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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Flannery O'Connor Shouts to the Morally Hard of Hearing

Why is it that the so many of the greatest 20th century American authors were Roman Catholics? One of my favorites happens to be Flannery O'Connor, who died much too early in 1964 from lupus. She wrote a number of short stories including the classic A Good Man is Hard to Find. Her novels include Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away.

Several years ago, I also enjoyed a volume of her Collected Works which contained a number of her letters and essays. And it was by reading her correspondence that I discovered a woman of sorrows and familiar with grief. The specter of her Christian faith seeps through her fiction, but it is in her non-fiction where it is made most explicit. You have to admire any person who uses the Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas as bedtime reading. This woman understood the crushing weight of sin and the corruption it has had on human nature. But she understood just as well the redemptive character of the incarnation of God's eternal Son in the man Jesus.

A lot of Christians hear that Flannery O'Connor was a devout believer and they read her works expecting to be edified. And I suspect many of the pious put her books away half-read. They are not happy stories. They are not pretty. In fact, some of the most shocking ugliness ever put on paper can be found in the horror writings of this petite Georgian maiden.

Some Christians think that "Christian writing" should always be uplifting and cheerful. They may even try to use Scripture to support this assertion. "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things (Phil. 4:8)." They'll say, "you see, God's Word tells us we should be concentrating on positive things, whatever is lovely and whatever is pure." But I'd respond as I believe Miss O'Connor would have done by saying, "Yes, but notice what the apostle mentions first. Whatever is true." And let's face it, not every true thing is lovely or inspiring. Some true things are quite grim. And many of these truths need to be told as well. And that is where the fiction of Flannery O'Connor serves its highest purpose. She wrote the kind of material she did because she understood that it needed to be said and said in such a way as to be heard.

I'll conclude with this quote from O'Connor herself which, I think, sums up one of the tasks of every Christian artist as well as every preacher.

'The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.'

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E. Twist said...

Nice post and nice blog. Knowing that you enjoy O'Connor, you should give this band a try I think you will enjoy the writing, at least. Very influenced by O'Connor.

Joseph Aubele said...

It's great to find others who admire Flannery O'Connor's unflinching looks at Christians and Christianity!

The Cubicle Reverend said...

The one rare gift she has that is lost on many writers of any generation is how she could make you feel sorry and sympathize with a character that was totally detestable. In her story "The Artificial N****r" you actually feel sorry for someone who is trying to corrupt his grandson.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if reading one of her novels in a setting where pietism
is prevalent (you know, group book discussions which seem to be popular in the culture, but not in the church) might help to kill the pietism? But which one would be good, since I'm not familiar with
her writings.

Carl said...

Here's a site with O'connor's quotes and many more, some good and some very good! Also, pretty good singing by this couple called
"Over the Rhine"

New Curriculum at Concordia Theological Seminary