Sunday, August 8, 2010

Religion: Hard Sayings

I went to the local public library yesterday—kind of a busman’s holiday, considering that I work in the university library—basically just to get my ass out of the house. The library is near the bike path that runs along the Hocking River. So I parked at the library, took a walk along the Hocking, and then went into the library prior to heading for home.

Because it was sitting alone on a “featured books” shelf, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South by Ralph C. Wood caught my eye. As I have always considered Flannery O’Connor to be among the most interesting and important of 20th century American writers of fiction, I went home with the book in my hand.

I’m now going to share a few lines from Wood’s Introduction, because they demonstrate, I think, just why O’Connor is such a kick-ass writer and one whom every student of literature—and every avowed Christian—needs to read. Here is Wood:

No one understood both the promise and the failure of the modern church better than Flannery O’Connor. In a letter written in July 1955…O’Connor specified both qualities: “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it.”

In another letter, written in the same year, O’Connor wrote: “[I]f you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church it’s the gas you breathe. If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now.”

A few lines further down in his introduction, Wood sets the above in a larger context:

It was a religious, a cultural abyss, a moral nothingness that O’Connor sniffed as surely as Nietzsche did when, a century earlier, he declared that he could detect the odor of God’s rotting body in his nostrils. Like Nietzsche, O’Connor located the evil not in some remote ethereal realm, not in her circumambient culture alone, but also in the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” She confessed that the church’s feeble and often noxious witness causes Christians as much grief as does the world’s mad plunge over the cliffs of self-destruction. …Unlike Nietzsche, O’Connor agreed with [Romano] Guardini that the church contains the one Solution even as it constitutes a terrible part of the problem. …Hence the frequent likening of the church to Noah’s ark: only the storm without exceeds the stench within. Yet insofar as Christ remains its animating center, the church provides everlasting life amidst the all-encompassing death.

That’s what I like about Flannery O’Connor—she will have absolutely no truck with cheap grace. She doesn’t bullshit. She lasers in on the needle in the haystack. And a glimpse into this moral integrity—and this rare ability—is the gift with which she has blessed the world in her magnificent body of work.

If you haven’t already read her, go do it.