‘What all the genteel professors at Princeton Seminary had smilingly concealed, Warfield and Green and the erect, pedantic rest, and the embowering trees and Gothic buildings had in their gracious silence masked, was the possibility that this was all about nothing, all these texts and rites and volumes and exegeses and doctrinal splits (within Scots Presbyterianism alone, the Cameronians, the Burghers Antiburghers, the Auld Lichts and New, the Relief Church and the United Sucession Church, the United Free Church and the Free Church and the further seceding “Wee Frees”) – that all these real-enough historical entities might be twigs of an utterly dead tree, ramifications of no more objective validity than the creeds of the Mayan and Pharaonic and Polynesian priesthoods, and Presbyterianism right back to its Biblical roots one more self-promoting, self-protective tangle of wishful fancy and conscious lies’. – John Updike, In the Beauty of the Lilies (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1996), 18–19).
It is the pouring out of such language that leads Frank Kermode , in a scintillating review, to suggest not merely that In the Beauty of the Lilies is ‘a novel planned with much care’, but also that ‘Updike is almost alone among his contemporaries in his willingness to study this state of dull spiritual privation, what used to be called wanhope; or at any rate to study it in a religious, quasi-theological context. He alone would seek the origins of Clarence’s discomfiture in German Higher Criticism: Semler and Eichhorn, Baur and Welhausen, Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu, all those learned Christians who ‘undermined Christianity’s supporting walls and beams’’.
Underneath the busy surface there is Updike’s permanent preoccupation with the vagaries of the spirit in ex-Puritan America. The careful abundance of the writing testifies to his love and admiration for the daily beauties and oddities of American life, past and present, but the deep structures suggest sadness and disappointment. Something serious has been lost or at any rate eroded, a seriousness of intellect but also of spirit. A sign of the degeneration is the difference between Clarence’s religious life and the later fundamentalism accepted by Clark, a doctrine that cuts off all serious thinking at the root.
BTW: While I’m drawing attention to London Review of Books, readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem may be interested in a recent piece therein by Slavoj Žižek on ‘Berlusconi in Tehran’.