Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike: a writer for thinking Christians

John Updike died on Tuesday at age 76.

His passing will be mourned by everyone who loves great writing and there will be many essays about his gifts for prose and poetry. But within it all, what was most appealing to me was the way that he presented the faith struggles or thoughtful Christians. His characters were generally flawed, as human beings are. But they were also deep. And he gave us deep insights into the human spirit.

When asked why he chose to live in Ipswich, a suburb on the north shore of Boston, he talked about getting away from the hustle of New York City, and then added,

''There were also practical attractions: free parking for my car, public education for my children, a beach to tan my skin on, a church to attend without seeming too strange.''

That’s right, “a church.” And more than that, “a church to attend without seeming too strange.” John Updike was a self-described Christian. In fact, I think he claimed Karl Barth as a major philosophical and theological influence. Updike was the thinking Christian’s writer. Always a little off balance in a universe that one could not completely understand. But convinced that whatever one could see or measure or comprehend, there was always something more. It could not be simply understood or explained, but it was there. And one had to honestly come to terms with it.

In a wonderful short story called, “The Christmas Carolers,” Updike asks why we come for the caroling -- "come every year sure as the solstice to carol these antiquities that if you listened to the words would break your heart. Silence, darkness, Jesus, angels. Better, I suppose, to sing than to listen."

It breaks your heart. The hopes and fears. The solitary struggle. The stars and the darkness, and eternity breaking in. It was John Updike’s gift to speak of such things in a language that transcended religion, that was deeply human.

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