by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
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from LF Fall 2015
Like so many others, I was first exposed to Flannery O’Connor in high school when assigned her infamous short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” in English class. The story tells of a self-righteous old lady on a car trip with her son and his family. At her suggestion, they go off on a side road, where they have an accident due to her smuggled cat. They’re discovered, not by a helpful neighbor or policeman, but by The Misfit—a notorious criminal who has escaped from prison, whom the old lady has been dreading and decrying the whole time. Despite the family’s pleas for mercy, The Misfit sends them off one by one into the woods to be murdered by his accomplices. The old lady is left for last, and she tries everything to escape her doom, down to suggesting that maybe Jesus didn’t raise the dead after all, since the very idea of Jesus seems to offend The Misfit so much. In the last moments of the story, she reaches out to touch The Misfit, calling him one of her “babies”—and he shoots her down dead. The Misfit concludes that she might have been a good woman if only he’d been there to shoot her every minute of her life. It may be hard to find a good man, but apparently it’s even harder to find a good woman.
What a cheerful story! Just the kind of thing cynical teenagers love. My English teacher told the class with obvious delight that the point of the story is that all religious people are hypocrites who will do whatever they can to save their own skin because God sure won’t. I didn’t think much of that and decided to avoid Flannery O’Connor in the future.
Skip forward several years to when I was a seminary student. To my great amazement, I heard my ardently Lutheran New Testament professor, Donald Juel, retelling O’Connor’s stories as perfect expressions of Lutheran theology. It turns out that “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is not, actually, about religious hypocrisy, but about the sinner’s negative reaction to grace. When the old lady touched The Misfit, it was because she finally saw him and herself both as common members of a fallen humanity. But to be regarded as one of her “babies” instead of as a permanent “Misfit” was more than he could handle. He didn’t want that kind of grace or mercy, so he shot her. But it was too late; the touch of grace had gotten to him.1 To Juel, this was a wonderful illustration of the invasive action of God in word and sacrament to reach out to His enemies, namely us sinners, and bring us back to Him, despite our resistance.
That wasn’t the only story Juel retold. Another was “Parker’s Back,” O’Connor’s last story, which she finished just before she died, still very young, of complications related to lupus. In this one, a man named Parker with a great love of tattoos but a cold and judgmental wife decides to get his entire back covered with a gigantic tattoo of a Byzantine icon of Christ. He literally becomes a Christ-bearer this way, Christ written into his very flesh. He thinks it will please his religiously fastidious wife, but in fact she hates it. She is a Manichean at heart, denying the incarnation.2 As soon as she sees the tattoo, she attacks her husband with a broom, whacking the icon over and over again in her iconoclastic rage. Parker crawls away, weeping, having learned the terrible price of faith in the incarnate God. Juel thought it a brilliant expression of the theology of the cross.
And then there was the story “Revelation.” In this one, a very upright, thrifty woman named Mrs. Turpin is sitting in a dentist’s office, carefully cataloguing the entire world according to diligent vs. lazy, neat vs. slovenly. She is so enlightened, in her own mind, that she prefers hardworking and tidy black folks to lazy, dirty white folks. She is bursting full of gratitude to God for making her herself and not anybody else. But all this time, another patient in the office, a university student at a women’s college, has been staring at Mrs. Turpin with ever-growing hatred. Finally the hate boils over: the girl throws a book across the room at Mrs. Turpin and screams at her, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!” The apparently insane student is bundled off, and Mrs. Turpin is patched up and taken home by her kindly husband, but she is not at peace. She can’t help but hear the accusation as coming from heaven itself. But how could she of all people be a wart hog from hell—she who is so honest, hardworking, and fair? After stewing about it for some time, in the final scene she shakes her fist at heaven, demanding to know “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” In response, she is given a vision—the “revelation” for which the story is titled. She sees all kinds of people riding Jacob’s ladder up into heaven, even the lazy, even the slovenly, both white and black, both the socially proper and the “battalions of freaks and lunatics.” She sees herself there, too, at the end of the line, along with others who “always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right,” but on their way up to heaven, “even their virtues were being burned away.”3 Once again Juel was delighted with the story: it was the best fictional account of simul justus et peccator ever, a perfect depiction of the ways we sin even in our good works, as Luther said.
There was only one small problem with my professor’s analysis of the brilliantly Lutheran stories of Flannery O’Connor. Which is that Flannery O’Connor was not a Lutheran at all, but a Catholic.4
In fact, O’Connor wasn’t any old Catholic but a serious, devout, educated, self-conscious Catholic. Being Catholic was no happenstance but the life, soul, and substance of her being. She said so on many occasions. “The truth is,” she once wrote,
“my stories have been watered and fed by Dogma. I am a Catholic (not because it’s advantageous to my writing but because I was born and brought up one) and at some point in my life I realized that not only was I a Catholic but that this was all I was, that I was a Catholic not like someone else would be a Baptist or a Methodist but like someone else would be an atheist.”5
And again: “…I write the way I do because and only because I am a Catholic.”6 In her own understanding, O’Connor’s fiction was an artistic expression of the profoundest Catholic truths.
Such statements from the author have tended to confuse readers and correspondents more than clarify things. One reason is that O’Connor’s characters were, almost without exception, Protestants. She once complained that her one and only story about a Catholic, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” was always ignored by fans and critics alike.7 Two of her stories feature Catholic priests, doctrinally solid but otherwise comic figures not at the center of the action.8 One story features a Polish immigrant, obviously a Catholic, whose hard work and generosity exposes the cold hearts of the people around him who are, at least by default, Protestant.9 But overwhelmingly in O’Connor’s work, the characters and even the heroes and saints of the stories are Protestants, not by default but by conviction. When asked what she’d be if not a Catholic, O’Connor replied Pentecostal Holiness.10 Clearly, she couldn’t have written her stories about Protestant Christians in the South without some measure of appreciation and fellow feeling.
Many Catholics did not appreciate this. O’Connor reports reading a book review “by a priest who said that while my convictions might be Catholic, my sensibility appeared to be Lutheran.”11 Another reviewer “condemns, with table-thumping fury, Miss O’Connor’s fiction as flagrantly anti-Catholic, deterministic, presenting ‘a thorough point-by-point dramatic argument against Free Will, Redemption, and Divine Justice.’”12 She was regularly accused of Jansenism.13 Other less angry Catholic critics just wondered why she couldn’t write more uplifting stories depicting the beauties of faith as experienced in the Roman church. Why all these insane Protestants? Why do the main characters always die at the end or experience some other horror?
And on top of that, for all her fidelity to Catholic teaching, O’Connor didn’t shy away from criticizing the lived reality of much Catholicism. “Smugness is the Great Catholic Sin,” she once wrote to a friend. Nuns “administer the True Faith with large doses of Pious Crap.”14 As a child in Catholic school, O’Connor hated talk about guardian angels so much that she used to shut herself in a room to punch and kick at the air, hoping to knock some feathers off her own angel. Once she commented, “I think that the reason such Catholics are so repulsive is that they don’t really have faith but a kind of false certainty. They operate by the slide rule and the Church for them is not the body of Christ but the poor man’s insurance system.”15 One of her sharpest criticisms was Catholic ignorance of and indifference toward the Bible.16
So whose writer is Flannery O’Connor really? Does she belong to the Catholics? Or to Lutherans? Fundamentalist southern Protestants? Maybe even the Orthodox, as the Byzantine Christ tattoo in her last story and her avowed interest in Orthodoxy and Eastern Rite Catholicism would suggest? Or should we call her ecumenical, even though she died before the Second Vatican Council ended?
Closer inspection reveals that the varied reception of Flannery O’Connor’s work, and the varied ways in which she interpreted her own work and the relationship between different kinds of Christians, together illustrate beautifully the paradoxical reality of the one-and-yet-divided church. And further, as an artist in the medium of fiction, she points in certain directions toward possibilities for reconciliation between divided Christians and their churches, though not always deliberately or consciously.17 Four points to this effect will be explored here, using her stories and letters to shed light on them.
1. An unresolved history of hostility will amplify the perceived differences between churches, increase the chances of mutual misunderstanding, and conceal the extent of genuine agreement.
One thing I have learned from reading O’Connor and also about her is that it’s impossible to overestimate the suspicion with which Catholicism was held in the American South. Catholics were enemies, foreigners, and idolaters, little better than pagans in the eyes of their Protestant neighbors. The Protestantism around O’Connor was by and large not the “magisterial Protestantism” of the sixteenth century Reformations (not that that would have made things much easier) but Baptist, Methodist, Holiness, Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Pentecostal. Collectively these were not “established” as the state religion of the American South, but they certainly were the dominant force culturally and religiously, and often enough politically.18 O’Connor illustrated this suspicious attitude toward her kind when she had a character ask the preacher of a new church whether it’s “Protestant, or something foreign?”19 O’Connor never had any doubts that she was a member of a despised minority.
Thus, the more knowledgeable O’Connor grew about the Catholicism she’d been raised in and the more she claimed it for herself, the more she also realized how it set her over against others and her consequent need to defend it. A college professor remembered her particular interest in a textbook written by a man who had converted to Catholicism after studying Luther.20 O’Connor reported how her mother chased off Methodist missionaries trying to invite the Polish Catholic immigrants on their farm to church.21 O’Connor could concede the problem of ignorant nuns, “unimaginative and overworked” priests, and the church’s consorting with gangsters from Constantine to Mussolini; but whatever its failures, she remained loyal: the church was the church, and that was enough.22 She proudly professed her belief in the infallibility of the papacy, transsubstantiation, cooperation in grace, and purgatory.23
At the same time, her range of options as a Catholic was fairly limited. O’Connor lived almost entirely in a pre-ecumenical Catholicism, so if she wanted to remain a faithful Catholic there was only so far she could go beyond the established boundaries. At the time, Catholics were still forbidden to attend “outside” religious services.24 She respected the Index of Forbidden Books, seeking a priestly dispensation when she wanted to read something on it—though she also obviously enjoyed the shock her obedience produced among her non-Catholic friends.
For being a faithful member of pre-ecumenical Catholicism in a hostile Protestant world, O’Connor was remarkably charitable. But that doesn’t mean she always read things right or didn’t have her own agenda in using Protestant characters. In one letter, responding to a rejection of “mutual interdependence” between human beings, she comments, “This is far from Catholic doctrine; in fact it strikes me as highly Protestant, a sort of justification by faith. God became not only a man, but Man. This is the mystery of the Redemption and our salvation is worked out on earth according as we love one another, see Christ in one another, etc., by works.”25 It’s not quite clear what she thinks she’s rejecting, but somehow for her “justification” doesn’t entail the incarnation or its universal implications, and she seems to think that “by faith” means not doing “works” and is highly individualistic. This misunderstanding of the classic Reformation doctrine appears in another letter, commenting on her story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”:
“Grace, to the Catholic way of thinking, can and does use as its medium the imperfect, purely human, and even hypocritical. Cutting yourself off from Grace is a very decided matter, requiring a real choice, act of will, and affecting the very ground of the soul… In the Protestant view, I think Grace and nature don’t have much to do with each other. The old lady, because of her hypocracy and humanness and banality couldn’t be a medium for Grace. In the sense that I see things the other way, I’m a Catholic writer.”26
It’s hard to see how this could be a legitimate criticism of a Protestantism that plainly confesses the simul justus et peccator, for the only way grace can be enacted through word and sacrament is by sinners to other sinners, including the “imperfect, purely human, and even hypocritical.” Part of the problem may be that “Protestantism” was all one thing for O’Connor, with rarely any distinction among its varieties. And yet she wanted to insist: “the doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants are a great deal more important than you think they are.”27
So it could happen that O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, stars a character named Hazel Motes, who was in O’Connor’s own words “a Protestant saint” and “the ultimate Protestant.”28 Yet he was a medium for teaching what O’Connor took to be essentially Catholic truths. She had some fun taking a poke at Protestant theology, as when Hazel, whose mission in life is to found The Church of Christ Without Christ, asserts that “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.”29 Hazel’s mission to detach himself entirely from God fails, in the end, and he blinds himself in an act of purgatorial penance, which O’Connor understood to be a distinctly Catholic response to his sins rather than a Protestant one.30 But if the deep theme of this novel is anything, it’s election—the overwhelming call of God that no amount of sinful resistance can ultimately do anything about. And that theological theme is much more associated with Protestantism, especially in its Reformed variety, than Catholicism.
We could conclude that Flannery O’Connor was an inconsistent Catholic. Or we could conclude that profound Christian art will not stay obediently within the boundaries imposed upon it. In spite of itself, almost, it will reach out and appropriate truths that have been officially assigned to other members of the body of Christ.
2. Ecumenical alliances are always shifting as need and opportunity present themselves, and sometimes their motives are less than pure. Anything short of the reconciliation of all Christians has not yet managed to be truly ecumenical.
Despite the history of mutual hostility, what Flannery O’Connor discovered—to the surprise of both parties—was a certain affinity between Roman Catholics and Fundamentalist Protestants. What she admired in both was the extremity of conviction and commitment.31 She once explained:
“…I think the only difference between [Catholics and the southern Protestants she wrote about] is that if you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief you join the convent and are heard from no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about in the world, getting into all sorts of trouble and drawing the wrath of people who don’t believe anything much at all down on your head. This is one reason why I can write about Protestant believers better than Catholic believers—because they express their belief in diverse kinds of dramatic action which is obvious enough for me to catch.”32
Another time she pointed out that these kinds of Protestants have no sacraments to help them:
“The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It’s full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically. If this were merely comic to me, it would be no good, but I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do.”33
O’Connor the Catholic maintains her distance from those who have no sacraments and stumble into heresy, yet in the next moment affirms their common belief in “sin and redemption and judgment.” And the criticism she as a Catholic makes of Protestants is one that has certainly been levied by Protestants against Catholics: of having a “do-it-yourself religion” leading to “unconscious pride” and “ridiculous religious predicaments.”
But there are temptations in this kind of ecumenical alliance. One of them is to pay our former or present enemies the ambiguous compliment of being, in the end, just like us. Think of my professor, for whom the greatest praise he could offer to O’Connor was that she perfectly expressed his Lutheran theology. Or consider O’Connor’s praise for an independent prophet in her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away. She says of this old man, Tarwater, that he “is not typical of the Southern Baptist or the Southern Methodist. Essentially, he’s a crypto-Catholic. When you leave a man alone with his Bible and the Holy Ghost inspires him, he’s going to be a Catholic one way or another, even though he knows nothing about the visible church.”34
This is an astounding remark on several levels. First, it reveals that for O’Connor Christian truth is always Catholic truth: her truthful Protestant is actually a “crypto-Catholic.” Second, however, even while affirming the Catholic church as the repository of truth, O’Connor undermines its claims with the assertion that a person left alone with a Bible and the Holy Spirit can arrive at the same truth without ever knowing anything of the visible church! Membership in the Catholic church would appear to be a matter of bene esse, not esse. Biblicism leads to Catholicism, no Tradition or clergy necessary. In a later letter O’Connor describes Catholic criticisms of Tarwater: “A good many Catholics are put off because they think the old man, being a Protestant prophet, so to speak, has no hold on the truth. They look at everything in a confessional way.”35 O’Connor evidently found other Catholics’ confessional objections less than Catholic!
All this common ground that O’Connor found was, despite its ambiguities, an ecumenically cheering discovery—one that officials of Catholicism and conservative Protestantism would take quite a bit longer to make, and one still not learned by legions of individual Catholics and Protestants. But there was a darker side to it too. O’Connor’s fiction assumed a kind of alliance between Catholics and conservative Protestants against liberal Protestants. Toward this latter category O’Connor openly and often expressed her disdain. To her mind, they had struck their own alliance, but with the nihilism, logical positivism, and secularism that was taking over American culture. She criticized “that purely liberal Protestantism that eventually ends in a system of ethical values, but not real Christianity as the orthodox know it.”36 She argued that Catholics are “doctrinally closer to Protestant fundamental[ist]s than to those liberal Protestant theologians who have created a naturalistic ethical culture, humanism, and labeled it Christianity.”37
These critiques, to be fair, are ones that many liberal Protestants themselves have made against their own churches, so the difference is not quite as airtight as O’Connor would have it. And as it would turn out, by the time Vatican ii was over—just after O’Connor’s death—liberal Protestants were the ones to warm up to Catholicism, appropriating much of Catholic liturgical renewal and ecclesiology, while conservatives maintained a distrustful distance.
To complicate matters further, while conservative Protestants won O’Connor’s accolades because they were actually reading and living from the Bible, liberal Protestants were the ones who pioneered the revival in biblical scholarship that impressed O’Connor so much that she wished to see more of it in her own Catholic church. She could even admit that the so-called crisis theologians
“are the greatest of the Protestant theologians writing today and it is to our misfortune that they are much more alert and creative than their Catholic counterparts. We have very few thinkers to equal Barth and Tillich, perhaps none. This is not a great age of Catholic theology. We are living on our capital and it is past time for a new synthesis.”38
She also said of Barth—a sharp critic of liberal Protestantism, to be sure, but equally so of the sacraments—that “there is little or nothing in [his] book that the Catholic cannot recognize as his own.”39
There was a certain gallantry on O’Connor’s part in taking sides with despised southern Protestants; it’s not like anybody was embarrassed by any passionate excesses on the part of liberal Protestantism or felt the need to make an apology for them. Still, her own hard words against liberal Protestantism don’t quite match up to the reality she experienced. Her wavering attitudes demonstrate the temptation to create alliances between Christians against other Christians. Ecumenically-minded Christians should be cautious of who turns out to be the loser when such alliances are struck.
3. A seminal ecumenical discovery is that the same theological content can be concealed behind different forms and terms.
One of the most important breakthroughs on the way to ecumenical reconciliation is the notion of “differentiated consensus.” The basic idea is that the various theological traditions may use different terms or images to describe the same thing, or may use the same terms or images to describe different things. The result is mutual misunderstanding—each side hears or sees something different from what the other intended. The task of ecumenical theology is to probe deeper and see if common ground lies behind the apparent differences.
Of course, there will necessarily be a different thought structure in the various theological traditions that shapes how each sees things, such that there cannot be perfect overlap. And even when agreement is discovered, terms and images are needed to describe the new common understanding, which will require a third set of terms and images, itself susceptible to misunderstanding. It’s not a simple process. But when it works, the consensus establishes a set of possibilities between former ecclesial enemies.
In Flannery O’Connor’s stories and letters, and the theological criticism directed toward them, there emerges a textbook case of differentiated consensus, or rather the need for it: in this case, on the topic of “free will.”
An American nun named Sister Mariella Gable was the first person to write about the ecumenical import of O’Connor’s work. In her article, Gable repeatedly affirms O’Connor’s belief in “free will,” especially against fellow Catholic critics who saw in O’Connor quite the opposite. In O’Connor’s stories people are free, Gable asserts, to accept grace or reject it. Many readers, though, Catholic and Protestant alike, haven’t seen it that way. Most of O’Connor’s characters seem to have no freedom at all: they are relentlessly pursued by God, the pursuit feels more like horror than joy, and if they finally give in, it’s usually right at the moment of death. Gable doesn’t find this to be a denial of free will, however. She observes that O’Connor refuses “to confuse free will with a single will.”40 She says the point of the stories is that a human being will try “to run away from God but redemptive grace saves him from apostasy.”41 At this point, anyone trained in sixteenth-century Protestant theology will wonder what, exactly, free will means to Gable.
The confusion might reflect a certain equivocation in O’Connor herself. In certain contexts she could sound classically Catholic. She once wrote, “It’s true that grace is the free gift of God but in order to put yourself in the way of being receptive to it you have to practice self-denial.”42 And according to her own understanding of her craft, a belief in “free will” was absolutely necessary for a fiction writer. She wrote:
An absence of free will in these characters would mean an absence of conflict in them, whereas they spend all their time fighting within themselves, drive against drive… Free will has to be understood within its limits; possibly we all have some hinderances [sic] to free action but not enough to be able to call the world determined… This doctrine of double predestination is strictly a Protestant phenomenon. Until Luther and Calvin, it was not countenanced…I don’t think literature would be possible in a determined world.43
Aha! Notice what O’Connor’s target really is: determinism. It’s the same in Gable as well. In the Catholic doctrine they defend, the opposite of free will is a purely mechanistic, determined universe. Without “free will” there would only be fate governing the motions of machines and puppets. Over against this, Catholics argue for the freedom of the human will.
Well, actually, this is something that most Protestants would want to affirm as well. The misunderstanding arises because when Lutherans, for example, talk about “free will” or the absence of it, they have a different target in mind: the notion that human beings have the freedom never to sin, or the freedom to choose God apart from God, or the freedom to earn their own salvation.44 This is a very different kind of disagreement with “free will”! Freedom against fate is not the same as freedom against God. This misunderstanding explains O’Connor’s strong reaction to a Catholic priest who labeled her a Lutheran: “What Fr. Simons was talking about saying ‘Lutheran sensibility’ he explained this way: Luther said a man was like a horse, ridden either by Christ or the devil. My characters are ridden either, said he, by Christ or the devil and therefore lack any self-determination, hence Lutheran sensibility. ????????”45
So there is a basic miscommunication at work as to what Catholics and magisterial Protestants respectively mean by “free will.” But more relevant than that, even, is the fact that O’Connor’s stories depict more than one way of encountering God. Some of them follow the trajectory of gradual and growing awareness of God, aided by reason and acted upon by the human will. That can be seen in “Parker’s Back” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” at the very least. This pattern fits in better with official Catholic teaching on the nature of conversion.46
Others, by contrast, show human beings completely in the grip of their sins who can only violently be shaken out of them by an overwhelming act of God. One scholar identifies “six Protestant tales [that] fascinate readers with the irrational in humanity and the stunning in the divine” in O’Connor’s corpus.47 In fact, one of the stories (“The Lame Shall Enter First”) put such an emphasis on the sinful resistance of the human character, with such a correspondingly dramatic intervention of the divine, that O’Connor actually tried to stop publication and later called it her least favorite story.48 Nevertheless, her other five short stories (and, I would add, her two novels) follow the same trajectory of devastating conversions: a full-on assault by the law and the hard shock of grace as necessary precursors to acceptance of the God of the gospel. Reason and human effort have but little to offer.
O’Connor once wrote that “all good stories are about conversion”49 but, as a fiction writer, she could not be held to only one theoretical or theological account of conversion. The stories told their own truths, sometimes in support of more obviously Catholic accounts and sometimes in support of more obviously Protestant ones. The fact that the same writer could make both kinds of conversion plausible suggests a greater variety of genuine Christian experience than confessionalistic distinctions care to admit. Reducing everything to God’s action alone sends us toward double predestination of the worst kind; reducing everything to human action alone lands us in Pelagianism. It is with good reason that Luther put up stop signs in front of both positions as being logical but false. Human agency lies within the sphere of divine agency, and we should never teach about it in a way that leads to either despair or laxity. Stories of the divine-human encounter in all their variety are probably, in the end, much better ways to teach this doctrine than doctrinal formulations themselves.
If there is any theological baseline to O’Connor’s conversion stories, it is this: “I believe that God’s love for us is so great that He does not wait until we are purified to such a great extent before he allows us to receive Him.”50 Catholics and Protestants alike have good reason to affirm her insight as common teaching.
4. Ecclesiology remains the biggest stumbling block.
O’Connor wrote back to Sister Mariella Gable: “I’m glad your paper is going to be on the ecumenic side of my writing. I am more and more impressed with the amount of Catholicism that fundamentalist Protestants have been able to retain. Theologically our differences with them are on the nature of the Church, not on the nature of God or our obligation to him.”51 To another correspondent she wrote, “For us the Church is the body of Christ, Christ continuing in time, and as such a divine institution. The Protestant considers this idolatry.”52
It’s as if O’Connor saw the whole future of the bilateral movement before it even got started! Yes, there are enormous amounts held in common between Catholics and Protestants—and not just Fundamentalists, but other kinds too—but the stumbling block still is now, just as it was then, the nature of the church.
As a mistrusted Catholic in the Protestant South, O’Connor had good reason to be defensive about the church she belonged to and loved. She realized her own complicity in the competition: “The Church becomes a part of your ego and gets messed in with your own impurity.”53 Many of the most important people in her life were converts to Catholicism, including a woman her age and long-term correspondent who became Catholic in part due to their friendship but later left the church altogether.54
O’Connor’s most impassioned defense of the Catholic church appears in a letter to an apparent doubter. She writes:
“[Y]ou seem actually to demand… that the Church put the kingdom of heaven on earth right here now, that the Holy Ghost be translated at once into all flesh… Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error. This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the Pope will not teach error in matters of faith… To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature… The Church does well to hold her own; you are asking that she show a profit… But you are not going to find the highest principles of Catholicism exemplified on the surface of life nor the highest Protestant principles either.”55
Here again is a striking example of the complexity of O’Connor’s thought. She argues unapologetically for the Catholic church being what it claims to be, yet at the same time is willing to admit that it doesn’t always operate “in a sinless or intelligent way” and that it is a “Church of sinners” “crucified by all of us.” She argues for the “dignity” of the Church managing on its own without “continuous miraculous meddling” and yet for the church just to “hold her own” is more than enough—we shouldn’t expect “profit.” She ends with the concession that Catholics and Protestants alike don’t manage to live up to their ideals.
But it gets more surprising than that. O’Connor even gives an account of why “reformation” is necessary. She writes:
“It’s our business to try to change the external faults of the Church—the vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, the lack of intellectual honesty—wherever we find them and however we can… You don’t serve God by saying: the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We help overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it.”56
For O’Connor, reform is part and parcel of staying in the church, not a break from the church. How very different the ecumenical landscape would look if we could acknowledge that our disagreements are within the church rather than between the true church and pretenders.
All the interconnections and overlaps we’ve seen in O’Connor between Catholic and Protestant (and maybe even Orthodox) Christianity point us in an ecumenically positive direction. But on another level they have also been extremely misleading. Because the point of Flannery O’Connor’s work was never really to join the internal competition between different kinds of Christians; that was only secondary. O’Connor had her eye on a different enemy, an enemy of all Christian believers: nihilism, the creeping conviction that there is no God, no truth, and no beauty, only power and violence and a big empty nothing all around us.
Already in the mid-twentieth century, O’Connor took nihilism to be the operative belief of most people around her. It was certainly the case among the literati. But she not only rejected their beliefs; she understood herself as a missionary to them.57 To one friend she wrote,
“One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, the whole reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.”58
And on another occasion: “[I]f you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church, it’s the gas you breathe. If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now.”59
And that was, finally, why O’Connor didn’t write beautiful stories of love and hope within the bosom of mother church. She wrote hard, violent, shocking stories because her first task was to shatter the shell of nihilism that surrounded her readers. Grace would remain invisible to them until that hard work had been done. She explained, “Part of the difficulty of all this is that you write for an audience who doesn’t know what grace is and don’t recognize it when they see it. All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal…”60 Or again:
“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”61
Anyone who could hear O’Connor’s stories about the terrible burden of original sin, the invasion of God’s grace, and the mercy of the incarnation was her friend and ally, whether a Fundamentalist who on principle hated all Catholics, or a liberal Protestant who hadn’t till then realized how much he’d already sold out to nihilism, or even a smug fellow Catholic full of “pious crap” but ready for a purge.
O’Connor once reported on a public talk she gave at a college about her work:
“After it a girl came up to me and said, “I’m not a Catholic, I’m a Lutheran but you’ve given me some hope for the first time that Catholic writers may do something.” I said, “Well please pray that we will.” And she said, “I will, I will in Christ.” And she meant it and she will and it is that kind of thing that makes these trips worth the effort.”62
Catholic or Lutheran or anything else, if the incarnation is at the center of reality for you, you can justly call O’Connor one of your own.
Whether you are already fighting against the nihilism of our world or only dimly suspecting its contagion, take up and read Flannery O’Connor’s profoundly disturbing and profoundly Christian works. Her stories are like jewels: perfect but very hard. Her letters show the cracks in the human soul and in the fractured church. Just as the Bible is Christians’ common literature—and it certainly is full of profoundly disturbing stories and letters!—so ought O’Connor to be. A good Christian writer is hard to find.
Sarah Hinlicky Wilson is the Editor of Lutheran Forum.
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1. O’Connor confirmed this interpretation in a letter to John Hawkes on 14 April 1960: “The Misfit is touched by the Grace that comes through the old lady when she recognizes him as her child, as she has been touched by the Grace that comes through him in his particular suffering. His shooting her is a recoil, a horror at her humanness, but after he has done it and cleaned his glasses, the Grace has worked in him and he pronounces his judgment: she would have been a good woman if he had been there every moment of her life.” Flannery O’Connor, Collected Works (New York: Library of America, 1988) [hereafter cited as CW], 1125.
2. Again, confirmed by O’Connor’s own interpretation in a letter to A. on 25 July 1964, CW 1218. See also Jacqueline A. Zubeck, “Back to Page One in ‘Parker’s Back’: An Orthodox Examination of Flannery O’Connor’s Last Story,” Flannery O’Connor Review 8 (2010): 92–116. Zubeck mentions the history of religious tattooing among Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Serbian Orthodox, and Bulgarian Orthodox, and notes that a Byzantine mass was said for O’Connor after her death at the initiative of an Eastern Rite Catholic friend, 110.
3. “Revelation,” CW 633–54.
4. Juel knew perfectly well that Flannery was Catholic, of course. But he firmly believed that she was “one of ours.” Although for most of her life she never made any study of Lutheranism per se, toward the end of her life she had on hand Max Lackmann’s The Augsburg Confession and Catholic Unity. CW 1186.
5. Letter to Thomas Mabry, 1 March 1955, CW 930.
6. Letter to John Lynch, 6 November 1955, CW 966.
7. Letter to A., 4 August 1962, CW 1172. “Odd about The Temple of the Holy Ghost. Nobody notices it. It is never anthologized, never commented upon. A few nuns have mentioned it with pleasure, but nobody else besides you.” It is hard to read this story without the impression that it is somehow autobiographical, spiritually if not quite historically.
8. Father Flynn in “The Displaced Person” and Father Finn “from Purrgatory” [sic] in “The Enduring Chill,” the latter of which is the only of O’Connor’s stories to end hilariously rather than gorily.
9. “The Displaced Person.” Wiersma notes O’Connor’s tipping of her confessional hand in the way she lines up the heroes and villains in this story: all the “good guys” are Catholics (the Polish Mr. Guizac, the Irish Father Flynn, even the peacocks as symbols of transfiguration), and the bad guys are technically Protestants but really nothing. Stanley M. Wiersma, “Flannery O’Connor and the Heidelberg Catechism,” The Reformed Journal (October 1970): 5–10.
10. Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 30.
11. Letter to A., 30 September 1955, CW 960. She immediately continues: “This after I announce to you in grand terms that I write the way I do because I am a Catholic.”
12. Mariella Gable, “Ecumenic Core in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction,” American Benedictine Review 15/2 (1964): 128.
13. Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (New York: Back Bay, 2009), 319, notes the “The Comforts of Home” as “Jansenist.” Interestingly, however, in her letters she usually spoke of Jansenism negatively. Was that an actual conviction or self-protection? Did the accusation hit a little too close to home for her self-perception as an orthodox Catholic?
14. Letter to A., 17 January 1956, CW 983.
15. Letter to Cecil Dawkins, 16 July 1957, CW 1037–8.
16. Gable, 129, quotes O’Connor from another interview: “Maybe in fifty years or a hundred Catholics will be reading the Bible the way they should have been reading it all along. I can wait that long to have my fiction understood. The Bible is what we share with all Christians, and the Old Testament we share with all Jews. This is sacred history and our mythic background. If we are going to discard this we had better quit writing at all. The fact that the South is the Bible Belt is in great measure responsible for its literary pre-eminence now. The Catholic novelist can learn a great deal from the Protestant South.”
17. “In her fiction this red-hot blast of faith, the ecumenic core, is concretized in six key convictions: 1. Scripture is the history of salvation; it is true. 2. Christ redeemed all men and this is the core and center of the meaning of life… 3. Redemptive grace is available to all men. 4. Men are free to use this grace or to reject it… 5. The devil exists. He tempts men to unbelief… 6. Modern man has elected to choose, instead of redeeming grace, four kinds of fool’s gold: a. Rationalism… b. Humanism… c. Psychology… d. Quantifying.” Gable, 131.
18. “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.” Paul Friesen, “The Missionary Calling of Flannery O’Connor,” Direction 27/2 (1998): 160.
19. Wise Blood, CW 60.
20. Gooch, 108.
21. Letter to Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, 10 June 1955, CW 939.
22. Letter to Dr. T. R. Spivey, 19 August 1959, CW 1102.
23. Lorna Wiedmann, “Flannery O’Connor’s Six Protestant Conversion Tales,” Flannery O’Connor Review 12 (2014): 46, n. 1.
24. Gooch, 182.
25. Letter to A., 15 September 1955, CW 954.
26. Letter to John Hawkes, 14 April 1960, CW 1125–6.
27. Letter to Dr. T. R. Spivey, 19 August 1959, CW 1102.
28. Letter to Carl Hartmann, 2 March 1954, CW 919, 921.
29. Wise Blood, CW 64.
30. See her letter to Carl Hartman, 2 March 1954, CW 919–22.
31. “…Southern fundamentalists won O’Connor’s ungrudging admiration because of their refusal to compromise the church’s angular message for smooth secular nostrums.” Wood, 3.
32. Letter to Sister Mariella Gable, 4 May 1963, CW 1183.
33. Letter to John Hawkes, 13 September 1959, CW 1107. My italics.
34. Letter to Sister Mariella Gable, 4 May 1963, CW 1183. A similar comment in another letter: “The old man is very obviously not a Southern Baptist, but an independent, a prophet in the true sense. The true prophet is inspired by the Holy Ghost, not necessarily by the dominant religion of his region… He was a prophet, not a church-member. As a prophet, he has to be a natural Catholic.” Letter to William Sessions, 13 September 1960, CW 1131.
35. Letter to Janet McKane, 27 August 1963, CW 1191.
36. J. Ramsey Michaels, Passing by the Dragon: The Biblical Tales of Flannery O’Connor (Eugene: Cascade, 2013), 7, quoting O’Connor.
37. Ibid., 8, quoting O’Connor.
38. Letter to A., 22 November 1958, CW 1082.
39. Wood, 10. In the same review she also said that she liked Barth because “He throws the furniture around.”
40. Gable, 137.
41. Ibid., 136.
42. Letter to Dr. T. R. Spivey, 21 June 1959, CW 1098.
43. Letter to Alfred Corn, 12 August 1962, CW 1173, about whether Tarwater and Rayber lack free will. She adds later, “I think the more you write, the less inclined you will be to rely on theories like determinism. Mystery isn’t something that is gradually evaporating. It grows along with knowledge.” CW 1174. Wood points out that she confuses predestination with fatalism, 193.
44. Of course, the classic text here is Luther’s Bondage of the Will, but see also the Formula of Concord ii on Free Will and xi on God’s Eternal Foreknowledge and Election.
45. Letter to A., 24 August 1956, CW 1000. The series of questions marks is O’Connor’s.
46. Wiedmann, 40.
47. Ibid., 44. The six are: “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” “The Artificial Nigger,” “Greenleaf,” “The Enduring Chill,” “The Lame Shall Enter First,” and “Revelation.”
48. Wiedmann 38, 45.
49. Quoted in Wiedmann, 45.
50. Quoted in Michaels, 54.
51. Letter to Sister Mariella Gable, 4 May 1963, CW 1184.
52. Letter to Dr. T. R. Spivey, 21 June 1959, CW 1099.
53. Letter to A., 17 January 1956, CW 982.
54. She is identified as “A.” in CW. It was revealed in 2007 that the woman’s name was Betty Hester.
55. Letter to Cecil Dawkins, 9 December 1958, CW 1084.
56. Ibid., 1085.
57. See n. 19 above.
58. Letter to A., 2 August 1955, CW 943.
59. Letter to A., 28 August 1955, CW 949
60. Letter to A., 4 April 1958, CW 1067.
61. “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” CW 805–6. To make matters worse, other writers thought her Catholicism invalidated her even further, beyond her basic Christian commitments. “You probably have not imagined what it is to write as a Catholic, knowing that most of the people who read you will think what you believe is utter rubbish… I have read people (Orwell) who say Catholics can’t write novels on acct. of being Catholics.” Letter to Carl Hartmann, 2 March 1954, CW 922.
62. Letter to A., 20 April 1957, CW 1030–1.