by Michael Bruner
Flannery O’Connor was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia and spent all but a few years of her life in Georgia. She was an only child born into a Roman Catholic family and attended church regularly growing up. Her family moved to a small farm outside of Milledgeville, Georgia in 1938, and her father died three years later from lupus, in 1941, which was a devastating loss for the fifteen-year-old girl. At 17, O’Connor entered the Georgia State College for Women and graduated three years later with a Social Science degree.
O’Connor was accepted to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop graduate program in 1945, where she was surrounded by notable writers, among them poet Robert Lowell and poet/novelist and director of the program, Paul Engle. O’Connor graduated in 1948 with an M.A. and, a year later, was invited to be a resident at the Yaddo Artist’s Colony in New York state. After Yaddo, she lived for awhile with her friends, Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, in their Ridgefield, Connecticut home. In 1950, she was diagnosed with lupus (the same disease that killed her father), and in 1951 she moved back to the family farm in Georgia, where she would spend the rest of her life with her mother. O’Connor died fourteen years later, at the age of 39, in 1964, from complications related to lupus. She is buried next to her father.
O’Connor’s intense religious devotion, along with her father’s death when she was only a teenager, and then her own long struggle with lupus, are some of the crucial elements of her life that formed and informed her writing and gave her the uncommon voice she is rightly celebrated for (and often misunderstood because of). She lived in what I call in my book her “liminal frame,” by which I mean those subversive elements of her life that ineluctably led to her own subversive understanding of the gospel:
O’Connor’s subverting tendencies also came from who she was and from her own experiences … in the depths of O’Connor’s being, below the concerns of her personality, in the way she saw the world with anagogical precision—which has to do “with the Divine life and our participation in it.” It is exactly there that the seeds of her blistering vision took root. (A Subversive Gospel, 11)
The four limitations that made up O’Connor’s liminal frame were:
~ her effective confinement on her farm in Milledgeville, GA for most of her adult life
~ her protracted, fourteen-year struggle with lupus, which eventually killed her
~ her rigorous commitment to what she called “the habit of art”
~ her dogmatic but deeply personal Catholic faith
All of these elements served not only as a frame but a lens through which O’Connor wrote and lived; each in their own way served as boundaries or limitations on her work and person, but they were also a means by which she found her voice, perfected her craft, and sharpened her vision of the world and of God. It was precisely those limitations, in fact, that helped to make O’Connor O’Connor. I begin my book by saying that we are all instructed by our limitations. Indeed, had O’Connor not had to contend with them, she wouldn’t have become the writer she did. As such, these four sides that make up O’Connor’s frame act not only as boundaries that marked her limitations as a writer but also as bridges to the possibilities of her art.
One might wonder how her dogmatic Catholic faith was a limitation? We believers are often reluctant to admit the limitations our faith puts on us, limitations that are obvious to all artists seeking to express themselves and, more pointedly, the truth of life. Because of her faith, O’Connor always felt the burden to not merely write what she felt, but write what she believed. This was no experiment in “free expression.” No, O’Connor’s fiction and the worldview it espouses is caught up in and “boundaried” by her deeply orthodox faith. She writes,
I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. (Mystery & Manners, 32)
So her view of the world, both fictive and real, is framed by her orthodoxy. But rather than serve to attenuate her vision, her orthodoxy extended it:
My own feeling is that writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. (Mystery & Manners, 33)
Given that O’Connor was a devout Christian and practicing Catholic, one is not prepared for the severity and ghoulishness her stories are known for. Gun-wielding convicts, circus hermaphrodites, pyromaniac teenagers, and ravaging bulls are a normal day at the office for O’Connor, who insisted that God is often most clearly seen in such extreme characters and in the extreme moments of life that tend to follow them. Such moments, O’Connor believed, have a way of obliterating the normal filters and knocking over the defenses and rationales we often surround ourselves with daily—even hourly—basis . She once famously wrote, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” And shout and draw she did, in the form of 39 short stories (in two collections) and two novels, whose startling figures are symbols of “our own essential displacement.” She meant, in other words, that sin makes freaks of us all, but we tend to forget this, so sometimes we need hyperbole to be reminded of this essential truth.
Why is this important? Because in the often saccharine-filled world of Christian culture, which tends to sentimentalize God, Jesus, the Church, and the Christian life, an unfiltered vision of reality has a way of putting us aright and improving our vision. When many people who might want to believe but find it difficult to do so because the gospel is so often portrayed from pulpits as something more at home in a Thomas Kincaid painting, the Church would do well to remind itself that the first Christians were thrown to the lions because of their radical ideas and uncompromising allegiance to Jesus. Nowadays, we might just as soon be thrown an invitation to coffee and scones.
Over the years as a college professor, I have seen how O’Connor’s unsentimental commitment to reality has brought many a cynical student back into the Christian fold because she, at least, was willing to look life straight in the eyes without blinking. Her stories don’t shy away from the ugly realities of life and from the ugly people who often populate it, people we would often rather ignore than befriend. When was the last time any of us befriended someone the world might consider a freak or outcast? The scandal, of course, is that those of us who could answer that question in the affirmative are the exception that proves the rule and, if we’re honest with ourselves, we are often too eager to promote our own piety in having done so. But shouldn’t befriending the outcast and loving one’s enemy be the hallmark of the everyday Christian?
The lack of sentimentality in O’Connor’s stories is also what gives them (and her essays, which are every bit as good) their particular stringency, for lack of a better word. They are severe enough and durable enough to counter the atheist criticisms that have, particularly of late, been hurled at the Church by the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett (the so-called Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse). But O’Connor’s winsome analysis of what she considers the nihilism of our age doesn’t end with her critique of atheism. It is leveled at so-called believers, too, particularly of the mainline, conventional variety, and it is as funny as it is penetrating. She writes in one of her letters, for example,
that the moral sense has been bred out of certain sections of the population, like the wings have been bred off chickens to produce more white meat on them. This is a generation of wingless chickens, which I suppose is what Nietzsche meant when he said God was dead.
I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man [is Hard to Find—one of her famous short stories] is brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. (The Habit of Being, 21)
O’Connor doesn’t mince words, whether through the characters in her fiction or through her essays and letters, and there is something refreshing about this. We see her wrestling with her faith and its implications for the modern world, which gives the rest of us license to wrestle, as well, and not only with our faith but with ourselves and with the ways we might give into the Spirit of the Age, both in and outside the Church. O’Connor reminds us that there is no room for a comfortable faith in any healthy reckoning of what it means to follow Christ. Comfortable is just another word for “lukewarm.” What is required of us, O’Connor believed, is a courageous willingness to pick up our crosses and follow Christ. Nothing less will do.
O’Connor’s stories are almost always about people whom her readers will find distasteful. There is no easy or righteous decorum that makes her stories suitable for bland Christian consumption. In other words, O’Connor doesn’t seem to mind offending people, principally because she sees that Jesus never minded offending people. He was put to death on a cross, after all, and not because he was politeor nice. He challenged the religious and secular authorities of his day, as well as the comfortable morès of the social elite and religiously righteous. Just the sort of people, in other words, who often fill the pews on Sunday mornings. Her stories are not for the faint of heart, and reading them is a salutary, nasal-clearing exercise. And lest we forget, O’Connor is quick to remind us that the Gospel we preach is equally offensive. Have you read through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount lately? Pastors would think long and hard before preaching a sermon like that.
O’Connor’s own peculiar rendering of her faith through the medium of her fiction and essays has served as a balustrade for my own life and faith against the pale nostrums of conventional Christianity, on the one hand, and the tawdry and mean-spirited critiques of post-modern atheism, on the other. For the former (conventional Christianity), she provides some much-needed gravitas; a hard edge, if you will, to remind us that Good News ≠ Happy News. For the latter (atheism), she beats it at its own game. Her critique of conventional Christianity is more withering than anything modern-day atheists can come up with, and principally because she’s critiquing it from the inside. She knows of that which she lambasts. And in a day and age when so many young people feel like the expressions of Christianity they were raised in are either too anemic to explain the world or too hateful to save it, O’Connor’s approach to storytelling brings both sides back to the center and to the cross—to Jesus Christ, who offends both liberal and conservative alike and who, in the very offensiveness of his message, saves those with ears to hear.
In her essay “The Fiction Writer & His Country,” which serves nicely to distill her entire approach to her art, O’Connor contends that we are inextricably bound in one way or another to our location, or what she called our “region” or “country.” We can’t escape it, even if we leave it; it forms who we are (the “You can take the girl out of Kansas…” idea), and we must acknowledge this as our starting point for belief. If we do this, our faith becomes more genuine, more itself, and the job of the writer, then, is to remind us of that region, of that country, in the context of our faith, wherein we live and move and have our being:
From one man He has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. He did this so they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. For in him we live, and move, and have our being…
~ Acts 17: 26-28
When we talk about a writer’s country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him. Art requires a delicate adjustment of the outer and inner worlds in such a way that, without changing their nature, they can be seen through each other. To know oneself is to know one’s region. It is also to know the world, and it is also, paradoxically, a form of exile from the world. The writer’s value is lost, both to himself and to his country, as soon as he ceases to see that country as a part of himself, and to know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility, and this is not a virtue conspicuous in any national character.
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 passages past him, or into his jaws, that stories of any depth will always be concerned to tell, and this being the case, it requires considerable courage at any time, in any country, not to turn away from the storyteller. (Mystery & Manners, 33-35)
Michael Bruner, Ph.D., was born and raised in the Philippines as the child of missionary parents. Since 2003, he has taught in the departments of education, English, and, since 2010, in the department of practical theology, as well as in the Honors College. Bruner has presented at conferences both nationally and internationally and has published chapters and articles on topics ranging from the literary alchemy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to the similarities of genius of GK Chesterton and JS Bach. Bruner is the author of A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (IVP Academic, 2017), which is the fourth volume in the series, Studies in Theology and the Arts. His areas of interest include theology and art (especially literature), spiritual identity and formation, and cultural hermeneutics. Bruner is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a resident scholar at the Huntington Library in San Marino, a Lily Fellow, and scholar-in-residence at First Presbyterian Church, Hollywood.