Friday, February 6, 2009
One of my favorite writers, John Updike, died last week. He was an active Episcopalian, although most of his novels were “X-rated.” Still he was one of the modern masters of the English language. In an interview in 2004 at the Trinity Institute in NY, he had made a couple of comments worth quoting:
When I haven't been to church in a couple of Sundays I begin to hunger for it and need to be there," he said, standing at a podium in front of the altar, against a backdrop of Byzantine-style mosaics and dressed in a gray suit befitting one of America's elder statesmen of letters. "It's not just the words, the sacraments. It's the company of other people, who show up and pledge themselves to an invisible entity."
As a young man studying at Oxford in the mid-1950s, Updike said he devoured new translations of Soren Kierkegaard at Blackwell's bookstore, discovering him "so positive and fierce and strikingly intelligent, like finding an older brother I didn't know I had." He pointed to his classic character Harry Angstrom, of the Rabbit tetralogy, as an example of the Danish philosopher's influence. The Swiss neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth informed another character in the first book of the series, the Lutheran minister Fritz Kruppenbach, who faces off with an Episcopal priest in a scene Updike chose to read. Upon going to Kruppenbach's house to discuss Rabbit's desertion of his family, Rev. Eccles is treated to a diatribe against meddling in others' affairs. Kruppenbach sounds like a stand-in for Barth himself.
"When on Sunday morning then, when we go before their faces, we must walk up not worn out with misery but full of Christ," he tells a disconcerted Eccles. "Make no mistake. There is nothing but Christ for us. All the rest, all this decency and busyness, is nothing. It is Devil's work."