Sunday, April 8, 2012

Let Us Not Mock God with Metaphor

John Updike on the Resurrection

John Updike
The Pulitzer Prize winning writer John Updike is not one who readily comes to mind as someone who held the historic Christian faith. But he did in the sense that confessed the Apostles’ Creed taking the words to mean what they say. He once said, “I call myself a Christian by defining ‘a Christian’ as ‘a person willing to profess the Apostles’ Creed.’”

I have read a little but not much Updike. What I remember from what I have read is the feeling that he “got it” when it came to understanding the human condition and predicament.

He was brought up as a Lutheran and died as an Episcopalian. I am not here trying to judge whether or not the man was “a true Christian ” as some would put it. That is not our judgment to make. Our Confession calls “true Christians” the elect who make up the invisible church which is known to God alone. 

Nor is it our role as individuals to judge his profession of faith. That is a judgment for the visible church to make. Updike was a Christian in the sense that he was a part of the visible church and professed the Christian faith as stated in the Apostles’ Creed.

His Poem Seven Stanzas at Easter, demonstrates how literally he took the Creed by asserting that the resurrection is either a real, bodily resurrection, or there is no Christian faith or Christian Church.

Here is the poem:

                             Seven Stanzas at Easter
                                                   By John Updike

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-mache,
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.

[*Max Planck was the German scientist who is the father or quantum physics. As I understand it, which may be all wrong, quantum physics says that energy is not continuous, but consists of particles which can be measured.]

Updike’s affirmation of the bodily resurrection of our Lord in the poem is so clear that the writer of the blog, The Questioning Christian, was very upset to hear part of it quoted at the Sunrise Service he attended:

“At the otherwise-wonderful Great Vigil of Easter this morning (a.k.a. the sunrise service), our rector quoted from John Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter in his sermon:

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.  

I’ve tried and failed to read these lines, and the rest of the work, as merely a literary device.  They’re not.  Updike is clearly drawing a line in the sand about what he thinks actually happened on Easter Sunday. 

I can’t understand how Updike can be so certain.  We simply don’t know what happened on that Sunday so long ago ...”

Church of the Resurrection
Ah, but Updike was certain – certain at least that without the bodily resurrection of Christ there is no Christian faith. As Paul said, “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain…your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15: 14, 17).

“But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead…” (1 Corinthians 15: 20).

1 comment:

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Thanks for posting this poem by John Updike.