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Flannery O’Connor’s Inescapable Jesus.
© 1 June 2002, Stephen Sparrow

During a short career she made a strong impression with her strange God obsessed novels and stories. How she might have developed cannot be conjectured but the small body of her work she has left makes her early death a matter for regret.

The above quote comes from the O’Connor entry in the Cambridge Guide to English Literature (U.K.:1981). Now contrast that quote with O’Connor’s own raison d’ê tre, contained in a piece she wrote twenty-five years earlier for "The Living Novel: A Symposium".

I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centred in our redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.

Anyone familiar with O’Connor’s published letters could imagine her laughter and perhaps even her indignation, if she had lived to read the Cambridge Guide’s patronising finding that her artistic development was in some way hindered by an obsession with God, and yes I know the quote doesn’t actually say that in so many words, but the inference is plain enough. However, at least that same source did acknowledge O’Connor’s talent and noted her early death as “a matter for regret”.

So, what is it that makes O’Connor’s stories so alluring, so compelling and yet so incomprehensible to many first time readers? Well, apart from the fact that they are well written and well constructed--after all O’Connor’s prose is always spare and to the point--the stories themselves deal with the hard and the realistic in life. Realism that is hinged to the mystery of evil and which presents God as the "inescapable Jesus" in language that ranges from the subliminal to the thunderously obvious. Her fictional characters have the uncanny ability to reflect an image of our own psyches, which calls to mind the images we see when we look into one of those crazy distortion mirrors at a Carnival; uncomfortable reminders of our real selves.

For her first novel Wise Blood published in 1952, O’Connor invented a character called Hazel Motes. Hazel was spiritually maimed through being raised inside an insanely fundamentalist family. In a reaction against his unhappy upbringing he declared "war" on God and started his own church, “The Church Without Christ”, "where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way." Hazel began his "evangelising" by standing on the nose of his car and haranguing the crowds leaving cinema showings and his opening spiel would commence like this.

Listen you people. I’m going to preach there was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgement because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar...

Where you came from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it.

Now, if the reader teases out the meaning of those words, he ends up with a frightening scenario. All explanations have vanished: all justification for living, gone: everything has collapsed in a heap. The virtue of Hope lies dead. Of course O’Connor would be the first to say that Faith is not about comfort zones.  In 1959 she wrote to her friend Louise Abbot saying; "What people don’t realise is how much religion costs.  They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.  It is much harder to believe than not to believe." But the irony here is that for those who profess no faith, there are likewise no comfort zones.  The bottom line is that Atheism is also a Faith.  O’Connor was familiar with the writings of French thinker and poet Charles Péguy (1874-1914) who said "Until the Day of Judgement, when they will no longer be necessary.  Its [Christianity’s] best proof, its only proof, is not to offer proofs... Otherwise there would be no liberty for man (we have so little as it is)... All would be compelled to enter." So, where should we look for a sign?  Well, fortunately not far.  By their fruits alone, they (Faiths) shall be known and for those whose "faith" is to deny any sort of faith; Existentialism is an especially barren and joyless place and has never in the whole history of the world provided a kick start for any civilisation, never mind the high improbability of it ever being able to sustain one.

And now, to return to O’Connor’s advice to Louise Abbot that "it is much harder to believe than not to believe." We could add; yes, it’s easier not to believe by simply not bothering to worry about it; but sooner or later curiosity about the great WHY has to be resolved, and the only way to dodge that issue is to turn your back on the question, to run away from it and refuse to confront it.  It is probably the laziest intellectual mindset that there is and the real name of it is agnosticism, which is a Greek word meaning ignorance.

However, in returning to Wise Blood and the claim of Hazel Mote’s that Jesus was a liar; if we think on it, we should be able to see where O’Connor is coming from. The logic of the premise is plain. If we don’t accept that Jesus Christ is God, then we have to agree with what O’Connor wrote in a letter to Betty Hester in 1955, “If He was not God, he was no realist, only a liar, and the crucifixion an act of justice.” That stance leaves no No Man’s Land in which to take refuge, which makes it difficult to evade the question: if human beings don’t have immortal souls, then why did Christ submit to His crucifixion? Or, in denying Christ’s redemption, how are we going to resolve the baffling but illusory dichotomy that exists between Free Will and Justice.1 But, luckily for us, O’Connor, further on in her letter to Louise Abbot, amplified in simple language the whole question of immortality by writing. “My reading of the priest’s article on hell was that hell is what God’s love becomes to those who reject it. God made us to love Him. It takes two to love. It takes liberty. It takes the right to reject. If there were no hell, we would be like the animals. No hell, no dignity. And remember the mercy of God. It is easy to put this down as a formula and hard to believe it, but try believing the opposite, and you will find it too easy. Life has no meaning that way.”

Sifting through O’Connor’s fiction for examples of the Inescapable Jesus is like looking for stones in a riverbed.  They’re everywhere. You start one story and read a little way and think,  ‘Ah ha, yes that’ll do.’ You read a little further and find a better example.  ‘Or is it better?’ you ask yourself.  Anyway, before you’ve gone very far, you’ve ended up with scores of quotes and the more you look at them the harder it is to rank them.  They all look good and in different ways.  However, I think there is so much iridescence in her novel Wise Blood that it is probably the best story in which to start looking for the Inescapable Jesus of Flannery O’Connor.  The following two extracts, which exemplify it, occur in the first chapter.

His [Hazel’s] grandfather had been a circuit preacher, a waspish old man who had ridden over three counties with Jesus hidden in his head like a stinger.

And on the following page.

He [Hazel] knew by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher.  Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.

Here we have the quintessential O’Connor portrait of Southern characters raised in and shaped by a region that O’Connor once described as being "Christ haunted but no longer Christ centred." However it was still (mid 20th Century) a region where the Old Testament governed the psyche and enriched the language of its inhabitants. A place where on the streets of O’Connor’s fictional Taulkinham it would come as no surprise to hear the fake blind man Asa Hawks telling Hazel Motes, “listen boy.  You can’t run away from Jesus.  Jesus is a fact.”

Wise Blood is in my opinion an incredible novel and I think that all of O’Connor’s subsequent stories owe their Genesis to it and of course Wise Blood has grown straight out of the ‘modern’ (but certainly not O’Connor’s) notion that the New Testament is hogwash or at least doesn’t matter any more.

O’Connor’s second novel The Violent Bear It Away is also stiff with references alluding to the Inescapable Jesus, such as this one which uses negative inference to illustrate the subject. “The man, an insurance salesman, wore a straw hat on the side of his head and smoked a cigar and when you told him his soul was in danger, he offered to sell you a policy against any contingency.”

And from the short story "The Comforts of Home" comes this subliminal pointer, 

"Thomas does not hate you.” His mother said. “We are not the kind of people who hate,” she added, as if this were an imperfection that had been bred out of them generations ago.

See the connection between this and these lines from O’Connor’s letter to Louise Abbot. "If there were no hell, we would be like the animals. No hell, no dignity."

In the short story "Greenleaf" we find Mrs. May justifying her position in the world by thinking of herself as a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not of course, believe any of it was true. Mrs. May, in possession of all the civil and social advantages that Christianity brought in its wake, is now too lofty to acknowledge that gratitude is due to anyone but herself.

But for me the piece de resistance, which best illustrates the Inescapable Jesus, comes from the story "Parker’s Back," especially where O.E. Parker enters the tattooist’s salon determined to have something religious tattooed on his back as a means to please his shrewish and absurdly religious wife.

The artist [tattooist] went over to a cabinet at the back of a room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?”  he said, "saints, angels, Christs or what?”

“God,” Parker said.

“Father, Son or Spirit?”

“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ.  I don’t care.  Just so it’s God.”

I cannot read that exchange without becoming convulsed with laughter.  Poor old O.E. trying to please his wife.  Trying to please a religious woman whose religion is so pure and wraithlike that it is absolutely useless in helping her to live sensibly.  Banished from that religion is the Jesus of the gospels. Banished from it are all images of the Good Shepherd, the Crazy Vineyard Owner or the Prodigal Father who cannot resist loving the wayward son after his U turn.  In fact banished from Sarah Ruth Cate’s religion are all religious images.  They are condemned as idolatrous.  You have to wonder whether in her ‘spiritual economy’ even thoughts about God would be idolatrous.

"Parker’s Back" shows Flannery O’Connor at her best and in this one, as in most of her stories, we should be able to see O’Connor like the Grandmother in "A Good Man Is hard To Find" shaking the rolled up newspaper at our heads and telling us to wake up.

Fiction written by an author who sees life in relation to Christian Redemption will always be difficult to understand for readers who find the basic Christian Doctrines either irrelevant or repellent or both and O’Connor had a message for these people, which she repeated several times in the series of lectures she delivered in 1963.

Art never responds to the wish to make it democratic; it is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it.

Make no mistake, Flannery O’Connor produced real art and no small part of that art was her ability to sow seeds of doubt among the smug and the arrogant, especially those who are secure in their “faith” that life fundamentally has no meaning.  Her approach comes through clearly in some puckish advice that she gave her playwright friend Maryat Lee in a 1959 letter.

The thing to do is write something with a delayed reaction like those capsules that take an hour to melt in the stomach.  In this way, it could be performed on Monday and not make them vomit until Wednesday, by which time they would not be sure who was to blame.  This is the principle I operate under and I find it works very well.

Like those sorts of detonators with a set time delay, her stories reveal God by highlighting His absence from people’s lives. Gradually the dots are connected, the conclusion drawn, even if belatedly.  Flannery O’Connor never wrote overtly Christian fiction but invariably she came at it from the other end and her stories are almost always dominated by characters that illumine Christianity by trying to deny that Jesus Christ is God.

 

1. In reality free will and justice are different aspects of the same thing. Neither can exist without the other. Justice is the only object of freewill and freewill is the only means by which justice is achieved. Justice is not a product of evolutionary natural selection. That would be an impossibility. Otherwise, we should by now be able to trace and measure Justice from its beginnings until the present: with a graph to show the improvement in Justice. Justice perfecting itself and becoming more just? The mind boggles at the thought of where it could all end until we suddenly realise that Justice has its source in the person of God and that without freewill there could be no such thing as justice and of course without justice, free will would be an absurdity.

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