Takeaway: I have no idea.
One of my reading projects this year has been to read all of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction this year. I have previously read A Good Man is Hard to Find, but I will probably re-read it again. But I have no idea what to think about O’Connor now that I have finished all of her fiction.
She is a skilled writer. It is easy to see that she is writing not just for a surface meaning, but for the re-readings as well. There is depth there that many writers cannot pull off.
But there is also a twistedness that is hard to take. It is not just that many of these stories end in ironic tragedy, but that there is an intentional turning everything upside down. There is much to appreciate about the upside-down nature of the stories. A woman farmer that complains about a stray bull is, of course, gored by the bull. I saw that coming a mile away. But the path to the inevitable end seems to matter. And the upside-down nature of the stories I believe is representative of her understanding of Christianity.
Part of what I do not know how to process is what much of this means. As I was reading around after finishing, one blogger called the title story one of the most anti-racist short story ever written (which does seem to be more than a little hyperbolic), while many others concentrate on her refusal to meet James Baldwin when he was in Millegeville or her antipathy to the civil rights movements or her racist jokes that were not uncommon in her letters.
It just feels much more complicated than the either/or. Alice Walker, probably best known for her novel Color Purple has a chapter on O’Connor in her collection of essays, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. For about a year, Alice Walker, when she was 8 and O’Connor would have been 28, lived just a few miles from O’Connor’s farm and remembers passing it, although she did not know anything about O’Connor at the time. In 1974, Walker and her mother went to visit their old home, a falling down shack in the middle of a pasture, and then the O’Connor farm.
Walker and her mother ate in a local restaurant, that was legally obligated to serve them, but did not have to like it. And they visited the O’Connor house, which had been built with slave labor and still had a servant/slave house behind it. Alice Walker had appreciated the skill of O’Connor’s writing when she first came across it in college. But when she eventually came to know about African American writers she put O’Connor away. Walker’s resentment against O’Connor was at least partially having been introduced to O’Connor without being introduced to skilled African American authors at the same time. Eventually she missed O’Connor and was able to pick her up again.
The essay is 18 pages of ambivalence that ends with, “’Take what you can use and let the rest rot.” If ever there was an expression designed to protect the health of the spirit, this is it.’ That is a phrase and sentiment that Alice Walker can use, but I do not think I can. It is not that I cannot attempt to find good in O’Connor, I can. However, as a White person, I cannot take the good and leave the bad without reckoning with the history. Historically, White culture takes the good but does not deal with the pain or broader culture and history that gave rise to what is viewed as good.
O’Connor frequently uses the N word in her writing, which mattered then and matters now. Walker and some others have noted that O’Connor does not write from the internal view of African Americans in her stories, which Walker believes was an attempt at respect for African Americans, but that does not seem to be enough. Others have suggested that O’Connor’s writing would have changed significantly had she lived longer, which is of course likely, but we do not know how it would have changed.
I have written before about my difficulty with how to deal with the weaknesses of Christians. It is not that I dispute the concept of universal sin, I do not. I also affirm that we were created as limited being as James KA Smith has written well about. However Christianity has moral and ethical beliefs and while no one seriously debates that the church has failed on those many times, how we think about the people that both do good and do evil, especially evil in the name of Christ, is not simple.
I do not think I will ever be completely at ease with sinful Christians. I do not think I want to become at ease. I also do not want to apply a level of critique of for historical (or Christians today) that is more than what I want applied to me or is beyond real capacity of Christians. While everyone is sinful in some ways, the use of Christianity to oppress others or to empower yourself over others is a particularly harmful set of sins that has to be rooted out of leadership. Racism, sexism, abusive power, sexual or other types of physical or emotional abuse should be disqualifying from Christian leadership. The implications of those sins isn’t just on the proximate victims, but on the very message of Christ.
Flannery O’Connor was a skilled writer who was also a serious Christian that strove to use her faith to inform her writing. In some ways, she should be a model for Christians artists today. At the same time we cannot just take her talent and ignore her weaknesses. I have a lot of temptation to leave her behind. There are other great writers that are less problematic (at least in the area of race) that are also quite talented. (There are also many that are significantly worse.) Maybe I will leave her behind, because I do think it is important that we start paying attention to the ways that the church has thought that racism was problem, but not a large enough one to do much about. But I will struggle because taking the good and leaving the bad is not as easy if you have, as I have, realized that much of the history of the problems of White Christianity has been exactly the result of wanting to individualize the sin by taking the good and leaving the bad instead of systematizing the sin by understanding it in a broader context.