New Harmony: Another brush with John Updike

Published: Thursday, April 25 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

John Updike

Knopf publicity

Last week I found myself discussing — once again — the time I sent John Updike a novel for him to sign and got a delightful keepsake for my efforts.

But we'll get to that in a moment.

Updike, of course, was not only a devout writer, he was a devout Episcopalian.

After his death, one critic called him “The Mozart of American Letters.” There was not only genius in his work, but also generosity and a buoyant spirit.

I suspect those qualities came from his faith.

Still, Updike had detractors. Along with burning spiritual messages he could also crank out sizzling love scenes. His rationale was that if he insisted on being honest and graphic about religious matters, he needed to be just as honest and graphic about sin.

Not everyone bought his explanation.

Many people, however, did buy his books.

From “The Poorhouse Fair” down through “The Witches of Eastwick,” Christian themes often drove Updike's characters. But of all his novels, the one that had me getting out my highlighter to mark insightful passages was “Roger’s Version.” Published in 1986, it’s the story of a jaded, old divinity school professor and the young computer whiz who claims he has proved the existence of God scientifically. (Red alert: watch for Updike's bedeviling “blue material.”)

The other day I picked up my copy of "Roger's Version" and realized I had pretty much bled my highlighter dry marking it up. And since I’ve never met a good quote I didn’t pass along, here are a couple to chew on. Roger, the crusty divinity prof, is the speaker.

“A God you could prove makes the whole thing immensely, oh, uninteresting. Pat. Whatever else God may be, he shouldn’t be pat.”

“Wherever theology touches science, it gets burned. ... Only by placing God totally on the other side of the humanly understandable can any final safety for him be secured.”

Roger: “I was spying on the Kriegmans, envying them their happiness.”

Roger’s wife: “That’s the way we look to them, too. Don’t worry about it. All families look great through windows.”

“What was this desolation in Dale’s heart, I thought, but the longing for God — that longing which is, when all is said and done, our only evidence of His existence? ... Why do we feel such loss, but that there was Something to lose?”

Needless to say, there are pages more.

Now, as for that business about me sending Updike a book, I mailed him a first editon of one of his novels along with a note scribbled on Deseret News letterhead. I asked him to please inscribe the book and return it in the enclosed stamped, self-addressed envelope.

When the book came back, I opened it and read:

“To Jerry Johnston. May you get your just deserts. Sincerely, John Updike”

I slumped. The inscription seemed brusk, cold, even hurtful — not at all like the man I’d come to admire. Then I read it again. Alas, he hadn’t written “deserts” at all. He had written, “To Jerry Johnston. May you get your just ‘deserets.’”

Ah, yes. That was the John Updike I hoped I'd come to know.

Email: jerjohn@desnews.com

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