As I was finishing my reading of Ralph C. Wood’s very interesting study of the theological basis of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South, three passages caught my attention as being worthy of preserving and passing on. Each of these shed some light, in my opinion, on why the church is in decline and on why soi-disant Christians tend to be so lacking in that which is required for true discipleship. Here is the first:
“Baptism is for Christians what circumcision is for Jews: a public sign that the universal God of Israel and Christ and the church has claimed believers for life in a particular community that lives by its outward and visible practices. Baptism is thus a political act through and through: it is a radical transfer of allegiance and citizenship from one regime to another, from a polity that is corrupt and perishing to the only one that is being redeemed and shall stand forever. Not even the gates of hell will be able to prevail against its onrushing power. Baptism is a sacramental and regenerative rite precisely because it is not a merely human choice; it is God’s own adoption of his people into his community.” [emphasis added]
Tell that to the average neoconservative, nativist, money-hungry Tea Party evangelical and see how far it gets you.
Here is the second:
“Mason Tarwater is too orthodox a Christian to grant evil any sort of dualistic equality with good. He has not schooled the younger Tarwater in the full ancestry of the world’s evildoers but rather in the strong roll call of biblical figures who have been radically summoned by God: “Abel and Enoch and Noah and Job, Abraham and Moses, King David and Solomon, and all the prophets, from Elijah who escaped death, to John whose severed head struck terror from a dish.” That this list does not consist of the morally pure, but of a drunk and a doubter and a deceiver, a whiner and an adulterer and a schemer, reveals Mason Tarwater’s profoundly biblical understanding of vocation. To be called a Christian is not to become an ethically untainted person, much less the well-adjusted anthropoid that Rayber regards as a true human being. It is to become a person who lives coram Deo, constantly before God, in repentance and conversion.” [emphasis added]
Mason Tarwater is the “crazy” self-proclaimed Christian prophet who is one of the three central characters in O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear It Away. Rayber is his secularized nephew—an intellectual—and Tarwater’s life-long antagonist. According to Wood, Mason Tarwater, for all the extremism of his character, embodies what O’Connor believed. Rayber may be taken as the epitome of the contemporary atheistic sophisticate who is the typical middle-class American, whether secular or nominally Christian.
And the last:
“For all his ranting, the old prophet goes to the heart of Christian vocation as Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it in his most celebrated single statement: “Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death.” Rarely does the Christian life constitute a call to physical death by way of the world’s obloquy and persecution; but it is always a summons to die to one’s own arrogant presumptions.”
No extra emphasis needed there. It is the failure to recognize this fundamental truth of the Christian religion that has made the institution of the church the sham that it mostly is today. Any person claiming for himself the moral high ground, based on his Christian vocation, should consider the truths central to Flannery O’Connor’s body of work prior to plotting out how he plans to greet St. Peter when showing up at those Pearly Gates to claim his halo and wings.