Not a few times I have recommended friends to read her but the come back, after reading one or two items, with a common sort of response: “Too dark, too weird, too violent. I don’t get the point. How can this be seen as Christian literature? Where’s the grace?”
I’m speaking of Flannery O’Connor, whose short stories can never be absorbed in one reading. After a first reading, the response might be “Weird.” The second, “Weird but interesting.” After a third or fourth, “Wow, profound, but still weird.” I agree. It took me three readings of “Parker’s Back” until the story starting coming together, and it was Jill Baumgaertner’s A Proper Scaring that pointed me to seeing grace run straight through Flannery.
Like those who need several attempts to enjoy a proper espresso straight or a whisky neat or sushi, it takes a few attempts to come to enjoyable terms with Flannery.
What Flannery does is turn conventions inside out by letting each event become a gospel event. In other words, Flannery writes up a “subversive gospel,” which is the title of the wonderful new book by professor Michael Mears Bruner: A Subversive Gospel.
This is one of the favorite books I discovered at the annual meetings for SBL in Boston.
Today some main themes from Bruner’s fine and important study of Flannery. As I was reading Bruner I kept saying to myself, “Go get Wise Blood or The Violent Bear It Away and read Flannery herself.” Such is the sign of the mediational ability of a good writer. The good ones lead you to the sources.
If they take you to the heart of the gospel they will subvert common perceptions. Bruner gets it.
By subverting conventional notions of beauty, goodness, and truth, O’Connor is not extolling their opposites—ugliness, evil, and dissemblance. It isn’t as if what is ugly is actually beautiful, or what is true suddenly appears as a lie, or what is evil is actually divine goodness. She is instead suggesting, by creative implication through her fiction, that our conventional categories be baptized, as it were, to include their divine extensions, so that what is beautiful is also sometimes terrible, and what is true is also sometimes foolish, and what is good is also sometimes violent. Seen in this way, the conventional notions of the transcendentals are not wrong so much as they simply do not exhaust the category.
I like the expression Bruner uses in italics next, and it reminds of Gorman’s cruciformity which I have myself made use of when speaking of Bonhoeffer’s cruciform hermeneutics.
In order to understand O’Connor’s subversion, I am suggesting that we apply a kind of crucifix hermeneutic to her fiction—a kind of crosshairs reading that alerts us to the fact that when something violent happens in her stories, or someone is or says or does something foolish, or something terrible or awful appears, there is a decent chance that O’Connor is actually trying to show us something good, true, or beautiful, respectively. We look to the example of Jesus on the cross, whose death was violent even by Roman standards, whose cry of dereliction was ridiculed as he was left hanging on the tree for dead, and whose form was marred beyond recognition. In that cosmic and very local moment, goodness, truth, and beauty reached their divine apex, thus not merely extending but exhausting—even exploding—the categories of the Greeks and thenceforth establishing a new order of things, a new way of seeing.
… through the medium of her art, Flannery O’Connor showed her readers how following Christ is a commitment to follow in his shadow, which becomes a subversive act aesthetically (“bleeding”), ethically (“stinking”), and intellectually (“mad”). But to understand how and why she does this, one must take seriously both her theological and artistic commitments.
Her Southern grotesque, perhaps a bit on the side of William Faulkner, is Christian, is Catholic, and is gospel shaped. What Bruner says is right:
When O’Connor writes she is performing surgery on the soul, without anesthesia, and yet she leaves her readers wanting more.
Everything about her and everything about her stories and everything about her craft … it’s a package: take her or leave her, but you can’t have parts of her.
O’Connor’s aesthetic and theological approaches, her artistic and moral vision, her vocation and her life, were woven together into a unified whole that ineluctably led, through the medium of her craft, to a depiction of the terrible beauty, violent goodness, and foolish truth of God.
What Bruner summarizes about her is something I believe is true. I’ve read some potent stuff over the years, Cormac MacCarthy, William Faulkner, even Dante but no one is like Flannery:
No one else wrote like she did, certainly no other Christian writer did, with that bizarre mix of provincial colloquialisms and circus sideshow freaks with a medieval religious sensibility.