Friday, October 10, 2014

Sex, Religion, Episcopalians, and Lutherans

Dueling Ministers



Sex and religion are two dominant and intertwining themes in the work of John Updike - which makes sense as they have the same roles in life. In the first of the Rabbit novels, Rabbit, Run (1960), Harry Angstrom (Rabbit), trapped in an unhappy marriage, leaves his pregnant wife and hooks up with a hooker in her apartment. So much for the sex; on to the religion.

The wife's parents are "Episcopalians, more of the old phony's social climbing, they were originally Reformeds." Harry's working class parents are Lutherans.  When the parents of Harry's wife call their young Episcopal minister (apparently in Updike's experience it was not common to call them priests in 1960) to tell him what has happened, he contacts Rabbit and seeks to engage him, using golf as one of their points of contact. When Jack Eccles (the Episcopal minister) visits with the deserted wife's acerbic mother, she can't help getting in a dig:
Mother: Yes I wouldn't want your job for the world.
Eccles: I enjoy it most of the time.
Mother: They say you do. They say you're becoming quite an expert golf player.

Jack Eccles also calls on the pastor of the Harry's parents' Lutheran parish, the Rev. Fritz Kruppenbach. The older pastor is already irritated about his wife's calling him in from mowing the back lawn to speak with the Episcopalian, and his mood does not improve as Jack describes his efforts to minister to Harry. The interaction of the two ministers reveals two contrasting views of the church and ministry. Kruppenbach, whose German accent "makes his words seem like stones, set angrily on top of one another" says:
Do you think, 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 your job is to be an unpaid doctor, to run around and plug up the holes and make everything smooth. I don't think that. I don't think that is your job. 
...I've been in Mt. Judge twenty-seven years and you've been here two. I've listened to your story but I wasn't listening to what it said about the people, I was listening to what it said about you. What I heard was this: the story of a minister of God selling his message for a few scraps of gossip and a few games of golf. What do you think now it looks like to God, one childish husband leaving one childish wife? Do you think any more what God sees? Or have you grown beyond that?
When Jack tries to explain the way he sees his role in this situation, Kruppenbach cuts him off:
It seems to you our role is to be cops, cops without handcuffs, without guns, without anything but our human good nature. Isn't it right? Don't answer, just think if I'm not right. Well, I say that's the Devil's idea. I say let the cops be cops, and look after their laws that have nothing to do with us.
Jack tries to express his agreement "up to a point", but the Lutheran presses on:
There iss not up to a point! If Gott wants to end misery, He'll declare his kingdom now. How big do you think your little friends look among the billions God sees? In Bombay now they die on the streets every minute. You say role. I say you don't know what your role is or you'd be home locked in prayer. There is your role: to make yourself an exemplar of faith. There is where comfort comes from: faith, not what little finagling a body can do here and there, stirring the bucket. In running back and forth you run from the duty given to you by God, to make your faith powerful, so when the call comes you can go out and tell them, 'Yes he is dead, but you will see him again in heaven. Yes, you suffer, but you must love your pain because it is Christ's pain.' When on Sunday morning then, we go before their faces, we must walk up not worn with misery, but filled with Christ, hot with Christ, on fire : burn them with the force of our belief. That is why they come; why else would they pay us? Anything else we can do or say anyone else can do and say. They have doctors and lawyers for that. It's all in the Book - a thief with faith is worth all the Pharisees. Make no mistake. There is nothing but Christ for us. All the rest, all this busyness is nothing. It is the Devil's work. 
The old German pietist is interrupted by his wife's calling him to supper. But, before he leaves his study, he (not invites but) challenges the Episcopalian:
Will you kneel a moment with me and pray for Christ to come into this room? 
Jack Eccles, is honest enough to answer,
No. No I won't. I'm too angry. It would be hypocritical.
Updike describes how this encounter with the old Lutheran pastor leaves the young Episcopal minister:
His heart is beating like a scolded child's and his knees are weak with fury. He had come for an exchange of information and been flagellated with an insane spiel. Unctuous old thundering Hun, no conception of the ministry as a legacy of light, probably himself scrambled into it out of a butcher's shop. Jack realizes these are spiteful and unworthy thoughts but he can't stop them. His depression is so deep he tries to gouge it deeper by telling himself He's right, he's right...he can't cry; he's parched. His shame and failure hang downward in him heavy but fruitless. 
It's suppertime, and Eccles should go home. Instead he goes to the drugstore and orders an ice cream soda and drinks two glasses of water while he waits. This is where he feels most at home - "in Godless public places."

As a 2-K guy, I admire the Lutheran's two-kingdoms view and its impact on his ministry. He knows the one thing he has to offer that no one else has - Christ. That knowledge of what he alone as a minister can give serves to fire his zeal and focus his ministry. His calling is to nourish his own faith and the faith of his people. Can you imagine this guy ever blessing a dog or a boat? He's not a fixer of people's problems. He's not a soother of their feelings. There are other people to do that. His calling as a minister is unique, and he will not be distracted.

As an Episcopalian, I identify with the young minister, and not just because I am a Reformed Episcopal presbyter. He's right seeing that life, people, and ministry are more messy and complicated than the old pastor's tunnel vision allows him to see. I have been with Jack feeling both anger and shame after being scolded and put in my place by those seeing themselves as wiser, holier, and more spiritual. And Eccles is right, there are times you feel a lot more at home in a drugstore or any place else than around Christians. And sometimes ice cream is the answer. 


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