate studies — when I was running away from my patenent-shoe style Catholic upbrining — I encounterd Mrs. Michaels. She was a philosophy of science teacher tuffing it out at my backwater state school, on a Sabattical from Harvard. Her class was compelling, illuminating, unparalleled! Analysis of thought was her forte. A brilliant woman, she took us zooming through the universe observing, and touring time understanding. She was also a dedicated Christian. How can this be we wondered repeatedly. She never addressed this with us, but she did tell us the subject of her Ph.D. The epistimology of David Hume. We know by experiencing. That’s how we come to know the truth of the Bible — by experiencing its truth. I am not Christian because I am too ignorant to know something about analysis — but because I was blessed enough to experience! Thanks, mrs. Michaels.

  • cpwdc

    It’s troubling how narrow-minded some of the self-declared enlightened commentators are. If they are not, as they so proudly profess, limited by religious doctrine and outdated beliefs – how come they cannot reconcile seemingly conflicting chararcteristics within another person? Why is it so offensive to them that someone can be both Harvard-educated and Christian? Both questioning taboos and believing in a higher authority? Seems to me you folks need to broaden your worldview just as much as some Christians do, if not more.

  • outragex

    Infidelity under the circumstances described in the question is morally wrong. An understanable failure given the situation, but still a failure.My marriage vows included the traditional Christian language of: “forsaking all others,” “in sickness and in health,” and “until death do us part.” So in light of these solemn vows taken at an altar with many witnesses I could never justify infedelity as moral. This is not to say that we fallible humans won’t be unfaithful, but we can’t honestly justify it as moral.

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