Theological Influences: Flannery O'Connor

It's hard to describe the theological influence Flannery O'Connor has had upon me. Mainly because Flannery wrote fiction, and it's hard to describe the theological impact of fiction. The impact is more imaginative than propositional. Flannery isn't lecturing about ideas, she's telling stories.

But stories shape the imagination, and that, in turn, affects how you think. It's just hard to describe, in a logical way, the trajectory of this influence.

But let me try to briefly sketch one way Flannery O'Connor has affected me.

To state the matter plainly, Flannery O'Connor killed the progressive Christian in me.

That death occurred reading Wise Blood and hearing Hazel Motes preach about "The Church of Christ without Christ."

"My God," I thought upon reading that, "that's progressive Christianity."

At least it described what I had felt was happening to my "progressive Christianity." And I think what was happening with me is diagnostic of what happens with a lot of progressive Christians.

Let me try to describe a bit of what I'm talking about.

Progressive Christianity tends to preach moralism, often with a political edge. That is to say, God doesn't matter all that much, just so long as you are good person. Tolerant, inclusive, fighting against oppression. Being a Christian has little to do with Christ, but everything to do with being a humanist. And everything within Christianity that gets in the way of humanism--from the Bible to atonement theologies--must be pushed to the side or reinterpreted so as to support humanistic pieties and progressive politics.

Flannery O'Connor attacks this humanism and moralism in her fiction by casting atheists as moral exemplars and Christians--often in the guise of backwoods, fire and brimstone prophets and preachers--as less than admirable. Her contrast is clear: the atheist might be good, but he is not right. The message: Christianity is more than morality and piety, Christianity is an encounter with the truth.

If you want to read an example of this in Flannery O'Connor, I'd suggest the short story "The Lame Shall Enter First."

The protagonist of the story is Sheppard, an atheist who is active in humanitarian causes. Sheppard has a son named Norton. Sheppard's wife and Norton's mother has recently died, and as the story goes on we see Norton struggling with his grief. Sheppard, by contrast, has preoccupied himself by throwing himself into humanitarian efforts. By liberal, humanistic standards, Sheppard is "a good person." And yet, for all his efforts to care for others, Sheppard cannot see the suffering of his own son. In addition, given that he's an atheist, Sheppard's worldview, though very moral, can do nothing to comfort or console Norton. At one point in the story, Sheppard tries to use the wonders of astronomy to fill the existential void in Norton. But science is no cure for a broken heart. When Norton asks late in the story where his mother is Sheppard can only reply, "Your mother isn't anywhere...She just isn't." Sheppard continues to try to console Norton with the only answers his worldview can give:
"Listen," Sheppard said quickly and pulled the child to him, "your mother's spirit lives on in other people and it'll live on in you if you're good and generous like she was."

The child's pale eyes hardened in disbelief.

Sheppard's pity turned to revulsion. The boy would rather she be in hell than nowhere. "Do you understand?" he said. "She doesn't exist." He put his hand on the child's shoulder. "That's all I have to give you," he said in a softer, exasperated tone, "the truth." 
Again, as typical in O'Connor, the atheist is a good, moral, humanitarian person. But the issue for O'Connor isn't morality, it's metaphysics. In this story the metaphysical issues are life after death, heaven, hell and judgment day. Where is Norton's mother? Is she alive in either heaven or hell? Or does Sheppard have it right: "She doesn't exist." Notice, and this is key to understanding Flanney O'Connor's fiction, we aren't debating morality here, we are debating theology. The issue isn't about being good, the issue is about God.

The reason Sheppard and Norton are talking about the afterlife is because of Rufus Johnson. Rufus is a juvenile delinquent with a club foot. Sheppard, being a good, liberal, humanitarian, tries to save Rufus, but at every turn Rufus refuses, sabotages and rejects Sheppard.

Why is Rufus so repulsed by Sheppard? Because Sheppard is an atheist. Rufus was raised by backwoods fundamentalists. So in the eyes of Rufus, while Sheppard may be good he's not right about the world. As Rufus says to Norton in an exchange about Norton's father:
"He's good," [Norton] mumbled. "He helps people."

"Good!" Johnson said savagely. He thrust his head forward. "Listen here," he hissed, "I don't care if he's good or not. He ain't right!"
Elsewhere in the story Rufus sneers when describing Sheppard: "He thinks he's Jesus Christ!" The idea is clear: Sheppard thinks humanitarian efforts can save himself and the world. Since Sheppard is a moral person he has no need for a savior. Christian humanism is a Church of Christ that doesn't need Christ. All you need to do to save yourself is be a good person.

To make the contrasts even clearer, Rufus is a bad kid. He may even be evil. Rufus describes himself as being under Satan's power.

So the contrast in "The Lame Shall Enter First" couldn't be clearer. Sheppard is moral and a good man. But he's wrong. Wrong about the afterlife. Wrong about Jesus Christ. Rufus, by contrast, is bad, and perhaps even satanic. But Rufus is right. Even the demons believe, and shudder.

Both characters, Sheppard and Rufus, enter into a power struggle to evangelize the grieving Norton concerning their respective worldviews. That's how a debate about the afterlife comes into the story. Where is Norton's mother? Heaven or hell? Or nowhere? Who will Norton believe, Sheppard or Rufus? Who has the truth?

The title of the story tells you who O'Connor favors in the debate. Echoing Jesus's line that the last shall enter the kingdom first, Rufus might be morally "lame" but he knows the truth.

Sheppard, by contrast, may be good, but he ain't right.

Even with all this good works, Sheppard ain't Jesus Christ.

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