“Fiction is rooted in an act of faith: a presumption of an inherent significance in human activity that makes daily life worth dramatizing and particularizing.”
– John Updike, speaking on religion and literature, 1994
I have this photo on my phone that I flip to often, probably more than I am comfortable admitting. It’s a black and white photo of the 20th century literary genius John Updike juggling. Juggling! I find myself looking at it for a few minutes or more, blushing, then slowly rejoining reality.
Updike is my literary crush. I have yet to find an author, dead or living, who knows how to write about the Christian existence the way he could. He was brutally honest, bringing to life Christian characters who—surprise, surprise—live lives of brokenness. I’ve met so many Updike characters who live gritty, X-rated lives. I’ve met even more who are unsure of what to do with God, characters who search for Him in sex, sports, and science.
Reading Updike, and writers like him, has led me to wonder about the interplay of theology and literature. I’m compelled to ask, how does theology inspire literature and how might literature help form one’s theology?
So I got this idea to do an individualized research project with a Seattle School instructor on this topic, looking at one of Updike’s novels, Roger’s Version. I wanted to study the theology that informed Updike’s writing (particularly that of Karl Barth and Tertullian) in order to answer those above questions.
I chose that book particularly because I found it impossible to sit in any class—especially a theology class—without thinking about Roger Lambert, its narrator. Roger’s not a real person; I know that. But when conversations around the nature of God or divine revelation or Christology spring up, Roger comes alive in the room and starts talking.
Literature does that to me, and to most bibliophiles I know—it brings to life characters who live out our own beliefs, questions, and failures. In reading fiction, we can’t escape ourselves. So as I’m working through this project, I’m having to face my own doubts about who God is, who Christ is, and what I’m doing here, alongside Roger and other characters. This story is shaping my theology, without my always realizing it.
As I carry on through the rest of the semester, I will have to face myself in the dense theologies of pre-modern and modern theologians as I unpack Updike’s prose. But most importantly, and maybe most fortunately, I will have to face myself in between lines of fiction, in characters who are asking the same questions I am, who are sinning just like me, but cannot hide.