John Updike’s Rabbit, Run, was published on this day in 1960. It was only his second novel, but it confirmed his place in the ranks of contemporary Masters of Literature. He said he loved Christianity because it was a religion of “yes” rather than “no.” In his study of Updike, writer Jack de Bellis wrote: “Updike has repeatedly remarked that a God who is not part of daily human affairs is not very real for him. Barth provided him with a God who infuses himself in all aspects of his Creation, thus enabling Updike to “open to the world again.” So, Barth, with T. S. Eliot, G. K. Chesterton, and Miguel Unamuno, helped him “believe.”
That’s the beauty of Christianity – we help each other believe.
Another literary giant, G.K. Chesterton, recorded his journey to faith in his masterwork Orthodoxy which was published in 1908 when he was 34 years old. It has affected the lives of countless readers and has likewise significantly retained its relevance to contemporary audiences. Though long passed from this life to the next, he is still helping others believe through the power of literature.
In his excellent book Defiant Joy, Kevin Belmonte describes an example from the life of Phil Yancey, a favorite writer of Christian books and essays. Belmonte notes that on September 3, 2001, an exclusive excerpt from Yancey’s book, Soul Survivor, appeared in the pages of Christianity Today. Its subtitle was “unlike any that had heretofore entered the genre of Christian literature” — How My Faith Survived the Church.
“So what did Yancey find in the pages of this book with the formidable title? He found a writer—and a pilgrim—living in a world that was then not so very different from the world we live in now. He found a writer of great humanity, humility, and humor—a writer with an incandescent intellect who could part company, cogently and charitably, with non-Christian ways of looking at the world. A fair sample of what Yancey found in the pages of Orthodoxy appears in chapter 5, which Chesterton called “The Flag of the World.” Here, recounting his odyssey to belief, Chesterton remembered the time when he instinctively recoiled against the cultural pessimism so pervasive in his youth during the 1890s. Then, gradually, he began to understand how Christianity offered an answer to the seemingly insoluble problem he had been wrestling with. “I had often called myself an optimist,” he recalled,
to avoid the too evident blasphemy of pessimism. But all the optimism of the age had been false and disheartening for this reason, that it had always been trying to prove that we fit into the world. Christian optimism is based on the fact that we do not fit into the world. I had tried to be happy by telling myself that man is an animal, like any other, which sought its meat from God. But now I really was happy, for I had learnt that man is a monstrosity. I had been right in feeling all things as odd, for I myself was at once worse and better than all things. The optimist’s pleasure was prosaic, for it dwelt on the naturalness of everything; the Christian pleasure was poetic, for it dwelt on the unnaturalness of everything in the light of the supernatural. The modern philosopher had told me again and again that I was in the right place, and I had still felt depressed even in acquiescence. But I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy, like a bird in spring. The knowledge found out and illuminated forgotten chambers in the dark house of infancy. I knew now why grass had always seemed to me as queer as the green beard of a giant, and why I could feel homesick at home.
Like Updike, Chesterton and many others found the power of “yes” in Christianity. As Bacon wrote: “It is true, that a little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism; but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion. For while the mind of man looketh upon second causes scattered, it may sometimes rest in them, and go no further; but when it beholdeth the chain of them, confederate and linked together, it must needs fly to Providence and Deity.”
SOURCES & RESOURCES
A description of and quotations from John Updike in The John Updike Encyclopedia, ed. Jack De Bellis (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000), 49. For more, see Updike’s book Self-Consciousness.
G. K. Chesterton, Introduction to the Book of Job, as quoted in Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943)
This portion of the review in Outlook appears in the endpapers to the 1915 British edition of Orthodoxy (London: John Lane, 1915).
Kevin Belmonte, Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G. K. Chesterton (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011).