“The intellect is empty.”
“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.”
“You have to show the rot.”
Flannery O’Connor, the lupus-addled queen of “Southern Gothic” literature, either wrote, said or inspired these quotes, all of which were mentioned during a fascinating hour-long exploration of "A Prayer Journal," O’Connor’s diary of sorts during her time as a graduate student in Iowa.
A panel of three -- an English professor, a theology professor, and an up-and-coming controversial Southern female author and critic -- regaled a crowd of some 200+ people at a downtown Chattanooga event by doing nothing more than sharing their insights and opinions about the intersection of faith and Flannery.
"At its best our age is an age of searchers and discoverers, and at its worst, an age that has domesticated despair and learned to live with it happily." - FO'CHaving read only one FO’C short story in my life, my motive for attending was not as a fan of hers, but as someone hungering for something spiritual, and knowing that I am often most spiritually engaged when my intellect is put to work. Intellectual challenge is increasingly difficult to find in churches, which have fallen victim to the same challenge of “lowest common denominator” approaches to group structures (think: education, television) focused more on growth in numbers than on the meaningful edification of those present.
I’ve long resigned myself to believing that my church, and most churches, are not interested in (or perhaps capable of) offering the kind of experiences that feed my spirit: rigor, discussion, debate. Wrestling with difficult subjects not for the purpose of being injected with marching orders, but for the purpose of determining for ourselves what our marching orders should be.
But the Flannery O’Connor event gave me pause. Here was an intensely intellectual exploration of a faith-based topic, presented with zero flashy entertaining spectacle, and over 200 people were packed into the space to be a part of it.
The evening began by focused on O’Connor’s younger hangups. Her sense of inferiority to other writers… or was it mock humility as she developed a public “personae” of herself? Her fear and distrust of intellectualism and psychology. Her struggle with the fear that her talents as a writer clashed with her responsibilities as a Christian.
The most meaningful part of the night was arguably the most controversial. Author Jamie Quatro expressed her frustration over the existence of Christian book publishers, the notion that publishers would seek to categorize and “predestine” books to be deemed Christian in nature. Her frustration -- one I share -- is that segregating books in such a way is a lazy way to feed your faith.
In the real world, the challenge for a mindful Christian is to actively seek out the divine, or the lack of it, in our everyday lives. In the people we encounter, the events we witness, the conflicts which arise. If we expect God to plaster PostIt notes on these moments as shorthand shortcuts that tell us where He exists and where He doesn’t, then we are asking to be lazy at best, and drones at worst.
If we want a prefab shortcut to the divine, it’s called the Bible, not the fiction section in LifeWay.
No book of the past decade has moved me or challenged me more, spiritually, than “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy. I’m not sure whether the guy is a Christian, nor should it entirely matter. I only know that, when I experienced that book, I felt the presence of God amongst a fallen people… even if sometimes it was barely a pinprick of light in an auditorium of pitch dark.
One popular criticism of O’Connnor called her writing “technically excellent, but spiritually empty.” I couldn’t help but wonder what “spiritually full” looks like, exactly. Would it look like Dante’s “Inferno”? Would it look like “Paradise Lost”? Both of these are epic consequences of spiritual emptiness or rejections of the divine, written by devoutly religious men.
Because few things preoccupy a believer more than the consequences of disbelief or disobedience. Elsewise why wouldn’t Jesus focus the parable of the Prodigal Son on the boring life of the well-behaved son rather than share the details of the bratty jerk who went astray? Elsewise why would we rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints?
You can’t truly value the concepts of grace or redemption if you spend your life dancing with Care Bears on rainbows.