On Offensive Stories

Tim Filston asked a great question regarding Flannery O'Connor, and I hated to let it languish in the comments, so I'll address it in a post. He wrote,

Flannery 10-4
Flannery 10-4

I'm looking forward to your insights about her.  Her willingness to face off with the dark, ugly side of human nature seems courageous to me, and not just in a thrill-seeking way.  When a writer depicts the human heart as only a bruised thing, then the reader can only expect "there-there" assurance that everything will be alright.  But, O'Connor calls the reader down into corruption (it seems to me) so that we might have a shot at being called up--higher up than we started. What do you think--am I in the ballpark with this, or is this a stretch? Don't tell me I have to wait till June...?

Tim, I think you're more than in the ballpark. I think you're somewhere around the pitcher's mound. I wrote this biography for all those people who have heard they're supposed to be getting some spiritual meaning out of O'Connor's stories but just can't get there. Your remarks get close to the heart of what O'Connor is doing in these awful stories (awful, you'll remember, meant 'filled with awe' or 'awe-inspiring' before it meant 'terrible'; I'm drawing on all those meanings here).

So you won't have to wait until June, here's a relevant tidbit from the introduction to The Terrible Speed of Mercy:

Blessed are the freaks and the lunatics, who at least have sense enough not to put any faith in their own respectability or virtue or talents. The freaks in O’Connor’s stories stand for all of us, deformed in so many ways by Original Sin. All of us, as the old hymn says, are “weak and wounded, sick and sore…lost and ruined by the Fall.” The freakishness and violence in O’Connor’s stories, so often mistaken for a kind of misanthropy, turn out to be a call to mercy.

In O’Connor’s unique vision, the physical world, even at its seediest and ugliest, is a place where grace still does its work. In fact, it is exactly the place where grace does its work. Truth tells itself here, no matter how loud it has to shout.

People are offended by Flannery O'Connor's stories, and they ought to be. They're offensive. I'm reminded of what Peter said about Jesus: he was "a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense." Jesus's parables would offend us if we hadn't heard them so many times--or if we were paying better attention. After acting like a complete jerk, the Prodigal Son comes home, welcomed into his father's arms. The older brother,who has been behaving himself, keeping his nose clean, takes offense, and we can all understand why. It's a little shocking to realize that Jesus presents the older brother as just as big a jerk as the younger brother--much more shocking for Jesus's original audience than for those of us who know what we're supposed to think about the story. The parables, in my understanding, are driven by that dissonance between the truth and the way we feel about the truth. Jesus shows us what the kingdom of God looks like; if we allow ourselves to be offended by that vision, we begin to see what needs to happen in our hearts. I claim to love grace, but I'm bothered by the fact that the vineyard workers who showed up an hour before dark get paid the same amount as the workers who started at daybreak. I can either reject that parable altogether, or I can think about why my heart doesn't line up with the things I say I believe. But it would be a big mistake to explain away the offense--to say it's not really that offensive.

O'Connor's stories are offensive and shocking in a different way; they were, to borrow her imagery, startling figures drawn for the almost-blind. But I do believe she was working from Jesus's storytelling playbook, using shock and offense to show us something about our hearts. To quote again from the introduction to my book,

If the stories offend conventional morality, it is because the gospel itself is an offense to conventional morality. Grace is a scandal; it always has been. Jesus put out the glad hand to lepers and cripples and prostitutes and losers of every stripe even as he called the self-righteous a brood of vipers.

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it is painful to see a mostly harmless old grandmother come to terms with God and herself only at gunpoint. It is even more painful to see her get shot anyway. In a more properly moral story, she would be rewarded for her late-breaking insight and her life would be spared. But the story only enacts what Christians say they believe already: that to lose one’s body for the sake of one’s soul is a good trade indeed. It’s a mystery, and no small part of the mystery is the reader’s visceral reaction to truths he claims to believe already. O’Connor invites us to step into such mysteries, but she never resolves them. She never reduces them to something manageable.

O’Connor speaks with the ardor of an Old Testament prophet in her stories. She’s like an Isaiah who never quite gets around to “Comfort ye my people.” Except for this: there is a kind of comfort in finally facing the truth about oneself. That’s what happens in every one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories: in a moment of extremity, a character—usually a self-satisfied, self-sufficient character—finally comes to see the truth of his or her situation. He is accountable to a great God who is the source of all. He inhabits mysteries that are too great for him. And for the first time there is hope, even if he doesn’t understand it yet.

If you keep asking questions, Tim, I might end up cutting and pasting the whole book into blog posts. Thanks for asking.