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Fall 1998 · Vol. 27 No. 2 · pp. 157–64 

The Missionary Calling of Flannery O'Connor

Paul Friesen

The Bible has inspired numerous creative productions from paintings to music to sculptures to literature and more. Biblical themes, allusions, and characters provide subject material almost without limit. The masters have recognized in Christian contexts a rich source of material.

On the most obvious level there are works such as Van Gogh’s painting of the Good Samaritan, Michelangelo’s sculpture of David, Handel’s Messiah, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, among hundreds of other masterpieces, all of which find their bases in Scripture.

Flannery O’Connor explained that serious fiction writers deal with flaws in human nature, with problems derived from original sin, with people lacking completeness in their lives, with the search for salvation of the soul.

For more than forty years I have studied and taught literature on the high school and college/university levels. My continual attraction and fascination for the study of authors and their works arises from the presence, even dominance, of spiritual questions, themes, and discussions in literature from ancient times to the present. In Hebrew literature, one finds a monotheistic presence of a heroic God controlling and guiding the affairs of individuals and nations. In ancient Greek literature, a polytheistic control dominates, as evidenced in Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey.

BIBLICAL THEMES PERMEATE LITERATURE

Interest in biblical narratives, themes, and characters have permeated the writings of numerous authors in the last two centuries. Lord Byron’s {158} “The Destruction of Sennacherib” and “By the Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept” concern two events in the lives of the Israelites. John Keats somewhat humorously depicts Daniel’s interpretation in “Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream.”

Less obviously, some of the same concerns may be found among writers often considered to be “secular” in their art. King Saul’s jealousy of the popular young David provides the thematic content for Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Castorbridge as Michael Henchard loses his position and popularity to the handsome young Donald Farfrae. Hardy struggles in “The Convergence of the Twain” with God’s control of catastrophic events. In this poem he wonders if and apparently assumes that the iceberg, developing in the northwest Atlantic, and the Titanic, under construction in the British Isles, were destined by God to meet:

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,

In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be:

No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,

Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident

On being anon twin halves of one august event.
Till the Spinner of the Years

Said “Now!” And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres. 1

Emily Dickinson struggled with the matter of faith in the Calvinistic milieu of Amherst, Massachusetts:

“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency. 2

Stephen Crane (1871-1900) experienced shipwreck off the coast of Florida in 1897 and spent several days in a dinghy before finally landing on shore. In a fictional account, entitled “The Open Boat,” he poses important questions regarding nature’s (God’s) indifference in the face of humanity’s extreme hopelessness. On board the lifeboat, camaraderie and fellowship plus hard work develop and prevail. Why then, Crane asks, does nature not reward their efforts?

When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks {159} at the temple, and hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. 3

These and many more authors and works demonstrate the plethora of questions and interests among accomplished writers. It is abundantly evident that the concerns of religious belief are also the concerns of a host of authors. Most, however, like Hardy, Crane, Dickinson, and others merely pose questions from a human viewpoint without recognizing a personal faith in Christ and the redemptive presence and power of God at work in the world.

FLANNERY O’CONNOR: CHRISTIAN LITERARY ARTIST

Other than Puritan writers like William Bradford, Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, and a few others in early America, and John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, and a few others in seventeenth-century Great Britain, overt believers in mainline, anthologized literature have been rare. Granted, many believers were, and are, writing, but by artistic standards their works have not been generally recognized in the forefront of literary art.

In modern American literature one author who has been recognized as a literary artist and has also excelled in expressing the claims of Christian faith is Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She has challenged Christians to follow Christ faithfully and unashamedly. She challenges her readers through The Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” to throw away everything and follow Christ. Born of Roman Catholic parents in Savannah, Georgia, educated in Catholic elementary schools, in a local public high school, and at Georgia College for Women in Milledgeville, Georgia, O’Connor soon recognized the spiritual shortcomings of professing Protestant and Catholic Christians in Georgia and the South, known as the Bible Belt.

Beginning with her first novel, Wise Blood, O’Connor proceeded to challenge Christians in the Bible Belt to examine their validity as a body of believers committed to faith and works. What she revealed in this novel, in another novel entitled The Violent Bear It Away, and in a number of short stories was a church of Christians in name only, a church consisting of closed-minded exclusivists convinced of the truth of their own set of doctrines. She believed her calling as a writer compelled her to hone her skills and concentrate on what was significant. To her that calling found its fulfillment in encouraging not only the Protestants but also her own fellow Roman Catholics to follow Christ.

Being a Catholic and believing conscientiously in the veracity of the Church’s teachings influenced the bulk of her writings. Her worldview {160} as a writer centered on her conviction that one’s belief must control one’s life—actions, words, motives. In a letter to a friend, she explained, “I write the way I do because (not though) I am a Catholic. This is a fact and nothing covers it like the bald statement.” 4

FAITH DEMANDS ARTISTIC EXCELLENCE

O’Connor was a Catholic in the South, part of a minority group overshadowed by a dominant and domineering Protestantism which saw Catholicism as a foreign, pagan religion. O’Connor believed being a Catholic in such a setting placed a burden of proof on her as a writer. She could not settle for mediocrity. Nor could she settle for blandness and conciliation. She must tell the truth, tell it blatantly and honestly. Experiencing opposition by the local community for her attempts to be an influential, gifted writer as a Catholic, she replied, “When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.” 5

The burden of being an artist, of being true to her calling and talent, weighed heavily upon her. She sensed a compulsion to expose, to reform what she observed as hypocritical and corrupt in human nature and resultant actions. While most of her targets were Protestants who, she believed, failed to find their beliefs relevant to their conduct, she also targeted fellow Catholics for the same reason. To her, belief meant commitment and action for proof of genuineness. To this mission she dedicated herself in her short career, and she perceived that her Catholic upbringing provided the impetus for the fulfillment of her mission.

A uniqueness of O’Connor as a Christian artist lies in her mastery of style; the faith element sometimes remains buried or misinterpreted. Secular critics often are blind to her Christian message and tend to critique her writings according to traditional approaches or only from her Catholicism. But the richness of her writing style cannot be misinterpreted. Her humor, her ability to choose the right word for the situation, her mastery of plot structure and content—all have gained her stature and recognition and have placed her in the forefront among twentieth-century American authors.

In the matter of interpretation, O’Connor recognized the dangers of regionalism and esotericism. She did not want her readers always to interpret her fiction from the perspective of her Catholicism. She wanted her stories to transcend religious boundaries, to transcend even regional and social boundaries. O’Connor hoped she would be acknowledged beyond these same boundaries, to be known as a writer touching universal {161} conditions of narrow-mindedness, suspicion, lack of integrity, and injustice. But most of all she addressed the denial of faith under pressure, as evidenced by the grandmother in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

O’Connor was not on a campaign to prove any particular dogmas or the superiority of any religious persuasion. She resisted the label of Catholic writer: “I don’t care to get labeled as such in the popular sense of it, as it is then assumed that you have some religious axe to grind.” 6

Critics tend to pigeonhole, to categorize, to interpret from a grasp-able perspective, much to her dismay. It bothered her when critics failed to see beyond her Catholicism. Robert Drake, in Flannery O’Connor: A Critical Essay, claims that critics have difficulty dealing knowledgeably and seriously with her and her works because they stumble over the theological basis for her stories and themes. 7

INTOLERANT OF HYPOCRISY AND INDIVIDUALISM

O’Connor’s dedication and commitment to her beliefs, to her Church, to her concept of integrity and honesty spurred her to intolerance of the violations she observed in her community. Sincere and faithful in church attendance—she and her mother attended Mass every Sunday—and in her belief in the authority of the Church, she expresses concern in her stories for the hypocrisy and blatant individualism of characters who forsake or disregard the dogmas of their churches.

In many of her stories the protagonists move from trauma, spiritual crises, even violence to grace and epiphany. This, to O’Connor, became the formula leading to redemption and wholeness. To her the meaning and focus of life was redemption in Christ.

In her stories her chief targets are the self-proclaimed intellectuals who have a form of godliness but deny its power and relevance, who proclaim their own systems of belief: warped, skewed, inaccurate, sometimes manifested in violence and terror. 8 But always there is the possibility and availability of redemption and grace which can bring a person back to faith in Christ.

Christianity, the gospel of salvation through Christ, became a central point of O’Connor’s writing:

Jesus Christ is finally the principal character in all of Miss O’Connor’s fiction, whether offstage or, in the words and actions of her characters, very much on. And their encounter with Him is the one story she keeps telling over and over again. 9

Focusing on a broader perspective, that of the western world, O’Connor contended that since the Judeo-Christian influence permeates {162} the western world, writers must recognize the boundaries of the influence, both sacred and secular. For O’Connor it shaped and defined her boundaries:

For my part, I shall have to remain well within the Judeo-Christian tradition. I shall have to speak, without apology, of the Church, even when the Church is absent; of Christ even when Christ is not recognized. 10

CHRISTIAN FAITH A SCANDALOUS BUSINESS

O’Connor’s one story, her focus, concentrated on humankind’s acceptance or rejection of truth. If acceptance, then absolute obedience to the truth must follow; if rejection, then honesty in that rejection, and not hypocrisy, must follow.

For O’Connor belief in Christ and commitment to that belief must develop and mature; it requires effort and stamina. Christ is not, she believed, an easy, palpable solution. In fact, the

Christian religion is a very shocking, indeed a scandalous business . . . and . . . its Savior is an offense and a stumbling, even a “bleeding, stinking mad” grotesque to many. 11

Writing during a time of relative stability in the economy and social structure of the United States following World War II, she nonetheless sensed the approaching pervasive malaise of the segregation turmoil, the suspicions of undercover Communist investigators and their surreptitious investigations. Some of the latter she observed and loathed at Yaddo, an artists’ retreat in New York in the early 1950s. She was also alert to the beginnings of religious laxity and even rebellion, which exacerbated in the early 1960s. She saw the advent of the modern person who “can neither believe nor contain himself in unbelief and who searches desperately, feeling about in all experience for the lost God.” 12

She believed we live in an age of unbelief when human beings must determine how to resolve their spiritual nature in the battle between belief and unbelief. People try to deal with a guilt they cannot name, O’Connor said. They try “to reach a God [they] can’t approach, a God powerless to approach [them].” 13

THE MISSIONARY ROLE OF THE NOVELIST

O’Connor asserted and believed writers can help with the trauma of lostness, of helping people find God. In a symposium speech entitled “Novelist and Believer,” given at Sweet Briar College in Virginia in 1963, she explained that serious fiction writers deal with flaws in human nature, with problems derived from original sin, with people lacking {163} completeness in their lives, with the search for salvation of the soul. She continued in her speech,

The Christian novelist is distinguished from his pagan colleagues by recognizing sin as sin. According to his heritage he sees it not as sickness or an accident of environment, but as a responsible choice of offense against God which involves his eternal future. 14

The novelist therefore has accepted a mission of reform, of honest portrayal of social and spiritual shortcomings, and thus has been expected to reveal reality. As such, O’Connor claimed, theologians in many universities court English departments because in the modern novel the theologian “sees reflected the man of our time, the unbeliever, who is nevertheless grappling in a desperate and usually honest way with intense problems of the spirit.” 15

O’Connor’s concern was for an intelligent understanding of humanity’s spiritual condition:

The universe of the Catholic fiction writer is one that is founded on the theological truths of the Faith, but particularly on three of them which are basic—the Fall, the Redemption, and the Judgment. These are the doctrines that the modern secular world does not believe in. 16

In her setting, the Bible Belt, she focused on fallen humankind, on characters limited by provincialism, stigmatized by what she described as Christ-hauntedness. Suffering and depraved, reaching for redemption and grace, sometimes these characters find it, as Mrs. Turpin does in “Revelation”; occasionally they die without it, as Mrs. May does in “Greenleaf.”

O’Connor believed in the necessity of presenting a message of hope, even for the grotesques in her fiction, such as Hazel Motes in Wise Blood and Old Mason Tarwater in The Violent Bear It Away. One must look for the good, she asserted, because it exists and is available. Ultimate good has been corrupted by the Fall, so that present reality, besides goodness, also includes sin—violence, hypocrisy, pride, corruption. But Christ’s redemption has made possible ultimate goodness. 17 This message became for O’Connor the burden and substance of her personal life and her fiction.

NOTES

  1. Thomas Hardy, “The Convergence of the Twain,” in Selected Poems of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1972), 120-21. {164}
  2. Emily Dickinson, “ ‘Faith’ Is a Fine Invention,” in Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1959), 280.
  3. Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat,” in Stephen Crane: An Omnibus, ed. Robert Wooster Stallman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1968), 439.
  4. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 90.
  5. Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 146.
  6. O’Connor, Habit, 391.
  7. Robert Drake, Flannery O’Connor: A Critical Essay (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 6-7.
  8. Ibid., 16.
  9. Ibid., 17.
  10. O’Connor, Mystery, 155.
  11. Drake, 17.
  12. O’Connor, Mystery, 159.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 167.
  15. Ibid., 158.
  16. Ibid., 185.
  17. Ibid., 179.
Paul Friesen is Professor of English at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas. He has recently written a three-hundred page book manuscript devoted to Flannery O’Connor’s struggle with Bible Belt Christianity.

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