Faculty Notes: At the Mercy of The Real

April 10, 2008

"At the mercy of the real"

Commending the work of John Updike is a bit like praising democracy or defending the value of freedom. You don’t know where to start and you feel embarrassed to be stating the obvious. Yet it is always right and proper to celebrate the highest standards of beauty and truth…

Among theologians, Updike’s work has incited spirited conversations about the staples of church doctrine, which is, in these days, a singular feat. That a writer of this stature should be a man of faith is a gift that the church hardly seems to deserve, which is not to say that Updike is an apologist in literary guise. His imagination is at home in the cultural wasteland of suburban America, where men in all of their fallen and failing manliness
continue to act like men even as the world around them is forever changed.

Who can forget the lonely figure of "The Deacon," unable to explain why he feels at home in a "threadbare and scrawny church," attending a meeting where no one else comes.

Or "The Lifeguard," high on his perch, simultaneously theologizing and desiring the varieties of sun worshiping flesh spread out beneath him.

If sexual liberation and all of its consequences is the great social fact of our day, then Updike is the one writer who has bravely and persistently stared into that glaring reality. Some might think he has stared more with the eyes of a voyeur than a moralist. Perhaps he has not passed a final verdict on America’s elevation of human flesh to a substance with supernatural power, but arguably that is the job of theologians, not writers.

Still, the hope of his prose seems to be that God’s omniscience is no less sympathetic to us than Updike is to his characters. The result is a cheerfulness that, far from being cheap, has been earned by the kind of knowledge that is surely possible only in the greatest achievements of art. It is knowledge, as Updike writes in Gertrude and Claudius, of "a beauty that puts our thoughts of good and evil at the mercy of the real."

—Professor of Religion Stephen Webb ’83, presenting the Conference on Christianity and Literature 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award to John Updike.

 


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