Updike and the Gospel or "Why I Want to Be a Bible-thumping Virile Muckraking Parson"

I read John Updike's A Month of Sundays during the holiday break. It was a ribald book filled with raw sexuality and sad perversion. Under this frothy surface, however, I heard the deep and steady voice of a warning prophet.

Updike's main character was the Reverend Tom Marshfield. His many affairs with lonely congregants landed him in a rehab center for wayward clerics. Here he found neither salvation nor damnation but the lowest forms of chummy talk therapy and escape. He returned to his parish unreformed and calcified.

Marshfield is the face of Updike's indictment of the modern church. He is a hollow form, an empty vestement. He is a terrified child believing if he prayes too well Jesus will answer by walking through the door, demanding his favorite toy. He fears the new birth.

Marshfield has acceted his life as empty functionary. He wrote, "The Catholic church in this at least was wright; a priest is more than a man, and though the man disintegrate within his vestements, and become degraded beyond the laxest of his flock, the priest can continue to perform his functions, as a scarecrow performs his." He continues, "We do not invent ourselves, and then persuade men to find room for us; rather, men invent our office, and persuade us to fill it." Pastors as shuttlecock - the story of his life - carecrows (*intentional miss-spelling) with a scrapwood spine.

It's easy to "go Marshfield" as Ted Haggard recently reminded us. It's just a few quick steps from the divine call to filling a role for a grinning crowd. I am grateful to Updike for this cautionary tale. He demands we pastors revisit our commitments and give attention to our spiritual formation. We need to hearken to the Word once delivered.

For we preach not ourselves but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. II Corinthians 4:5 KJV


Perry McCall said...

It simply amazes me how often I have to come back renew my commitment and sense of calling. Fortunately, I have not gone "Marshfield" but becoming distracted is always an illusive enemy.

imaresistor said...

Hello Matt,

I am trying to reach you, but you have no email address published.

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Thank You

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