By Douglas Jones
Etching of Flannery O'Connor by Jack Coughlin
"Yes, and it takes all kinds to make the world go round," the lady said in her musical voice.
As she said it, the raw-complexioned girl snapped her teeth together. Her lower lip turned downwards and inside out, revealing the pale pink inside her mouth. After a second it rolled back up. It was the ugliest face Mrs. Turpin had ever seen anyone make, and for a moment she was certain that the girl had made it at her. She was looking at her as if she had known and disliked her all her life—all of Mrs. Turpin's life, it seemed too, not just all the girl's life. Why, girl, I don't even know you, Mrs. Turpin said silently.
Whoever thought the Holy Spirit could look like an annoyed girl's face, "blue with acne"? Or a sassy, club-footed boy? A tattoo? Or that Christ could appear as a bull? Or a carnival hermaphrodite?
That sort of list already puts off most Christians from having an interest in O'Connor. It's just all so unnecessary and ugly, they say. It's just more violence and weirdness in a culture already permeated with it.
I've found it terribly difficult to get modern Christians to read O'Connor—even in healthy Christian communities. In my case, too, secular writers first made me sit up and notice O'Connor. They praised her technique and famous opening paragraphs. They lauded her tension and dialogue. Flannery O'Connor won several notable writing awards during her life, even while the secularists didn't really have a clue about her Christian realism.
Flannery O'Connor is easily the most important and talented and self-consciously Christian short story author of the twentieth century. Nobody else is close. I've seen her stories revolutionize people's lives, and yet most Christians have never even heard her name. Sure, many Christian academics and writers sing her praises, especially of late. But we should all know her stories inside and out; they should be easy allusions in conversation; they should be common parables in our teens' mouths. And we need to master her style and absorb her insights before the next generation can build upon her gifts.
Dark and Disruptive Grace
Still, something's odd about selling Flannery to Christians. Even when people know about her superior technique and Christian frames, they still usually choke after a story or two. Too rough. Too troubling. They're not hard to read, they'll admit, but still, there's all that weirdness and death.
None of her stories, though, turns out to be as gruesome as common PG-13 fare. She places most of the ugliness off screen. Her stories do not fit in horror categories at all. Her use of the grotesque and ugly doesn't delight in power or shock value. All her stories focus on grace, grace, grace. That's what they're about. Every one of them. Real people wrestling with bodily grace.
And that's what disturbs many readers. They don't want their grace black. It feels like an alien faith to them, and they resist it. O'Connor herself heard this complaint. In her essay "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South," she argued against that pietism typical of Christian readers: "The reader wants his grace warm and binding, not dark and disruptive."
Here's the rub: her stories might be more palatable to modern Christians if she were just writing shock-jock horror stories. Frank Peretti sells, after all. That sort of writing goes down easier because we don't really believe it. It feels like someone else's world. It's alien enough that we're not truly threatened. But O'Connor's world is too close. And if her picture of dark grace is right, then our typical take on life fails.
Since Victorian times, Christians have tended to picture grace as cottony and covered with rubber. Grace always comforts and smoothes our furrowed brows; it always, always wipes away our tears, so sorry for them. We believe God is all-good; He's pretty much a nursery-school attendant, pink and white, who doesn't want anyone to get cut. In fact, we're surprised when people actually bump their heads. Pain seems unnatural to us. It's a no-no, and God is on our side. He never touches the stuff Himself.
In short, we believe deeply that all evil is bad. That's the heart of modern Christian faith. All evil is bad. It permeates our day-to-day lives, our work, our sermons, our struggles, our analysis of disasters. All evil is bad. And if so, then grace has to be Nice. Grace and niceness become interchangeable, and Flannery sees this as a (if not the) chief source of wickedness in the modern world. It's a lie about grace.
All Evil is Not Bad
O'Connor repeats the biblical theme that "grace cuts with the sword Christ said he came to bring." Grace cuts. It hurts; it slices; it makes us bleed. It "is never received warmly. Always a recoil," she says, and her stories show this time and time again.
In fact, Flannery's favorite target tends to be nice, mild, middle class ladies, full of decent and righteous advice. Nice ladies. Elsie Dinsmore all grown up. Yet these women lie about grace all day long. They lie about Christ as they go about trying to make a utopia of niceness. Grace is much more surprising than their Victorian sensibilities could ever imagine.
Some cringe at O'Connor's disposal of these ladies. Flannery famously gets a reader to side with a decent but perhaps slightly flawed lady, and then the story slowly turns grim. We see her smile is grounded in pettiness or deep bitterness. Finally, she has a severe encounter with dark grace. Nice readers close the story quickly and refuse to go on to another. It's as if the reader herself has been roughed up unjustly.
But that's the point. Flannery just reflects Christ's priorities. He was much softer on thieves, prostitutes, and murderers than he was on polite, middle class Pharisees. Christ berates and belittles and promises death-from-heaven for the most decent citizens of Jerusalem. The good, law-abiding Rotarian sorts incense Christ's deepest anger. And, in Flannery's stories, grace hunts them down. All evil is not bad. Some evil comes to shake us out of our sin; some evil comes to liberate us. Some evil is a gift of grace. Grace gnashes.
In Scripture, too, grace often appears evil. Sometimes it comes swooping down in the form of serpents. On the journey to Mount Hor, God's people complained bitterly. Nice middle-class people, not criminals. Yet God's dark grace came in horror story fashion: "The LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died" (Num. 21:6). Imagine standing with that group of believers. Fiery serpents storm your spouse and children. All the screaming. All of grace. Surely fiery serpents were a bit of divine overreaction? God doesn't want to upset anyone does He? No. Wrong God.
Dark grace came to Noah in an ancient tsunami; to Abraham in that mad command to execute; to Isaac in faux hairy arms; to Jacob in a midnight wrestling assault; to Joseph in a deep pit; to Moses, that "bridegroom of blood," at a peaceful motel. (O'Connor herself never even approaches the level of relentless dark grace the Lord plays out in the book of Job; she's a softy when set next to that story.) The list goes on. O'Connor observes, "evil is not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured."
Go through and count up all the dark grace that nice people face in Scripture. Right from God's throne. All evil is not bad. It's heavenly. It jolts our stories in surprising ways. It brings health. It reveals the glorious danger deep inside the Godhead.
Flannery says we "don't realize how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross." The cross. Yes. The darkest grace. Right at the center. All evil is not bad.
O'Connor summarizes this at the end of her essay, "The Fiction Writer and His Country," where she explains, "St. Cyril of Jerusalem, in instructing catechumens, wrote: `The dragon sits by the side of the road, watching those who pass. Beware lest he devour you. We go to the Father of Souls, but it is necessary to pass by the dragon.' No matter what form the dragon may take, it is of this mysterious passage past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell."
And yet O'Connor does not think the story of life plays out as a tragedy. Cyril's dragon isn't in control. In a letter, Flannery noted, "Naw, I don't think life is a tragedy. Tragedy is something that can be explained by the professors. Life is the will of God and this cannot be defined by the professors; for which all thanksgiving." She grounds dark grace in laughter, cosmic laughter springing from the triumph of the Trinity. In our trinitarian world, the devil is always a stooge, always something of a fool tricked by Father, Son, and Spirit. O'Connor's stories are full of "devils," and she notes, "the Devil can always be a subject for my kind of comedy one way or another. I suppose this is because he is always accomplishing ends other than his own." He's always the straight man, always used for a deeper end. But this sort of comic world, too, unnerves some Christians; it's too unserious for them, too unpredictable.
Readers of Flannery's letters note her easy humor and wit; her letters reveal someone who laughs and makes others laugh easily. Explicit comic elements show up in every one of her stories. She takes particular delight in satirizing modern academic secularists, but no story passes without irony and great comic lines. Yet her comedy goes even deeper.
Writing teachers regularly note that if the writer doesn't love a character then the reader won't be able to either. It's an intangible of writing. Line up Flannery's worst protagonists and villains, and when you step back from her treatment, you realize she loves them all dearly, the serial killers and the pharisees. This is really quite an amazing feat. You can see this in contrast to someone like Walker Percy, another Catholic writer often compared to O'Connor. In Percy's Lancelot, for example, there's no doubt that Percy loathes his protagonist from beginning to end, and the reader can't help coming away with the same dragging disdain. In some ways that's too easy for a writer.
Flannery did not loathe herself or her life, and so when she identified with her characters, her sympathy for them showed up easily. She casually noted that her stories "lack bitterness," something unfathomable to those who read her too quickly. She once wrote to a friend about her characters, "Hulga is like me. So is Nelson, so is Haze, so is Enoch." Her sympathy for herself in them shows clearly. All of her characters show signs of being loved. In this way, Flannery's writing again imitates divine love for the ugly and self-righteous. This is the gospel: "While we were yet sinners. . ."
On top of this, when you read a group of her stories, a pretty amazing pattern emerges. You soon realize how her visitations of dark grace stand out as huge gifts when compared to actual life. Most people's actual lives seem to be Flannery characters who never have the privilege of meeting dark grace. Think of the people around you. Think of the secularists. Most go on for decades in their self-deception and self-righteousness and pettiness until their bitterness just grinds to a close at the end. No revolutions. The majority of people have always seemed to live tedious, small lives. But in Flannery's world, it's as if dark grace intrudes regularly. People who would have probably been handed over to let their sin slowly destroy them get this amazing explosion of grace that turns them inside out. Because of this, her stories start to read like gift after gift after gift. You start to long for more dark grace in actual life since it produces such wonderful turns of redemption. It's as if Flannery's stories are a photo album or a hall of fame of great moments in surprising grace, a pattern so far from do-the-dishes life. Maybe we have not because we ask not.
Don't be afraid of Flannery. Let her mess with your head. Let her disturb you. As she observed, "all human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful." She's not the first or the last word, but she has an amazing grasp of Christian drama, and it's hard to see how contemporary Christian culture can mature without having her stories or others like them very deep in its bones. Let her show you how surprising grace is, how dark and healthy it can be, what a gift it is. Let the ugly girl in the waiting room turn her lip inside out again, let her make a loud noise through her teeth, let her fingers clamp onto the soft flesh of your neck.