Two novels on religion and America

By chance have read two novels lately that deal with the role of faith and the church in American life.  The oldest is Rabbit, Run, by John Updike. His seminal character is Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, a character whose very name implies he’s going to be used to take the measure of something fundamental. One thing he measures is the church and its meaning in our life.  He believes in God, but not church orthodoxy. As his mother-in-law says to Eccles, the Episcopalian priest who ministers to her and to Harry, “Well if the world is going to be full of Harry Angstroms how much longer do you think they’ll need your church?”
Indeed, Rabbit seems to represent the unfettered pursuit of self-interest, and there’s nothing economic about his interests. Rabbit is a completely impulsive man who follows his feelings. Women seem to love him and hate him both. Faith and the church cannot restrain him from his worst impulses. Simultaneously, at his best he seems to transcend the church. (Perhaps he’s a prophet.) He certainly presages citizens who couldn’t care less about the self-denial demanded by church orthodoxy. The tension between those who think the church worth noting and those who couldn’t care less pervades Updike’s novel.

Does that tension’s outcome lead directly to E.L. Doctorow’s City of God? Published 40 years after Updike published Rabbit, Run, Doctorow’s book is more directly dour about Christianity. His city of God is New York, not Updike’s fictionalized Brewster, fifth-largest city in Pennsylvania. New York may be the City of God, but city of the church? Not really. The church matters little, it’s a kind of amusing anachronism where clever people engage in philosophical debates and occasionally in jests at the dried husk of their dying denominations, as highlighted by the sparsely attended congregations we see. It’s entertainment, seeing how far we can go to pull one over on those who show up in the pews, expecting something real. In the end, though, something real does get discerned.

Both books contain beautiful writing; Updike’s ranks with the best novels I’ve read in years (Doctorow’s narrative shifts perspectives in a way that means I’ll have to read it again to really appreciate it). Both stiff-arm Episcopalianism. Both grapple with faith as a force that matters, and try to answer “but how?”

Leave a Reply