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Updike or Moses?
Artists, Intellectuals, and the People of God
David Heddendorf

As soon as I entered the sanctuary I knew something was up. A small electronic piano had been placed to one side of the altar, to the other side a chair in which a woman softly played a violin. A man moved around adjusting microphones and speakers. I’d never seen either of the two before. My heart sank as I realized we were having a “special service.” I’m not a liturgy purist, but I have grown fond of the comforting cadences and the ancient, trustworthy pronouncements. I’m never thrilled when the service veers in some surprising direction. Figuring I must have missed some newsletter item, I settled into a pew and studied the bulletin.

Our guests came from a ministry center (I’m being deliberately vague here, and changing some details) that was affiliated somehow with the denomination. For a half hour they played their instruments and sang, led the congregation in a few songs, and explained the nature of their work at the center. Contributions, we were told, could be made in the narthex following the service. My mind shrank from following the presentation in much more detail than that, but later that day, as if recalling a bad dream, I pieced together my reaction.

The two had been competent instrumentalists and vocalists. Their music hadn’t been terrible, merely bland and inoffensive. Trying to characterize the performance now, I keep thinking about Marty and Bobbi Culp, the Saturday Night Live characters portrayed by Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer. The couple in church were probably better musicians than Marty and Bobbi, but like the Culps they conveyed an earnest folksiness, and seemed to bask in a limelight that was mostly imaginary. The whole experience, I realized as that Sunday wore on, had been depressing in a familiar way. I had been here before.

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One afternoon many years earlier, during my sophomore year in college, I attended a discussion group that was part of my Humanities survey course. About fifteen of us, led by a junior or senior assistant, made our way through a set of study questions. The leader read each question aloud, and we students responded with the answers we’d prepared.

At our school, a denominational institution that preferred the label “Christian college,” we examined history and culture from a Christian perspective, and the two-year Humanities survey was a centerpiece of this endeavor. Beginning with the first lectures in our freshman year, professors from various departments discussed Western art from a theological point of view corresponding roughly to that of the denomination. We learned to generalize about Raphael, Donne, Rembrandt, Handel, Cervantes, Picasso, Camus, and the rest in a manner consistent with the assumptions pervading the course.

But every now and then a lecturer showed up who wasn’t exactly with the program. During the week of our discussion group meeting, our speaker, drafted from the Music Department, had happened to be my band director—the final presider over my troubled relationship with the tenor saxophone. Dr. Jones was charged with delivering the lecture on twentieth-century music, focusing on composers like Stravinsky, Schönberg, and Ives. If there was one overarching idea that Dr. Jones wanted to instill in us, it was that there wasn’t necessarily an overarching idea. These composers were discovering new sounds, he explained. To understand these sounds, we needed to “stretch our ears.” I can see Dr. Jones now, drawing his pinched fingers away from the sides of his head in a stretching motion. Listen to these new sounds, he urged us. Explore a different kind of music. Give the initial shock a chance to wear off, and see where the unfamiliar chords and intervals take you. I left the lecture exhilarated and inspired.

In the discussion group, the study guide asked whether the following statement was true or false: “Features of twentieth-century music such as dissonance and atonality express the despair and alienation of modern Western culture.” A voice rang out confidently, without hesitation: “True.” The leader agreed. The class moved on to the next statement.

“Wait,” I said.

I don’t know if “Wait” was exactly what I blurted out, and I don’t recall the precise wording of the study guide statement. But I do remember protesting a bit of glib nonsense that contradicted everything my band director had said. When the discussion leader recalled the lecturer’s actual words, she grudgingly acknowledged that “True” might not be the right answer. Yet everyone, myself included, knew that her amended ruling was wrong. As far as the Humanities survey was concerned, “True” was of course the right answer. Dissonance and atonality expressed the despair and alienation of modern Western culture.

The shame and indignation I experienced that afternoon were virtually identical to my queasiness during the “special service”—a lost, lonely feeling that has recurred over decades. In certain situations I feel that something is wrong. I’m offended in some way that’s hard to identify. Sooner or later I recognize that my unease has to do with being an artist, a writer, an intellectual—callings I’ve embraced in one way or another for most of my life. What is taking place here, something tells me, doesn’t fit who I am. Do I belong in this room, hearing these words or listening to this music, viewing these pictures, watching this film? From deep inside comes the fierce reply: No! Get me out of here!

Different people will undergo different ordeals, of course. For some worshippers, felt banners suspended at the front of the sanctuary are unbearable, the worst kind of kitsch, while for others it might be a shallow “critique” of popular culture. I’m neutral on the felt banner question, more opinionated with regard to “praise songs” or casually worded liturgies. Regardless of how innumerable and various the causes might be, these difficult moments have something in common for people who share a certain nature–and I don’t mean snobbishness, although obviously that danger always lurks. For those who devote their lives to creating art, or to reasoning about problems clearly and thoroughly, there are occasions when one inevitably takes offense. If you are an artist or an intellectual, you can’t help caring about these things.

In my junior year I transferred to a large university, a decision I’ve never regretted. But the painful episodes didn’t stop. As long as I’ve attended church and other Christian gatherings, I’ve heard and seen things that make me squirm and cringe. I parry the same questions again and again, usually from those with a limited involvement in the arts. “You write fiction? Oh, you mean like Lewis and Tolkien?” “You write about literature? Um, do you mean book reviews?” The conversations usually trickle off into silence.

I’ve often asked myself whether John Updike or Muriel Spark ever found themselves trapped in these situations. It’s hard to imagine. Updike and Spark professed their Christian faith openly, but spent most of their time, by all accounts, with other famous authors. They wrote for The New Yorker, went to swanky parties, enjoyed the pastimes their wealth and celebrity allowed. They squeezed church into the margins of their glamorous lives, when they went at all. They discussed Christianity in interviews, and sometimes dealt with theological issues in their books, but faith didn’t help determine their circle of acquaintance the way it does for me and many people I know. They soared high above the tacky music, the trite poetry, the innocently insulting questions.

Why? It couldn’t have been just that their greatness excused them from contact with everyday Christians. This elitist explanation strikes me as unworthy of my two heroes. Nor can I accept the slightly less crass elitism, associated with modernists like James Joyce and Thomas Mann, which says any artist is uniquely free, aloof from mundane attachments. Except for a brief infatuation during my freshman year of college, the modernist pose has always felt bogus to me. I do, however, believe that the Christian artist or intellectual has an honorable calling like any other. Spark and Updike exemplify such callings. Making pictures or music or novels is intrinsically valuable–a form of praise, as Updike liked to say. Being an artist or writer involves certain demands that require no apology or defense.

That being the case, why keep subjecting myself to vapid music, prim moralism, complacent anti-intellectualism? Why endure, as I often did in my younger days, those solemn, wheel-inventing debates about Christian art? Sometimes I want only to escape and do my thing among people who take the validity of art for granted, and who pursue ideas wherever they might lead. I’m tired of wasting time and energy on needless battles.

In “On Not Being a Dove,” a chapter in his autobiographical Self-Consciousness (1989), Updike links his Christian faith to his views on the Vietnam War that he held during the 1960s. Just as his refusal to condemn American intervention put him at odds with his fellow writers and intellectuals, his faith made him “rather original” (141) in the same circles. “I enjoyed the anti-bohemian gesture of my deadpan churchgoing,” he admits (142). Not that Updike invested much time or emotion in his local congregation–he describes his attendance as “less than half-hearted,” (142) mainly an effort to give his children some religious grounding. He availed himself of spiritual enrichment from time to time, while thumbing his nose at those disapproving doves.

The phrase “deadpan churchgoing” says it all. Sunday worship engages Updike’s genuine beliefs, but he wouldn’t dream of acknowledging his fellow congregants as brethren and peers. His real crowd consists of the secular “bohemians,” the writers and others whom he imagines chuckling at his “deadpan” performance. Like his father-in-law and other “classy” Unitarians he knows (133), the art world delivers him from “that greasy heaviness of Lutheranism, the gloom of its linoleum-floored Sunday-school basements and the sickly milky tints of its stained-glass windows” (132). In Rabbit at Rest (1990), Updike probably cringes along with Rabbit at—what else?—the “childish felt banners” in Rabbit’s dead lover’s church (372). Updike’s solution to the tatty decor and dreary company of church is to stick to his brilliant social set, far removed from the folks he visits on Sunday mornings.

I probably wouldn’t portray my hero so harshly if his conduct weren’t challenged by a powerful counterexample. In the “roll call of faith” in Hebrews 11, the writer devotes particular attention to Moses, who “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Heb. 11:24–25, ESV). I take it that Moses, had he embraced the fiction that he was related to Pharaoh, could have passed for one classy Egyptian. He was good-looking and physically imposing. He had all the advantages that could smooth his way in society. Instead he identified with the people of God, an oppressed rabble of slaves and nobodies. He chose obscurity and hardship over pleasure and prestige.

Moses shines as a different kind of hero, willing to accept a lowering in social status for the sake of his faith. Who knows, he might have turned out to be a celebrated painter, depicting the intelligentsia and their gods on Pharaoh’s mausoleum walls; but he cast his lot with the stubble gatherers and brick makers. He didn’t hold himself aloof from the people of God.

Moses and Updike frame the dilemma I’ve confronted all my life–a dilemma I suspect many Christian artists and intellectuals share. We can fulfill, like Updike, the demands of our art or research, keeping among like-minded peers and neglecting the fellowship of believers. Or we can identify with the people of God, many of whom don’t understand or even respect what we do. Achievement and gratification apart from the Christian community, or an embrace of that community while living with mediocrity and a kind of exile—is this the choice we face?

In the late nineteenth century the movement known as pragmatism came into its own, associated with the American philosophers William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce. But asking what difference an idea makes, and putting practical results above abstract principles, have been rules of thumb for centuries. I’ve always considered St. Paul a particularly nimble pragmatist. Paul ultimately confesses Jesus Christ as Lord, parting ways with the “anti-essentialist,” “anti-foundationalist” strain of pragmatism. In his dealings with the complex social world of his time, however, Paul adapts to whatever situation he meets, unconstrained by strict rules and categories. Presenting himself as “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), he amends his diet so as to satisfy both Jews and Gentiles, navigates the rocky channels between Jewish and Roman law, disputes calmly with synagogue leaders and Greek philosophers. He’s the perfect example of how to follow Christ while thriving among different kinds of people.

As an alternative to the Updike-Moses dilemma, Paul rescues us from an impossible choice, while fitting the lives we actually live. Most of us, after all, won’t win Pulitzer Prizes and hobnob with famous authors, nor will we be called to renounce a comfortable life and liberate an enslaved people. Like Paul, we’ll shuttle from one social circle to the next, figuring out what’s appropriate in the moment. Sometimes we’re in a worship service, or at the men’s Bible study, or having dinner with a group of Christian friends. Another day we might deliver a paper at a national conference, submit a poem to a prestigious magazine, jury a show of regional paintings. In each instance we’re faithful as the situation requires. We fulfill our callings as artists and intellectuals, and we maintain fellowship with the body of Christ.

Imitating Paul sounds praiseworthy, practical, and sane—especially if our back-and-forth journeying leads to agreeable places. Belonging to the Christian community is great if it means chatting with that sweet older lady at coffee hour, or keeping it real with a salt-of-the-earth plumber who couldn’t care less if we paint pictures or houses, or bringing a meal to the woman with a broken leg who thanks us for our time. Likewise, it’s thrilling to mix with prominent people in our fields who stimulate our thinking, don’t raise their eyebrows at a bit of R-rated realism, and applaud our riskiest, most challenging efforts.

But then there are those other times. You find yourself nodding politely as a self-described “bookworm” raves about the latest Christian self-help manual. You’re introduced at a meeting as not a writer but a “wordsmith.” And if you’re a biologist, geologist, or atmospheric scientist, I can only imagine what it’s like being lectured on the folly of evolution or climate change by someone who just saw a “really powerful” video during the adult Sunday school hour. Awkward encounters aren’t the exclusive province of people in the arts and humanities.

Nor will every venture into the secular realm be pleasantly bracing. At an ice cream parlor one evening during grad school, I heard myself being gossiped about at a neighboring table, by a fellow student who described me as a “born-again Christian”–to a certain extent welcome news to my ears, but at the same time a blunt and crushing putdown in the era of Bakker and Swaggart. On a less personal level, but more commonly, there are those bleak times when certain “projects,” vitally important to those around us, offer no foothold to a religious believer. Whole avenues of thought remain blank and impenetrable, simply because we believe there is a God.

In J.M. Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello (2003), for example, a famous novelist offers these remarks in a speech called “What is Realism?”:

There used to be a time, we believe, when we could say who we were. Now we are just performers speaking our parts. The bottom has dropped out. We could think of this as a tragic turn of events, were it not that it is hard to have respect for whatever was the bottom that dropped out–it looks to us like an illusion now, one of those illusions sustained only by the concentrated gaze of everyone in the room. [19–20]

Christians can have differing responses to postmodernism, but I think most would feel frozen out by the “we” in this passage, just as unbelievers would feel frozen out by my use of “we” in this essay. It’s hard, or at least it doesn’t come automatically, for a theist to think along with an assertion like “The bottom has dropped out.” Jonathan Culler, an exponent of deconstruction during its heyday in the academy, writes, “Since deconstruction treats any position, theme, origin, or end as a construction and analyzes the discursive forces that produce it, deconstructive writings will try to put in question anything that might seem a positive conclusion and will try to make their own stopping points distinctively divided, paradoxical, arbitrary, or indeterminate” (259–60). Culler’s radical skepticism, much in vogue during my grad school years, turns criticism into an inherently corrosive activity. How can a Christian join a discussion that, from the outset, repudiates “anything that might seem a positive conclusion”?

In short, if choosing between Updike and Moses is untenable, then shuttling like Paul from one sphere to the next might be just about intolerable. In both settings, at various times, we find ourselves alienated, up against a harrowing sense of not belonging. (In the Michaelmas 2018 Cresset, Caroline J. Simon gives a highly nuanced account of feeling like an “odd duck” at a public university, at church, and, at least potentially, at a Christian college.) How can we sustain this perilous back-and-forth between the exciting, sometimes threatening larger world and the pilgrim people of God?

Lately I’ve been thinking again about the Christian college where I spent two restless years. The place could be maddening, as my afternoon in the Humanities discussion group shows. But such institutions, along with conferences and journals that harbor Christian artists and intellectuals, have something to offer those who follow Paul’s route, dividing their time between two worlds. Yes, it can be hard to find a full-time home at a Christian college or on the Christian conference circuit. Sooner or later the insularity and the tendency to distort take their toll, not to mention the loss of the wider picture. What these colleges, magazines, and conferences can provide is a respite from the struggle. They’re way stations—places to pause, replenish, and catch our breath—in the midst of our demanding travels.

By replenishment I mean first of all the soul restoration that even people living “the life of the mind” require. Christians who create, write, teach, and exchange ideas need a break from keeping our guard up. We need assurance that it’s okay to be us. And sometimes, frankly, we need emotional support when the Jonathan Cullers get us down. We’re also replenished by our fellow believers’ ideas–not a comprehensive system or orthodoxy, or a hothouse atmosphere of prevailing attitudes and tastes, but stimulating proposals and discoveries that equip us for the world. More than anything, a sojourn at a Christian college or conference, or time spent reading or writing for a Christian journal, reminds us we aren’t alone. The simple awareness that companions labor alongside us can rejuvenate us for our calling.

When I was taking courses toward a Ph.D. in English during the early 1980s, I lived an almost unbearably divided life. My department, both faculty and students, was under the spell of literary theory, at that time establishing dominance in American universities. Hopefully and somewhat naively, I tried to pick my way through the maze of trends, searching for an approach that would sort with my beliefs. My classmates viewed my Christianity as one more -ism in the fray. My teachers were surprisingly helpful and tolerant. But I always felt uncomfortable and out of place, a bassoonist in a bluegrass band. Meanwhile I belonged to a small conservative church that had a heavy-handed emphasis on community. Many of the members shared apartments and houses. The leaders tended to be intense young men in some stage of seminary study. Other members worked in the sciences, or were beginning professional careers. My weekday struggles with French poststructuralism had about as much to do with church life as did my roommate’s work on DNA sequencing in a microbiology lab. You just left that stuff at the office and praised the Lord.

I did have a couple of thoughtful church friends with whom I discussed intellectual matters. But as I recall that period of bifurcation now, what probably got me through it more than anything else—besides my wife, but she came later—was my friendship with two painters, Beverly and Richard, recent MFAs who attended or had friends who attended the church.

When Beverly needed someone to sit for her, and even said she’d pay, I gladly obliged. For several weeks, while Joni Mitchell played on the stereo, I donned my old blue sweater and watched Beverly paint. Those mornings in her studio existed in no time or place, far from the snide sparring in the English department and the exhausting certitude of church. When the painting was finished I returned the money, and, after several decades with my parents, the likeness—moody, youthful, with a startling abundance of hair—now graces a wall in our study.

Richard’s studio conveyed that same sense of joyful escape. Every now and then he invited me and sometimes one or two others up to the attic to see how his work was going. All sorts of oddities littered sills and shelves, and hung from rafters: rocks and shells, animal skeletons and skulls, any object with a suitably curious shape. Canvases of all sizes and in all stages of completion leaned against the walls.

I knew nothing about painting but what I’d learned years earlier, in that two-year undergraduate Humanities course. I hope I had the sense not to say very much. Mostly I remember Richard and Beverly talking quietly and seriously about what they did, who inspired them, what they hoped to do—two artists whose faith undoubtedly informed their lives but who had little use for prescriptions and institutions. They didn’t worry about a “Christian approach” to painting, and they took being misunderstood at the church for granted. If we encouraged or supported each other in our respective labors, it was in the way of spontaneous friendship.

Christian colleges, conferences, and journals give essential nourishment to artists and intellectuals who follow Paul’s example. It’s important to know that these institutional resources exist as we have dealings one day with the secular world, the next with the body of Christ. But thank God for the unscheduled, unsponsored friendships that shape us imperceptibly over long periods of time, or energize us through a single offhand remark. Wherever we meet them and whoever they are, these kindred spirits keep us going with timely insights, and preserve our sense of possibilities. They’re inestimable gifts, reminding us, when we’re tempted to doubt it, that we belong among the people of God.

 

David Heddendorf lives in Ames, Iowa. His essays can also be found onlin at Front Porch Republic.



Works Cited

Coetzee, J.M. Elizabeth Costello. New York: Viking, 2003.

Culler, Jonathan. On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1982.

Updike, John. Rabbit at Rest. New York: Knopf, 1990.

________. Self-Consciousness: Memoirs. New York: Knopf, 1989.

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