God’s Work

Writing at the Web site for Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, David E. Anderson ponders the role of religion in John Updike‘s work, specifically through Updike’s final collection of poems, Endpoint. As Anderson points out, Updike was a deeply religious writer who enjoyed writing about New England and Pennsylvania Protestants, but changed his denomination a few times, and always seemed to approach the subject tenuously, as if his faith would crack easily. “I feared it might empty out of me the last drops of what feeble faith had got me thus far,” he writes of taking an assignment for the New Yorker on the future of faith. What finally bolsters Updike is, to be perhaps a little reductionist, a pretty show that God puts on for him in Florence, Italy:

“Lightning. Hectic gusts. The rain was furious. I was not alone in the universe. … I was filled with a glad sense of exterior activity. My burden of being was being shared. God was at work—at ease, even, in this nocturnal Florentine commotion, this heavenly wrath and architectural defiance, this Jacobean wrestle…. All this felt like a transaction, a rescue, an answered prayer.”

Anderson has a healthy run-down of many of Updike’s more religion-oriented writings, from his poem “Six Stanzas at Easter” to his 1989 novel S.. But surprisingly he doesn’t mention the 1986 novel Roger’s Version, which in many ways exemplifies Updike’s concerns about keeping faith while living in the modern world. The core of the story is a tussle between a divinity scholar, Roger Lambert, and a programmer, Dale Kohler, who believes he can prove God’s existence via computer. Lambert isn’t buying it, partly because he still wants the pretty show:

“I must confess I find your whole idea aesthetically and ethically repulsive. Aesthetically because it describes a God Who lets Himself be intellectually trapped, and ethically because it eliminates faith from religion, it takes away our freedom to believe or doubt. A God you could prove makes the whole thing immensely, oh, uninteresting.”

That’s not to suggest that Updike’s faith was shallow—he certainly read more than his fair share of theology in his time. But even to the end, in late novels like In the Beauty of the Lilies, he seemed to be based on a relatively simple worry that faith could easily slide into mere superstition. That was certainly part of the inspiration for Roger’s Version, as he told a reporter in a contemporary interview included in Conversations With John Updike: “I was sitting at my word processor one day, and I noticed this scramble of numbers that it throws up. The notion of there being a magical secret in that code of numbers occurred to me, being a superstitious sort of person.”

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