John Updike is a troubling writer for any conservative Christian reader. His themes are dark, his language rough and his characters vexing; but more than any other novel I’ve read, Updike’s A Month of Sundays provokes more sobering reflection about life and love, lust and godlessness.
The book’s epicurean protagonist, Tom Marshfield, is a minister who flirts disastrously with what the French call la convoitise de la chair. He’s brilliant and winsome–perverse and deceitful. Not since Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll has a character been split so perfectly between the conflicting whispers of his better angels and lesser demons. He’s in a miserable marriage and everyone knows it, including his wife, whom he attempts to entangle in an affair with his associate, Ned Bork. He wants out of the hypocrisy of his ordination, but he has no place to go. And for all of his profane honesty and candid impiety, this wicked preacher keeps me reading.
Marshfield’s theology is virile and his sexual appetites insatiable. He’s the kind of preacher no congregation wants–but that many unwittingly call. He is Bill Clinton in a clerical collar.
Updike has given personality to the tensions within the struggling souls of many ministers. He’s pulled back the black robe of the ministry to reveal an even blacker heart. In A Month of Sundays, Updike tells the secrets that nobody wants to hear but cannot deny: Christian ministers need more grace than a gutter drunk or a skid row whore.
Martin Luther once wrote, “The defects in a preacher are soon spied; let a preacher be endued with ten virtues, and but one fault, yet this one fault will eclipse and darken all his virtues and gifts.” Never has this been more true than in Tom Marshfield. Think Jim Bakker on Viagra and crystal meth, and you get the idea.
Reading the book is an opportunity for clergy and parishioner alike to explore vicariously the shadows of lust that lurk in every prayer closet, and while I appreciate Updike’s introducing me to the Reverend Tom Marshfield, he is the kind of man I hope never to meet–either in a pulpit, or on the town, or in the mirror.