Updike takes his title from the second verse of “Battle-Hymn of the Republic”: “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,/ With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me:/ As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,/ While God is marching on.” Are these lyrics, reprinted in the novel’s epigraph, to be taken as a stirring tribute to the idealistic impulses of soldiers who died for the preservation of the American freedoms and the American way of life? Or are they a horrifying reminder of the quasi-religious patriotic propaganda for which naïve youth have been sacrificed in war? The tension this question raises points to a central question in the novel, most concretely formulated through Updike’s treatment of Clark: Is this novel, and indeed is the American religious experience in the twentieth century, the story of faith tragically perverted—is this primarily a story of the tragedy of the deaths at the Temple compound? Or is this the story of faith regained, the story of a young man who, in the end, heroically remembers the faith of his forebears and prevents an even greater catastrophe when he shoots and kills Jesse? Furthermore, is American popular culture, specifically the Hollywood film industry, hopelessly degraded, or is it a genuine expression of the human imagination, America’s great contribution to the world of art? Are the more optimistic and the more pessimistic readings of this novel simultaneously possible? It is easy to say that Updike allows readers to make up their own minds. It would be more accurate to remark how Updike points to the paradoxes at the heart of the American experience.
Although he does not write “Christian” books per se, John Updike’s indebtedness to Christianity appears throughout much of his fiction, especially in this novel. Chronicling the lives of four generations of Wilmots, Updike examines the manner in which the events of the twentieth century affect the faith of the American people. How to believe, who to believe, and what to believe—these are the issues faced by each successive member of the Wilmot family.
From alienation to secularism, the first half of the novel examines the disintegration of traditional Christian devotion. Due to the ever-increasing popularity of mass media—radio, films, and television, in particular—and the horrors of two world wars, the Wilmots largely look to the entertainment industry for their “daily bread.” Attempting to find meaning in life, they forsake their religious antecedents for the economic promises of the “American Dream.”
Nevertheless, money offers no consolation for the youngest Wilmot. Finding momentary peace with a group of religious radicals, Clark enjoys the communal life of the cult. Although the novel ends in an apocalyptic showdown between Jesse’s disciples and the FBI, the reemergence of religious faith, although somewhat misdirected, emphasizes the transience of doubt and disbelief. This is not to imply, though, that Christianity is a stagnant aspect of American life. Instead, Updike suggests that the citizens of this country, like the nation itself, must struggle with who they are and what they want to become, and faith, in all its many forms, inevitably influences this process of self-determination.