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Filtering by Tag: John Updike

At the Supermarket

Howard Schaap

16 Colourful_shopping_carts

The first time I was introduced to the idea of a supermarket was in an American Literature course, in Updike’s classic short story “A&P.” “I bet you could set off dynamite in an A&P,” says Updike’s cocksure narrator Sammy, “and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists and muttering ‘Let me see, there was a third thing, began with A, asparagus, no, ah, yes, applesauce!’ or whatever it is they do mutter.” Before Sammy, I had never considered that a supermarket was anything noteworthy or possible to disdain. Then came literature.

This March, I went into Walmart to buy my son a birthday present. When I found a particular Lego set he wanted in a clearly marked clearance section, I was sure I had struck gold—or at least a bargain. Then, the wrestling began: after a stocker’s blessing I was met with a clerk’s questioning, then waiting and waiting for a manager’s override, interspersed with another customer cashing out a voucher she wasn’t apparently supposed to. Between my bargain shopping and this other customer’s shady action, I suddenly had a vision of this clerk as gatekeeper between a multinational leviathan and middle-class Midwesterners who felt they were carting away riches one pocketful at a time from Sam Walton’s hoard. Finally, someone came over with a key and punched three buttons, and I made my getaway with the Lego set at—get this—less than half price. I had fought the dragon and won.

Like Sammy. Except not at all like Sammy.

By now, I know that the supermarket and its psychic data—that’s Delillo’s White Noise talking—is a trope. I was reminded of this again recently in stumbling upon supermarket scenes in both The Hurt Locker and The Wrestler, both of which feature the supermarket as the setting for the male protagonists’ crises. In The Hurt Locker, as Sergeant First Class William James faces a wall of cereal boxes and supermarket muzak, we can feel its absurd impenetrability. In The Wrestler, meanwhile, the cereal boxes are the perfect props for Randy “The Ram” Robinson’s meltdown and blood-smearing exit—Sammy on steroids. If in Updike the supermarket signals sameness and conformity, in The Hurt Locker it signals seemingly infinite choice and resulting meaninglessness, and in The Wrestler, it becomes just one more faux backdrop of the human bodily tragedy.

Something about these scenes conjures up ­Moby-Dick in my mind: Moby-Dick as a wall “shoved near” to Ahab, as the “pasteboard mask” that Ahab would “strike through.” For James, the cereal aisle is a brick wall; for Randy “The Ram,” it’s a façade beyond which is just another aisle.

Of course, it’s not just a façade. In Being Consumed, philosopher William Cavanaugh reminds us how the practices of consumption can actually detach us from the material world. There is a chain of production with iron links from raw materials to the Lego factory down to Walmart all the way to my purchase, and at each link in the chain are specific people. It’s these links that modern consumerism seems to want to keep from us. And it’s this abstraction, says Cavanaugh, that the embodied practice of the Eucharist counteracts.

To see anew the transactions of our lives—to recognize the leviathans and the gatekeepers and the hoarding and the misplaced heroism—may be the first step toward meaningful embodiment and understanding our need for Eucharist. And it’s those moments of recognition that can open up in a work of art, even at the supermarket.

Twist and Shout: Sex as Metaphor

Jayne English

21 Samson_and_Delilah_by_Rubens

When the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1964 singing “Twist and Shout,” the veins in John Lennon’s neck bulged as he screamed the lyrics above the noise of the crowd. There were 700 in attendance that night, but 50,000 people had requested tickets to see the Beatles perform and 73 million people watched from home. What did the Beatles tap into that wrung screams and tears from their audience? It was something a little unexpected: metaphor. Metaphor has two parts: tenor, which is the subject of the metaphor, and vehicle, the way that subject is delivered. While teens around the country were over the moon with the Beatles’ sexy looks and lyrics – the vehicle of their art – what hit a nerve and gave them lasting celebrity was their tenor of longing. Sex is reflected everywhere in our culture; music, films, TV shows, books, and a lot of times, there is no metaphor, just sex. But many artists know that sex is an apt vehicle for longing.

Doesn't Mad Men show us this? Is it really just sex that Draper, in all his dalliances, is after? We know by now he’s plagued by a confused sense of identity and feelings of abandonment. We’ve seen Draper’s longing surface as he reads Dante’s Inferno, takes his kids to see his childhood home (a brothel), and when he finally tells the truth (when “it wasn’t the right time”) even though it resulted in being put on indefinite leave. Sex, the vehicle, in Mad Men is everywhere, setting us up for the metaphor’s tenor of longing.

Sex is also used as a metaphor in the Bible. Jesus is the Groom, the church is the bride of Christ. In fact, the Hebrew reverses our sense of longing with God’s longing for us. The word used for sex in the Old Testament is yada, used to “describe God's knowing and his longing of his people.”1

When John Updike published his first novel, Rabbit, Run, Knopf had him cut out some of the more explicit scenes (though they were restored in later editions). In a 1960 New York Times review, David Boroff predicted that some of the descriptions would “shock the prudish.”2 Updike was a professing Christian. Did he intentionally write a book to scandalize people? How do we know if there is a vehicle of metaphor in play or if it is just sex? In Updike’s case, he placed a signpost at the start quoting Pascal in his epigraph: “The motions of grace, the hardness of the heart; external circumstances.”

How can we differentiate sex as metaphor in films we see and books we read? Sex is pervasive in our culture’s art. What does that say about our longing?

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The Inconvenience of Lent

Stephanie Smith

In our American culture of drive-through coffee, instant Twitter feeds, and video on demand, we prize immediacy. We like to check our email on our touchscreen phone as soon as it hits our inbox, grab lunch to-go, and download live-streaming news. We are a nation of busy professionals, parents, and students living under the banner of “carpe diem,” driven by the idea that there’s no time like the present.

This “now” syndrome certainly has advantages, motivating us to work hard and invest fully in whatever we’re doing, but what happens when we apply our instant-culture values to spirituality?

Last month, I had a bizarre experience with communion that made me consider this question. After months of exhausting church-searching, my husband and I finally found a church where we wanted to stay. It’s a contemporary kind of church, the kind that has a graphic designer on staff and a coffee bar out in the hall, and we came because we like the teaching and the small groups. But you have to understand, the church we went to before we moved was a liturgical church, the kind with Kierkegaard quotes in every other sermon and weekly communion. So we knew we’d have to make some adjustments at our new church.

But this is what I did not expect: communion that is served before the service, an addendum tacked onto and separate from the worship service. So we set our alarms a little earlier, entered the sanctuary, and found only a fraction of the congregation had shown up. The pastor said a prayer for this handful of early-risers, and at his invitation we filed up front and received the elements, and then it was over. The whole ordeal took literally five minutes. There was no time of confession before receiving the sacrament. There was no benediction afterwards, charging us to go forth bearing Christ into the world. There was no community, only a faithful few. There was no ritual, no careful unfolding of holiness.

It was like grabbing Christ’s blood of the covenant, His outpouring for the world, in a Styrofoam to-go cup. It was a sacrament dictated by convenience, quickly squeezed in between other items on the agenda, and left out of the greater context of cosmic redemption.

The problem with an instant culture, and an instant church, is that a preoccupation with the present diminishes our ability to see seasons, to see story, to observe the unfolding of time. This is the pivotal idea of the sacrament of communion: Christ asks us to remember Him by taking the bread and wine (Luke 22:19), and to anticipate the future when we will eat and drink with Him face to face (Matt. 26:29).

As we now enter the season of Lent, we enter a time of waiting. There is no immediacy or convenience here. But there is a story of cosmic proportions unfolding, as we take the forty days of Lent to remember, to walk through the events of the life of Christ: the temptation in the desert, the agony of Good Friday, the silence and sorrow of Holy Saturday, and the joyful victory of Sunday morning.

It is often difficult for us to lay down our gadgets and agendas to just sit for a while, quiet our souls, and dwell with God. And yet, He laid down everything for us, making Himself “nothing” and emptying Himself to the point of death (Phil. 2:7-98). In his beautiful poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” John Updike writes of the agony of the cross, “Let us not seek to make it less monstrous, for our own convenience...” As we cross the threshold of Ash Wednesday, let us reflect sincerely and sorrowfully on Christ’s suffering for us, so that on Easter morning, our hearts will grasp the incredible joy in His resurrection.

Stephanie S. Smith graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a degree in Communications and Women’s Ministry, which she now puts to work freelancing as a book publicist and writer through her business, (In)dialogue Communications, at After living in Chicago for four years, traveling to Amsterdam for a spell, and then moving back home to Baltimore to plan a wedding, she now lives with her husband in Upstate New York where they make novice attempts at home renovation in their 1930s bungalow. She writes for and manages Moody Publishers' blog,