I know it’s been Flannery central over here lately, but Kendra’s post sparked lots of conversations between Daniel and I about why O’Connor is so amazing. Sorry if we’re beating a dead horse here, Kendra! I promise to stop with the “please, love Flannery!” posts. But sometimes Daniel writes things that are just too good not to share. So, I hope y’all enjoy a few thoughts on Flannery O’Connor from the guy with the giant beard.
“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.”
-Flannery O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
I read Kendra’s post and was perplexed by her choice to compare Breaking Bad and Flannery O’Connor. Not just because one is a TV show and the other is an author, but because they’re so different in tone, style, and theme. They’re both violent but that’s like lumping together Jane Austen and Ten Things I Hate About You because they’re both romantic. Besides, the violence in each serves completely different purposes.
In Breaking Bad, the violence is perpetrated by the main characters and serves to drive them deeper and deeper into inhumanity and isolation. I’m sure someone could give a spirited defense of this portrayal of violence. Perhaps something about how “war begets war, violence begets violence” (Pope Francis said that!) and that illustrating this could be beneficial. But I’m not interested in making that defense. I enjoy the show, but I’m certainly not passionate about it.
Flannery O’Connor is another matter, however. She really helped me understand Christianity and the Catholic faith specifically. And more than any theologian, it is Flannery who convinces me to pursue Christ wholeheartedly when my perseverance begins to wane. “He either did or he didn’t,” I tell myself, “And you have to live accordingly.”
Someone might think the violent and grotesque elements of O’Connor’s stories are meant to show the reader that life is brutal so we must be meant for heaven. But I don’t think that’s what O’Connor is trying to do at all. That’s a kind of Gnostic interpretation that misses not only Flannery’s point but also the point of the Gospel. Miss O’Connor’s violence is part of a relentless–at times terrifying–grace that hounds her characters. She shows us the the same violent grace that threw Saul from his horse and blinded him. The same grace that drove the disciples to the ends of the earth where they suffered horrifying deaths. This suffering and violence is not just an unfortunate reality that sometimes confronts Christians, it’s an integral part of what it means to encounter Christ
Perhaps part of the reason we’ve forgotten this is we live in a Christian (or, sadly, post-Christian) culture that is essentially safe. We’re safe from persecution, of course. But, more dangerously for the Christian, we’re safe from a violent encounter with Christ. What I mean by that is that we’ve all heard the bloody, scandalous, disturbing elements of Christianity for so long they’ve lost the ability to shock or surprise. It’s easy to forget how radical the call of Christ truly is. We’re able to wear the ancient Roman symbol of humiliation and death without causing a stir. Quite the opposite, the cross has become a ubiquitous fashion symbol. Most westerners have at least HEARD the idea that Jesus, a human, is also God. So no one is shocked anymore. We can even get away with dulling down Jesus into a rather pleasant teacher who would probably LOVE to chat with Oprah.
But to the people of first century Rome, the story of Jesus and the practice of Christianity was violent, grotesque, and shocking. Pagan sensibilities were scandalized by the idea that God would become man (not just take a human form) and subject himself to all the physical vulgarities of our lives. That God would become a helpless and dirty infant was a disgusting concept to most people. And that this God would become even further degraded by suffering the humiliations of torture and death on a cross was simply unthinkable.
And the scandal didn’t end there. Christ didn’t simply pass through filth and violence to come out on the other side of a clean, spirit life. When Christ rose from the dead, he did so in his physical body! Glorified, yes, but physical nonetheless. Flesh and blood. One of the most moving (and, I think, theologically important) passages of scripture is when the risen Christ cooks breakfast for the disciples on the beach. “It is the Lord!” Peter shouts before plunging into the water. And how does the Lord appear now? A spirit? A godlike body free of the scars of life? Nope. It’s Jesus. The man. His wounds healed but not absent. His stripped back bent over the fire, sweat on his scarred brow, the nail holes still there as he picks out fish bones with greasy hands. This is God. And this is scandal. But it’s nothing compared to the way Christians worshipped their risen Lord.
Hiding in the bone lined catacombs, the bread and wine set out on the tombs of dead saints, the blood of the martyrs on the floor, these Christians literally feasted on their God and drank his blood. This is what we still believe and do. This is why our altars contain relics. And this is what we celebrate when we pray the Anima Christi, asking that the blood of Christ inebriate us. If this sounds scandalous, even disturbing, GOOD! It should. And it did for many centuries. Pagan philosophers wrote vehement polemics against these God-hating, cannibalistic Christians and their disgusting attempt to subvert the ancient social order.
Today, it’s difficult, almost impossible, to convey the scandal of the gospel. If someone were to bravely take up the task of shocking us out of our complacent, easy, and socially acceptable religion, that person would probably need to use something violent or grotesque to get the point across. O’Connor was keenly aware of this. She once wrote, “Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” A gunshot is a much more mild form of death than crucifixion but, in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” it shocks our almost-blind culture. A prosthetic leg and a monkey suit are not nearly as absurd as the idea of a God who is at once fully divine and fully human but these elements are just strange enough to grab our attention. Yes, it is shocking when a boy is drowned and baptized at the same time. But that’s what baptism is supposed to be! We’ve been to so many that we’ve forgotten this.
O’Connor’s violence, like much of the violence in scripture, serves to drive her characters closer to their purpose. This makes no sense to our fearful and spoiled culture. But the violence in her stories is at the service of grace. Some people read O’Connor and are shocked and horrified. But this isn’t a bad thing. If we’re shocked, it’s probably a good thing. Because we may then be able to understand the shocking nature of the Jesus story and what it must mean for our lives.
Flannery’s stories may not have typical, fairytale endings. But neither do the stories in the New Testament. Christ doesn’t call us to earthly happiness, he calls us to suffering and death and resurrection. He calls us to join him in his triumph. The path there can be joyful but not always neat or pleasant. As Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”