As clocks are wound back and we watch days grow darker, my wife Kathy says my mood also seems darker these days. I think I’m in good company. Critics often asked Flannery O’Connor why her writings were so dark. She said it was the only way to be a “counterweight to the prevailing heresy” in the contemporary church.
Flannery O’Connor was a writer whose career was cut short after being diagnosed with lupus at age 25. Given five years to live, she retired to her ancestral farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, living 13 years before passing away in 1964. During that time, O’Connor wrote two novels, Wise Blood (1952) and The Violent Bear It Away (1960), as well as two books of short stories: A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955) and Everything That Rises Must Converge (published posthumously in 1965).
In correspondence with friends, O’Connor described her writing as “the accurate naming of the things of God.”1 Biographer Brad Gooch said she was in “pursuit of reality.”2 O’Connor pursued reality by playing the part of Old Testament prophet, unearthing heresies that are often hidden. “According to St. Thomas,” she wrote, “prophetic vision is not a matter of seeing clearly but seeing what is distant, hidden.”3
She explained this vision in the fall of 1963, in her final public lecture, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South.” The occasion was the 175th anniversary celebration of Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C. Leaning on crutches, O’Connor read prepared remarks through her prominent eyeglasses. “Prophets,” she noted, “carry an invisible burden to remind us” of aspects of human nature “we have forgotten.” She was referring to the modern reader’s “sense of evil” being “deluded or lacking altogether.” Readers wanted sweet stories with happy endings. O’Connor wrote about freaks.
“Whenever I am asked why Southern writers particularly have this penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man.” For O’Connor, this idea of the whole man “is what we conspicuously lack in this age.” It was lacking in the church as well. “The reader wants his grace warm and binding, not dark and disruptive.” O’Connor told dark and disruptive tales. She was a keen observer of human nature. Contemporary Christians weren’t. Their faith was “a purely private matter” so they wanted purely positive stories.
O’Connor believed insularity bred artificiality—ra-ra replacing reality. In an address given a year earlier at East Lansing High School, O’Connor said modern writers must often tell “perverse” stories to “shock” a morally blind world.4 The novelist has to act as “a counterweight to the prevailing heresy” of a privatized and cheery faith. Her dark stories included unsavory characters, even Christians, doing some pretty despicable things. Thomas Merton saw O’Connor as “someone like Sophocles… with all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man’s fall and his dishonor.”5
The fall is why the prophetic voice is critical. It keeps the faith community tethered to what Jim Collins calls “brutal reality.” Great organizations “exhibit the ability to confront brutal reality without losing hope,” he writes. That’s why depressing reports are not necessarily detrimental. The prophetic voice can shed light on hidden heresies. I can think of at least two that the contemporary church prefers to ignore.
The first is the Christian publishing industry and its penchant for keeping things positive. Over 20 years ago, Dennis Bakke, a Christian and founder of AES (Applied Energy Systems) called a friend in the Christian publishing industry. He was inquiring if his friend knew of companies successfully stitching together faith and work but not doing very well economically. The friend thought for a moment and said, “Yes.” Bakke replied, “Why don’t you write about them?” “It won’t sell,” was the answer. When Bakke wrote his warts-and-all story of AES, Joy at Work, only a small Seattle-based publisher would sell it. It wasn’t cheery enough for the Christian publishing industry.
The second heresy is how sermon plagiarism has become passé. In 2006, the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page, above-the-fold story: “That Sermon You Heard on Sunday May Be From the Web.” Suzanne Sataline described sermon plagiarism as rampant—not just practiced but defended by pastors because of perceived pressure to surpass the previous week’s sermon. Sataline reports that churches excuse plagiarism as simply “borrowing” ideas. Any credible academic institution would see it as grounds for dismissal. Ray Van Neste, an associate professor at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee says that any time a minister passes off material as his own, he’s plagiarizing. Period.
The problem in both cases is that an incessantly positive message yields an artificiality excusing bad behavior by believers. O’Connor believed artificiality causes us to forget that we are spiritual kin to sinners, in need of counterweights. In his book, Flannery O’Conner’s ‘A Good Man Is Hard to Find: The Moment of Grace,’ Michael Clark writes, “When the Grandmother of the story touches The Misfit, she replicates Paul’s laying on of the hands at the very moment she loses her artificiality and realizes that she and The Misfit are spiritual kin.” Unfortunately, the Grandmother’s epiphany came too late.
It’s not too late for the contemporary church. At this time it operates mostly as a not-for-prophet institution. That’s not healthy, but the church can change. The first step might be a few good men and women reading A Good Man Is Hard to Find. The story will likely darken their mood, but if they prove to be counterweights, they’ll shed light on many of hidden heresies plaguing today’s church.
1 Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York, NY: Macmillan, 1988), p. 128.
2 Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), p. 260.
3 O’Connor, The Habit of Being, p. 365.
4 Gooch, Flannery, pp. 274-5.
5 Thomas Merton & Patrick Hart, The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton (New York, NY: New Directions Publishing, 1985), p. 161.