John Updike: his poem resonates because ‘it seems attuned to the nature of belief in the modern world’

John Updike: his poem resonates because ‘it seems attuned to the nature of belief in the modern world’

In the April 2011 issue of our predecessor, www.TheBluegrassSpecial.com, we began pondering the meaning and weight of John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” via the perspectives of various theologians, ministers, religious philosophers and pundits and even seminary students. In the aforementioned issue we offered the story of the poem’s first publication as the winning entry in a church’s poetry contest, and how Updike returned to the congregation the $100 prize he won for his work. This account was followed by three essays centered on the poem’s multiple meanings. A year later, in our April 2012 issue, we expanded the feature to “Seven Voices on Seven Stanzas,” and now, here we are in April 2017 with our sixth consecutive “Seven Voices on Seven Stanzas” feature, which, when you add them up, amount to 42 voices on “Seven Stanzas.” (Well, 41, actually, because this year we are reprising a stirring video depiction of “Seven Stanzas” published in last year’s edition.) This doesn’t mean we’re cool or anything of the sort, but rather underscores the passions evoked and inflamed by Updike’s poem about Christianity’s seminal event, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ—it has to be dealt with, year after year. This year we’ve taken our concept a bit deeper to include meditations not only on what the poem says about Updike’s theology, or view of theology, but also on its larger message to Christians in everyday practical application.

First, the poem, then off we go…

 

Seven Stanzas at Easter

By John Updike

 

Make no mistake: if he rose at all

It was as His body;

If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecule 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 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.

***

I.

 

Resurrection of Christ by Noël Coypel, 1700

Resurrection of Christ by Noël Coypel, 1700

 

Let Us Walk Through the Door

By Allan Stanglin

 

I’ve been in a really confessional mood this week. So indulge me one more time: I’ve almost got this Sunday’s sermon finished, and it’s not that great.

The Easter sermon is the hardest one to write. It’s nearly impossible. And I struggle with it every year. It’s not for lack of effort. I began planning this year’s Easter sermon way back in the fall when Bill Humble was taking us through the seven churches of Asia on Wednesday nights. He used racks and racks of pictures and slides from his numerous trips to those ancient sites to capture our imaginations as he taught us. And it occurred to me then that, if I showed you pictures from my tour of the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem, I could stir you to experience the thrill of the Resurrection that I experienced. But it’s not working like I thought it would. The pictures are great. They’re spectacular. Powerful. But my words… my words are not enough. Not even close.

Reinhold Niebuhr is quoted as saying that he would always attend a “high” church on Easter Sunday where there would be great music but very little preaching. In his estimation, “No preacher is up to the task on Easter.” I think he’s probably right.

John Updike’s poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter” beautifully and perfectly identifies the cause of every preacher’s frustration leading up to Resurrection Sunday. One of the lines is: “Let us not mock God with metaphor,/analogy, sidestepping transcendence…/ et us walk through the door.”

Yes, it is a waste of time to try to explain the Resurrection. Some things can’t be reduced to an explanation and are greatly diminished in the process of trying. The task on Easter is proclamation, not explanation. On Easter, the preacher should only offer an invitation to “walk through the door” into a brand-new world where the ultimate reality isn’t death, but everlasting life in the One who brought our Lord out of the grave. Accept it in all of its mystery and wonder. Rejoice in the powerful love and gracious blessing we experience at the empty tomb. Proclaim the Resurrection, don’t explain it. Proclaim it. That’s what the apostles did. And that’s what I’ll attempt to do this Sunday.

Peace,

Allan

Posted at The Kingdom, The Kids & The Cowboys

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II.

Did Updike Sell the Resurrection Short?

By Matthew Sitman

 

“Let us not mock God with metaphor,” John Updike wrote in his poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” imploring his readers not to believe the resurrection of Jesus could be understood as a mere symbol of uplift and optimism. Retreating to the language of analogy or transcendence just wouldn’t do. Christ’s Passion was not just a parable. If Jesus rose at all, it was “as His body,” an affair not just of the spirit but the flesh. In Updike’s gritty imagery, if Jesus’ cells did not reverse their dissolution, his molecules reknit, his amino acids rekindle, then the Church would fall. Or rather, it shouldn’t have existed in the first place. A Jesus who didn’t walk out of a tomb wasn’t worth worshipping.

The poem gains new life of its own every year around this time. It inevitably flits across social media as Holy Week draws to a close, a very quotable addition to the Facebook feeds of America’s more literary Christians. Updike’s words circulate in more traditional ways, too, giving pastors and priests just the rhetorical flourish they need for their Easter homilies. This Sunday, many churchgoers who’ve never read a page of Rabbit, Run will nod along at Updike’s verse.

The force of “Seven Stanzas,” however, goes beyond its seasonal affiliation. After all, there are others poems about Easter. Perhaps Updike’s resonates because it seems attuned to the nature of belief in the modern world—or rather, it asks the modern believer what she is willing to believe. The poem forces the reader to answer for herself what really happened in that backwater of the Roman Empire in the days after Jesus was executed as a criminal. There can be, to use Updike’s word, no “sidestepping” this issue. Are you “embarrassed” by this “miracle” or not?

This is a perennial question, the place where all quests for the historical Jesus give way to faith—or not—and Updike is not wrong to remind us of its stakes. But for all his theological sophistication, and despite my admiration for his literary gifts, Updike’s poem leaves me unsatisfied. It achieves its existential urgency by skirting the complexity and strangeness of what the Gospels actually tell us about the resurrection. The poem is a blunt instrument, jarring and powerful, but it obscures as much as it reveals.

Updike asks us to leave aside figurative language and interrogate the Gospel accounts of the resurrection for their literal truth, if it really happened or not. When we read these passages, however, they also should interrogate us, unsettling our judgments about what we think we know and how we understand what it meant for Jesus to rise from the dead. They defy all our inevitable attempts to escape the uncertainty of real faith and reduce the resurrection to a pat story that does little more than comfort those who encounter it.

One of the most striking aspects of the Gospel narratives is that no two of them describe the resurrection and its aftermath in exactly the same way. This includes who we’re told was there at the empty tomb. In all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene discovers that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the first at the scene, and all four also mention another Mary who was with her. Otherwise, the list of women who found that Jesus was not in the tomb varies in small but still noticeable ways.

More interestingly, what happens after the two Marys and their fellow mourners arrive at the tomb also is depicted very differently, depending on which narrative you are reading. In Matthew’s Gospel, an earthquake occurs and an “angel of the Lord” descends to roll away the stone that had closed the tomb, an angel who tells them not to fear, that Jesus was alive. In Mark’s Gospel, the stone seems to be removed when the Marys get there, and a “young man” in a long white garment is sitting in the tomb and he tells them the good news. Luke’s Gospel notes two men in “shining garments” who explain the empty tomb, at which point Mary Magdalene, a second Mary, and “other women” who were there to tend to Jesus’ body go back to tell the disciples what happened. One of the disciples, Peter, then goes to see for himself. The writer of the Gospel of John mentions only Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb to find it already empty and the stone rolled back. She runs to inform the disciples, Peter and John race to the tomb to find out if it’s true, and when they get there they see the linens in which Jesus had been wrapped.

None of these discrepant details are new to anyone who has given more than glancing attention to the Gospels, and I don’t list them for cheap polemical purposes, as if thoughtful Christians haven’t grappled with them since they were put in writing. A few of them even can be reconciled—noting only that Mary Magdalene was at the empty tomb, for example, does not preclude others, unnamed, from being there as well. Likewise, an angel really could be portrayed as a man in white garments. The point here is not to delve into the finer points of historical-critical analyses of the Gospels, but to assert that these texts are impossible to read consistently in a flat, univocal way, as if their meaning were easy to perceive. Perhaps the tensions between the texts even serve a pedagogical function, inviting us to read them more carefully and discerningly. If we attribute them to the vagaries of memory and the varying perspectives of those who wrote them down the texts actually seem more “real,” not less. They capture the confusion, dashed expectations, and bewildering vindication that must have existed among the followers of Jesus.

 

Resurrection of Christ (aka The Kinnaird Resurrection), oil painting on wood by Raphael (1499-1502

Resurrection of Christ (aka The Kinnaird Resurrection), oil painting on wood by Raphael (1499-1502

The most arresting feature of the resurrection narratives, far beyond these particulars about who was at the empty tomb and what they saw, is of course the appearances of the risen Jesus himself. They goad us to marvel at the way they are wrapped in strangeness and mystery. At every turn, the men and women who followed Jesus—who traveled, lived and listened to him for years—fail to recognize him after his resurrection. Mary Magdalene, in John’s Gospel, mistakes him for a gardener. Only after Jesus calls her by name does she realize who he is. In Luke’s Gospel, in the famous account of Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus walked and talked with them unrecognized. Only when they sat down for a meal, and Jesus blessed the bread they were about to eat, did they snap to attention and understand who was with them.

Later in the Gospel of Luke its author recounts Jesus appearing to the disciples in Jerusalem, seemingly out of nowhere. He then asks for some meat to eat, as if in answer to the question surely on the disciples’ minds, “Is this for real?” The Gospel of John reports that Jesus apparently could walk through walls, rather pointedly noting that he showed up amidst the disciples in a room where the doors were shut. Just a few verses later, in what the text’s author emphasizes was his third appearance to the disciples, Jesus comes to them as they’re about to go fishing, giving them instructions on how to cast their nets. Yet again, they didn’t know who he was.

The resurrected Jesus, then, walked and talked among his intimates, and they knew him not. He ate solid food but also could pass through solid walls. He appeared in unexpected times and places. His body rose from the dead, yet still bore the scars from his crucifixion—wounds that doubting Thomas could touch and feel. Whatever the resurrection means, the texts do not allow us to interpret it simply as a restoration of the status quo, with Jesus being exactly as he was before. The divergences from our own bodies—and even his own body as it was before the crucifixion—receive as much attention as the continuities. Jesus is the same, yet also different. He is himself, but somehow more than that.

It is this sense of wonder at the sheer perplexity of what Jesus was like after his resurrection that seems to be missing from Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” The problem is not that Updike challenges us to consider the strange idea that a man rose from the dead; it’s that what he holds before us isn’t strange enough. Whatever is going on in the Gospels, it seems to resist the efforts those who want to assimilate the Easter story either through a literalism uncomfortable with paradox or by turning it into a somewhat embarrassing myth meant to inspire hope.

Easter is, and should remain, a deep source of affirmation for Christians, but that affirmation must ultimately lead to awe at what eludes our grasp. Celebrating Jesus’ resurrection should make us ask if we have tamed him into a creature of our own imaginations, or if we remain open to surprise and uncertainty, to the mysteries of living and dying, of love and hope, that he embodied. If the latter, Easter can be for us, like the disciples walking to Emmaus, the occasion to really see Jesus again, as if for the first time.

Matthew Sitman is a writer in New York City. This column was published in Huffington Post, April 5, 2015

***

III.

‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’ Answers the Question, How Should Christians Talk About the Resurrection?

A novelist makes the case against turning the event into a parable

By Janice Harayda

 

As a young writer, John Updike submitted “Seven Stanzas at Easter” to a religious arts festival at the Lutheran church he attended on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He won the “Best in Show” award for the poem and returned his $100 prize to the congregation.

Fifty years later, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” has become perhaps the most famous Easter poem of the second half of the 20th century. In some ways, its popularity is surprising. The modified-envelope rhymes of the poem are subtle enough that you might miss them. The seven stanzas might invoke any of many Christian associations with the number seven–the days of Holy Week, the gifts of the spirit, the sayings of Christ on the cross–but it isn’t clear which. And all of the 35 lines in the poem deal with a question that can make Christians squeamish: How should we talk about the Resurrection?

Updike speaks directly to the reader from the first stanza onward:

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.

The poem goes on to reject the idea of talking about the Resurrection in literary tropes that mask or deny the corporal realities of the Crucifixion:

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,

making of the event a parable …

“Seven Stanzas at Easter” is about the body of Christ in more than one sense, and its theme appears unambiguous: In for a dime, in for a dollar; if you talk about the Resurrection, you can’t turn it into a Jungian projection of a collective unconscious. But it’s a mistake to read “Seven Stanzas at Easter” a tract. The poem doesn’t weigh the historical or theological evidence for or against the Resurrection. It less about what happened or didn’t happen at the tomb than about how to talk about it. And its message is more equivocal than Job’s “I know that my redeemer liveth.”

Updike tips his hand with the “if” in his first line: “Make no mistake: if He rose at all.” That “if” modifies all that follows and turns the poem into a variation on Pascal’s wager, the idea that although the existence of God can’t be proved, a person should live as though it could be, because that position has all the advantages. Updike tells us to avoid sanitizing the Resurrection for our own comfort or because we can’t otherwise conceive of it. To mythologize the event, he warns, is to being “awakened in one unthinkable hour” and find that “we are embarrassed /by the miracle,/and crushed by remonstrance.”

From One-Minute Book Reviews, March 30, 2010

***

IV.

“Seven Stanzas at Easter”: The Particularity of It All

by The Rev’d Dane E. Boston

 

Joe Rawls, over at The Byzantine Anglo-Catholic, recently posted [“Seven Stanzas at Easter”}. I was very glad to be reminded of it. I don’t know much about John Updike’s personal faith, but these lines powerfully express the scandalous particularity of Christ’s Resurrection.

Eastertide (in which we still find ourselves, and will for another several weeks) is not about springtime and new life and the annual cycle of rebirth. It is not about a generalized spiritual hope. It is certainly not about the afterlife.

Rather, from the Easter Vigil through the Great Fifty Days—and on every Sunday of the year—the Church has the audacity to announce that the man Jesus Christ, who was crucified, died and was buried, on the third day was raised from the dead. It happened at Jerusalem, in Judea, while Pontius Pilate was governor and Herod the puppet King of the Jews, and in Rome Tiberius claimed the mantle of divine emperor.

And what Updike gets (and a fair number of preachers seem to miss) is that the particularity of it all is actually what gives the Resurrection of Christ its universal significance. Because the One Man has conquered death, all humankind has been set free from the fear of the grave. Because Christ was raised in his own body—though transformed and glorified—“my flesh also shall rest in hope.” Because Jesus has become the firstfruits of them that slept, so too must my corruptible body “put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.”

All of this (and much more!) is contained in the announcement that “The Lord is Risen indeed!” Here John Updike explicates it with poetic power (and an economy greater than this poor preacher’s).

From daneboston.com, April 30, 2014

***

V.

 

The Resurrection of Christ, attributed to Antoine Caron, circa 1589

The Resurrection of Christ, attributed to Antoine Caron, circa 1589

Abundant Life: How to Live Life to the Fullest

By John A. Huffman

(Except from the like-titled sermon posted on March 1 at Preaching.com)

 

Do you aspire to live life to the very fullest? I know you do! Then let me introduce or reintroduce you to the One who makes this possible—the crucified and risen Christ, the One who did lay down His life for you.

Skeptics have belittled the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Those outside of the church have scoffed at the very notion of the Deity of Christ. They have laughed at the idea that this first-century carpenter from Nazareth was God become man. They see Him as a somewhat naive, good but demented, first-century martyr.

Others, who still want to wear the label Christian, play around with the language. John Hick in 1977 edited a book, The Myth of God Incarnate. In it he argues against the idea of a supernatural Bible. Then he declares that the time has finally come to be honest about the last myth, that of the Incarnation.

He and his colleagues would argue for a resurrection principle that gives hope and encouragement to human existence. But liberal Protestant theology denies the Incarnation — God become man in the Person of Jesus Christ. Liberal Protestant theology denies Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Liberal Protestant theology denies His physical resurrection, His ascension into heaven, and His second coming. Frankly, my friends, that is why the Los Angeles Times observed that American Protestant liberal churches are shrinking in size. Why? They deny the very essence of the Christian faith, that supernatural intervention of God into human history is the hallmark of our faith.

The writer, John Updike, has in his own way seen through this verbal smoke screen of skepticism. Not particularly noted for his piety, but certainly one of the more perceptive observers of life today, he writes in his “Seven Stanzas At Easter”:

Make no mistake, if He rose at all

it was as His body;

if the cell’s 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–dies, withered, decayed and

then regathered out of His Father’s 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.

Martin Luther said it so succinctly. “He who would preach the Gospel must go directly to preaching the resurrection of Christ. He who does not preach the resurrection is no apostle, for this is the chief part of our faith …. Everything depends upon our retaining a firm hold on this article [of faith] in particular, for if this one totters and no longer counts, all the others will lose their value and validity.”

The Apostle Paul said it so bluntly: If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. (1 Corinthians 15:17-21).

***

VI.

‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’: An Artistic Depiction

Posted at YouTube by CentralPCProductions, September 29, 2009

***

VII.

John Updike, 1932-2009: A Glance at His Theology

By Ben Myers

Posted at Faith and Theology, 28 January 2009

 

I was very sad to hear that one of my favourite contemporary novelists, John Updike, has died. Updike was deeply influenced by Kierkegaard and Karl Barth; he is the most theological novelist you’ll ever come across. In an early essay, he remarks that, at one time, Barth’s theology was the only thing supporting his life; he used to keep Barth’s Romans commentary beside his bed, to read a few pages at a time. Much of his fiction could be read as an extended reflection on Barth’s dictum: “There is no way from us to God…. The god who stood at the end of some human way would not be God.”

Pastors and theologians today could still learn a great deal from Updike’s fiction. Just think of the Lutheran pastor Fritz Kruppenbach in Rabbit, Run (1960), a deeply Barthian minister who utters this thunderous denouncement of pastoral work—in conversation with another minister, he asks: “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 now your job is to be an unpaid doctor, to run around and plug up holes and make everything smooth. I don’t think that. I don’t think that’s your job…. I say you don’t know what your role is or you’d be home locked in prayer…. In running back and forth you run away from the duty given you by God, to make your faith powerful…. When on Sunday morning, then, when you go out before their faces, we must walk up not worn out with misery but full of Christ, hot with Christ, on fire: burn them with the force of our belief. This is why they come; why else would they pay us? Anything else we can do and say anyone can do and say. They have doctors and lawyers for that…. Make no mistake. Now I’m serious. Make no mistake. There is nothing but Christ for us. All the rest, all this decency and busyness, is nothing. It is Devil’s work.”

Or think of Roger’s Version (1986), a novel set in the halls of a fictional divinity school (based partly on Princeton Seminary). The main character is Roger Lambert, a Barthian theology professor (and a Tertullian expert) whose faith is shaken by an evangelical student who thinks he can write a computer program to prove God’s existence. The novel seamlessly weaves together sex and theology—one of the great moments is a lengthy sex scene which simultaneously unfolds as an extended commentary on Tertullian. At one point Roger describes his insatiable reading of theology, and then adds: “Lest you take me for a goody-goody, I find kindred comfort and inspiration in pornography, the much-deplored detailed depiction of impossibly long and deep, rigid and stretchable human parts interlocking, pumping, oozing.”

If Christians are tempted to take offence at Updike’s explicit (at times almost pornographic) portrayal of sex, we should remember that the relation between God and the human body is a central tenet of Christian faith. It’s no accident that the sex-obsessed Updike is wiser than so many theologians when he describes Christ’s resurrection in these terms (in a poem entitled “Seven Stanzas at Easter”):

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.

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.

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.

 

And then there is In The Beauty of the Lilies (1996), probably my favourite Updike novel. The story follows four successive generations of an American family, and it provides a gripping and poignant portrayal of the loss of religious faith in 20th-century American society. The first protagonist is Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian pastor who had studied under Benjamin Warfield at Princeton (in the classroom, Warfield was “erect as a Prussian general, with snowy burnsides”). Clarence owns 44 volumes of Calvin’s commentaries, but still loses his faith–he reads a bit of critical scholarship, and then one hot afternoon, in a sudden flash, his faith is gone. He leaves the ministry and becomes an unhappy door-to-door encyclopedia salesman (still peddling “the word,” but with no success). Most importantly, his loss of faith coincides with the emergence of cinema in American culture: Clarence now finds his only solace in the cinema. At every opportunity, he escapes to the cinema and is transported by the screen; in the absence of faith, cinema functions as an opiate, supplying the fleeting memory of a vanished transcendence. In the Beauty of the Lilies is one of the most beautiful and insightful accounts I’ve ever read of the disappearance (and, later, the disturbing reappearance) of faith in modern life.

Updike once offered this account of his affection for Karl Barth: “Really, Barth’s mind, so invariably earnest, always penetrates to some depth tonic for me; he makes me feel that rare thing, with authors, called love–one loves a man for thinking and writing so well.” In the same way, I loved John Updike, and I am sad that he is gone.

The Resurrection of Christ, oil on canvas by Charles Le Brun (1674-1676)

The Resurrection of Christ, oil on canvas by Charles Le Brun (1674-1676)