January 29, 2009
[Editor's Note: This column was written on January 27, 2009 the day John Updike died.]
Thousands of years ago, a farmer-poet named Job wailed, “For the thing that I fear comes upon me, and what I dread befalls me” (Job 3:25). The same can be said now of a novelist-poet named John.
John Updike is dead.
John Updike, one of the most significant American novelists of the past half-century, died of cancer today. He was 76. And he was, if the themes of his fiction and poetry have any root in his own psyche, scared to death of death.
The New York Times story on Updike’s passing describes the author as the most self-consciously Protestant of contemporary American novelists, dependent especially on the theology of Karl Barth. The Times story also picks up on Updike’s fearful fascination with death, a fascination the article sums up in Updike’s final passage from his short story “Pigeon Feathers”:
“The story is about a boy, David, who is forced to shoot some pigeons in a barn, and then watches, fascinated, as their feathers float to the ground: ‘He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole creation by refusing to let David live forever.’”
I’ve read all Updike’s novels but the last one (a sequel to his Witches of Eastwick) and I always finish them with something of the same kind of sick fascination that the boy David would have seen the pigeons torn apart by gunfire. There’s something beautiful there, a spark of divine creativity, but something sad and pitiable as well. Updike, it seems to me, had a love/hate relationship with Jesus Christ.
Few novelists could illustrate the suffocation of upwardly mobile but spiritually rootless middle class America with more vivid imagery than Updike, especially in his series of four books on the life of Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Those books also lay out the problem of sin, guilt, and judgment better than many gospel tracts, except without the solution at the end.
I was struck several years ago by a New York Times review of a collection of Updike’s early stories. Of Updike, the Times wrote: “While his male characters pursue sex with dogged zeal, be it with a neighbor’s wife, a colleague or a prostitute, they also suffer from a spiritual hunger, a craving, if not for God then for some reassurance that there is something between them and the abyss they can glimpse just beyond the familiar world with ‘its signals and buildings and cars and bricks.’”
This assessment was on to something.
After all, Updike’s “Rabbit” is aptly named. He moves through a life of casual sexual encounters, all of them ending in despair and emptiness. He seeks security in his material prosperity, in his high school athletic glory days, and in his sullen family. But, behind it all, he is terrifed of death. Like an animal, he seeks to obey his appetites.
But, like an animal, he is always peering over his shoulder for the Predator he fears is pursuing him. He’s paralyzed by the thought that his death will be no different from that of an animal. In the midst of all this, Rabbit’s conscience seems to point him to something else after that he fears so badly, a final accounting for his life.
And there’s nothing scarier than that.
One can’t help but wonder if Mr. Updike’s pen was, in fact, his therapy. He seemed to think it was, speaking of a compulsion to write that would have led him to compose ketchup labels if he couldn’t write poems and stories and essays. Maybe all these words helped him to cope with the terror he ascribes to “Rabbit” and dozens of other fictional characters.
Perhaps, as we note Updike’s passing, we should listen to this angst. It’s a pheomemon not limited to famous novelists. It’s what all of unregenerate humanity holds in common, whether the unemployed janitor you pass on the sidewalk this afternoon or the Wall Street tycoon planning his next bailout appeal this evening.
The Scripture calls this angst “a fearful expectation of judgment” (Heb 10:27), a warning etched on the conscience that holds every man and woman in the “lifelong slavery” of “fear of death” (Heb 2:15). It takes more, much more, than familial security, financial prosperity, or sexual promiscuity to silence this gnawing within.
The only thing that can quiet the conscience is a strangely other voice, a voice Mr. Updike seemed alternately drawn toward, and repulsed by. It’s the voice of One who has gone as a pioneer behind the veil of death (Heb 6:19-20), a voice that pronounces the verdict of “no condemnation” (Rom 8:1).
Who knows what happens in the final moments of a man’s life? I can only pray that John Updike heard that voice, the voice of a Galilean whose footsepts in his novels can be heard everywhere in the distance.
I hope that sometime in the moments before the dreaded death overtook him, the Rabbit stopped running at last.
Russell Moore is Dean of the School of Theology and Senior Vice President for Academic Administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and executive director of the Carl F. H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement. Dr. Moore is the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective (Crossway, 2004) and the forthcoming Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for Christian Families and Churches (Crossway, May 2009).