In those days, forced to live without television, computers, or cell phones, we read books. Being unfledged, I was less skeptical about American intelligence because I had not yet read Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. I was also less cynical about the behavior of Protestant clergy because I had not yet read Peter de Vries’ Mackerel Plaza nor Schrader’s Dear Charles: Letters to a Young Minister. Moreover, I never suspected Presbyterians would eagerly embrace the dumbing down of America nor willingly celebrate the carnival culture. It never occurred to me that Presbyterians would participate in “the competitive de-escalation of standards” (a wonderful phrase I attribute to David Willis).
Obviously, I am full of nostalgia – not to consider other possibilities. I thought then and now that ministry in the Presbyterian Church required a profound knowledge of Scripture, a solid grasp of theology and its often truculent companion, philosophy. In addition, Presbyterians, I assumed, expected their ministers to possess a comfortable familiarity with all the classics of Western literature and a considerable mastery of many.
These congregational expectations included keeping up with new and important books being read by intelligent parishioners. Under that conviction I purchased By Love Possessed, a Book-of-the-Month Club selection in 1957. The result was a dissatisfaction so strong that I decided my parishioners would just have to tough it out with a pastor not current in current literature. Keeping up with contemporaries did not seem nearly so important to ministry as trying to catch up with the classics.
This serenity was shattered a few years later when some expert excitedly trumpeted that the whole purpose of studying the classics was to prepare us to read Giles Goat Boy. Touted as a brilliant fantasy of (1) theology, (2) sociology, and (3) sex (three subjects of great interest to me) I bought the book. At page 50, and thoroughly befuddled, I concluded again that books designated as “new and important” would receive from me only the most desultory attention.
However, when a colleague mentioned that John Updike’s new novel, In the Beauty of the Lilies, featured Presbyterians, I peeked at the book because I was piqued by the possibility that Updike had peaked. One accurate and delightfully sly description locates the Presbyterian manse at the intersection of Broadway and Straight Street. Presbyterians are still very much cornered between the liberal broad way and the conservative straight and narrow. Also memorable is the wicked caricature in which a Princeton Seminary educated pastor leaves the ministry because he has lost his faith. His executive presbyter, educated at Union Seminary in New York, cannot understand why the one should involve the other. I appreciate Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter” and his interest in Karl Barth, but in my judgment Updike’s novels sell too much soft porn.
I have no idea whether In the Beauty of the Lilies is an important novel. Updike’s view of theology and sex is not novel, which means I think I understood all his references. However, I am interested and puzzled about his sociological employment of Presbyterians as a subtext. My tentative theory is that for a modern novelist American Presbyterians splendidly illustrate the dramatic theme: “How are the mighty fallen” (I Samuel 1:19).
However, not being currant, I am only raisin the question before pruning my library of The Gripes of Wrath.