Lauren at Rest: after a long week of Updike

This has been a big week. I finished a first draft of my paper on the theology in Updike’s Roger’s Version. I love the thing, and yet hate it, knowing I couldn’t give Barth or Updike (or Roger!) the explanation they all deserve. And I also finished Rabbit is Rich, the third book of the Rabbit Tetralogy, and am on to the fourth and final: Rabbit at Rest. Rabbit dies; I know this. I’m not ready for it. He’s been a part of my life for a year now, and I’ve grown to love the guy. So I’ve been sad and reflective, ready for Rabbit’s story to finish and for my own paper to endure the editing process.

I’ve turned to Lauren Winner for comfort. She is, to be frank, who I want to be “when I grow up.” She’s a brilliant writer, a lover of words, and a professor. She is also, I learned from her most recent book, an Updike fan. Be still my soul. She writes,

Today Ruth and I have come, in the pilgrim economy of writerly tourism, in search of a relic: John Updike lived for many years in neighboring Beverly Farms, and Manchester-by-the-Book received a portion of Updike’s library after he died. […]

There is, frankly, something of the vulture in me; I want some of those Updike books. I want the books he read, or even just books he kept stacked on shelves in the guest room. […]

After we have scavenged the fiction, we paw through Updike’s religion books. I make off with three volumes of Barth; two of them I will give away next Christmas, but Against the Stream I will keep. Updike read Barth in his late twenties; he said the Swiss theologian helped him conquer his “existential terror.” He said Barth made him “able to open to the world again,” and Barth shadows Updike’s oeuvre–his novels and short stories, the interviews in which he mostly avoided religious declaration, his poems. In Updike’s fictional world, many of the most compelling characters are admirers of Barth, followers of, or locked in an argument with, the deus absconditus, the God who hides himself. The eponymous hero of Roger’s Version, who invokes Barth at the drop of a hat, knows that God is unknowable–knows even that God’s mystery is somehow tangled up with human hope–but finds that knowledge vaguely unsatisfying. […] And Rabbit Angstrom is a Barthian, sensing that God is wholly other, that the best proof of God’s existence is Rabbit’s own desire for him, his own undeniable longing.

In addition to those three volumes of Barth, the bookstore’s religion shelves hold one of Updike’s volumes of Buber, some comparative religion texts, and several books about Hasidism, all immaculate, not a hint of marginalia; and then Ruth, who is sharper-eyed than I am, spies in Updike’s copy of Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World a little something penciled on the flyleaf. […]

What Updike penciled is Deus est qui Deum dat. That is Augustine: God gives us many gifts, but “God is He Who gives God.” This is a good thing to affirm if you live in New England, the land of the hidden God, if you say, as Updike once did, that you find attending church “generally comforting and pleasant,” if you are lauded after dead as a Protestant novelist by an obituary writer who thinks he’s saying something quaint. I keep this book on my bedside table now, this gift from Ruth, and I open it regularly and mostly I do not read what Schmemann has to say about Eucharistic love, though I’m sure what he says is astute. Mostly I look at Updike’s scribble of Augustine and I take it as a good word from a ghost, from someone entered into glory, joined up to the communion of saints; I take it as a benediction from one so keenly aware of the gulch between God and God’s creatures: God is here through our longing for God; God gives us many gifts, but God is He who gives God.

— from “Manchester Pilgrimage” in Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis by Lauren F. Winner

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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