Conflicting Stories

Did Updike Sell the Resurrection Short?

In his poem ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter,’ John Updike insists that believers must confront head-on the idea that Jesus came back to life. But he misses the mystery.

Peter Horree/Alamy

“Let us not mock God with metaphor,” John Updike wrote in his poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter,” imploring his readers not to believe the resurrection of Jesus could be understood as a mere symbol of uplift and optimism. Retreating to the language of analogy or transcendence just wouldn’t do. Christ’s Passion was not just a parable. If Jesus rose at all, it was “as His body,” an affair not just of the spirit but the flesh. In Updike’s gritty imagery, if Jesus’ cells did not reverse their dissolution, his molecules reknit, his amino acids rekindle, then the Church would fall. Or rather, it shouldn’t have existed in the first place. A Jesus who didn’t walk out of a tomb wasn’t worth worshipping.

The poem gains new life of its own every year around this time. It inevitably flits across social media as Holy Week draws to a close, a very quotable addition to the Facebook feeds of America’s more literary Christians. Updike’s words circulate in more traditional ways, too, giving pastors and priests just the rhetorical flourish they need for their Easter homilies. This Sunday, many churchgoers who’ve never read a page of Rabbit, Run will nod along at Updike’s verse.

The force of “Seven Stanzas,” however, goes beyond its seasonal affiliation. After all, there are others poems about Easter. Perhaps Updike’s resonates because it seems attuned to the nature of belief in the modern world—or rather, it asks the modern believer what she is willing to believe. The poem forces the reader to answer for herself what really happened in that backwater of the Roman Empire in the days after Jesus was executed as a criminal. There can be, to use Updike’s word, no “sidestepping” this issue. Are you “embarrassed” by this “miracle” or not?

This is a perennial question, the place where all quests for the historical Jesus give way to faith—or not—and Updike is not wrong to remind us of its stakes. But for all his theological sophistication, and despite my admiration for his literary gifts, Updike’s poem leaves me unsatisfied. It achieves its existential urgency by skirting the complexity and strangeness of what the Gospels actually tell us about the resurrection. The poem is a blunt instrument, jarring and powerful, but it obscures as much as it reveals.

Updike asks us to leave aside figurative language and interrogate the Gospel accounts of the resurrection for their literal truth, if it really happened or not. When we read these passages, however, they also should interrogate us, unsettling our judgments about what we think we know and how we understand what it meant for Jesus to rise from the dead. They defy all our inevitable attempts to escape the uncertainty of real faith and reduce the resurrection to a pat story that does little more than comfort those who encounter it.

One of the most striking aspects of the Gospel narratives is that no two of them describe the resurrection and its aftermath in exactly the same way. This includes who we’re told was there at the empty tomb. In all four Gospels, Mary Magdalene discovers that Jesus had been raised from the dead, the first at the scene, and all four also mention another Mary who was with her. Otherwise, the list of women who found that Jesus was not in the tomb varies in small but still noticeable ways.

More interestingly, what happens after the two Marys and their fellow mourners arrive at the tomb also is depicted very differently, depending on which narrative you are reading. In Matthew’s Gospel, an earthquake occurs and an “angel of the Lord” descends to roll away the stone that had closed the tomb, an angel who tells them not to fear, that Jesus was alive. In Mark’s Gospel, the stone seems to be removed when the Marys get there, and a “young man” in a long white garment is sitting in the tomb and he tells them the good news. Luke’s Gospel notes two men in “shining garments” who explain the empty tomb, at which point Mary Magdalene, a second Mary, and “other women” who were there to tend to Jesus’ body go back to tell the disciples what happened. One of the disciples, Peter, then goes to see for himself. The writer of the Gospel of John mentions only Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb to find it already empty and the stone rolled back. She runs to inform the disciples, Peter and John race to the tomb to find out if it’s true, and when they get there they see the linens in which Jesus had been wrapped.

None of these discrepant details are new to anyone who has given more than glancing attention to the Gospels, and I don’t list them for cheap polemical purposes, as if thoughtful Christians haven’t grappled with them since they were put in writing. A few of them even can be reconciled—noting only that Mary Magdalene was at the empty tomb, for example, does not preclude others, unnamed, from being there as well. Likewise, an angel really could be portrayed as a man in white garments. The point here is not to delve into the finer points of historical-critical analyses of the Gospels, but to assert that these texts are impossible to read consistently in a flat, univocal way, as if their meaning were easy to perceive. Perhaps the tensions between the texts even serve a pedagogical function, inviting us to read them more carefully and discerningly. If we attribute them to the vagaries of memory and the varying perspectives of those who wrote them down the texts actually seem more “real,” not less. They capture the confusion, dashed expectations, and bewildering vindication that must have existed among the followers of Jesus.

The most arresting feature of the resurrection narratives, far beyond these particulars about who was at the empty tomb and what they saw, is of course the appearances of the risen Jesus himself. They goad us to marvel at the way they are wrapped in strangeness and mystery. At every turn, the men and women who followed Jesus—who traveled, lived, and listened to him for years—fail to recognize him after his resurrection. Mary Magdalene, in John’s Gospel, mistakes him for a gardener. Only after Jesus calls her by name does she realize who he is. In Luke’s Gospel, in the famous account of Jesus appearing to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the resurrected Jesus walked and talked with them unrecognized. Only when they sat down for a meal, and Jesus blessed the bread they were about to eat did they snap to attention and understand who was with them.

Later in the Gospel of Luke its author recounts Jesus appearing to the disciples in Jerusalem, seemingly out of nowhere. He then asks for some meat to eat, as if in answer to the question surely on the disciples’ minds, “Is this for real?” The Gospel of John reports that Jesus apparently could walk through walls, rather pointedly noting that he showed up amidst the disciples in a room where the doors were shut. Just a few verses later, in what the text’s author emphasizes was his third appearance to the disciples, Jesus comes to them as they’re about to go fishing, giving them instructions on how to cast their nets. Yet again, they didn’t know who he was.

The resurrected Jesus, then, walked and talked among his intimates, and they knew him not. He ate solid food but also could pass through solid walls. He appeared in unexpected times and places. His body rose from the dead, yet still bore the scars from his crucifixion—wounds that doubting Thomas could touch and feel. Whatever the resurrection means, the texts do not allow us to interpret it simply as a restoration of the status quo, with Jesus being exactly as he was before. The divergences from our own bodies—and even his own body as it was before the crucifixion—receive as much attention as the continuities. Jesus is the same, yet also different. He is himself, but somehow more than that.

It is this sense of wonder at the sheer perplexity of what Jesus was like after his resurrection that seems to be missing from Updike’s “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” The problem is not that Updike challenges us to consider the strange idea that a man rose from the dead; it’s that what he holds before us isn’t strange enough. Whatever is going on in the Gospels, it seems to resist the efforts those who want to assimilate the Easter story either through a literalism uncomfortable with paradox or by turning it into a somewhat embarrassing myth meant to inspire hope.

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Easter is, and should remain, a deep source of affirmation for Christians, but that affirmation must ultimately lead to awe at what eludes our grasp. Celebrating Jesus’ resurrection should make us ask if we have tamed him into a creature of our own imaginations, or if we remain open to surprise and uncertainty, to the mysteries of living and dying, of love and hope, that he embodied. If the latter, Easter can be for us, like the disciples walking to Emmaus, the occasion to really see Jesus again, as if for the first time.

Matthew Sitman is a writer in New York City.