Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Sacred and Satanic Violence: The Place of the Demonic in the Fiction of Flannery O'Connor

By Ralph C. Wood
August 15, 2014
On 3 August 1964, Flannery O'Connor, one of America's greatest fiction writers, died. To mark fifty years since her premature death, we are pleased to publish this article by Ralph C. Wood, University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University and author of Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.

The title of Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away contains both a conundrum and the key for unlocking it. The novel's name is taken from the Douay-Rheims translation of Matthew 11:12: "And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away."
Many recent biblical scholars interpret this passage as a reference to those who would impatiently seize the divine kingdom by force, brutally laying hold of it as if it were a means of destruction rather than redemption. The phrase may in fact refer to Jewish Zealots who wanted to rout the Romans, or else to Jewish religious authorities who bullied their way into control of the synagogues or, even more particularly, to arrogant leaders of the Jewish temple with its wealth, prestige and political power. In every case, it seems that the biblical claim about seizing the Kingdom is negative in its import, referring to evil (perhaps even satanic) attacks on the radically alternative community established by Jesus.
Yet this is only a single way of reading Matthew's strange saying about the violence that besets the Reign of God. Flannery O'Connor praised medieval exegetes for discerning not merely one, but at least three other means of interpreting biblical texts.
Beyond the literal reading of Scripture (in this case, seeking the historical meaning cited above), there is also the allegorical(linking a person or event with an analogous one - for instance, Moses's deliverance of Israel from Egyptian bondage with Jesus's redemption of humanity from slavery to sin), the tropological (gleaning moral implications for the Christian life) and theanagogical (discerning the spiritual and eschatological significance of the text).
Such theologically rich readings of Scripture insure its living, full-bodied appropriation by and for the Church. Hence the gloss on Matthew 11:12 found in the 1899 Challoner version of the Douay-Rheims Bible that O'Connor herself used: "[The Kingdom] is not to be obtained but by main force, by using violence upon ourselves, by mortification and penance, and resisting our perverse inclinations." The violence that makes raids on the Rule of God is here regarded not as satanic and inimical but as salutary, indeed as necessary. It is not a call for Christians to attack others, so much as to practice spiritual and moral violence against their own sinfulness.
The burden of this article is to demonstrate that both interpretations of the violence done to the Kingdom of God - both the satanic and the holy - are at work in The Violent Bear It Away, and that their difference is obscured by demonic guile, especially concerning the nature of evil. The task of undeceiving the Deceiver thus becomes a crucial act of moral and religious, no less than literary, discernment.

The place of the Devil in American culture

In The Death of Satan, Andrew Delbanco traces the waning American regard for the demonic, as our churches and our culture have come to grant the Devil ever lessening importance.
Already in the Puritans, Delbanco discerns a profound ambiguity about the Evil One. On the one hand, their radical consciousness of sin made them ascribe acute reality to satanic temptations. Yet, on the other hand, Lucifer ceases to be the macabre monstrosity of both ancient and medieval Christian tradition. The Puritans worried that such personifications would miss the ubiquity and subtlety of demonic temptation. They also feared that Christians and others might find a convenient means for transferring their own culpability for evil to the Prince of Darkness.
Much against the intentions of the Puritans, however, the Devil was rapidly reduced to a subjective construction of the imagination not to be credited by our most eminent writers. It is obvious that such Transcendentalists as Emerson and Thoreau, with their belief in the latent perfectibility of humanity, would slight Satan. Yet neither could Hawthorne or Melville, despite their riveted attention to human maleficence, envision Satan as its real source.
It seems at first astonishing that such an astute reader of American literature as Delbanco would make no mention of Flannery O'Connor, since the Devil figures so prominently in her fiction. Yet Delbanco gradually reveals the reason for his silence: he fears that any attribution of evil to a satanic "other" leaves our own cruel perfidy and malignant complicity unimpeached. The horrors of the deadliest of all centuries are, for him, the work of invisible but still explicable forces - namely, human irresponsibility and wrongdoing in all of their manifold expressions of self-hatred and self-deception. Delbanco thus finds the most adequate explanation of evil in such Protestant theologians as Reinhold Niebuhr.
In his most celebrated paradox, Niebuhr claims that, while the fall is inevitable, it is not necessary. Always and everywhere, human beings have sinned and will continue to sin, even as they remain responsible for their willing embrace of their Adamic predisposition. Yet this is as much an anthropological as a theological claim, since the Devil nowhere figures in Niebuhr's work. Delbanco's own conclusion thus remains thoroughly Niebuhrian: Satan is "a symbol of our own deficient love, our potential for envy and rancor toward creation." Evil abides as nothing other than a permanent privation that "offers something that the Devil himself could never have intended: the miraculous paradox of demanding the best of ourselves."

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