This blurb is written in response to remarks made by some students of mine on one of my students’ Myspace pages about Flannery O’Connor, one of the greatest writers America has ever produced, in my opinion. My Myspace page, in case you were wondering, can be accessed by clicking here.
What’s depressing, what’s very saddening, is that so many people in this world, even many who say they are Christian, go through this life totally unaware of God and God’s miraculous work that occurs every day around us. These people are totally unaware of that Reality that could actually give them purpose. All too often, it does not even occur to them that there is something very important missing, because they do not even possess the faculties for self-examination. If they did, they would realize there was something gravely wrong about their lives.
O’Connor once wrote about the idea that writers are expected to be generically “nice,” or, to use the more common misnomer, “compassionate”:
It’s considered an absolute necessity these days for writers to have compassion. Compassion is a word that sounds good in anybody’s mouth and which no book jacket can do without. It is a quality which no one can put his finger on in any exact critical sense, so it is always safe for anybody to use. Usually I think what is meant by it is that the writer excuses all human weakness because human weakness is human. The kind of hazy compassion demanded of the writer now makes it difficult to be anti-anything.
What is cool is that O’Connor actually is compassionate to her characters (but in a biblical, as opposed to a “hazy,” sense), which is a shocking idea to us if we have only given her stories a cursory reading. They are populated with the kinds of people I described above (think of Ruby in “A Stroke of Good Fortune,” for instance). The compassion on O’Connor’s part is the imparting of what she calls “grace” to these characters. This “grace” is the destruction of these false selves that most of us erect. It reminds me very much of Paul’s quite violent image of our redemption: crucifying the old person, dying to the flesh, and arising to new life (cf. Rom. 6.3–6 and Gal. 5.24, among many others).
In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” the grandmother is the recipient of grace at the end. Before, she was not only annoying and selfish, she was also dishonest to others and even to herself. After shooting her, the Misfit makes a very telling remark: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” There are people who are like that!
Flannery O’Connor considered her work to be concerned with “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil,” as she put it. I love it, because even though it’s grotesque and exaggerated, it’s real! This world is violently twisted and distorted. People, created in the image of God, have become mere mockeries of that original image. They do not even have an awareness of the Deity that permeates every part of their being, to the last strand of DNA. God’s grace is something that goes far beyond our mushy conceptions of “the conversion experience.” It is a powerful and irresistable force. If the Kingdom of God were just lovey-dovey, it could easily be written off, and so the devil wishes to make it. And so do many Christians believe it to be.
O’Connor had a true vision of what is at stake here in this world. She looked unflinchingly at those who populate it, and saw that indeed we are in “territory held largely by the devil” (cf. Eph. 2.1–3). So give her some grace, yeah? There’s way more to her than is at first apparent. The hope that we have, in O’Connor’s fiction and in our existence vis-a-vis the Divine (every human being, regardless of who they are), is that God is powerful enough to redeem us. The violence to who we have made ourselves to be that we experience is scary and often ugly, but it’s necessary, and (dare I say it?) a good thing! Ask any former coke addict who has experienced God’s deliverance. It’s not pretty, but it is beautiful…
Check out this essay. It’s really good, and I got some of the quotes I used here off of it.