Friday, November 17, 2006

A theological reminiscence by John Updike

Last night I went to hear John Updike who spoke at Lenoir-Rhyne College in this semester's visiting writers series. I had read a number of his novels and other works back in my college years and, since I had never heard him speak in person, I was pleased to see that several decades had not diminished any of the spry wit that pervaded his writings.

He talked about how he started out his career with the intention of becoming a cartoonist, then took up writing poetry, then short stories for The New Yorker to support his family, before turning to the genre of the novel. He confessed to feeling ambivalent about the latter genre, and wondered aloud whether his novels were any good. He said he just never could seem to get a feel for what a good novel was supposed to be like, as an author. Hard to imagine.

The most interesting bit of trivia I picked up was that Updike was raised a Lutheran. I always had a sense that there lay some deeper religious preoccupations behind his novels, even if it was from an expressedly agnostic perspective; but I did not know that behind is was a Lutheran upbrining.

One particularly fascinating, if sad, reminiscence had to do with an incident involving his father's loss of faith. John was summoned to come and talk to his father about the crisis by his mother, who was apparently rather upset, as the family had been good, church-attending Lutherans, even if not the exceptionally zealous, Missouri-Synod variety. Updike recalled how his mother spoke to him about his father's loss of faith, and how terrible and traumatic this was for her. He recalled how his father spoke with him about how startled he was to discover that he simply no longer believed. John Updike said, for his part, that he simply listened, taking it all in, acknowledging what was said to him, but without saying anything in return, struck by the realization that he, too, had no faith to profess.

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