Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Book Fans Bid Updike Adieu

Now John Updike is gone. Time was when I thought he was the greatest American writer of them all. I moved away from that, but I never read an Updike book that didn't have me shaking my head in wonder at his mastery of the language. Some of his phrases have stuck in my mind ever since I first encountered them: the hand in Couples that "showed cornute against the cruciform mullions." The Russian accent of a man trying to speak French who "sloshed in the galoshes of Russian zhushes" (from The Coup). In Roger's Version, the aftermath of intimacy when a man sees his ejaculate "glistening on her belly like an iota of lunar spit." He was a wordsmith without parallel.

He was also the last Barthian in an age when Protestantism either became evangelical or went liberal. My hat's off to him for that, even though I think it left him without sufficient resources to fight off secularism. But I loved it when he told an interviewer that, although he had doubts, he refused to make the "leap of unfaith." Hopefully, he now has his reward.

(BTW: I always thought that Updike wrote this sentence: "His breath smelled of (though no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions) onions." But on looking it up, I find that it was penned by Anthony Burgess. Live and learn.)

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Richard John Neuhaus

Richard John Neuhaus has died. He was one of the great Christian voices in the US, from the 'sixties until now. His book The Naked Public Square (1984) played a big role in the formation of my thinking (such as it is) about Christian faith and public policy.

The obituaries will probably focus on his Catholic years, and probably rightly. But I don't want to forget a few things he did in his Lutheran days, either. One of them was to help convene the group that later issued the "Hartford Declaration: A Theological Affirmation." Its concerns are still valid today. Among the signatories, besides Neuhaus, were Peter Berger, Richard Mouw, Avery Dulles, Ralph McInerny, Lew Smedes, Robert Wilken, William Sloane Coffin, Stanley Hauerwas, and others — a veritable Who's Who of orthodox Christian theology in America.

Another was his book Time Toward Home (1975, now out of print), which rehabilitated the idea of American history and religion as a possible avenue of God's grace.

It was not long after TIme Toward Home came out that Neuhaus gave the Payton Lectures at Fuller Seminary while I was a student, and I met him briefly. I asked him some kind of convoluted question about resurrection and Pannenberg's theology, which he turned into some kind of sense and gave a thoughtful answer to. But in general he did not suffer fools gladly. He was an important advocate for the church, and we'll not see his like again. Recquiescat in pace.