Theological Variations   /   Summer 2023   /    Thematic: Theological Variations

The Far Invisible

Thomas Pynchon as America’s Theologian

Alan Jacobs

THR illustration; Thomas Pynchon, 1953; background: Alamy Stock Photos.

In 1988, the great Lutheran scholar Robert Jenson published a book called America’s Theologian, conferring that honor on the formidable eighteenth-century Calvinist divine Jonathan Edwards. Jenson did not mean that Edwards is the greatest American theologian, though he probably is, but rather “that Edwards’s theology meets precisely the problems and opportunities of specifically American Christianity and of the nation molded thereby, and that it does so with the profundity and inventive élan that belong only to the very greatest thinkers.”11xRobert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), 3.  Quite clearly, a very different America has emerged in the decades since Jenson’s book was published, and the best theologian of our America is by profession neither a theologian nor a pastor. The great theologian of our America, I propose, is the novelist Thomas Pynchon.

This may seem a peculiar claim, and not just because Pynchon is a writer of fiction. No evidence indicates that Pynchon is a Christian, or indeed a religious believer of any kind (though he may have been taken to church as a child).22xBoris Kachka, “On the Thomas Pynchon Trail: From the Long Island of His Boyhood to the ‘Yupper West Side’ of His New Novel,” August 25, 2013, Vulture, But his forebears were believers. Indeed, the first of his ancestors to live on the North American continent, William Pynchon, the founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, was also a theologian, and a controversial one. His 1650 book The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, a fierce repudiation of Calvinism, was burned on Boston Common, then banned—America’s first banned book, some historians say. William escaped the scandal by returning to his native England, but he left behind a son, John, who established a kind of dynasty. The Pynchons would become prominent throughout New England, and even make their way into Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables.

By the time Thomas Pynchon was born, on Long Island in 1937, the family had become thoroughly secularized. Pynchon’s novels—he has published eight of them since 1963—would seem to be dominated by the concerns of a late-twentieth-century secular world: political power and the often secret technologies that sustain it; the strengths and weaknesses of countercultural resistance to such power; the great claims of science and the ongoing suspicion that those claims may not be wholly justified. Moreover, he continually juxtaposes the tragic with the comical, and even the farcical, in ways that might seem to disavow any morally or spiritually serious purpose. Yet more than a trace of the ancestral theological concerns is present throughout his work. Whatever his religious belief or unbelief, theological elements are central to his imagination, and over the course of his long career have assumed a distinctive shape that is worthy of our closest attention, above all because these elements so powerfully address American culture today: a culture that wants to be thought spiritual but never religious, to use history as a weapon but never acknowledge it as an inheritance, to worship its own technologies while simultaneously lamenting their tyrannical power.


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