A few years ago I started blogging through Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I didn’t get too far and ended up with posts on most of her early stories. These are, of course, the stories that don’t get much airtime. My post on “A Good Man is Hard to Find” being the exception to the rule.
And, funny enough, though I haven’t blogged about her in years, those posts are the only ones that consistently get a decently high number of views. Other than that regular reminder, I hadn’t thought or read much about O’Connor since those posts. Reading Michael Mears Bruner’s new book, A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, reminded me why I loved her so much. The book itself is not, in my opinion, all that great. It makes some interesting points and highlights some theological influences on O’Connor, but ends up repeating established interpretations of O’Connor’s work. Bruner starts right off with his thesis:
“This book makes the argument that, through her fiction, Flannery O’Connor subverted the conventional notions of truth, goodness, and beauty, not merely from a position of Christian dogma but out of an aesthetic impulse.” (pg. 1)
This sounds like a new thesis, but a confusing one at that. The hinge upon which the book stands (it is in the title, after all) is the word “subversive.” Almost halfway through the book Bruner finally defines what he means by subversion:
“contravenes cultural assumptions; uses distortion as a way to create new patterns and modes of reception; always initially resisted; often establishes or codifies new genres; is an implicit critique of the status quo.” (pg. 128)
On this definition, Bruner’s argument boils down to: Flannery O’Connor contravenes common assumptions of truth, goodness, and beauty through displaying the gritty, violent, and ugly way grace breaks into the world. It’s not that this thesis is wrong, it’s simply obvious.
Writing introductions to an author is by no means problematic, but Bruner doesn’t couch his book as an introduction. He acts as if he’s presenting a new thesis when what he’s actually done is rephrase an old one.
Bruner’s original contribution is his examination of Barron von Hügel’s influence on O’Connor. This section frustrated me, though, because it doesn’t shed much light on O’Connor’s fiction. Bruner convinced me that von Hügel did in fact influence O’Connor, but didn’t clarify why this changed things. I’m not against scholarship for scholarship’s sake, but if that was Bruner’s goal it might have helped to clarify that up front.
That’s not to say the book is useless. Some of Bruner’s peripheral insights are brilliant. For example, in one section he highlights O’Connors sympathies and criticisms of Protestant theology:
“With few exceptions, there are also no properly liturgical elements in O’Connor’s stories because there is rarely a church in any of them; and the paradox of ‘overly cognitive’ yet ‘anti-intellectualist’ faith, as Cole puts it, exemplifies Old Mason’s as well as young Francis’ approaches, as representatives of a position that stands over and against the hyperintellectualism of their more urbane relation, George Rayber. An overly cognitive and anti-intellectualist paradoxical approach to faith even describes Haze Motes’s religious impulses, with his desire to establish the Church of Christ Without Christ that stems from a position that is all head and no heart, which is as much a repudiation of Christian praxis as it is of Christian orthodoxy. I am reminded of Chesterton’s paradoxical quip that ‘a madman is not someone who has lost his reason. A madman is someone who has lost everything but his reason.'” (pg. 103)
This is spot on. The characters in O’Connor’s stories almost never encounter Jesus through a doctrinal formulation. In fact, quite often, doctrinal formulations are the enemy. “Good Country People” exemplifies this best, perhaps, with Hulga’s rabid intellectualism blinding her to the seductive and conniving Bible salesman who knocks on the door.
The Grandmother’s theological convictions in her conversation with the Misfit–to reference O’Connor’s most famous work–are not wrong. The Grandmother’s problem is that she managed her whole life to learn quite a lot about Jesus without ever meeting him. When Jesus finally does show up it’s at the end of a shotgun and in a pool of blood.
On this front, O’Connor’s critique could be summarized this way: it’s not that doctrine is wrong, it’s that Protestant theology over-emphasizes the intellectual component of Christianity to the exclusion of the very-much-not intellectual and quite gritty and bodily ways that God communicates grace to his children.
Perhaps this is most apparent in Protestant approaches to the Eucharist, in which the emphasis usually falls on remembering the sacrifice of Jesus, thinking on what he has done for us, rather than on the communication of grace to the individual through the sacrament.
I’m not taking sides in the fight, I’m simply highlighting one of Bruner’s best insights into O’Connor.
Later in the book, Bruner mentions O’Connor’s critique of modernity:
“Whatever violent form her subversive impulses took, such a subversion was, by its very nature, incongruous with modernity’s most cherished and ubiquitous expression of religion, which is some form of providential deism, which states–or more often simply implies–that God’s main purpose is to work for the glory, happiness, and satisfaction of humanity.” (pg. 155)
While this is simple elaboration on O’Connor, it shows the best of Bruner’s book. Unfortunately, he does spend most of the book rehearsing standard interpretations, but he still makes a few brilliant points. It’s not the introduction I would point someone to, but it isn’t bad. If you read it, the best is probably Bruner’s emphasis, near the end, epitomized in the quote above, that O’Connor saw through the thin disguises of modernity and its naturalism to the the Christ-hauntedness of nature. She worked from a conviction that all of reality is sacramental and that Jesus really just might be hiding behind every tree. The modern mind’s radical privatization of faith and ambivalence (or hostility) to the supernatural is real, but it doesn’t stop Jesus from sneaking ever-nearer to human hearts until he finally steps right in, and grace breaks through the cracks of the world.
Rich Mullins said the prairies called out the name of Jesus, and O’Connor would say every human heart is calling out for him too. And she might also say that if we look through the nice, tidy, good veneer everyone puts up, and listen ever so carefully, we just might hear a heart calling out for grace. And we just might hear Jesus sneaking a little bit closer.