Pigeon Feathers

by John Updike

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 476

The purpose of John Updike's story, to observe a maturing and thoughtful teenager's journey to reconcile rational thought and faith, is first revealed in these four early sentences from "Pigeon Feathers."

Then, before he could halt his eyes, David slipped into Wells's account of Jesus. He had been an obscure political agitator, a kind of hobo, in a minor colony of the Roman Empire. By an accident impossible to reconstruct, he (the small h horrified David) survived his own crucifixion and presumably died a few weeks later. A religion was founded on the freakish incident. The credulous imagination of the times retrospectively assigned miracles and supernatural pretensions to Jesus; a myth grew, and then a church, whose theology at most points was in direct contradiction of the simple, rather communistic teachings of the Galilean.

When David reads Wells's account of the life of the historical Jesus and the rise of Christianity in the wake of his execution and resurrection, he is intrigued. Wells's writing stands in contradiction to what David has been taught, and reading this perspective raises questions about the authenticity of Christian teachings and becomes paramount in David's thoughts.

David is disturbed by the questions that Wells's work raises in his mind. He finds them anti-Christian, concluding that Wells believes "hope bases vast premises on foolish accidents, and reads a word where in fact only a scribble exists." In an attempt to sort out the contradictions of his reading and his religious education, David takes his questions to his pastor at the local Lutheran church. David is unsatisfied with the answers that Reverend Dobson offers, and so he decides to read the Bible himself and see if he can find the answers he seeks. David speaks with his mother, as well, and in an attempt to help him understand what she believes to be true, she tells him that mankind created God. She tells him to also read Plato's "Parable of the Cave" to better understand mankind's limits in understanding anything beyond the human experience. The implication is that she expects that David will come to understand that this is where faith enters the equation.

Ultimately, David reaches an understanding that he evidently finds rational and acceptable:

He was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.

Only by contemplating God's design in the intricacy of the markings of the pigeon feathers does David begin to wrap his mind around a divine plan. David is comforted by the thought that a being would expend thought to create beauty in something as commonplace as a pigeon's feathers. Presumably, since mankind is much more complex than a pigeon, God would somehow value it highly and not allow it to perish and not exist in eternity.

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