Themes and Meanings
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.