America at Unrest- A Word on the Passing of John Updike

When I am not reading books concerning Christian theology or practice (currently reading Worldliness edited by CJ Mahaney, waiting on my copy of Lost and Found by Ed Stetzer to arrive), there is one other literary area of which I am quite fond: 20th century American fiction.  And, to be specific, not just all 20th century American fiction (since things like Steinbeck, King, and Grisham aren’t really on my list), but 20th century American fiction that focuses on the secret parts of society, the dirty areas that we all too easily gloss over when we look back in awe of how much better it was back then.  I’m talking about guys like Jack Kerouac, Frank O’Hara, William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr., and, the man who passed away this Tuesday, John Updike.  What I find so compelling about these men, though their novels are mostly filled with profane images and filthy words, is the picture of human depravity which they paint for us.  It is our desire to look back and talk about “the good ol’ days,” about how there was a time when God had a place in American life and following Christ was a way of life and not just a slogan.  But this was never the case.

I want to particularly focus on Updike, in observation of his recent passing.  My experiences with him come largely through his works in the Rabbit novels (Rabbit, Run; Rabbit Redux; Rabbit is Rich; and Rabbit at Rest).  In this series we follow the meandering life of a former Pennsylvania high school basketball star who finds himself constantly struggling between living the comfortable life in front of him or the exciting life just around the corner.  Through numerous adulteries and drug-filled, wild-eyed experimentations, Rabbit always seems to find his way back home to his wife and son and some version of God that he can never quite shake.

I was enthralled by this story because I saw in it so clearly my own propensity to run from comfort, to detest stability, and to always be seeking the new adventure.  I saw how in my own attempts at tossing things up I was just as guilty of minimizing God and placing him in a cabinet somewhere while I chased whatever sinful desire had tickled my nose.  And I saw in it how no matter what I do, at the end of my escapes there is always the cold fact of reality and the inescapable presence of a God who can not just be locked away.

Updike, speaking on his own personal struggles said,

“I remember the times when I was wrestling with these issues that I would feel crushed. I was crushed by the purely materialistic, atheistic account of the universe. I am very prone to accept all that the scientists tell us, the truth of it, the authority of the efforts of all the men and woman spent trying to understand more about atoms and molecules. But I can’t quite make the leap of unfaith, as it were, and say, `This is it. Carpe diem (seize the day), and tough luck.’”

“The purely materialistic, atheistic account of the universe.”  How astute is that?  Reading these words just lights up everything that is troubling about our society.   We have tried to depersonalize all of what’s around us.  We have depersonalized sex, so that it is just an encounter where two animals satisfy their natural urges.  We have depersonalized the family, where it is no longer Mom, Dad, Brother and Sister, but it is whomever and whatever wants to play house for awhile.  We have depersonalized religion so that there is no right way to believe and there is no punishment for not putting faith in anything, and in the end it’s singing “Oh Happy Day” and a bucket of lollipops for everyone who simply tries to “do good.”  Yet, no matter how much we try to depersonalize it, God is still there.  “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.  For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them” (Romans 1.18-19).  No amount of depersonalization can get rid of our guilty knowledge of God.

This to me is the larger theme of Updike, particularly in the Rabbit novels.  There are many paths to try and find happiness, but after a life in which Rabbit has tried to exhaust them all, there is still no satisfaction to be found.  The only satisfaction, the only hope, is to be found in God; and God is never too far away.  This is not only the message from Updike, it is the message of the Bible, and I think seeing this ancient truth applied in such an engaging, artistic, and ultimately depressing way, makes it ever more clear how far we all wander from God and how dependent we are on him to keep us from realizing the extent of our own depravity, calling us “out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2.9).

Though he was not theologian, and his writings are probably more than most theologians could stomach, I am thankful for the common grace God gave him to be able to write such eye-opening works.  From accounts, John Updike attended church regularly throughout his life.  I pray that he had himself experienced God’s transforming work on his heart and that today, though he is now absent from the body, he will be present with the Lord.

One Response to “America at Unrest- A Word on the Passing of John Updike”

  1. coffee Says:

    John Updike’s passing is sad, but he left a ton of awesome work. “Immortality is nontransferrable” he said appropriately.

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