Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike On the Resurrection

Whether John Updike was a great writer, a great American writer, a great writer who was a mysogynist, a great short story writer, or something else, and I've read all of those categorizations online on various blogs, I can't say. I did my own tribute, which was not much, as it was mostly a cut and paste affair.

What I can say is that I love the poem below. His beautifully expressed view of the Resurrection is quite close to my own.


Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Thanks to Bishop Alan and to Ann for the reminders of the poem.

Other blog posts on Updike that I've enjoyed are below:

Jane at Acts of Hope

Rmj at Adventus


  1. sigh.... (not the exhalation of exhausted exasperation--but one of joyous anticipation)

    Thank you for posting it Grandmere.

  2. The more I read the poem, the more I like it.

  3. It's an interesting poem, but I frankly disagree w/ its sentiment.

    Me? I have a 'tude of however IMPROBABLE, however UNLIKELY reversing dissolution of cells, reknitting of molecules, and rekindling of amino acids (and similarly every other cosmological/supernatural Christian dogma) . . . well, WHY NOT?

    But for many other people---those more intelligent than I am, for example---"improbable and unlikely" is overwhelmed by "impossible and No Freakin' Way!"

    I don't think "the Church falls" on the (lack of) belief of such people---such Christians.

    Au contraire, it may be their faith, and not Updike's certitudes, which is the Church's (temporal) Salvation.

    Just my 2c.

  4. Poetry excellent. Cadence brilliant. Theology unhelpful and uninformed. Bordering on the literalistic. Hmm.

  5. "Perfection Wasted"

    And another regrettable thing about death
    is the ceasing of your own brand of magic,
    which took a whole life to develop and market-
    the quips, the witticisms, the slant
    adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
    the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
    in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
    their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
    their response and your performance twinned.
    The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
    in the rapid-access file. The whole act.
    Who will do it again? That's it: no one;
    imitators and descendants aren't the same.

    --John Updike
    Composed 1/24/90
    Collected Poems 1953-1993 (Knopf, 1993, p. 231)

  6. JCF, by no means do I imply that the church stands or falls on the beliefs of Updike or me. It is my great hope that the Resurrection really happened, and, in my opinion, it was physical and not simply ethereal, airy-fairy, and spiritual. Others have different views.

    T, my beliefs with respect to the basic doctrines of the faith are quite orthodox and perhaps even literal, which may surprise a few folks. But isn't it great that you and I and others who disagree with me can coexist in the same church despite our differences?

    I am no formal theologian, (although Tobias Haller says we are all theologians, in that all believers have a basic theology) and I've worked my way through to what I believe today through reading, reflecting, and prayer, mostly on my own, but also including Sunday school classes. I could have it wrong, but it's what I've settled upon that works for me.

  7. My friend Doug posted that Updike poem above on his facebook page - I forgot to credit him.

  8. Oh, Dennis, I like that poem, too. It's life, isn't it? It made me blush a little, because it's so true. We each have our very own brand that we develop and market, and no one else has the brand. For good or for ill, it's all ours.

  9. The poem, and the one posted by Dennis are quite incarnational.

    I don't see the uninformed and unhelpful theology-- I hear a poet plucking the words like fruit and offering an unexpected plate.

  10. Margaret, yes! Incarnational! In a word!

    And I love your excellent and poetic imagery.

  11. Ah Adrian, you don't believe much of anything in the creeds any longer, do you?

    As Bishop Alan says:

    JU spoke of God through radical realism, even the sordid/ trivial realism of the 'burbs, not because it's the best way, but the only way for most people. It would be lovely to begin building the house from the roof down, but it's not an option. Building the household of faith starts with digging where we are.

    That's good enough for me. And, of course, the piece is a poem. IMHO, the whole Jesus story is poetic.

  12. Well, it may be that the man-made church will fall if the Incarnation and the Resurrection aren't literal events.
    But God won't fall with it. He's bigger than all our words and man-made ideas.

    I just, sometimes, wish there was a little more humility from those who claim to know all the truth.

  13. I just, sometimes, wish there was a little more humility from those who claim to know all the truth.

    Erika, I do, too. I hope that I never do that.

  14. in my opinion, it was physical and not simply ethereal, airy-fairy, and spiritual.

    Oh, Mimi: ouch!

    Wasn't it Einstein who said "The Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it's queerer than we CAN suppose"?

    I can imagine physical. I can imagine (rather distastefully) "simply ethereal, airy-fairy, and spiritual", too.

    I prefer to think---HOPE---that Eternal Life in God will be more than either of these. More than I can imagine.

  15. JCF, you know, or you should know that I'm not limiting the Resurrection, or God, or eternal life to my idea of it or John Updike's idea of it. Of course, it will be more than any of us can imagine, however I do think it will be physical. But I'm not putting forth a doctrine here, for heaven's sake.

  16. I long ago came to the conclusion that God does not do magic. Any god who does magic is just another capricious s.o.b. Furthermore, any supposed "miracle" for person X ( whose pocket bible stopped a sniper"s bullet) or person Y (who after getting hit by lightning got up and started to cook supper) is more than offset by any number of deadly events, be they avalanches, sinkings of ships, or pogroms.

    So if God doesn't do magic, then Updike's version (as well as that of the gospels outside of Mark) can only be understood as poetic vision. Which is fine. I like poetry, and I like especially Updike as an author. But, I am inclined to lean more towards the notion that Jesus was treated just like any other "criminal" of his day, which would have involved no special favors for the family., no special treatment of the body after he died. Quite possibly just dumped or thrown to the dogs.. Probably no "body" left to resuscitate.

    So what about the creeds? For me, they are hymns. We all know not to take hymns literally--they are poetry, they are songs, they are art. We can SING all sorts of stuff that we know we would never SAY. If I can chant the creeds, then I am fine. If I have to SAY them, it"s a different matter.

    1. Bob, I don't believe God does magic, either. I agree that Jesus was treated like any other criminal of the day. We part ways about the aftermath of Jesus' death.

      What I love about the Episcopal Church is that members of the community can say, or not say, or sing the Creeds and believe whatever they choose believe about the words and remain welcome and valued. I have no difficulty saying the words of the Creeds, but the lyrics of some of the hymns are another matter. Still, I sing them anyway, because I like to sing with the rest of the congregation. In truth, some of my favorite hymns have lyrics that I don't agree with at all.


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