Updike on the Resurrection of Christ

Seven Stanzas at Easter

by John Updike

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that — pierced — died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

Campaigning in poetry; governing in prose

The British newspaper “The Independent” reminds us of an adage that both conservatives and liberals would do well to remember:

“An old American aphorism has it that politicians campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. We can be sure that the poetry will continue to flow from an orator as gifted as President Obama. But now begins the difficult task of getting the prose right too.”

Or do we need to govern in poetry too? I’m thinking that I reject the dichotomy.

“Rumpole’s” John Mortimer dies

In yet another death in our declining stock of truly creative people, the British lawyer and author John Mortimer has died. He was best known for his series of comical mysteries featuring the curmudgeonly barrister Rumpole of the Bailey and his formidable wife “She Who Must Be Obeyed.” (English major that I am, I enjoy especially Horace Rumpole’s non-stop flowery literary allusions, such as his wife’s pet name. Can you identify where that comes from?) Those books are nearly perfect for pleasure reading, comprising as they do two immensely enjoyable genres: the mystery novel (and Mortimer plays by all the rules) and the comedy of character (that classical type going all the way back through Ben Jonson where what is most funny are the characters themselves).

Mr. Mortimer, who sounds Rumpole-like himself, drew on his own legal career. Here he is on why he would rather take on a case involving murder than divorce:

“Matrimonial clients hate each other so much and use their children to hurt each other in beastly ways,” he once said. “Murderers have usually killed the one person in the world that was bugging them and they’re usually quite peaceful and agreeable.”

Here is Mr. Mortimer, along with Leo McKern, who perfectly played his creation in the BBC rendition of Rumpole of the Bailey:

John Mortimer & his creation

What are the Great Christian Books?

Chris Bryans suggests a worthy project and blog topic:

I read your article “The Secular Canon” in October’s Tabletalk and was fascinated by your statement “A collection of the Great Christian Books would be worth assembling.” You’ve given me an idea – As a teacher in a Christian school, I am toying with the idea of structuring an English course around this very theme. I’d be interested to know what you would include in such a canon of Great Christian Books. Perhaps this would also be an excellent blog topic (unless I’ve already missed it since this is my first visit to your blog). Thanks for your ministry!

What books would you include?

Let’s set some parameters. A classic has been defined as a book that continues to speak to readers after 50 years. So, since it will take us at least a year to set up this publishing project, let’s set 1960 as our latest date.

And let’s include the whole spectrum of Christian history: the church fathers; the middle ages; the Reformation era up through the 1600’s; the 1700’s; the 1800’s; the 20th century up to, again, 1960.

And let’s include not just theology but poetry, fiction, essays, the whole gamut of literature. We’ll define Christian book as not just a book by a Christian but a book that is somehow explicitly about Christianity.

We must continue to realize, however, that Christianity embraces all of life and that in vocation it swallows up the seemingly ordinary and secular. That means that Christian authors, such as Jane Austen, do not have to write about or even mention Christianity for their works to reflect a profoundly Christian worldview and sensibility. This is why projects like this are harder than they seem.

Still, it’s worth trying. What works should be in our collection of the Christian Great Books?

What I said about the “Prince Caspian” movie

At David T.’s request, here is the WORLD column in which I criticize the “Prince Caspian” movie in light of the book. The column is entitled War games, from the June 14, 2008 issue:

In a letter to a young girl named Anne, C.S. Lewis explained that his novel Prince Caspian is about the “restoration of the true religion after corruption.” The story takes place 1,300 years after Aslan defeated the White Witch. Now Narnia has forgotten Aslan, most of the animals have stopped talking, and a rigid, freedom-denying materialism rules. The Pevensie children and a motley crew of “Old Narnians” are charged with restoring the old ways. That is to say, Prince Caspian is about the challenge that faces Christians today: bringing Christianity back to a civilization that has forgotten Christ.

The movie version of Prince Caspian has its charms, and viewers should generally tolerate cinematic additions to written works (see WORLD, May 31/June 7). But the movie replaces Lewis’ culture war with just regular war, omits the key symbolic episodes, and plays down the story’s meaning.

Here are some thematic elements that did not make it to the silver screen:

The “New Narnians” make a point of not believing in lions. The Telmarine government and educational system forbid any mention of Aslan or of the civilization associated with him. But even many of the “Old Narnians” trying to bring back the old ways do not believe in Aslan either.

Aslan finally gets through to the atheist dwarf Trumpkin by “pouncing” on him. The great lion plays with the dwarf like a cat with a mouse until the two become “friends.” In the movie, Aslan deals with Trumpkin by roaring at him. An image of wrath replaces a picture of God’s grace.

Missing in the movie is the episode in which the Pevensie children must follow Aslan in the dark, even though they cannot see him. They must trust his word and the testimony of Lucy who has experienced him personally.

Missing in the movie is Aslan’s “romp,” in which everyone whom Aslan has freed joyfully processes through Narnia, bringing liberation. The scene in the book includes Lewis’ critique of progressive schools, with both teachers and students freed from a boring, materialistic education. The point is important: Christian influence is not a matter of power and control; the cultural fruit of the gospel is genuine freedom.

The Old Narnians and even the Pevensie children lose their battles. It takes Aslan to restore the true religion. But the lion does so through ordinary people—and ordinary talking animals—fulfilling their callings. This entails doing one’s duty in the various vocations of the family (brothers and sisters looking out for each other) and the rest of the social order (Caspian learning how to be a king; Peter risking his life in single combat; squirrels, bears, badgers, and mice all playing their part according to their different natures).

A good movie adaptation, while perhaps tinkering with a book’s incidents, should still convey its meaning. Let us hope that the filmmakers beginning work on the next Narnia production, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, keep its theme in mind. That tale of oceanic adventure, according to what Lewis told Anne, is about “the spiritual life.”

For more about how C. S. Lewis’s book explored these themes, see the book I wrote about “Prince Caspian,” which also shows how that Narnia novel pulls together ideas that Lewis pursued in his other works:

Disney drops “Dawn Treader”

Disney studios has dropped its plans to co-produce the next Narnia movie, “Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” Walden Media plans to secure another partner, possibly Fox. This article on the subject includes some interesting criticism about how Disney handled the last Narnia movie, “Prince Caspian”:

Citing “budgetary considerations and other logistics,” Disney pulled out of its partnership with Walden Media, leaving the rights-holder of the Narnia books to scout for a new partner to produce “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” which they had planned to release in May 2010.

The latest move casts a cloud of doubt over the third Narnia film, which may cost around $200 million to produce. It has also drawn criticism from fans of the original book series, who blame Disney for the less-than-expected success of the second Narnia film, “Prince Caspian.”

“Disney flatly refused to have any pre-screenings of Prince Caspian and would not pursue any special marketing of the film to churches and other Christian markets,” observed the C.S. Lewis Society of California. “In direct contrast, for the first film an extensive and highly effective marketing campaign directed by Motive Entertainment (the marketing experts from Passion of the Christ fame) produced an enormous response from Christian movie goers.”

In 2005, the first Narnia film, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” raked in $745 million in ticket sales worldwide on a $180 million production budget. The second, however, pulled in only $419 million despite a larger $200 million budget.

“Unlike the first ‘Narnia,’ which had a holiday release, the sequel came out in the spring, and it was up against superhero summer fare like ‘Iron Man’ and ‘Indiana Jones,’” observed media analyst James Hirsen in a commentary for Newsmax.com. “Disney tried to market it as an action flick, with limited success.”

“Disney … presented Prince Caspian as a strictly secular and violent, fantasy/adventure/romance, and the result was all too predictable,” the C.S. Lewis Society added in its statement Monday.

The organization also blamed “Prince Caspian” director Andrew Adamson, who they say “refused to embrace the full story and theme of the book,” thus leading to a “weak and mangled script.”