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John Updike


excerpts from 415 - John Updike and the Funny Theologian
at http://theologytoday.ptsem.edu/
under Literary Topics

(various excerpts, scattered throughout the article)

Updike's love for Barth finds obvious expression in such full-blown Barthian characters as the Reverend Thomas Marshfield, the adulterous minister who serves as the protagonist and epistolarian of A Month of Sundays ("I became a Barthian, in reaction against my father's liberalism, a smiling fumbling shadow of German Pietism, of Hegel's and Schleiermacher's and Ritschl's polywebbed attempt to have it all ways ") 7 and Professor Roger Lambert, the cuckolded theologian who serves as the protagonist and narrator of Roger's Version ("I took down my old copy of [Barth's The Word of God and the Word of Man,] a paperbound Torchbook read almost to pieces, its binding glue dried out and its margins marked again and again by the pencil of a young man who thought that here, definitively and forever, he had found the path, the voice, the style, and the method to save within himself and to present to others the Christian faith...").

While Barth's name looms large in Updike's later fiction, Barth's spirit looms larger still in three early novels written during the period when Updike's religious crisis was at its height and his discovery of Barth's theology at its freshest. Rabbit, Run (1960), The Centaur (1963), and Of the Farm (1965) all take us straight to the heart of Barth's covenant theology of grace. Rabbit, Run (in which we see the rejection of God's covenant) and The Centaur (in which we see the acceptance of God's covenant) explore the vertical dimension of the covenant, and Of the Farm explores the horizontal dimension. I propose to draw out the Barthian motifs in these three early novels in the hope of illuminating the fascinating interplay between the novelist and the theologian and of stimulating greater interest in their work.

The motions of Grace, the hardness of heart; external circumstances.-- Pascal, Pensee 507

Pascal's epigram, which serves as Updike's epigraph for Rabbit Run, is fleshed out in this novel in the story of an ex-high school basketball star whose days of glory have been tarnished by the grinding of time.

The novel, illustrating Barth's analysis, shows Rabbit being pursued by a friendly hound of heaven in the person of Reverend Eccles. The affable clergyman arranges for a game of golf with Rabbit and, once on the green, tries to understand what makes Rabbit run:

"Harry," he asks, sweetly, yet boldly, "why have you left her? You're obviously deeply involved with her."
"I told ya. There is this thing that wasn't there."
"What thing? Have you ever seen it? Are you sure it exists?"
"Well if you're not sure it exists don't ask me. It's right up your alley. If you don't know nobody does."

Eccles, his very name recalling the worldly wisdom of Ecclesiastes, doesn't know, he can't know, this "thing" that Rabbit is talking about. Such knowledge requires wisdom from on high, and so, appropriately, Eccles seeks out Kruppenbach, who stands there on Mt. Judge armed with Karl Barth's searing, transcendent gospel. The meeting between the two clergymen begins with Eccles offering Kruppenbach a balanced, insightful, but naturally all too this-worldly account of why Rabbit has fled his wife and forsaken his adult responsibilities:

"Do you think," Kruppenbach at last interrupts, "do you think this is your job, to meddle in these people's lives? I know what they teach you at seminary now: this psychology and that. But I don't agree with it. You think now your job is to be an unpaid doctor, to run around and plug up holes and make everything smooth. I don't think that. I don't think that's your job." 12

Eccles doesn't want to hear Kruppenbach tell him what his job consists of, any more than the worldly ecclesiastics of the roaring twenties wanted Barth to tell them about the real task of the ministry.

Considered thematically as a whole, Rabbit, Run seeks to understand what makes Rabbit run, run from his wife and child, run into the arms of a prostitute, run back and forth between the two women, run until the poor bunny hardly knows where he is running, let alone why. What makes Rabbit run? Death, says Updike/Barth. That is the fundamental concern for thinking animals.

Updike doesn't preach. He tells realistic stories with symbolic and theological overtones that, in effect, invite us to enter the discussion ourselves.

Toward the end of the novel, Caldwell remembers walking on some church errand with his clergyman father down a dangerous street in Passaic. It was a Saturday and...

Start of excerpt from The Centaur (New York: Knopf, 1963):

...the men from the sulphur works were getting drunk. From within the double doors of a saloon there welled a poisonous laughter that seemed to distill all the cruelty and blasphemy in the world, and he wondered how such a noise could have a place under the sky of his father's God....

Then Caldwell remembers...

...his father turning and listening in his backwards collar to the laughter from the saloon and then smiling down to his son, "All joy belongs to the Lord."

It was half a joke but the boy took it to heart. All joy belongs to the Lord. Wherever in the faith and confusion and misery, a soul felt joy, there the Lord came and claimed it as his own; into barrooms and brothels and classrooms and alleys slippery with spittle, no matter how dark and scabbed and remote, in China or Africa or Brazil, wherever a moment of joy was felt, there the Lord stole and added to His enduring domain..

end of excerpt from The Centaur (New York: Knopf, 1963)

Updike once attempted to popularize Barth's understanding of the pivotal relationship between men and women in an essay that was eventually rejected by The New Yorker. Of the Farm was subsequently written, so Updike himself tells us, as a way of publicizing this essay's contents. 22 Updike's original essay, suitably transmuted and condensed, appears in the novel in the form of a sermon heard by Joey Robinson on the morning of the third day of Joey's weekend visit to the family farm. To this homecoming visit Joey has brought along his newly acquired second wife Peggy, his stepson Richard and, not least, his unresolved guilt and pain from shattered relationships in the past. Returning to his roots, Joey hopes to set these relationships right again.

(end of excerpts)

If you find these excerpts of interest, you may visit the site and read the article in its entirety.


New Member
He passed away today.

How sad. I feel that he and I grew up together. We are the same age, and my mother's family had roots in the small town Pennsylvania he describes in some of his stories. I started reading him with Rabbit Run when it first came out and have kept more or less in touch ever since.


New Member
I, sadly, have not as yet not read (at least I don't recall I have) Updike to this point. I do own the Rabbit series and a collection of his early short stories; maybe other books (not sure - I have so many). I will make it point to get to him ASAP.



New Member
That's sad to hear. On the upside, at least Authors will be remembered for generations by many people.


New Member
Sitaram that is fascinating.

I have been reading Philip Roth and although I am from a Christian background I can relate to much of what Roth writes about in terms of how your religious community shapes you.

I hope to get into John Updike soon. To know that he read Barth makes it even more interesting. Should I start with "Centaur", "Rabitt ,Run" or "The Witches of Eastwick"? Do you think that his reading of Barth shaped "The Witches of Eastwick"?


beer good

Well-Known Member
Rabbit, Run is the only Updike I've read. At the time, I figured I'd continue with the entire Rabbit saga, but while it's an excellent novel, Rabbit Angstrom is also such an asshole that I find myself wanting to avoid him. Which may be a sign I should continue...


New Member
I have only read RABBIT, RUN and OF THE FARM. Both were seriously depressing and featured lost middle to lower middle class characters. I wonder why American writers hate the middle class life in their country so much. Are they under some kind of self imposed pressure to show the rest of the world that American middle class life sucks?