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John Updike

Questioner: Why do you think the theme of religion has played such a role in your writing?

John Updike: I was raised, without terrific ardor, as a Lutheran, and I’ve retained a grip on religion through several changes of denomination since. To me it is part of being human, and my own life would be the poorer if I believed nothing, or nothing of religious content. It also ties in – in a way – with the practice of fiction. Since, ultimately, why are we describing these unreal, imaginary lives, except to say that human life is important — it has a dimension to it that is beyond the animal and the mechanical…

Anyways, for all this, and being aware that there are some mysteries to the organic sciences, I don’t think the attempt to rest religious faith upon scientific observations is going to work. Scientific knowledge keeps shifting, as we learn more and more, and there’s less and less ground for religious belief, so that in the end those of us who are Christians have to believe as an act of faith and an act of will.

Questioner: I also remember reading that you saw that other belief-systems were religions of No, and you chose a religion of Yes.

John Updike: Yes, I did. And that terminology I got from Karl Barth, who I found of the twentieth century theologians to be the most comforting as well as the most uncompromising. He does dismiss all attempts to make theism naturalistic… He’s very definite that it’s Scripture and nothing else. I find this hard to swallow, but I like to see Barth’s swallowing it, and I like his tone of voice. He talks about the Yes and No of life, and says he loves Mozart more than Bach because Mozart expresses the Yes of life.


John Updike, appearing on C-SPAN’s In Depth in 2005.

I recently read Updike’s twentieth novel Seek My Face, in which there is a winding paragraph about a Quaker service that is infused with the same tone and substance as the initial remarks from Updike above. It reads:

My mother, though, was quite Episcopalian, typically lukewarm, but she would never have called herself irreligious. We all went to meeting together a few times… I remember mostly the light, and the silence, all these grown-ups waiting for God to speak through one of them—suppressed coughs, shuffling feet, the creak of a bench. It upset me at first, you know how children are always getting embarrassed on behalf of adults. Then the quality of the silence changed, it turned a corner, like an angel passing, and I realized it was a benign sort of game.

As with the interview above, here his Updike’s mind at serious play. Although he penned these words as a septuagenarian, Updike not only remembered the restlessness of childhood churchgoing, he retained that benevolent and bemused sense of wonder well into adulthood. Filtered through his reading, experience, and intellect, it solidifies into his signature rich and dense storytelling.

In a recent interview, Ian McEwan said, among other things, “[Updike] was rather courtly, reticent; not an easy man to get to know. There was something of a polite mask there… I think he was the greatest novelist writing in English at the time of his death,” and “He could turn a sentence… He was very good on religious belief… and he understood about religious doubt. I mean he wrote beautifully on religious doubt.”

Watch the rest of the interview with McEwan, the novelist I’d nominate to be Updike’s successor as the strongest living prose writer in English, right here: