Friday, July 07, 2006

Flannery O'Connor

Douglas Jones writes in the latest edition of Credenda Agenda, asking Who's Afraid of Flannery O'Connor? He writes:

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.

Amen and amen!

Now if you've never read any of her writings and this post causes you to go out and get a copy of her short stories, chances are that you'll find them disturbing and confusing. Reading Jones's article first will help set the stage for what she's trying to do.

I once spent my reading time during a vacation alternating between her Complete Stories and Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner's interpretive work, Flannery O'Connor: A Proper Scaring, a book I'd recommend for understanding her writing. It was of the more enjoyable and enlightening reading weeks I've ever had.

Here is how Jones ends his piece, which I hope will entice you to consider O'Connor's writings:

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.

Jones also offers his top 10 list of favorite O'Connor stories. I'd especially commend "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" and "Parker's Back" (numbers 5 and 1 on his list, respectively).

For more on O'Connor's work, especially as it relates to southern culture, see Ralph Wood's Flannery O'connor and the Christ-Haunted South.