The Flesh Made Word

Stephen H. Webb criticizes John Updike’s biographer Adam Begley for not “getting to the heart of what he most cherished in his personal experiences” – especially the novelist’s attachment to Christianity:

The reason why critics as perceptive as Begley marginalize Updike’s religious faith has to do with the content of his theological convictions, not the lack of them. For Updike, writing was a religious act. He thought the best way to be a Christian and a writer was to try to be a very good writer (while, at the same time, avoiding any claim to being a good Christian). He reserved his deepest faith not for America but for the world as he saw it, on the theological assumption that the ordinary and everyday—the most mundane elements of human existence—are a gift from God. This strategy let him keep his most specifically Christian beliefs somewhat private, even as he never shied away from a public theology of praising God’s creation.

Webb – who notes he corresponded with Updike about the religious ideas in his novel Roger’s Version – goes on to unpack how the novelist was influenced by the great 20th century Protestant theologian Karl Barth:

Updike as a believer was saved by his reading of Barth, since he looked to him for “confirmation of the bad news about the human situation vis-à-vis ultimate reassurance.” As a writer, however, I am not so sure that Barth did him much good. There is a way of reading Barth that leads to a radical separation of faith from the world, so that the world, in all of its secularity, can be affirmed just as it is, without trying to impose a thick theological framework on it.

That is how Updike read Barth, but it is not how he read the world, since he was nearly medieval in his belief in the power of material objects to convey the sacred. Updike’s celebration of the everyday was not just rooted in a natural theology of the goodness of creation. It was also entangled in what I would call the metaphysics of a Eucharistic realism. He believed that material objects could be revelatory if given the proper words. Writing for Updike was a profoundly transubstantional act.

Recent Dish on Begley’s Updike biography here, here, and here. Check out a religion-related Updike short story here.