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.