Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and scores of other awards, John Updike (1932–2009) is best known for his graphic but lyrical portrayal of the sexual infidelities of middle America. It was not for nothing that he was called the poet laureate of modern adultery. The most famous of his sixty-some books is Couples, the story of a band of spouse-trading friends, one of whom greeted her lover with the legendary words, “Welcome to the post-pill paradise.”
In his December Public Discourse article, Daniel Ross Goodman wrote that Updike’s two favorite themes were theology and adultery, and that in his writings religion “seems to overpower everything, even sex.” While Goodman deftly explored Updike’s literary brilliance and “wager” for faith, he did not unpack the inner dynamics of Updike’s religion or consider the possibility that it might be problematic. The truth of the matter is that Updike’s religion involved inner contradictions that were resolved only by forging a Christianity subordinated to the spirit of the age.
Updike was a man of many contradictions. Though he was both spiritual and religious, he was also a serial adulterer. Widely celebrated as one of America’s greatest writers, his work was dismissed by some critics as stylized pornography with nothing serious to say. Although he recognized the devastation the sexual revolution was wreaking on families, he abandoned his first wife and children to marry one of his mistresses. Often frustrated by a stuttering tongue, he found freedom in the written word to write about sex and love in ways that titillated and enchanted millions of readers. Yet some complained that he hid behind his written words because what mattered more to him than either of those human mysteries was his own need to be heard.
As Goodman pointed out, Updike was stubbornly religious throughout his life. He told an interviewer, “I’m a religious writer . . . I try to show people stuck with this kind of yearning [for other men’s wives and for morality and religion].” He was a regular churchgoer, recited the Lord’s Prayer with his children when he tucked them into bed at night, and defended Christian theism from his days at Harvard in the early 1950s until his death almost sixty years later. Even Couples is shot through and through with religion. The two principal adulterers are the only regular churchgoers in the book; its fictional town, Tarbox (modeled after Updike’s real hometown of Ipswich, Massachusetts), has streets called Charity and Divinity leading to the Congregational Church with its “pricking steeple and flashing cock”; and the story climaxes with the destruction of the church by lightning, suggesting divine judgment. In the end, the main antagonist and adulterer Piet concludes, “God doesn’t love us anymore.”
Writing as Love
For Updike, writing, which he said was his “addiction,” was also an act of love—love for God, who “is the God of the living,” not “the God who chastises life and forbids and says No.” He learned through his Lutheran Sunday School lessons, even in their “clumsy” attempts to say it, that life is a blessing, and that he was called to accept that blessing. In return for that gift, he was offering “only a nickel a week and my art, my poor little art.”
The heart of that art, the heart of true writing, was imitation. To get the world and human relationships right was to imitate properly. If done right, “imitation is praise.” So the art of describing accurately, which means to show the beauty of all that is, even in its tragedy, is to express love. Faith in this God of blessing gave Updike courage to tell it like it is. “What small faith I have has given me what artistic courage I have. My theory was that God already knows everything and cannot be shocked.”
Even in the grittiness of sexuality there is goodness and beauty, shocking as it is to many. His job was to show it all, especially what has been hidden from view by the worst kinds of tradition. “The world is good, our intuition is, confirming its Creator’s appraisal as reported in the first chapter of Genesis.” But prudery and bad art have kept us from the goodness and beauty of created life. “Habit and accustomedness have painted over pure gold with a dull paint that can, however, be scratched away, to reveal the shining underbase.”
Updike’s new biographer, Adam Begley, concludes that Updike saw his writing as a series of “acts of worship.” His lyrical descriptions of ordinary human life, lovingly depicted in all of its most shocking detail, expressed love for the Creator. His literary art was a service to God that purified all that was tawdry in the world: “From a higher, inhuman point of view, only truth, however harsh, is holy. The fabricated truth of poetry and fiction makes a shelter in which I feel safe. . . . Such writing is in essence pure. Out of soiled and restless life, I have refined my books. They are trim, crisp, clean . . . before the reviewers leave their smudges all over them.”
Sex as Divine
Begley reports that Updike “threw himself with reckless enthusiasm into the tangle of Ipswich infidelities.” Updike conceded in his memoirs that he had slept around in Ipswich, “a stag of sorts in our herd of housewife-does.”
How could a man be so religious and yet be so enthusiastic for infidelity?
The answer seems to lie in his religion. It was a strange sort of Christianity that rejected the strictures of traditional faith, choosing divine comfort while rejecting divine commands. In other words, it was gospel without law, grace without repentance, the love of God without the holiness of God.
To be sure, Updike held on to parts of historic Christian belief. He rejected philosophical materialism as a failure to make sense of emotion and conscience, and defended Christ’s divinity against his first wife’s Unitarianism. At the same time, he took from Kierkegaard the idea that Christian faith is subjective, not a conclusion from rationality or objectivity. So he insisted that resurrection from the dead is “unthinkable” to the modern mind, that God can be known only as “the self projected onto reality” by our natural optimism, and that the closer one moves toward Christianity the more it disappears, “as the fog solidly opaque in the distance thins to transparency when you walk into it.”
Updike’s Christianity was a religion of self-affirmation. His greatest fears were of death and its threat of nothingness. But religion, he wrote, “enables us to ignore nothingness and get on with the jobs of life.” It puts us at ease, reassuring us that our efforts are not futile. So for us in this age of anxiety, God is a “tranquilizer.” He reinforces the “endless pardon we bring to our own self.” He guarantees the meaning of our existence and serves as “a protector”—even in those moments when he recalled the abortion one of his lovers procured after a tryst with him. Updike’s God helped him, as Begley puts it, to “cherish whatever happened to him.”
If Updike’s God seemed to affirm whatever he did, this included his affairs. For in a manner not unlike that of D.H. Lawrence, Updike viewed sex as a mystical route to the divine. “Sex is the foremost means,” he told a CBS interviewer, “of conducting the moral and religious search.” It brings “ecstasy” and a sense of “transcendence.” Begley reports that it was his adulterous passion that “made him feel alive.” He said as much himself: “To give myself brightness and air I read Karl Barth and fell in love with other men’s wives.”
So too for the characters in his fiction. When one of the Couples adulterers found in his lover a beauty she did not find in herself, this reminded him of his own beauty and the way sex brought down divine power: “This generosity of perception returned upon himself; as he lay with Janet, lost in praise, Harold felt as if a glowing tumor of eternal life were consuming the cells of his mortality.” In the novel A Month of Sundays, Rev. Marshfield concludes that his first mistress helped reclaim “a wedge of mankind for the Good and the Beautiful,” and preaches in a sermon that “the sacrament of marriage . . . exists but as a precondition for the sacrament of adultery.” Critic Marshall Boswell opines that Marshfield at this point “about two-thirds believes [this], and Updike about half.” Rev. Marshfield rationalizes the seduction of his divinity professor’s daughter by proclaiming, “I was slaying him that the Lord might live.” Kathleen Verduin observes that for Updike illicit sex can become “an act of righteous punishment.”
A Rather Antinomian Christianity
Updike wrote about more than just sex and religion. He treated a wide range of subjects in a remarkable array of genres: historical fiction (Memories of the Ford Administration), magical realism (Brazil), science fiction (Toward the End of Time), Shakespearean midrash (Gertrude and Claudius), historical saga (In the Beauty of the Lilies), and political drama (The Coup). At the end of his life, he was working on a novel about St. Paul and the early church.
But he was also a man of his age. In an America that gradually came to distrust external institutions, and any word from those institutions that would challenge the self, Updike’s valorization of the self and its search for inner meaning were welcomed by millions. His beautifully precise descriptions of desire—and the vague implication that its fulfillment could be religiously justified—reassured readers who feared they might not be justified.
In Updike’s religion, then, there are no commandments we are meant to keep except the obligation to accept what is: “Religion includes, as its enemies say, fatalism, an acceptance and consecration of what is.” Our only responsibility is to “appreciate” the great gift that life represents. He learned from Barth that the next life is simply this life in review, and from his Lutheranism, he wrote, “a rather antinomian Christianity”—the idea that there are no laws we should fear or live by—which he was “too timid to discard.” There is no hint of final judgment. Nor is there any imperative to repent or improve ourselves: in Begley’s words, “Original sin may be inescapable, but any concerted effort to improve one’s game resembles a righteous struggle for salvation.” And if there was anything he learned from Barth, it was that all human efforts to save ourselves are wrongheaded and futile. As one critic summed it up, Updike “radically divorced” Christian theology from Christian ethics.
The upshot was a self-indulgent religion that basked in self-affirmation while running from voices that would challenge the self to change, particularly in ways that were not pleasant. It is telling that Updike’s last poem ends with words of self-assurance from Psalm 23: “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, forever.”
One cannot help thinking that Updike’s religion helped build the theological scaffolding for mainline Protestantism’s baptism of gay marriage. Updike wrote of mainline Protestants and their efforts to justify the sexual revolution. Although Updike himself regarded heterosexual sex as normative, his elevation of sex as a way to transcendence would prevent heterosexual Protestants from barring the door to other kinds of sex. Updike told the CBS reporter, “Sex is one of the means—maybe the foremost means—whereby the [moral and religious] search is conducted.” Once mainline America became persuaded—even in the absence of empirical evidence—that gays are born that way, how could they deny that their sex might be their way to the divine? Updike would surely have agreed. And millions of Updike readers could thank the novelist for helping them see that marriages defined by desire were not only a right but also a sacrament.
Gerald McDermott is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College. This essay is adapted from a book he is finishing on famous stutterers.