Sunday, April 5, 2015

If He rose at all it was as His body

John Updike on the Resurrection

John Updike

I have published a version of this blog on Easter for several years now. Since last Easter I have read In the Beauty of the Lilies and the four Rabbit novels. I have learned also a little more about the life of John Updike. Updike was not the man I wish he were, but then I am not the man I wish I were. His novels seem almost obsessed with sex. Whether that reflects his reading of American civilization or his own experience or both, I am not qualified to say. His novels appear also, though to a lesser degree, to be obsessed by religion as something that the characters cannot escape however sordid their lives. I remain convinced of Updike's talents as a writer and of his gift of insight into the human predicament and 20th century American civilization. It is enough here to conclude that, whatever the state of Updike's soul in this world and the next, this poem is right in its insistence on a real or no resurrection.

The third day he rose again from the dead.  
Apostles' Creed

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man's nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.  Articles of Religion, IV

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 hold the orthodox Christian faith in that he 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 some Updike. From what I have read I get the 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. Some will want to judge whether he was, as they would put it, a "true Christian." That is not for me or them to say. He confessed the Creed and was a member of the visible church which according to the Articles of Religion is "a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly-ministered according to the Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same" (Article XIX). 

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 ...

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).


Matt Redmond said...

Where should I start with Updike? Which novel?

William H Smith said...

Maybe you would like to start with a book of short stories. You can researh online to see what the critics say are the best collections. I liked the Tears of My Father collection. When it cbones to the novels the four Rabbit novels are considered his defining work. However for some reasson (sonething I read online I think) I started with In the Beauty of the Lillies I really liked Part 1.