25 February 2020

In The Beauty Of The LiliesIn The Beauty Of The Lilies by John Updike

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A 20th-century USA family saga.

A couple of months ago I asked in the Inklings forum about suitable books for teaching theology through literature, and David Levey, a former professor of English literature at Unisa, said,
For the essential text I would recommend anything by John Updike, a celebrated novelist and believing Christian who dealt with matters of sexuality as well as issues of faith. His 'Rabbit' series should still be obtainable.
So I started reading books by John Updike, though I have to admit that I can't see how either the first one I read, BrazilBrazil by John Updike nor this one, would be suitable for the purpose I had in mind.

In this book John Updike follows four generations of an American family through the 20th century, concentrating on one member in each generation, showing how their lives changed as the century progressed.

It begins in 1910, with the moment that Clarence Wilmot, a Presbyterian minister, loses his faith and becomes an encyclopedia salesman. His son Teddy (named after US president Theodore Roosevelt), has no faith at all, and becomes a postman. Teddy's daughter Esther becomes a film star, a screen goddess and so an object of worship for some, in the heyday of Hollywood of the big studios. Like many stars of that era, she has numerous marriages and divorces.

Esther's only son, Clark, drifts rather aimlessly until he inadvertently joins a Seventh-Day Adventist breakaway sect living in a commune in Colorado, where a personality cult develops around the leader, who is clearly modelled on David Koresh, and from that point on the story becomes rather predictable. There is a stand-off with the local police, a siege, and in the end the buildings burn and a lot of people die.

At the beginning and the end there is quite a bit of theology.

As Clarence Wilmot wrestles with his faith, or lack of it, contemporary Presbyterian theological trends are cited. John Updike seems to have done quite a bit of research into this, but I don't really know enough about Calvinism at that period to know whether he got it right or not.

I do, however, know enough about Seventh-Day Adventism to think that he got some aspects of their theology seriously wrong. Updike portrays the dwellers in the commune as willing to die because they believe that they will go straight to heaven after suffering martyrdom, but this contradicts a key point of Seventh-Day Adventist theology. They explicitly and emphatically do not believe that Christians, even Seventh-Day Adventist Christians, go straight to heaven when they die. Rather they believe that all men will rot in their graves when they die, and at the second coming of Christ they will be resurrected to face judgement. In this, Updike appears to have got it wrong.

Of course he could possibly, as part of his plot, have this sect in his story diverge from bog-standard SDA theology, but in that case he owes it to the reader to explain this divergence. He does not shy away from some of the obscurer details of Calvinist theology at the beginning of his story, so why does he skip it with SDA theology at the end? Or perhaps if I knew more about Calvinist theology, I would see that he got that wrong too.

Apart from the theological background, however, I think Updike gives a portrait, through his four main characters, of 20th-century America, which was to lead, 30 years later, to the America of Donald Trump.

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