Friday, 23 June 2006

For the love of God (19): Why I love Flannery O’Connor

A guest-post by Kyle Potter

Flannery O’Connor was a Roman Catholic fiction writer from Georgia, USA. I love her because her disturbing, macabre stories capture my imagination for the God who is always creating and redeeming the church and the world.

Her stories are often violent, and her characters unsympathetic. There are country-folk and urbanites, intellectual atheists, and pious bigots. However, they stop just short of being caricatures as I realize that they are so much like me. O’Connor invites us to thank God that we are not like the Pharisee who is thanking God for not being like the publican. It is in this realization that the character’s moment of grace and judgment will become my own.

Revelation comes to O’Connor’s protagonists in unexpected and sometimes violent ways, freeing them (and us) from pretensions and self-deceptions. Her stories turn on the fact of the Incarnation, and on a strong sacramental principle: God acts in and through his creation. Through acts of violence and visions of the grotesque, O’Connor depicts the wrath of God moving upon the ungodly—and the ungodly sure do look a lot like me!

In the story “Revelation,” a pious and judgmental woman is sitting at a doctor’s office, pondering the South’s social hierarchy and her own rightful place in it. Suddenly she is attacked by a hysterical teenager who screams at her, “Go back to hell, you old warthog!” The woman realizes this to be a message from Jesus, and she asks him later: “how am I a hog and me both?” In response she receives a purgative vision and observes that even the virtues of the righteous are burned away.

In her visions of costly redemption, O’Connor teaches powerfully that all our righteousness is indeed as filthy rags, but that God is not content to leave us to our own devices, and will shake us awake rather violently if necessary. Bizarre events become movements of grace by an unseen God who wants us to know the truth about ourselves. O’Connor’s characters rarely find salvation, but salvation often comes to get them—and us.

In O’Connor’s stories, the love of God is tender, self-giving and determined, and it is because of this that it is also wrathful. O’Connor thus helps us to see, perhaps happily, that “even the mercy of the Lord burns.”

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