Overcoming Unbelief: John Updike on Feathers and Faith

Fusty Churches, Creaking Hymns, and Revived Faith

Larry Parsley / 6.25.20

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:6–7)

In John Updike’s 1961 short story “Pigeon Feathers,” forces conspire to kill a 13-year-old’s faith, but dead pigeons help to resurrect it. David, a stand-in for young Updike, has had the predictable furniture of his young life forcibly rearranged by a family move out to a country farmhouse. Bored, David picks up a volume of H. G. Wells’ The Outline of History and is shocked to see Wells reduce the founder of his Christian faith to mere humanity (and the subsequent Christian movement grounded upon mythology). Soon, David is cross-examining his own faith, including the validity of previously answered prayers. A nighttime visit to the outhouse triggers a dark and “exact vision of death,” one for which neither his parents nor his church was able to offer sufficient relief. Reverend Dobson, who teaches his catechism class at the Lutheran church, is a colossal disappointment. When David asks a tangential question about the “resurrection of the body,” the Reverend (whose “small white shapely hands” would flicker “like protesting doves when he preached”) was less than helpful, comparing immortality to “the way in which the goodness Abraham Lincoln did lives after him.”

The relationship between David and church was already tenuous: “Fusty churches, creaking hymns, ugly Sunday-school teachers and their stupid leaflets—he hated everything about them but the promise they held out …” and now, that promise of new life was tottering.

Was this why Updike’s story arrested me? Was it to nourish a deeper empathy for young souls whose faith is so often shoved askew? Perhaps. Was it to spark a greater urgency, as both parent and pastor, to help people of all ages find a more substantial footing for their faith than the “eternal” goodness of dead heroes? Certainly. But there is something more.

Modern writers often excel at narrating lost faith. Updike serves up David’s revived faith, and the return emerges through a startling route: a request from his grandmother to take his Remington .22 out to the barn and rid it of its pigeons. A holocaust ensues, as David picks off pigeons racing toward daylight through holes near the roof. Hearing the conflagration from the house, David’s mother comes to assist with the mass burial. David, who had never before noticed pigeons up close, now delights in the intricate designs of their feathers:

across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests.

Here comes the epiphany: David was now “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.”

Pigeons, sparrows, lilies, and certainly 13-year-old boys—all are outfitted with wonder and numbered by God, never far from his gaze or care. Consider them, Jesus says to us. Study them and allow even their dead beauty to lead you to the light of their Creator and your (risen) Redeemer.