Calvin College professor Roy Anker suggests that John Updike's The Centaur should be the next Christian novel to be adapted for the screen. Steven D. Greydanus and Galileo Studio director Barbara Nicolosi also recommended books.
As the film's opening credits roll, a muscular but aging centaur limps down the long, empty hallway of a 1940s high school, the clack and scrape of his hooves echoing loudly off walls and floor. A silver arrow has pierced his fetlock, and to remove it, the centaur Chiron (tutor to the children of the gods) makes his way to the auto repair shop next door.
So a film version of The Centaur would begin, fusing modernity and myth. This imaginative synthesis was no gimmick in the late John Updike's dazzling, National Book Award-winning novel. The centaur's claim was both anthropological and theological. Borrowing from Karl Barth for the novel's epigraph, humankind is "the creature on the boundary between heaven and earth." That is nowhere more evident than in this novel of the sorely troubled George Caldwell/Chiron, a high school math teacher and father to art-hungry, teenaged Peter.
Late in the novel, readers discover that the novel's narrator is the adult Peter, who has made it in the '50s Greenwich Village art scene as a marginally successful abstract expressionist. Peter narrates to his half-asleep mistress the haunting, luminous puzzle of his seemingly hapless father.
His father's physical self—the centaur's horse-like legs—Peter understood well enough. But the upper half, the part thirsting for meaning and redemption, eluded Peter. Indeed, the mystery of his father, "that silly, sad man," will not let him go. For in his father, Peter glimpsed something none of his own shamefully bloated canvases could ever capture.
Peter's recollection focuses on the three days father and son spend stranded after their car breaks down and the two are caught in a snowstorm. Through it all, George, fearing cancer and being fired for striking a student, strives for meaning and a sign of grace.
Peter, on the other hand, loving yet embarrassed by his uncouth father, explores the carnal worlds of sex and art, yearning for his own exaltation by means of either or both. Exaltation comes in the end. Only it is, improbably, for George. His identity as Chiron becomes clear as he is exalted finally into a constellation and a full-blown Christ figure.
Updike indicated that he chose the Greek figure of Chiron because the name sounds like Christ. For readers, finally, and for Peter, the fire of consuming love that was his father shines brightly clear.
And now, at last, audiences might see the same, thanks to the compelling wonders of CGI avatars and—perhaps—centaurs. Finally, like those characters, we too might glimpse what this Christ fuss is all about. After all, how does one tell or paint—or film, for that matter—"the sudden white laughter that like heat lightning bursts in an atmosphere where souls are trying to serve the impossible"?
For now, though, at least we have the book.
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Christianity Todayprofiled John Updike in 2003.
Roy Anker, a professor at Calvin College, recently published Of Pilgrims and Fire: When God Shows Up at the Movies. Film critic Steven D. Greydanus and Galileo Studio director Barbara Nicolosi also recommended books.
Other Christianity Today articles on Christian films include:
Nigeria: Christian Movie Capital of the World | Spirituality fuels Nollywood's booming film industry. (October 27, 2009)
Christian films short on Christian substance | So says the AFN about two new church-produced movies. (March 24, 2009)
What Is a Good Christian Movie, Anyway? (Part 1) | Is it a sermon in disguise? Is it honest? Is it "family-friendly"? Defining it is no easy task—but here's a good start. (July 13, 2004)
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