Updike invoked in Thinking on Scripture essay

In a post titled “The Despair of Atheism and the Hope of Christianity” on his Thinking on Scripture blog, Dr. Steven R. Cook wrote,

“Consider also this view of death by the atheist John Updike, from his novel, Pigeon Feathers:”

Wait. The atheist John Updike?

James Yerkes’ 1999 book delves into Updike’s complicated view of religion

It’s easy enough for non-literary folks to confuse a short story collection with a novel, but confusing a writer almost universally hailed as a Christian writer with an atheist? Let’s be clear here. Though dictionaries define “atheism” as simply “disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods,” it must necessarily involve something more extreme—a rejection of God or the existence of God, perhaps, or else all of Christendom are atheists. For who hasn’t had at least one moment of fearful doubt, the frightening kind of “What if there is no God?” thought that threw deep thinkers like the existentialists into the throes of despair? Didn’t Christ also experience a moment of despair and lack of faith while dying on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Below is the passage that Dr. Cook was introducing:

“Without warning, David was visited by an exact vision of death: a long hole in the ground, no wider than your body, down which you were drawn while the white faces above recede. You try to reach them but your arms are pinned. Shovels pour dirt in your face. There you will be forever, in an upright position, blind and silent, and in time no one will remember you, and you will never be called by any angel. As strata of rock shift, your fingers elongate, and your teeth are distended sideways in a great underground grimace indistinguishable from a strip of chalk. And the earth tumbles on, and the sun expires, an unaltering darkness reigns where once there were stars.”

This was 14-year-old David Kern during his moment-on-the-cross despair. Later in the story, however, David experienced an epiphany and a return to faith . . . and to hope.

The John Updike Society has so many members who are ministers precisely because Updike—a Lutheran who married a minister’s daughter—is a Christian writer who writes honestly about what it really means to be a Christian and to wrestle with doubts. Even the admission of doubt is an act of faith, for doubt is uncertainty, not disbelief. As many Updike scholars have observed and even Wikipedia noted, “Updike’s novels often act as dialectical theological debates between the book itself and the reader….”

“Updike’s faith is Christian,” Bernard A. Schopen wrote some 16 years after Pigeon Feathers was published in book form, “but it is one to which many of the assumptions about the Christian perspective do not apply—especially those which link Christian faith with an absolute and divinely ordered morality.” In Updike’s fictional world, faith is not absolute, nor is it constant. It is perpetual, but broken (balanced?) by doubts that occupy his heroes as they hope for grace.

As Updike wrote in the November 29, 1999 New Yorker, “Faith is not so much a binary pole as a quantum state, which tends to indeterminacy when closely examined. At the end of the millennium, and of a century that has the Holocaust at its center, the reasons for doubt in God’s existence are so easily come by….” Wavering faith is the rule in Updike’s fictional world, not the exception. But wavering faith and atheism are not the same.

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Literary Hub recommends the best Bard reimaginings

Last week Literary Hub ran an article “On Reimagining the Infinite Dramatic Scope of Shakespeare and His Immortal Characters,” in which Kathryn Barker recommended “five cracking titles that rework the Bard’s famous plays.”

It will come as no surprise to fans of John Updike that Gertrude and Claudius made the list. Of Updike’s imaginative historical novel, Barker wrote, “Shakespeare’s play Hamlet kicks off with a powder-keg dynamic for its titular character—his father is dead and his mother has married his uncle. But how did things get so complicated? In Gertrude and Claudius, Updike explores the lives of Hamlet’s mother, father, and uncle before the Prince of Denmark vowed his revenge and took center stage. A prequel that ends just after the start of Shakespeare’s play, this ambitious novel gives insights into characters who—in the original text—were largely supporting.”

Other novels that made the list: I, Iago by Nicole Galland; Ophelia by Lisa Klein; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard; and I Am Juliet, by Jackie French.

Barker might have included her own Waking Romeo, now available from Amazon, because it too is a retelling of a Shakespeare classic.

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America Magazine recounts Updike’s views on Santa and Christ

In an article titled “John Updike: Suspicious of Santa, but fond of Christ” written for America Magazine, writer James T. Keane played to the season and began his feature with a quote from John Updike:

“A man of no plausible address, with no apparent source for his considerable wealth, comes down the chimney after midnight while decent, law-abiding citizens are snug in their beds—is this not, at the least, cause for alarm?”

Keane continued, “This is the week to ask: What exactly is Santa Claus up to? John Updike wrote the above about the suspicious fat man who breaks into our homes for his brilliant comic piece, ‘The Twelve Terrors of Christmas,’ first published in The New Yorker at Christmastime in 1992 and later released as a little book illustrated by Edward Gorey. The tone of it is classic Updike—dryly reported detail that provokes a laugh and an insight into the weirder aspects of accepted cultural tenets.”

On a more serious note, Keane recalled that when Updike died in 2009, this magazine’s obituary was written by its former editor in chief, George W. Hunt, S.J., “who had written on Updike himself and also been a longtime friend. (George got away with a title that probably would not have made it past the censors in previous ecclesiastical ages: John Updike and the Three Great Secret Things: Sex, Religion and Art.)”

America Magazine gave Updike its Campion Award in 1998, and Updike’s acceptance remarks later appeared in the magazine under the title “A Disconcerting Thing,” which, Keane wrote, “is a beautiful piece of prose writing, up there with Updike’s most well-known non-fiction works. Unlike Edmund Campion, S.J., who had given his life for his Catholic faith, Updike noted, most Americans didn’t have to face such stark realities. ‘It is all too easy a thing to be a Christian in America, where God’s name is on our coinage, pious pronouncements are routinely expected from elected officials, and churchgoing, though far from unanimous, enjoys a popularity astounding to Europeans,’ he commented. ‘As good Americans we are taught to tolerate our neighbors’ convictions, however bizarre they secretly strike us, and we extend, it may be, something of this easy toleration to ourselves and our own views.”

Read the rest of the article.

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Keanu Reeves says Updike’s Rabbit novels are now his favorite

Keanu Reeves was in the news again with the release of the new Matrix film, The Matrix Resurrections, in which Reeves reprises his iconic role of Neo. That means he’s now a hot interview subject, and interviewer Swapnil Dhruv Bose decided to ask the actor to name his all-time favorite books for Far Out Magazine.

John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy made the list. According to Bose,

“While discussing the works listed above, Reeves claimed that The Count of Monte Cristo was his favourite book as a child which sparked his interest in reading. Later, as a teenager, he matured into more serious existential works and started exploring the literary legacy of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

“After discovering Dostoevsky, Reeves enjoyed the works of authors such as Jim Thompson and William Gibson until he discovered Marcel Proust’s modernist magnum opus In Search of Lost Time. As an ageing actor now, he revealed that he finds more truth in the seminal Rabbit series by John Updike.”

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Former minister says Updike all but told his story

In an opinion piece for Baptist News, David Ramsey contemplated “Atheism and agnosticism: The last closet,” which began,

“In 1996, John Updike released his 17th novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, a story about a Presbyterian minister, Clarence Wilmot, who loses his faith, leaves the ministry and becomes an encyclopedia salesman. In a strange case of art imitating life, Updike was narrating my story. I was a Baptist minister who had slowly been losing my faith. That same year, I left the ministry and embarked on a second career in technology sales.

“While Updike captured my painful but liberating movement from Christianity to agnosticism, he failed to narrate the stigma and stereotypes associated with being an agnostic or atheist,” Ramsey wrote.

“Last year, I wrote a book in which I discuss my journey from minister to agnostic and critique popular religious notions like ‘everything happens for a reason.’ I have friends who have reviewed my book online, some of whom masked their names to avoid being outed by their association with a controversial topic and agnostic writer,” Ramsey said.

Read the whole opinion piece.

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New NY Times book editors share book criticism favorites

In an article titled “Times Critics Discuss 2021 in Books, From Breakout Stars to Cover Blurbs,” new critics Molly Young and Alexandra Jacobs were asked if they had any all-time favorite books of criticism that they would recommend people “delve into over the holidays.”

Jacobs replied, “John Updike’s Hugging the Shore and Odd Jobs are the bookends of my Updike Shelf (about which, another time). Here was someone who didn’t have to review or consider his contemporaries or predecessors, and yet industriously, prolifically did. What generosity.”

When Young weighed in with “Martin Amis’s collection The War Against Cliché. His flow is insane,” Jacobs said, “Wait, I meant to say that! Well, Amis has written about Updike and Updike about Martin’s father, Kingsley, so maybe this is a male literary turducken . . . .”

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Meaningful ornament donated for the Updike house tree

They say good things come in small packages. Surprising things, too. When Updike house Director of Education Maria Lester opened a package recently, she found a smiling John Updike ornament. On the back of the ornament: “Ho Ho Ho! Casting off of J.U.’s gravestone in Plow Church cemetery.”

It was from Michael Updike, a slate sculptor who carved the marker for his father’s Plow Church cemetery gravesite.

“I know the ornament competition is for children but somehow I couldn’t resist,” Michael wrote. “Hope this isn’t too creepy and gives small children nightmares.”

Unless the little ones have been walking through that cemetery in Plowville, all they’ll see is a smiling face on a tree that suggests it really is the most wonderful time of the year. And from now on, this ornament will be a part of the annual tree-trimming tradition at the Updike house.

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First Updike house open hours draw interest

Twenty locals visited The John Updike Childhood Home on the first Saturday of limited regular hours (12-2pm), Director of Education Maria Lester reported.

With a Christmas tree in the parlor the feeling was festive, and a half dozen children also stopped by to drop off ornaments they made for the First Annual Ornament Competition. Many of the entries will be displayed on the tree and around the house, with the winner receiving $50 and two runners-up receiving $25 each.

The contest is open to all Berks County students in grades K-5, whether public, private, virtual, or home schooled. Children are to create an ornament for the tree by using one or more of these Updike-related symbols/motifs: centaur, rabbit, books, typewriter, art/palette, church steeple, pigeon, or basketball.

The entries will be judged by Lester and the docents who have volunteered to staff the museum on Saturdays. Entries may also be dropped off at the Updike house this coming Saturday, Dec. 11 during open hours.

Questions? Email JohnUpdikeEducation@gmail.com.

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John Updike Childhood Home establishes hours

For additional information, contact Director of Education Maria Lester, mlester@albright.edu.

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The argument over Updike’s literary legacy

Shortly before The John Updike Society convened in Reading, Pa. for their 6th Biennial Conference, Jonathan Clarke published a piece in City Journal titled “John Updike and the Politics of Literary Reputation.” In it, he assesses the current problem: Updike’s fall from literary grace during a time of “cancel culture” and the #metoo movement.

“His is a striking case study in the politics of literary reputation in a time of generational upheaval,” Clarke writes. “Updike has not been a victim of cancel culture. He merely represents the ancien regime.”

Clarke suggests that “Updike’s self-effacing public manner now looks like a tactical error in the long game of literary reputation. Philip Roth and Toni Morrison never tired of singing the song of themselves—and why not, in the end, when the world is so crowded and busy? It’s not that Updike was modest about his talent; it’s simply that he embodied the cultural style we associate with American Protestantism. The vanquishing of that once-dominant mode has contributed to a growing incomprehension of Updike’s work.”

Read the whole article.

Of course, questioning Updike’s status as a writer of stature is nothing new. Those who have followed the critical response to Updike’s work will think immediately of John Aldridge’s early claim that Updike might be a great stylist but that he “has nothing to say.”

In 2014, The New Republic took up the issue again in a debate between English comedian, novelist, and TV personality David Baddiel and literary critic-biographer Jeffrey Meyers: “John Updike: Tedious Suburbanite, Literary Great.” Prompting the debate was the release of the Adam Begley biography, Updike.

Baddiel argues on the “for” side. He begins, “Let’s begin by making one thing clear. John Updike was the greatest writer in English of the last century. Unquestionably, he was the best short story writer; I would argue the best novelist, certainly of the postwar years; one of the very best essayists and in the top 20 poets.” On the negative side, Meyers calls Updike’s New Yorker contributions “made-to-order” and dismisses the magazine entirely as a group of editors and contributors who engaged in “mutual admiration” and “quarrelled over a semicolon but encouraged facile content and ironed out all traces of distinctive style.” Meyers concludes, “Updike, cherishing every scrap of his personal life and striving for mythical significance in his daily doings, fell back on the trivial and tedious details of his small-town childhood.” Ironically, in his biography of Hemingway, Meyers doesn’t take that author to task for mining his own adolescence to create a series of stories set in Michigan, or later stories and novels that also reflect Hemingway’s lived experiences. So maybe it all comes down to a long-debated aesthetic question: what is a suitable subject for art?

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