This is the story about the interaction of religion and movies in America over 4 generations.
In the first generation, god is essential – also to everyday life. When a Reverend loses his faith, he is lost in life and movies are a way to escape reality:
“In the purifying sweep of atheism human beings lost all special value, The numb misery of the horse was matched by that of the farmer.” (Updike, 1996, p.7).
“In spite of the panic gnawing at his stomach, Clarence felt in his mouth a welcoming rush of salvia.” (Updike, 1996, p.35).
“they have not just reason on their side, but simple humanity and decency as well. Jehovah and His pet Israelites, that bloody tit-for-tat of the Atonement, the whole business of condemning poor fallible men and women to eternal Hell for a few mistakes in their little life-times.” (Updike, 1996, p.61).
“Watching the “movies” took no strength, but recovering from them did – climbing out of their scintillating bath into the bleak facts of life, his life, gutted by god’s withdrawal.” (Updike, 1996, p.107).
His son tries to avoid God as much as possible and the focus is on the world today. The world we live in. And to him movies are simply entertainment.
“Always he loved this sensation, hard to describe, of delivering, and then moving on.” (Updike, 1996, p.111).
“He was good in class and his grades were good but not the best, not so good as to make him a star that way either, a future millionaire. He enjoyed being one of the bunch, swept through the halls and the day on the tides of young bodies, the others indifferent toward him but accepting.” (Updike, 1996, p.113).
“‘This, too, shall pass away.’ It’s good when you’re high, and good when you’re low.” (Updike, 1996, p.114).
“In both factory and college, there would be all those probing, thrusting, jagged-edged other people to fit himself into, somehow, to compete with. He didn’t want to have to compete, and yet this seemed the only way to be an American. Be stretched or strike.” (Updike, 1996, p.139).
“”I do,” he said, surprising himself. “But I’m only eighteen, what’s everybody’s hurry? Does everybody have to do something all the time? Isn’t it enough sometimes, if you just don’t make things any worse?”” (Updike, 1996, p.143).
“And yet Teddy liked people, even the dumb fat girls on the bottle-cap line and the ferret faced little Wilmington student stenographers. He was happiest among people, if they weren’t crowding him.” (Updike, 1996, p.153).
“The motion pictures, all made now in California or Europe, three thousand miles away in one direction or another, embraced the chaos that sensible men and women in their ordinary lives plotted to avoid.” (Updike, 1996, p.146). “Always these films were trying to get you to look over the edge, at something, at something you would rather not see – poverty, war, murder, that thing men and women did when they were alone together.” (Updike, 1996, p.147). “Life was not serious; it was an illusion, a story, distracting and disturbing but at bottom painless and merciful.” (Updike, 1996, p.148).
For the third generation the focus on the individual goes further. And God becomes someone to pray to for individual success. And to become a movie star.
“those endowed with a splendid self, have a duty to be selfish.” (Updike, 1996, p.214).
“The world was intact, it had not been torn apart by her dream, full of yelling and fire and spilled things. The world is like stones: dreams and thoughts flow over them.” (Updike, 1996, p.228).
“Almost the first feeling she could ever remember was this joy at being herself instead of somebody else.” (Updike, 1996, p.229).
“but every morning she (her mother) was up when Essie was still untangling herself from the sticky dark sweetness of sleep and moving about downstairs making things tidy and cozy and bringing them to life.” (Updike, 1996, p.229).
“it was the dead, unearthly grandfather she aspired to. In his unreality he held a promise of lifting her up toward the heavenly realm where movie stars flickered and glowed.” (Updike, 1996, p.271).
“A one-to-one encounter seemed so dry and meagre, after being the food for all those eyes at the center of the stadium.” (Updike, 1996, p.273).
“Painted and oiled and every hair lacquered as firm as the fibers in a hat. Essie felt armored in pretense, formless and safe behind her face, like a rich filling of a stiff chocolate.” (Updike, 1996, p.291).
“in this land of promise where yearning never stops short at a particular satisfaction but keeps moving on, into the territory beyond.” (Updike, 1996, p.333).
“In some corner of herself she was jealous of Loretta; these two toddlers, round-faced and shiny-eyed, gazed up at their idiotic mother in her cheap polka-dot sundress as though she was half the world.” (Updike, 1996, p.337).
In the fourth generation that individualism is taken to the extreme. In a world seemingly full of individualists God is the only one not just taking, but giving and hence listening. The only one providing potentially an audience. And towards the end that is taken to the extreme, as the belief in God and one’s personal and unique connection to God is being used to get a national audience on TV.
“She observed in him what she already sensed in herself, the danger of becoming a performer purely, of coming alive in proportion to the size of the audience, and being absent-minded and remote when the audience was small.” (Updike, 1996, p.353).
“She ought to retire on her money, your mother, but she can’t. That’sthe penalty of success. Nobody knows when to stop. Everybody always wants more.” (Updike, 1996, p.407).
“the pet Russian wolfhound lying out on the terrace watching with a worried look and wanting to play with the chewed yellow tennis ball between his long white paws but nobody playful, everyone too wasted and self-absorbed and carefully moussed and pinned together to go entertain a dog.” (Updike, 1996, p.411).
“He looked over the messages but Mom was right, it was all people who wanted something, nobody who had anything to give him.” (Updike, 1996, p.432).
“Oh, who can tell? When the ambition bug bites, happiness stops being the point.” (Updike, 1996, p.462).