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Review: Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South
Danny E. Olinger
Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, by Ralph C. Wood. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2004, xii + 272 pages, $15.00, paper.
Ralph Wood's Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South reads much like O'Connor's fictionjarring, uncomfortable at times, penetrating, powerful, and nearly impossible to put down. The book is a study of O'Connor's work as it bears on the life of the contemporary church and one of its regional cultures, the South. Wood's premise is that O'Connor's literature has supreme value for the church because in it "she was willing to slay certain things that seem to be goodthe seemingly necessary modifications of the gospel that would make it fit modern needs and thus ensure its success" (11).
Wood argues that O'Connor was attracted to writing about her native South for the same reason that H. L. Mencken ridiculed it as the "Bible Belt"Southerners still took God and religion seriously. The title of the book comes from O'Connor's often repeated words: the South, while hardly Christ-centered, "is most certainly Christ-haunted" (37). For O'Connor a person could scarcely live in the South without being affected by Christianityusually of a fundamentalist Protestant stripe. Even for those hostile to Christianity, or for the nominal Christian, Southern culture is permeated by Christ. O'Connor thought such a Christ-haunted region was preferable to the alternative, but she was not naive about its weaknesses. She exposed over righteous unbelievers, who turned against the church, as well as smug half-believers, which were no believers at all. Consequently, according to Wood, her work "constitutes a massive assault on Christian presumption, even as it serves as a splendid summons to skeptics, half-believers, and unbelievers alike to join the glad way of the gospel" (x).
This is why O'Connor admired Southern fundamentalists. Disenfranchised, mocked as primitive and ignorant, and passed over by cultural elites, they knew what they believed, and what they believed was the supernatural power of God and the Bible. Wood writes, "She saw that Southern Fundamentalists held fast to twin realities often abandoned by Christians and secularists alike: an unembarrassed supernaturalism on the one hand, and a deep veneration of Holy Scripture on the other" (35). These downtrodden Christians were radical in their faith, and for O'Connor, who was less concerned to preserve Southern civilization than to reclaim Christian radicalism (4), they were perfect protagonists for her stories.
Explaining that she knew she was writing to an unsympathetic audience, Wood expertly lays out O'Connor's writing method. O'Connor wrote violently ("to the hard of hearing you shout" (219)), and yet with utter precision ("a story is a way to say something that can't be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is" (7)).
The theme of her stories was constant, the desperation of life apart from grace and the utter need to face the reality of God in Jesus Christ. Wood comments, "In most of O'Connor's stories the central characters undergo a painful confrontation with their own pride and presumption, behold themselves in the blinding light of divine grace and, if only at the last moment of their lives, come to radical conversion" (217). Wood notes that O'Connor's overtly redemptive writing lead critic Robert Drake to declare "Jesus is the real hero of O'Connor's fiction" (159). O'Connor herself admitted "the best of my work [sounds] like the Old Testament would sound if it were being written today" (159).
Wood unpacks O'Connor's stories in a way that demonstrates her larger religious point. Powerful chapters include the first chapter, "A Roman Catholic at Home in the Fundamentalist South"; "The South as a Mannered and Mysteriously Redemptive Region"; and "Demonic Nihilism: The Chief Moral Temptation of Modernity."
The tone of the book is set by Wood's treatment of O'Connor's most famous story, "A Good Man is Hard to Find" in the opening chapter. Wood approaches the story by contrasting the Grandmother with The Misfit. The Grandmother confesses faith, but lives as if God does not matter. She is well-meaning, but self-serving and concerned primarily with appearances. "Her life rests on nothing more solid than her desire for respectability. She wears a hat and gloves when traveling so that, if found dead beside the road, she will be recognized as a lady" (39).
Opposite her is the murderous Misfit, whose "unbelief is as thoughtful as the Grandmother's piety is unreflective" (41). The Misfit believes there are two options in life, not religion and science, but the gospel and nothingness. His choice is nothingness, and he lives out his creed by destroying everything in his path. Yet, when he speaks, he clearly formulates the gospel he opposes. He is angry that Jesus raised the dead, for resurrection means that Jesus is either incarnate God or a fake. For The Misfit, there is no third option concerning Jesus. There is also no third option to the gospel and nihilism. "From the fundamentalist sermons of his Baptist boyhood, The Misfit knows that he must either gladly embrace or bitterly reject Jesus' invitation. There is no safe middle way, no accommodating alternative to the drastic extremes of belief and unbelief, no bland neutrality between Jesus Christ and absolute nothingness" (41).
When The Misfit and the Grandmother meet, it highlights O'Connor's paradigmatic clash between demonic nihilism and smug half-belief. The Grandmother is willing to abandon Christ to save her earthly life. Wood observes, "She is a practical atheist. When faced with the threat of death, therefore, she is willing to deny her faith in an attempt to save her life. The Grandmother is a woman who lives by her own lights, though they provide little illumination of her sinful condition. She is O'Connor's portrait, not of l'homme money sensuel, but of the average Christian soul living amidst the compromises and deceits of ordinary life" (40).
When the Grandmother finally tells the truth and says to The Misfit, "You're one of my children," The Misfit kills her. The truth that she speaks is that "she is not a good woman; he is not a good man; they are in terrible trouble, and they both need radical help" (39). The Misfit then speaks the truth about the Grandmother, "She would of been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life" (39). This is a clear articulation of how life must be eschatologically focused.
Also very powerful is Wood's analysis of O'Connor's most controversial story, "The Artificial Nigger," in the chapter "The South as a Mannered and Mysteriously Redemptive Region." Wood informs us that this rarely taught story was O'Connor's personal favorite because it gives "the fullest fictional embodiment to her firmest convictions about both race and religion" (153). It is also the one story in the O'Connor corpus in which "she instructs herself and her readers in the meaning of the gospel" (153).
Wood writes that when O'Connor submitted the story to the Kenyon Review in 1955, the editor returned it to her. The editor requested a new title without the odious word that appeared in her submission. She refused. To lose the chosen title would rob the story of its real power, "the power to invert racist intention into antiracist redemption" (144).
A grandfather, Mr. Head, plans a train trip to Atlanta to expose his grandson Nelson to Negroes and the big city, hoping that Nelson will repudiate both forever. The pair arrives in the city and circle leftwarda literary reference to Dante and the sinister spiral into hell. Nelson loses his way in the black ghetto and cries out for help, only to have Head hide from him. When Head does appear, he denies any connection with the boy, a repeating of Peter's denial of Jesus. Head recognizes his treachery and tries to smooth things over with Nelson, but it is too late. There is a sin problem not only between races but between the nearest of kin. The grandfather betrays the boy in his time of greatest need in the strange streets of Atlanta, and the boy refuses to forgive. Rather, his hatred of Head grows to match Head's hatred of others.
Together they wander into a white suburb where they encounter "an artificial nigger," a cast cement Negro statue, in the lawn of a house. This "artificial nigger," however, is missing the typical images of black servitude, holding a lantern or a horse's reins. Instead, he holds a piece of old watermelon. Watermelon brown, eye chipped out, and lurching forward, he gives a miserable appearance. And, beholding this pitiful figure, the two are changed. Wood comments,
Though meant to signal the proud triumph of whites over blacks, the scornful effigy becomes a sacrament of reconciliation to these mutually sinful kinsman. The crimes they have committed against each other begin to melt away in the presence of this inhabited Cross (148-149).
O'Connor makes this reference to Jesus and the cross clear in the story itself. In what Wood calls one of her "most controverted passages," she writes,
He (Head) stood appalled, judging himself with the thoroughness of God, while the action of mercy covered his pride like a flame and consumed it. He had never thought himself a great sinner before but he saw now that his true depravity had been hidden from him lest it cause him despair. He realized that he was forgiven for sins from the beginning of time, when he had conceived in his own heart the sin of Adam, until the present, when he had denied poor Nelson. He saw that no sin was too monstrous for him to claim as his own, and since God loved in proportion as He forgave, he felt ready at that instant to enter Paradise (149-150).
O'Connor chose to explain what the action of mercy means, instead of simply dramatizing it, and she chose to do so using theological language. Wood defends these choices: "O'Connor has made clear from the beginning that Nelson and Mr. Head are engaged in a struggle whose proportions are absolute, and that their lostness at the end is metaphysical rather than geographical" (150).
The story also illustrates O'Connor's conviction that the gospel alone has the power to reconcile black and white, old and young. That gospel is shocking and scandalous; its Savior is an offense and a stumbling block, even grotesque, but it has the power to change lives. Wood comments,
Her "artificial nigger" thus becomes the ultimate antiracist emblem. It reveals something far more profound than the evident evils of slavery and discrimination. It discloses the subtle grace inherent in suffering that can be redemptively borne because God in Christ has borne it himself (153).
Integration is not the ultimate solution to the problem of racism; the ultimate solution is the gospel of reconciliation. Wood concludes, "Flannery O'Connor was not a racist, either politically or theologically. I maintain, on the contrary, that she was a writer whothough not without temptation and struggleoffered the one lasting antidote to racism" (94).
An excellent treatment of O'Connor's obsession with nihilism and its destructiveness is found in Wood's analysis of O'Connor's acclaimed first novel, Wise Blood. In Wise Blood, Hazel Motes takes nihilism to its logical extremes and preaches a gospel of nothingness (since anything worth believing must also be worth evangelizing) in his self-invented "Church without Christ" (168). This is the new American gospel and church, even though the church only has Motes as a member. Wood observes,
He announces the new American gospel with consummate complacency: "Nobody with a good car," declares Hazel Motes, "needs to be justified by Jesus" ...Motes broken-down Essex is indeed his deity: He sleeps in it, preaches from it, and relies on it to escape from all obligations that are not of his own choosing (15).
It is his pulpit, his residence, and his instrument of death. But, as Wood notes, "Hazel Motes's life of murderous self-justification ends, appropriately, when a patrolman destroys his automobile idol" (169). He looks away from himself for the first time and radically repents, blinding and cutting himself to show gratitude "for the salvation that has already been won for him at the Place of the Skull" (169). "Motes has stumbled backward out of his nihilism and into what St. Paul calls 'the glorious liberty of the children of God' (Rom. 8:21)" (189). Violent nihilists do not seize the kingdom of heaven; rather, it is graciously given to the unsuspecting.
Wood, however, does more than interpret O'Connor's literature. He also comprehends her strong convictions that ran contrary to social convention. He explores O'Connor's belief that mannersnot mere politeness, but the formal gestures that both bind and separate peoplewere important. She believed "that the social manners of the South, despite their many deceptions and hypocrisies, could sometimes serve as a reflection of God's own incarnate love" (129). Manners "constitute a code of conduct that summons us to treat others with dignity and respect" (124). They are in some respects a secular acknowledgement of original sin.
But, manners could only play a supporting role for O'Connor. They could never be a substitute for faith. Part of the power of O'Connor's writing is seen in the fact that "she sought a rough artistic manner that would convey the unmannerly matter of her faith" (126). Her lady-villains, such as the Grandmother, insist on decorum, but it is a decorum that hides a dark soul. Wood maintains that manners for O'Connor in the end could not suffice because the gospel the church proclaims "calls for reconciliation rather than toleration" (4).
Wood also points out how much O'Connor resisted and countered the emerging consensus of American civil religion. The temptation before the contemporary church is to sacrifice the distinctiveness of the gospel and put it in the service of other things. The subordination of the theological to the political "creates Puritanism without transcendence, without sense of sin or judgment" (20). National identity trumps faith, and the result is the impossibility of a supreme love of God. One cannot love God supremely in civil religion, and little else matters to O'Connor. Wood writes, "Her fiction is fierce and violent because it seeks to show what it is like for her characters, if only at the last minute, to love God absolutely" (30).
The most significant flaw in the book is Wood's attempt to make O'Connor Barthian in her view of Scripture and preaching. He cites a review O'Connor wrote in which she says, "I distrust folks who have ugly things to say about Karl Barth. I like old Barth. He throws the furniture around" (10). However, Wood provides little evidence that O'Connor saw the Bible in a Barthian sense. Given her pre-Vatican II Catholicism, it is more likely that O'Connor saw the Bible as the very Word of God (contra Barthianism which maintains that Scripture is not the written Word of God but may become the Word of God in proclamation, so far as God allows).
Wood also makes occasional poor theological pronouncements. The most egregious is his declaration, without scriptural support, that suffering and death are unrelated to the Fall and are coeval with human existence.
Although Wood's theological flaws must be acknowledged, they do not overwhelm O'Connor's voice or the great value of the book. For those interested in reading and understanding O'Connor, this is the best guide available. But, here also is a book that transcends literary categories as Wood does force the Christian reader to consider the effect of the church's compromise with the philosophical and cultural trends of the day. O'Connor wanted nothing to do with half-hearted belief. Wood is right in questioning whether the contemporary church believes the same today.
Danny E. Olinger
Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Willow Grove, PA