One-Minute Book Reviews

March 30, 2010

John Updike’s ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter’ Answers the Question, How Should Christians Talk About the Resurrection?

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:52 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A novelist makes the case against turning the event into a parable

“Seven Stanzas at Easter.” A poem by John Updike. From Collected Poems: 1953–1993, Knopf, 387 pp., $27.50.

By Janice Harayda

As a young writer, John Updike submitted “Seven Stanzas at Easter” to a religious arts festival at the Lutheran church he attended on the North Shore of Massachusetts. He won the “Best in Show” award for the poem and returned his $100 prize to the congregation.

Fifty years later, “Seven Stanzas at Easter” has become perhaps the most famous Easter poem of the second half of the 20th century. In some ways, its popularity is surprising. The modified-envelope rhymes of the poem are subtle enough that you might miss them. The seven stanzas might invoke any of many Christian associations with the number seven — the days of Holy Week, the gifts of the spirit, the sayings of Christ on the cross — but it isn’t clear which. And all of the 35 lines in the poem deal with a question that can make Christians squeamish: How should we talk about the Resurrection?

Updike speaks directly to the reader from the first stanza onward:

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.

The poem goes on to reject the idea of talking about the Resurrection in literary tropes that mask or deny the corporal realities of the Crucifixion:

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence,
making of the event a parable …

“Seven Stanzas at Easter” is about the body of Christ in more than one sense, and its theme appears unambiguous: In for a dime, in for a dollar; if you talk about the Resurrection, you can’t turn it into a Jungian projection of a collective unconscious. But it’s a mistake to read “Seven Stanzas at Easter” a tract. The poem doesn’t weigh the historical or theological evidence for or against the Resurrection. It less about what happened or didn’t happen at the tomb than about how to talk about it. And its message is more equivocal than Job’s “I know that my redeemer liveth.”

Updike tips his hand with the “if” in his first line: “Make no mistake: if He rose at all.” That “if” modifies all that follows and turns the poem into a variation on Pascal’s wager, the idea that although the existence of God can’t be proved, a person should live as though it could be, because that position has all the advantages. Updike tells us to avoid sanitizing the Resurrection for our own comfort or because we can’t otherwise conceive of it. To mythologize the event, he warns, is to being “awakened in one unthinkable hour” and find that “we are embarrassed / by the miracle, / and crushed by remonstrance.”

In the first quotation above, the line beginning “the amino acids” should be indented six spaces, which this template won’t allow. The full text of “Seven Stanzas at Easter” appears on the site for the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, where some lines break in different places than they do in Collected Poems. The Lutheran recounts how Updike submitted to the poem to the Religious Arts Festival at Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 31, 2009

Kate DiCamillo’s Allegory of Christian Faith and Resurrection, ‘The Miraculous Journey of Edward to Tulane,’ With a Key to Its Biblical Parallels

This review appeared in January 2007, right after the American Library Association gave that year’s Newbery Medal to The Higher Power of Lucky instead of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, regarded as a favorite for the award.

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. By Kate DiCamillo. Illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Candlewick, 200 pp., $18.99. Ages 7 and up.

By Janice Harayda

Edward Tulane spends “40 days and 40 nights” in a wilderness, is nailed to a cross, dies after a shared meal, and is resurrected and reunited with a parent figure. Sound like anybody you’ve heard of?

How about if I added that Edward is a rabbit, a symbol of Easter? And that he is loved by a girl named Maggie, which can be a nickname for Magdalene?

That’s right. Edward Tulane is a symbol of Christ, his story is a Passion narrative, and this novel is an allegory of Christian faith and resurrection.

If you’ve followed the publicity for The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, you may have heard denials of all this. So here are a couple of facts:

1) Anyone who has a financial stake in this novel may have to deny its religious motifs, even though the book includes a striking full-page picture of Edward’s crucifixion. Kate DiCamillo won the Newbery Medal for The Tale of Despereaux, and the award helped to make her books among the most popular in American schools. The Christian imagery in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane may have cost DiCamillo 2007 Newbery Medal, which the American Library Assocation awarded to The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. A blunt acknowledgment that Edward is a Jesus figure might also keep the book off school reading lists.

2) The religious themes in the book do not appear once or twice or in ways that might have been accidental. They appear in the title, the artwork, and throughout the story. DiCamillo is too careful a writer to insert such motifs casually, which would violate the reader’s trust and well-established dramatic principles. At the end of this review are some lines that are identical or closely parallel to lines in the Bible. In DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie, the main character’s father was a preacher.

Children can enjoy The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane without understanding its religious themes just as adults can love Animal Farm without realizing that it is an allegory for Stalinism. But some children will sense that DiCamillo’s book has more than one level of meaning. To deny this could undermine their confidence in their ability to make intelligent, multi-layered judgments about books. All children benefit from learning to grasp a story on more than one level. DiCamillo has given them a chance to do this in a moving and suspenseful novel, beautifully illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline. Children of any faith can enjoy its story. How unfortunate if the novel were kept out of schools because it might help them appreciate the many layers of meaning that a good book can have.

These are three of many passages in The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane that have parallels in the Bible:

DiCamillo’s lines appear below in a light-faced font. The parallel lines from the King James Version appear in bold.

Edward begins his journey by leaving “a house on Egypt Street” where he is in bondage to his inability to love. “Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage …” Exodus 13:13

Edward spends “40 days and 40 nights” in a garbage dump surrounded by rotting food. “… he had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights …” Matthew 4:2 Also: “I will cause it to rain upon the earth for 40 days and 40 nights.” Genesis 7:4

A shopkeeper tells Edward: “I brought you back from the world of the dead.” “… he rose from the dead.” Acts 10:34

Many names in the book also have religious connotations. They include those of three female characters: Abilene (once a region of the Holy Land), Natalie (which means “birth of the Lord”); and Maggie (often a nickname for Magdalene).

Published: February 2006

Read an excerpt from The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane on the Candlewick Books site.

Furthermore: Kate DiCamillo’s “Mercy Watson” series for beginning readers was reviewed on this site on Feb. 10, 2007. DiCamillo’s new novel for children, The Magician’s Elephant, will be published this fall, and an excerpt appears on her Web site.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

The Rubric Theme. Blog at WordPress.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 372 other followers

%d bloggers like this: