Straight Blows with Crooked Sticks: Flannery O’Connor and the Incarnation in Literature

The Hipster Conservative is pleased to feature this essay from Colin Cutler, who is a teacher, a warrior-poet, and the author of “The Ward of Heaven and the Wyrm in the Sea.”

“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” ~Flannery O’Connor

Christian art ain’t what it used to be. Compare Veggietales to the Second Shepherd’s Play, Frank Peretti to the Divine Comedy, Beverly Lewis to the Fairie Queene, the Crystal Cathedral (the one in California or the one in Dillwyn, VA) to Notre Dame in Paris. And let’s not start on the music.

It’s my contention that Christian art has lost its soul because Christians have lost sight of what it means for the Logos to have become Sarx—for God to become incarnate and to join Himself with human flesh.  “Christian” art will be neither good nor thoroughly Christian until we regain this understanding.  Since I am a writer, I will take Christian literature as my chief theme and Flannery O’Connor as my chief example.

Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic short story writer from the 1950s, argued that the unique concern of Christianity is the Incarnation: “It’s not a matter in these stories of Do Unto Others.  That can be found in any ethical culture series.  It is the fact of the Word made Flesh.”

Perhaps the most explicitly incarnational of her stories is “Parker’s Back.”  O.E. Parker is a profane man with a longing for beauty who marries a strictly religious woman who is “plain, plain.” In addition, she “was forever sniffing up sin”—whether in drink or smoking or churches or anything in any way attractive.  She refuses to be married in a church, which would be “idolatrous.”

Parker’s first encounter with beauty, which drives all his subsequent desires, was the sight of a tattooed circus man whose decorations “seemed to make a single intricate design of brilliant color.”  Parker fills his life and his body with tattoos, but is unsatisfied with the patchy result. When Parker has a Moses-like encounter with a burning tree, he flees to the city and demands to have a tattoo put on him that will complete his collection and please Sarah Ruth.  He decides upon a Byzantine figure of Christ whose eyes are “all-demanding”—he has the image of God literally pierced into his flesh. And Sarah Ruth, when she sees the enfleshed Christ staring at her, responds with “It ain’t anybody I know….[God’s] a spirit. No man shall see his face,” before taking a broom to Parker’s back.

In this story, we see Parker groping for a beauty that he knows exists and finding himself with only bits and pieces, much like the old pagans and the Jews under the Law.  When he encounters God in a burning bush, though, he is driven to one last effort—an effort with which, oddly enough, he aims to please Sarah Ruth.  He comes to her, and, harsh and legalistic as she is, she leads him to the point of confession, “turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors.”  In the end, though, as the law tutors but is insufficient to save, so Sarah Ruth offers him no salvation. She reacts like the Pharisees when confronted with the incarnate face of God. She beats Him.

In her essays, O’Connor points out that compassion means “suffering-with.”  This point calls to mind St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, in which he tells us that we must suffer with Christ if we would be glorified with Him, and the groaning creation is suffering with us, waiting for the sons of God to be revealed.  The hope that is hoped for is a “redemption of the body.”

This is the hope of the Incarnation.  The Stoics disdained the body and the Epicureans saw nothing beyond the body; the Christian sees the body as holy—as the temple of the Holy Ghost.  John’s declaration took the Stoic divine logos, identified it with the personal Christ “in whom all things consist,” and proclaimed it joined with the sarx, a move which meant that we could look into no human face without seeing God’s face. This is the culmination of the declaration at Creation: “Let us make man in our image.”  While Christ does show Himself in miracles, the Incarnation shows that Creation—every bit of it,  especially the human bit—is a miracle.

It is this emphasis on the human which is the distinctly Christian element of O’Connor’s work that “Christian” art misses.  Instead of being plot-driven—person stuck in sin, person accepts Jesus, person overcomes sin—her narratives are character-driven.  She explores the Incarnation through the actions of humans, with Christ working through them—a self-absorbed little girl discovers the image of God in a hermaphrodite; a murderer brings a selfish grandmother to grace as she dies; a condescending upper-class woman asks “who do you think you are,” and has the question thrown right back at her after a pimple-faced student smacks her upside the head with a textbook.

Finally, in none of these stories does redemption come as an answer or as a solution (exeunt Fireproof & Facing the Giants).  Redemption comes as the problem—it comes as a cross which one may either suffer or not.   It comes as a Person, and Christ is Himself the problem that forces a decision, the historical Fact who “thrown everything off balance.”

And it is the responsibility of the Christian artist to show beauty and redemption in the crosses.  Our characters should not only be those whose lives are put back together, but also those who live all their lives “without form or comeliness that we should desire.” In O’Connor’s stories, Christ is not once offered as a proposition. He is encountered and embodied as a Person.  Yet there are no perfect, shining “Christ-figures” here—grace comes through sinful, twisted freaks. And isn’t that what each one of us is? Faith is a crutch, indeed, and we are a race of cripples.

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