Flannery O’Connor’s Machiavellian Christianity, 9/11, and the “Price of Restoration”, by Benjamin D Carson

I.

Only on an episode of “The Surreal Life” could I imagine taking tea with Flannery O’Connor. She wouldn’t like me, I’m sure. She, no doubt, had a sixth sense for what Richard Rorty calls “literary intellectuals,” those who believe, with Swinburne, that man is the master of all things, that “we humans have nothing to rely on save one another” (94-95). I’d be, alas, a misfit without a messiah complex or a redemptive impulse; and before our tea was sufficiently steeped, Miss O’Connor would be imagining a steady flow of hefty textbooks, enough to fill the shelves of the library at Alexandria, bouncing off my forehead, and stenciling a tight pattern of bullet holes—three of them—onto my cardigan.

But if O’Connor has reason to be wary of those of us who look not to the Bible but to novels and poems to find meaning and purpose in this life, while finding uninteresting or even irrelevant notions of an after-life and the putative means by which we get there, secularists of all stripes—humanists, postmodernists, pragmatists—are right to look with caution at those, like O’Connor, who believe wisdom begins with fear of the Lord. Enlightenment rationality, materialism, and secular humanism (read: atheism) are key targets of scorn in O’Connor’s fictional world, and those who embrace them always get their comeuppance. For not following the one true path, God demands recompense. Atheists, pious frauds, corduroy clad intellectuals: All pay the price for not taking spiritual salvation seriously, and they often pay by violent means. “Either one is serious about salvation or one is not,” O’Connor writes, and to not be serious about salvation is to find oneself at the impoverished end of the new dispensation (Mystery 167).

While O’Connor refused to be the hand-maid of her age and rejected the call to write literature “which is balanced and which will somehow heal the ravages of our time,” O’Connor, to be sure, hoped that her work would have a profound affect on her readers, who, she seems to assume, are either spiritually bankrupt or hell-bent on driving their spiritual lives into the ditch (46). There is, then, in her modus operandi, a clear purpose: to peel back the scales from the sinners’ eyes and reveal the mystery of God’s grace in their lives. O’Connor agreed with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that “God must, in some way or other, make room for Himself, hollowing us out and emptying us, if he is finally to penetrate into us [….] He must break the molecules of our being so as to re-cast and re-model us” (Divine 61). Because so many of us—secular humanists, back-sliding Christians, etc.—are blind to God’s “almost imperceptible intrusions of grace” (O’Connor, MM 112), we need to be struck about the head and face, shot, or gored by a bull—though I suspect any violent means would do—if we’re to be returned to reality and accept our “moment of grace” (112). As O’Connor makes clear, “this idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world” (112). As long as the “considerable cost” to be paid is divvyed up within O’Connor’s fictive world, I, as a so-called literary intellectual, have no objections. But what happens when O’Connor’s Christian world view, her blood-soaked vision, what I call her Machiavellian Christianity, escapes the borders of her fiction and enters the real world of flesh and bone? What I ask, is the “price of restoration” (48)?

There is no reason that those of us who do not share O’Connor’s weltanschauung can’t enjoy or even love her fiction; one could argue that that’s exactly what we’re supposed to do, and no more. O’Connor herself suggested readers “forget about the enlightenment and just try to enjoy” her stories (107). But this is disingenuous, at best. O’Connor’s novels and short stories are as didactic as Aesop’s fables, the only difference is that O’Connor, in effect, wrote the same story over and over and over. Different characters, same point: Accept the gift of grace or suffer the consequences. As Lila N. Meeks argues, for O’Connor, “accepting the gift of grace was not a chief issue, it was the issue” (20; emphasis original). Through the fictive world of O’Connor we can experience the shock of Hulga’s, Mrs. Turpin’s, Hazel Mote’s, the grandmother’s, or Mrs. May’s acceptance of grace and, in some cases, subsequent redemption. But redemption, O’Connor argues, “is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause” (MM 33). In other words, O’Connor’s fictive world is, because it must be, grounded in an “actual” world, one which, in her view, has turned away from God and is in dire need of redemption. Redemption, then, is the bridge between O’Connor’s fictional world and the “actual life we live.” The implication here is that redemption through violence within O’Connor’s fiction “is meaningless” without an analogue outside her fiction.

In Flannery O’Connor: Unmasking the Devil, Regis Martin has much to say about O’Connor’s use of violence. “So many fictional lives,” he writes, “spent in flagrant defiance of Almighty God, lived in arrant and repeated flight from His laws; then, all at once, startled and overtaken by a primitive violence divinely calculated to shake even the most hardened habitual sinner” (14). While Martin here is referring to fictional lives, he is well aware that the use of violence in O’Connor’s fiction—to shake her fictional characters out of their secular or impious slumber—is meant to have a commensurate affect on her reader. Martin argues that writers like O’Connor have a responsibility “truthfully to evoke” violence, the encounter with St. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Dragon, and the reader has the responsibility “vicariously (at least!) to face it” (16). It is this “at least!” that concerns me. If not vicariously, then how?


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