Right Now Is All That Matters, or, Eternity and the Present in The Iliad

Right Now Is All That Matters, or, Eternity and the Present in The Iliad

This post is a paper I wrote for school, hence the more formal tone.

First John begins with a startling juxtaposition. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life… (1 John 1:1)” The juxtaposition is this: that the eternal being who “was from the beginning,” has entered time and space and is the Word of life who tells us that “our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:4)” The Gospel presents a hopeful world in part because it declares that there is something beyond the here and the now–eternal life coming from the eternal Savior Jesus Christ.

The Greek epic The Iliad displays a different world, one in which hope is fleeting and tragedy is the only inevitability. This despair is a major theme within The Iliad and it stems from the Homeric concept that there is nothing beyond the here and the now. Against this, the Christian worldview provides a deep and lasting comfort.

As W.H. Auden says, “The world of Homer is unbearably sad because it never transcends the immediate moment.” Auden is right, of course, but there is a nuance to add. Within the Homeric worldview, the gods do transcend the present. Despair stems from the fact that no human can hope to achieve this same transcendence. Auden calls this a tragic “flaw in the nature of existence.” What, exactly, is this flaw? Why does the worldview of The Iliad lead to such despair? What, if anything, does Christianity offer to the characters of The Iliad?

The problem becomes evident in the 6th line of the poem. Homer says that the violence and death caused by the rage of Achilles was “the will of Zeus…moving toward its end. (1.6)” From the outset the poem is set in light of Zeus’ final plan. What happens is ultimately due to the orchestration of the gods.

But as the rest of the poem displays, this is not new information to any character. Greek and Trojan culture has a fatalistic outlook. The characters toil and fight for their cause all the while knowing they are subject to the whims and wishes of the gods. Agamemnon is forced to retreat during a rampage because, “Zeus who rules the world/forbids me to battle Trojans all day long. (11.324­–11.325)” Glaucus before plunging into battle, declares,

“Ah my friend, if you and I could escape this fray

and live forever, never a trace of age, immortal,

I would never fight on the front lines again

or command you to the field where men win fame.

But now, as it is, the fates of death await us,

thousands poised to strike, and not a man alive

can flee them or escape… (12.374–12.380)”

Neither Glaucus nor Agamemnon hope to escape the fate of the gods. They do not hope because they cannot. Zeus’ plan will be accomplished regardless of their actions, and fate will have its way. Though they yearn for peace and life they can have none because they are trapped by their mortality. Their lives–with all their hopes, dreams, fears, and joys–are mere pawns in the hands of the gods.

Perhaps this is nowhere more poignantly evident than at the death of Hector. Athena deceives him into believing that a Trojan warrior, Deiphobus, is by his side as he charges the raging Achilles. She disguises herself as Deiphobus and claims to have come to help him because “the heart within me broke with grief for you. (22.288)” She urges him on, promising to fight side by side against Achilles. Emboldened by this promise Hector charges, but when he calls to Deiphobus for another spear to throw at Achilles, Deiphobus is nowhere to be found.

“yes, and Hector knew the truth in his heart

and the fighter cried aloud, ‘My time has come!

At last the gods have called me down to death.

I thought he was at my side, the hero Deiphobus–

he’s safe inside the walls, Athena’s tricked me blind.

And now death, grim death is looming up beside me. (22.349–22.354)”

Why can’t Hector simply turn and run? He answers the question.

“This,

this was their pleasure after all, sealed long ago–

Zeus and the son of Zeus, the distant deadly Archer–

though often before now they rushed to my defense.

So now I meet my doom. (22.355–22.359)”

The moment is charged with despair and tragedy. Hector all alone, the bloodthirsty and near-unstoppable Achilles approaching, is deceived by the gods he worships. He has no chance of escape. Death surrounds him, and his only prayer is that his battle with Achilles will be remembered.

John’s gospel begins similarly to his first letter. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)” The characters in The Iliad would share this idea. There are gods who exist immortally. There is something beyond the here and the now. But the Greek and Trojan worldview lacks what comes next.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)” Their worldview lacks any hope that they can transcend the present moment, or that they can be rescued from the fate that controls their every move. As Auden says, in this world “one is happy, one is unhappy, one wins, one loses, finally one dies. That is all. (Auden 18)” Within the Homeric worldview mortals are locked in their mortality. They cannot escape it. They must fight with everything in them to be remembered for there is nothing more that they can do. The immortals are comfortable to watch at a distance without offering a way of escape. While the gods work within the here and the now, they never enter it, so to speak. They never subject themselves to it. The eternal and the temporal remain two separate realms. One does not enter the other.

Homer scholar Margo Kitts points out the small comfort offered by this worldview. Commenting on the death of Hector she says, “Hector immediately grasps that he was tricked by Athene and that the gods are calling his death (22.297 – 299), but he heroically faces his fate, at least briefly (22.303 – 305).” In the face of this fatalism Homer offers “divine and human care as some small compensation for the lack of human autonomy and for the constraints of fate.”

But this is fickle hope. Divine care is no more than a whim, as another writer observes.

“For while men often petition their gods for favor, few mortals actually confidently expect their god’s beneficence. A man is happy to receive the kindness or protection of the gods, but is not surprised if the gods do not respond, or indeed if those same gods choose deliberately to harm him.”

The Iliad itself reveals that human care is no better. When Hector speaks to Andromache after returning from the battle she pleads with him to stay within Troy. Hector refuses, knowing first that he must defend his wife and son, but also that he has no hope for victory or survival (6.481–6.600). All too soon his care will pass away.

This is the flaw in the nature of existence that leads to such unbearable tragedy. To return to First John, the Greek gods are “from the beginning,” but they have not been heard or seen or touched, and they certainly offer no word of life to complete the joy of mortals.

This is not to say that Greek culture is deistic. On the contrary, the gods are extremely involved in everyday life. But the gods never subject themselves to the here and now. They are bemused spectators who, at best, jump into the fray for fun. Even proud Achilles understands this: “the Immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men/ live on to bear such torments–the gods live free of sorrows. (24.613–24.614)” This is a worldview devoid of lasting hope. The eternal sits comfortably to the side, and no temporal being can ever transcend the present.

Christianity offers an antidote to this despair because it declares that the eternal has entered the temporal. Current circumstances are not the sum total of human existence because the Word has offered the words of life. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)” Mortality is not an inescapable trap within Christianity. There is no need to fight to be remembered because eternal life can be gained.

The Iliad recounts a terrible war. The Homeric worldview offers no hope to anyone within the war. If they do not win glory they will be forgotten. They cannot transcend this moment of battle. Christianity offers a radically different hope. It declares that eternity has entered history and a greater war has been won. Now, for those who follow Jesus, there is hope beyond this moment–hope that tragedy will give way to joy, that suffering will be conquered by happiness, that death will surrender before life.

Advertisements

We Need Another Atticus

It was kind of a big deal, and people really weren’t happy. News had broken about the revision of Atticus Finch.

Now before I go any further I need to say that I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman. At some point I do intend to, but I’m reading several other books at the minute and I’d prefer not to add yet another novel.

But I want to talk about something that I don’t think requires reading the novel. As many of you may know, shortly before Go Set a Watchman released, it came out that Atticus Finch–the champion of racial justice in To Kill a Mockingbird–was rewritten as a racist. The reaction was immediate and angry. Phrases like, “my hero was destroyed,” or, “my role model has been taken away” were common. Reviews described the book as “the toppling of idols.” Critics speculated about Harper Lee’s intentions.

In short, people weren’t happy.

The whole thing struck me as quite intriguing. To Kill a Mockingbird has been an extraordinarily successful book, and the characters are near and dear to many people. As evidenced by the reaction, many looked up to Atticus Finch and his staunch, unflinching defense of the humanity of Jim, the accused African-American. His ultimately unsuccessful fight for justice was inspirational and heroic.

Others, commenting on the controversy, have taken a different approach. They’ve argued that people need to move on and realize that it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. “He’s just a character,” the argument goes. “He isn’t actually a champion of racial justice. We need to focus our attention on real issues, not on fictional characters. Let’s be angry about real injustice and support real heroes, not fictional accounts of injustice or fictional heroes.”

I think that argument betrays a bit of a misunderstanding about the importance of literature. The argument assumes that literature isn’t true, that stories are just myths, cleverly devised lies. At best, they’re escapist fantasies. But as I’ve argued before, stories are true. While the literal details of To Kill a Mockingbird might not be, the larger story is. There is a champion for the oppressed and the needy. There is someone who will fight for justice in the face of a society intent on looking the other way. He may not be named Atticus Finch, but we all long for this person.

Maybe that’s what caused all the outrage. People wanted a champion of justice, and they got one in Atticus. When that champion was taken away, their longing came right back to the Atticus Finchsurface, betraying the fact that Atticus never fulfilled their longing, he merely papered over it.

But to say that the reaction to Atticus’ rewriting is insignificant or silly is, I think, mistaken. What it shows is a fundamental desire people have. We want Jim to be given justice and set free and when he isn’t we’re heartbroken. Our longing for justice wasn’t fulfilled. We want Atticus to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves, and now that he isn’t, people are heartbroken.

It displays a simple fact. That deep down, at the core of our being, we know the world isn’t how it should be. Some part of us longs for something better, for something beyond the evil and injustice around us. We want another Atticus.

Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?

A few days ago, in the New York Times, Alice Gregory wrote a short piece on the question, “do moralists make bad novelists?” I commend the article to you, not because I necessarily agree with it, but because it’s a well-expressed and thoughtful answer to the question.

In short, she argued that there are two kinds of moralists: didactic moralists and ambivalent moralists. Didactic moralists are those who write pamphlets disguised as novels, while ambivalent moralists are those who deal with moral questions without forcing them into a novel. I find the distinction helpful, but I want to suggest an additional nuance.

Andrew Peterson, speaking a few years ago at a conference, talked about a particular way to read the Bible. Before searching for a lesson in a Biblical story, he argued, we should let the story be a story. Let the reality of what we just heard sink in. That God split a sea in two, that a blind man saw again, that a dead man came back to life. These are miraculous realities. They contain a lesson, but they are realities nonetheless.

I’m not certain, but I think Gregory expresses this same sentiment about fiction when she says:

“For [the ambivalent moralist], ethics are measured and expressed in nonliteral units: the sorts of people to whom she chooses to extend her theory of mind, the small details upon which her characters disagree, the extent to which they are willing to forsake integrity for social graces. She does not inject her fiction with moral content, but moral content is there nonetheless.”

If by this she means that moral lessons ought not be crammed into novels where they don’t fit, I agree. However, a bit later, Gregory throws a wrench in this understanding.

“We live in an era of constant online castigation and unequaled opportunity to judge and be judged. We are unceasingly exposed to our friends’ and enemies’ real-time (and seldom flattering) calibrations in self-presentation, and novels should offer a relief from that.”

This seems to imply that novels are supposed to be an escape from constant moral judgement. But how can a novel deal with moral content without making some sort of moral judgement? Gregory seems to suggest that it is through “moralism with the intent to question,” in contrast to “moralism with the intent to teach.”

If we take Flannery O’Connor’s advice, however, that distinction might run into some trouble. O’Connor says that, “for the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye.” If I understand her correctly, she means that the writer must first observe before he writes. He must write about real people, and real worlds. That’s not to say that a writer can’t write fantasy, but that fantasy must be believable. In some sense, it has to be real. Stories must begin by expressing something concrete, not abstract, like an idea.

This leads to Gregory’s point about “moral content.” If we’re writing about concrete things, like actions, we’re going to write about morality because many concrete things carry a moral value. Stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is an action, but it is not a mere action. It is a wrong action. Portraying it as a wrong action is a moral judgement, even though it’s a commonly accepted moral judgement.

This makes me wonder if writing about reality without making moral judgements is, in fact, not writing about reality. Gregory’s distinction may be helpful, but I’m not sure her assertion that novels are an escape from judgement is workable. If we are to have “moral content,” it seems we must make moral judgements. It would simply be dishonest to portray, say, an attempt to slander a friend as amoral simply because we don’t want to make a judgement.

Again, I’m not sure that Gregory is arguing against this–there are some comments in her article, however, that make me wonder if she is.

Perhaps this question–do moralists make bad novelists?–is best answered by O’Connor. O’Connor is all for a distinction between a novel and a sermon, but while she agrees that a story is not a mere statement, statements will inform our stories. Or, as she puts it:

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

Don’t Forget to Tell a Story

I walked out of Tomorrowland thoroughly disappointed. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect coming in, but I hoped it would, at the very least, be enjoyable. I had enjoyed all of Brad Bird’s movies so far, and Damon Lindelof, the writer, has written several good movies.

Yet Tomorrowland was neither interesting nor enjoyable. And it wasn’t because of some super technical story error. It was because the movie, in my opinion, forgot something basic–movies need to be about something.

Tomorrowland had plenty of good ideas but what it didn’t have was a plot. It was honestly surprising because it isn’t like the director and writers don’t know how to tell a story. They’ve both done some great movies. Bird did Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatoullie, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. All of those were good. Lindelof wrote Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z, both very enjoyable films.

Tomorrowland forgot to tell a storyWhy, then, did Tomorrowland not have one of the basic story telling elements? I don’t pretend to have the answer to that, but I was reminded of this: I can’t ever forget the basics. Just because a story has a cool structure and great ideas doesn’t mean it’s good.

I have to remember that I’m not telling stories to impress people with the originality of my ideas or the cleverness of my structure. I’m telling a story, and if it isn’t a good story no one will care. When I’m developing story ideas I often get caught up in constructing an interesting format, with refining complex systems in the world of my story, or with developing a miniscule aspect of one character.

In the midst of all that it’s very easy to forget to tell a story. Get the basics down. Then worry about the more complicated aspects. That’s a reminder I needed to have.

Why Interstellar Missed Its Own Big Picture

A few days ago I posted a quote from Blaise Pascal wherein he said this:

“True religion must therefore teach us to worship only him and love only him. But as we find it impossible to worship something we do not know, or to love something other than ourselves, the religion which teaches us these duties must also teach us about our inability. It must also instruct us about the remedies. It tells us that all was lost through a man, that the link between God and ourselves was broken, and that through a man the link was repaired.”

This idea, that true religion tells us about how the link between ourselves and God was broken by a man, and how a man restored that link is certainly fascinating. But what I want to do is use it as a framework for discussing the themes of the film Interstellar.

Pascal tells us that all was lost through a man, and all was restored through a man. Interstellar tell us something radically different, simply by removing the article “a.”

If you recall, the film opens on a drought-ridden planet a generation away from extinction. Agricultural blight is ravaging crops and the vague hints tell us that it’s all due humanity’s abuse of the environment. As a result, mankind makes a desperate attempt to save itself, and the plot of the movie begins.

Interstellar hinges on the audience accepting one thing. I highly encourage you to accept it, because the journey is so very worth it.Throughout Interstellar the theme that develops goes something like this: all was lost through mankind, and through mankind all will be restored. In fact, the theme couldn’t be more clear. The ending of the story, in which (spoiler alert) Cooper sends his daughter quantum information that helps her solve gravity, while at the same time creating the phenomena that led himself to this very spot, quite clearly places mankind in the role of savior.

Even the dialog at the end communicates this. At the beginning of the movie, all Cooper knows is that someone (nebulously referred to as “they” throughout most of the movie) created a wormhole to give humanity a chance at survival. “They” are some kind of higher power, it appears–people who can create wormholes. But at the end, Cooper declares “‘they’ are us. We brought ourselves here.” Mankind is the higher power.

I find this theme rather odd, actually, in light of several events that occur during the movie. For example, around two thirds of the way through, Cooper, the main character, and his crew land on an ice planet found by the leader of the previous mission through the wormhole, Dr. Mann. Everything seems promising until Mann takes Cooper for a walk and ends up trying to kill him.

The scene has been criticized quite a bit, the argument usually going something like this: “they’re halfway across the galaxy, on a mission to save humanity, and they get into a fistfight? Really?” During the film I actually loved the entire scene. Not only was it intense, but I also felt like it said something profound about the human condition. Mann was “the best of humanity,” to quote one of the main characters, and he was sent to save the species. But even he succumbed to selfishness. Two characters getting into a fistfight halfway across the galaxy on a mission to save humanity felt like Nolan’s way of summarizing human nature.

But then (Spoiler Alert) Mann is killed and the mission continues. At this point, however, we’ve sufficiently lost our hope in this team’s ability to save humanity. Yet somehow they still do. Mankind brings itself to the brink of extinction, tries to save itself, attacks itself in its attempt to save itself, and somehow still saves itself.

Interstellar was a good movie (see my review here), but I feel like it missed its own big picture. The overall sketch of mankind Interstellar gives us seems to say that it won’t be long before we’ll mess everything up again. But Interstellar has nowhere else to turn for rescue. According to Interstellar, we are the biggest threat to our survival, and at the same time our only hope for salvation.

This is why Pascal’s formulation, which is really just the Bible’s formulation, is so crucial. Through one man all was lost, and through another man, the Son of Man, all was regained. Without that understanding, we’re left in vicious circles, saving ourselves and endangering ourselves in the same moment.

The Scandalous Dichotomy: Analyzing O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”

There are more than a few humorous anecdotes of reader’s reactions to Flannery O’Connor’s stories. O’Connor recounts one instance in which a woman wrote to her, protesting her stories and claiming they left a bad taste in her mouth. O’Connor wrote back that the woman wasn’t supposed to eat them. On another occasion, as Jonathan Rogers describes,

“After publishing ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost,’ she received a letter from a woman in Boston. ‘She said she was a Catholic and so she couldn’t understand how anybody could even HAVE such thoughts.'”

But sometimes the reactions, especially from reviewers, were not so funny. Time Magazine wrote, in a review of her collection of short stories titled “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” that her stories were “wittingly sarcastic” but contained “arty fumbling” in the thematic content. The Kenyon Review, writing about the same collection, called her stories, “profane, blasphemous, and outrageous.”

O'Connor's First Short Story CollectionIf one thing can be said about O’Connor’s stories it’s that they can’t be shrugged off without another thought. She wrote stories that shocked, scarred, and disturbed.

But why? One of her most popular stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” is the story we’ve now come to in this comprehensive analysis. The story is exceptionally offensive, but I think it gives us one of the clearest pictures of exactly why her stories engendered such violent reactions.

I should say this as I dive into the analysis: plenty has been written about “Good Man,” and so I don’t purport to present the sum total of all that could possibly be seen or discussed concerning it. In this post, though, I want to look at “Good Man” from a rather odd perspective. Namely, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” in my opinion, pushes a scandalous dichotomy–the dichotomy of the person of Christ and the demand He makes on the world.

The basic story of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is of a grandmother and her family, six in total, on a vacation in Florida. On the drive down their car is overturned on a side road and, there, unable to escape, they are all murdered by a serial killer who calls himself the Misfit.

Since she wrote the story, I think it might be a good idea to let O’Connor have the first word as to the theme. Before she read the story to Hollins College in Virginia, in 1963, she said:

“This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.”

In O’Connor’s view, then, the thematic movement of “Good Man” is a move from deception to reality, a move from the grandmother’s rejection of who Christ is to a realization of the truth.

Since the grandmother is the thematic center of the story I want to focus on her and her evolution.

How does O’Connor paint the grandmother at the beginning? At the start of the story, the grandmother is entirely self-deceived. She has a self-image of herself as a lady, an upstanding and moral member of her community. And not only is she a good person but she’s always right. The story opens with a simple, absolute statement of her opinion: “The grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee…”

She’s also violently self-righteous, obsessed with other people conforming to her standards of good behavior. Fundamentally, she’s unwilling to see herself as a sinner in need of grace, though she would almost certainly proclaim that truth about others.

Here we see the first problem. The Grandmother has an improper view of herself because she doesn’t understand the Gospel. Jesus is a comfort to her–a mere nicety. She views Him as a good man, but she doesn’t see Him as the Son of God, because if He were the Son of God He’d keep the law of God perfectly, which would reveal the Grandmother’s unrighteousness. If He were the Son of God, He would make demands on her life. O’Connor points out the fundamental problem with being unwilling to view oneself as a sinner.

“Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.” (emphasis mine)

The Grandmother is a total embodiment of this belief that there is no cause for redemption. She doesn’t see a cause for redemption in her own life, though she almost certainly sees it in others. Jesus is for them. When the Misfit finally confronts her she urges him to pray because then Jesus will help him, but heaven forbid Jesus help her.

I think one of the primary ways O’Connor symbolizes the Grandmother’s delusion is in the way she dresses. O’Connor describes the Grandmother’s outfit in great detail near the beginning of the story. The outfit is perfect, prim, and proper. As O’Connor writes in a darkly comic moment of foreshadowing, “anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.” The clothes are connected with her self-image of being “a lady.”

After the first half of the story, though, O’Connor begins the slow process of stripping away the Grandmother’s pretensions. The car crashes as a result of the Grandmother’s lapse of memory, and the car crashes where it does because of the Grandmother’s insistence on her own way. But after the car crash the real beginning of the Grandmother’s confrontation with reality is mirrored by her clothes. O’Connor writes,

“The Grandmother limped out of the car, her hat still pinned to her head but the broken front brim standing up at a jaunty angle and the violet spray hanging off the side.”

The Grandmother’s clothes, indicating that she’s a lady, are tattered and torn.

But then The Misfit shows up, and the story really gets going. Who is this character the Misfit? He’s an odd person–violent, profane, and brutal. Yet he’s the one who brings the truth to the grandmother–he’s right where the grandmother is completely off. Meaning, the Misfit understands reality better than she does. The Misfit is more honest about the demands Jesus makes on people’s lives. As he says,

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can–by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness.”

Here is the scandalous dichotomy. Here is the thing O’Connor pushes home again and again in her stories. Jesus is not a sideshow. Either He’s everything, in which case the only honest thing to do is to follow Him to the end, or He’s nothing, in which case, as the Apostle Paul points out, Christians like us are of all men the most to be pitied.

Ralph C. Wood writes this about the Misfit’s declaration:

“Jesus’ power over physical death, [the Misfit] knows, is the mark of his power over spiritual death. Christ’s raising of the dead constitutes a command for the Misfit also to be transformed: to surrender his proud sufficiency for the love of God and neighbor…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.”

The Misfit understands what the grandmother does not, which makes the grandmother’s desperate attempts to help him all the more ironic. She still thinks that she has everything figured out. “You could be honest too if you’d only try,” the Grandmother tells the Misfit. “Think how wonderful it would be to…not have to have to think about somebody chasing you all the time.” This comment actually comes before the Misfit’s bold declaration of the dichotomy of the character of Christ. By the time the Misfit tells the Grandmother the truth she’s on her knees, terrified, crying, “Jesus! You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray!”

But when the Misfit tells her the truth, she can’t stand it, responding only with, “Maybe He didn’t raise the dead.”

An Illustration of A Good Man is Hard to FindThink about where the Grandmother is at this point. Her son and grandson have been shot, her daughter-in-law and two granddaughters, one an infant, have met the same fate. A serial killer is kneeling in front of her, pointing a gun at her, and she knows the end is near. But right here at the end, in the sovereignty of God, her killer tells her the truth.

Her only escape is to deny it completely, but even that can’t keep reality away for long. In a shocking moment of truth she realizes who she is. The psychopath in front of her could be one of her own children. It is at this moment that the Grandmother realizes there is a need–a cause–for redemption. She needs redemption, and she knows it because she recognizes, I think, for one split-second, who Jesus is.

The dichotomy has hit her full-force and it runs her over. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that she dies with her knees crumpled under her “like a child’s.” At the end she went back to the beginning and started all over again.

The story gives us a simple if-then statement: if Jesus is the Son of God then we need to be redeemed by him. If he isn’t, then, as the Misfit says, there’s “no pleasure but meanness.”

Flannery O’Connor is almost more like the Misfit than the Grandmother. Her stories proclaim the truth shamelessly and bluntly. O’Connor, like the Misfit, stands straight, telling the truth that either Jesus is everything, or He’s nothing. He either commands every aspect of our lives, or we ought to do whatever gives us pleasure for the horribly short time we have on this earth.

There is no compromise. There is only a dichotomy.

Stretching Our Characters

Last night, as I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was reminded yet again of one simple rule of storytelling: never let your characters get comfortable.

The episode took all of the show’s main characters and put them in situations where we would never imagine them, situations that seem antithetical to who they are. As a result, even though the plot was exceptionally weak, the episode was enjoyable.

This is a lesson I need to take to heart. Sometimes, as I write short stories or novels, or as I read short stories or novels, the authors will allow their characters to sit in their comfort zones. Perhaps a character’s comfort zone is fighting evil, like a James Bond. In that case, giving them more evil to fight doesn’t seem to do anything except let them stay where they’re comfortable. But if James Bond had to, say, let someone else fight evil instead–now he’s being pushed. Now he’s being stretched.

It’s when characters are stretched that I find myself most engaged in a story. Seeing them do what they’re best at is only interesting for so long.

The point being this: I need to remember to always stretch my characters in every way I can think of. I’ve seen a lot of stories suffer from underdeveloped characters due to comfortable scenarios, and I need to be careful to not make that mistake. If they’re comfortable, something’s wrong and the audience will probably lose interest very quickly. I need to heed that idea, and implement it in my own writing.