Saturday, September 27, 2014

An Enjoyable Read, Despite the Unfortunate Title

"Families are mysterious things." So muses Teddy Wilmot, one of the characters in John Updike's 1996 novel In the Beauty of the Lillies near the conclusion of this chronicle of four generations of the fictional Wilmot family. Although I enjoy a good novel, most of my reading is focused on non-fiction and I'd not read any of the late Mr. Updike's work before Fr. Bill Smith blogged about the loss of faith of the Rev'd Clarence Arthur Wilmot, the account of which introduces the reader to the clan. Fr. Smith's comments intrigued me because of the account of the conversation that took place between Wilmot and the Moderator of his presbytery when the former met with him to resign his ministry (Mr. Updike took a bit of artistic license there transforming the Moderator into a bishop-like character -- in reality Wilmot's interchange would've taken place with a committee, but that would've been harder to convey) in which the Moderator tells the Princetonian Wilmot, who'd studied at the feet of the Hodges and Warfield, that the robust Calvinism to which he was exposed was largely responsible for his crisis of faith; the Moderator had studied at Union Seminary in New York, then, as now, a bastion of theological liberalism, and having been trained in skepticism he adjudges his training to have inoculated him against crises of faith largely because his education had been based upon so much doubt disguised as new thought. In a act of ecclesiastical malpractice the Moderator requires Wilmot to serve out his probationary year before demitting his office, which Wilmot eventually does before, not being able to find any better suitable secular employment, becoming a salesman for cut-rate encyclopedias.

Upon reading Fr. Smith's post I was intrigued and ran out to buy a copy of the novel, which took its title from "The Battlehymn of the Republic," a heterodox Yankee hymn about which Fr. Smith has also written a scathing analysis. The book didn't disappoint as it followed the fortunes of the Wilmot family through the 1990s while simultaneously chronicling the decline of the Christian faith and the rise of Hollywood in the 20th Century. Mr. Updike, who underwent a period of doubt in the 1950s and then returned to the Christian faith until his death in 2009, is perceptive in telling the story of a family that largely (but not exclusively) remains estranged from the faith departed at the book's beginning; Christianity is always there, lurking in the background as the reader is transported to Hollywood and then finally to a Branch Davidian-style compound in the Colorado mountains dealing with two World Wars, a Depression, the Red Scare, and the upheaval of the sixties along the way. In examining Mr. Updike's work following his death New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote:

Mr. Updike’s stunning and much underestimated 1996 epic, In the Beauty of the Lilies, tackled an even wider swath of history [than his Rabbit Tetralogy]. In charting the fortunes of an American family through some 80 years, the author showed how dreams, habits and predilections are handed down generation to generation, parent to child, even as he created a kaleidoscopic portrait of this country from its nervous entry into the 20th century to its stumbling approach to the millennium.

I would have to share her assessment. This is a book that is well worth reading. One word of caution, though, while Mr. Updike was a Christian and wrote  with an understanding and an appreciation for Christianity, this is not the genre known as "Christian fiction" and there are some racy passages. With that word of warning, though, this is an important book and well worth the reader's time and I am grateful to Fr. Smith for directing me to it.