Jesus, Stab Me in the Heart!: Jessica Hooten Wilson on the Gospel According to Flannery O'Connor
“This is where O’Connor scandalizes people. God redeems the moment, so violence doesn’t become nihilism the way it would maybe in a Tarantino film. In her world, God is there.” Flannery O’Connor is an American novelist, essayist, and short-story writer known for her sardonic Southern Gothic style with grotesque characters and violent scenes. Our guest today, Jessica Hooten Wilson, is a Flannery O’Connor expert and is currently preparing O’Connor’s unfinished novel Why Do the Heathen Rage? for publication. Dr. Hooten Wilson shares her intimate knowledge of O’Connor, her writing, and the Gospel message that emerges from the pages of her dark and twisted stories.
- 0:00—Podcast intro
- 2:34—Excerpt from Jessica Hooten Wilson on “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” (from her lecture at The Table Conference, September 2017, “Resilience: Growing Stronger Through Struggle”)—”Dear Lord, I want to be a saint, because that is the vocation in which you know everything… but I will never be a saint, because I’m a born liar, and I’m slothful, and sass my mother and I’m ugly to almost everybody. Now I can’t be a saint, but I might be a martyr if they kill me quick.”
- 5:14—Introduction: Jessica Hooten Wilson
- 6:14—Begin interview, Flannery O’Connor’s writing
- 9:12—Jessica Hooten Wilson’s biography in terms of Flannery O’Connor
- 11:07—Flannery O’Connor’s focus on the “dark” realities in the world
- 15:00—How Flannery O’Connor portrays the Gospel
- 16:24—Literary use of violence and suffering
- 20:00—Redemptive suffering
- 24:05—Jessica Hooten Wilson’s favorite Flannery O’Connor character, Mrs. Greenleaf
- 26:41—Discussion of Mrs. Greenleaf’s “prayer healings” and her famous line, “Jesus, Jesus! Stab me in the heart!”
- 34:45—What it means to be “Christ-haunted”
- 35:33—Audio recording of Flannery O’Connor on the South being “Christ-haunted” (from “Flannery O’Connor Reads ‘Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction’ (c. 1960)“
- 43:47—Flannery O’Connor’s battle with Lupus: “I’m sick of being sick.” and “I can with one eye squinted, take it as a blessing.” “If suffering is a grace, then perhaps it could be prayed for.”
- 45:09—Further discussion on O’Connor’s own suffering and how it shaped her writing and thinking
- 49:58—End interview
- 50:20—Audio recording of Flannery O’Connor reading excerpt from “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, credits
Quotes from Jessica Hooten Wilson
- “This is where O’Connor scandalizes people. God redeems the moment, so violence doesn’t become nihilism the way it would maybe in a Tarantino film. In her world God is there. You’re able to then accept grace instead and allow God to redeem violence for another purpose. That scandalizes people because violence in itself is awful, ugly, and disturbing.”
- “She’s not praying to withstand cauldrons of boiling pitch or arenas of lion. It’s a different kind of suffering that she’s praying about, one that would actually be a conduit for grace.”
- “For O’Connor, if you’re a Christian, you should be suffering in some way. If you’re not suffering in some way, then maybe you’re not following Christ as closely as you wish you were.”
- The Table is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation
- Theme music by The Brilliance
- Production and engineering by The Narrativo Group
- Edited and mixed by TJ Hester
- Production Assistance by Laura Crane
- Special thanks to Jessica Hooten Wilson
- Evan Rosa on Twitter
- CCT on Twitter
Flannery O’Connor on Suffering and Redemption
Evan Rosa: The Table Audio is made possible by the generous support of the John Templeton Foundation and the Templeton Religion Trust.
Jessica Hooten Wilson: This is where O’Connor scandalizes people. God redeems the moment, so violence doesn’t become nihilism the way it would maybe in a Tarantino film. In her world God is there. You’re able to then accept grace instead and allow God to redeem violence for another purpose. That scandalizes people because violence in itself is awful, ugly, and disturbing.
Most people want to leave it there. The idea that God could redeem violence or that it could become an instrument for His good because it’s there no matter what right now in the world scandalizes most people.
Evan: I’m Evan Rosa, and you’re listening to “The Table Audio,” a podcast about seeking Christian wisdom for life’s big questions.
I was 21 years old. I thought I knew the Gospel. Then the woman that would become my wife, Lani, bought me “The Collected Works of Flannery O’Connor.” One short story later, I had to adjust a few things. I had to rethink things.
Through short, intense stories that smacked the reader upside the head, Flannery had flipped the Gospel inside out and upside down, piercing through the safe, clean, genteel suburban Gospel that was spreading inside of me. I’d laugh out loud at this passage. I’d be stunned and confused at that one. I’d feel flayed and exposed at another. The overall effect was just delightful.
I found myself so grateful for a Gospel that made sense of the muck and the mire, the Gospel according to Flannery O’Connor. When I heard about Jessica Hooten Wilson’s work a few years ago, I got excited.
At the time, she had just been granted the honor of working through and editing the 400 manuscript pages of Flannery O’Connor’s unfinished novel, “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” This accolade says a lot. For a person to be given that kind of trust for such an important project for the history of American literature indicates what I can confirm about Jessica.
Her rigorous literary scholarship, her knowledge of great books, her voracious reading, her ability to think synthetically at the level of theology, art, culture, ideas, not to mention her near‑encyclopedic knowledge of Flannery O’Connor, well, let’s say all that is rather uncommon. Oh, and she does great accents.
Jessica: There’s this story, and you may know it, called “The Temple of the Holy Ghost” in which it’s semi‑autobiographical. O’Connor writes it about this little girl who’s praying. She prays, “Dear Lord. I want to be a saint because that is the vocation in which you know everything.” Then she concludes, “But I will never be a saint because I’m a born liar, and I’m slothful.
“I sass my mother, and I’m ugly to almost everybody.”
Jessica: “Now I can’t be a saint, but I might be a martyr if they kill me quick.”
Jessica: This story illustrates O’Connor’s real prayers. “I’m afraid of pain. I suppose that’s what you have to pray in order to get grace but, Lord, can you give me the courage to stand the pain to get the grace?” She’s not praying to withstand cauldrons of boiling pitch or arenas of lion. It’s a different kind of suffering that she’s praying about, one that would actually be a conduit for grace.
What’s ironic is five years after this prayer O’Connor is diagnosed with Lupus. From the time she’s 25 until she dies at 39, she struggles with this disease. It’s during the entire of her writing career. When one interviewer asked O’Connor whether the Lupus affected her writing, she said, “No since for my writing I use my brain and not my feet.”
Jessica: The suffering does appear in her work. It does seem to affect her stories. She tells one of her friends in a letter, “All of my characters that I love the most I feel beholden to weigh them down with suffering.” As you know, all God’s friends suffer. Her most beloved characters she’s putting in these situations of suffering for the way to sainthood in O’Connor’s world is more than narrow.
It is harrowing. It is painful. Now she’s not advocating suffering with some masochistic desire to feel pain. As her youthful temple of the Holy Ghost character says, “I don’t want the pain, but I want the grace” because what she fears is to be a lukewarm Christian who desires only the rainbows after Noah’s ark.
The kind of Christian for which Christ comes out of the tomb high‑fiving His disciples or in which the bumper sticker defines your faith. All things work for the good of those who love the Lord.
Evan: That was Jessica Hooten Wilson at our 2017 event, The Table Conference on “Resilience — Growing Through Suffering” where she presented on “Flannery O’Connor and the Cult of Suffering.”
At John Brown University in northwest Arkansas she is Associate Professor of Literature and Creative Writing. In 2017 she was a research fellow here at Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought.
Her book “Giving the Devil His Due — Demonic Authority in the fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoyevsky” won the 2018 “Christianity Today” Book of the Year for Culture and the Arts.
Evan: In this podcast episode we discuss many things Flannery O’Connor — the relevance of O’Connor’s work today, the subversively beautiful nature of that work, O’Connor’s theological views on suffering and violence, and the literary force of O’Connor’s use of the Gothic, the grotesque, freakish grace of God.
We start off with a witty and prescient point of O’Connor’s about advertising, truth, and fiction.
Jessica: Man, she makes me laugh out loud.
Evan: What’d you find today?
Jessica: I was reading her essay about the fiction writer and his country. It’s so fantastic because she’s responding to that editorial in which a guy says, “We have all these great things happening in our country — so much prosperity, so much wealth. Why can’t we talk about joy? Why is there no joy and spiritual purpose coming from this great prosperity?”
She said, “If you want someone to be affirmative about your prosperity, it’s American advertising. If you want someone to tell the truth about the…”
Jessica: “…situation, that’s why you read fiction.” I thought, “Yes, yes. That’s exactly right.
Evan: That’s right.
Jessica: Oh, I was laughing out loud. Just look at the advertisements if you want affirmation about your prosperity. Yes. [laughs]
Evan: If you want the truth, you need to turn to fiction. [laughs]
Jessica: Oh, it’s so great. She’s just on par all the time.
Evan: What do think it is about her that it comes through when you read the letters? It comes through obviously in the fiction, but there is this persona. She’s just one of a kind. Since her work has had the rightful insolence it’s had, I just think I see more Flannerys in the world.
Jessica: I hope so. I hope so. She’s iconic, but she also is so different from some of the other writers that I study. I’ve studied Walker Percy quite a bit. He’s phenomenal, but he doesn’t have the same freedom that she seems to have with her writing.
Evan: Yes, and a security, too.
Jessica: Yes, yes. She writes and then lets it into God’s hands. Once the book is written, it’s God. Percy is always very concerned about his message, what he’s saying, and whether people get it.
Evan: There’s an unfortunate in some respects utilitarianism that comes from that. The work’s only going to have value if it makes that impact and gets across. Then when you read O’Connor it’s just this unapologetic presentation. Just lays the truth bare.
Jessica: Right. Percy had a motive, but it was a motive with great intention…
Evan: Of course.
Jessica: …because he came to faith through fiction. He wanted to offer that same gift and pay it forward. There’s something about duty and nobility in his actions that is admirable. With O’Connor you just have the sense that, when she was three years old, she started with a pen in her hand, and the Spirit just kept going.
Evan: I wonder if it’s the zeal of the convert in Percy’s case.
Jessica: Maybe, maybe, and she was the cradle‑born Catholic. It was just part of her identity that writing was as much of her identity as her Catholic faith.
Evan: I mean conversion not just to religion but conversion to writing.
Jessica: Right, to writing. Yes to both because being a doctor, being converted, being a non‑Christian and then converted, yes. I think that’s true.
Evan: While we’re doing this biographical stuff, if Flannery is a writer in her bones and in her…
Evan: …calling, talk about that because I think that you’re a writer in [laughs] your calling and in your bones as well.
Jessica: I hope so. I hope so. If I can talk about my biography in terms of O’Connor because sometimes I think it’s helpful to see the way that her story has influenced other stories, I started writing when I was young. I was writing these dark, gory stories where people were pulled apart and left body parts in different places. My dad was a Christian and was horrified…
Jessica: …at his teenage daughter being so excited about blood and gore. He sent me to the Rhodes College program for gifted young writers. I had taken on his ideas of writing light and beautiful things. The Rhodes professor, who was not a Christian, asked why I wrote poorly done PBS sitcoms…
Jessica: …why I was imitating “Saved by the Bell.”
I told him my dad’s a Christian and he doesn’t like the dark stuff that I write. He said, “I’m not a Christian, but if you write dark and you want to write like a Christian, write like Flannery O’Connor,” and introduced me to Flannery’s “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”
It was life‑changing for me. That was 15 years old. I started writing like her and it just took off. From there, I’ve been imitating her ever since. She was a profound influence on my life.
Having also had parents that came from South Georgia…My parents lived less than an hour from where O’Connor lived, so it was also in my bones, I think, to always understand Flannery in her world and recognize it not as the freakish world but as reality.
Evan: Yeah, it takes a dose of self‑deception to read O’Connor and think that’s nothing like the world. You have to be deceived at some level to think that she’s being unfair.
Jessica: Yes, she writes in one of her essays about how one writer may write about a hill that is rotting and people think that that writer loves rot when in reality, the writer loves the hill and is trying to show you that the rot is a problem and so shows you the rot as it is.
I think that’s O’Connor. She’s showing you the problems in the world because of her love for the world, not because of her hate of it or her misanthropy.
Evan: I like this, the idea of focusing in on the problem. It’s just shining a light on our darkness.
Jessica: But nobody wants the light shining on their darkness.
Evan: It’s painful. It’s painful. It’s Plato’s cave analogy.
Jessica: It’s humiliating. But it’s humiliating. Plato is sanitized in comparison O’Connor.
Evan: [laughs] Of course.
Jessica: Because it’s humiliating for someone to show you all the things you do so much to try to keep hidden, right?
Evan: That’s right.
Jessica: We put on makeup, we dress up, we hold our acts together. We tell everyone that we’re fine and then O’Connor shows us that no one is fine and if no one is fine, that means us too.
Evan: That’s right. To be fair to Plato, like he needs fairness…
Jessica: [laughs] Right, because he has no respect in the academic community. [laughs]
Evan: Yeah. What I love about, say, Plato’s apology is the way that Socrates digs into those whose appearances of wisdom are just false. They’re just all facades.
Jessica: The sophistry.
Evan: Yeah. In that sense, there’s going to be a strain of Socratic, perhaps Christ‑like prophetic figure that Flannery is going to appreciate that identifying with the truth and identifying with Christ is going to get you hated. It’s going to get you nowhere in the eyes of the world.
If you are shining the light on the darkness like Christ, arguably like Socrates, and certainly like O’Connor’s characters and then even for many people, like for O’Connor, people don’t like her writing because of the kinds of topics that she’s just so concerned about.
Jessica: I always get asked why it is that O’Connor makes people uncomfortable or has this small following of devotees rather than a mass appeal. I think O’Connor would have spoken in line with the Catholic Church after Pope John Paul the Second was almost assassinated.
People responded by saying, “Doesn’t it bother you that Islam is gaining so much popularity and the Catholic Church has so few followers?”
He said, “No, it heartens me because Christ said that the followers will be few.” With O’Connor, I think she has that same kind of legacy is that those who can acknowledge their own sinfulness and repent and want to keep coming back for that kind of pain and unmasking are going to be few.
With O’Connor, I’m glad that she has very devoted few followers rather than mass appeal. I’m also probably a little different in that it makes me hesitant when I’m flowing in the same stream as everyone in the same direction, that maybe I’m not giving the way I’m supposed to go, [laughs] so following O’Connor.
Most of my friends don’t know who Flannery O’Connor is and that makes me more comfortable…
Jessica: …than if they did.
Evan: Yeah, it would be an interesting world where O’Connor is so celebrated because the fact is you just can’t. This is the sense in which she’s got also got a very specific interpretation of the Gospels.
Evan: And is trying to represent it in her work. Interpreted rightly to be a Christian is to be hated.
Jessica: Yes. Yes.
Evan: You have a choice either way, but you’re facing that, just being despised.
Jessica: Michael Bruner, his new book, “A Subversive Gospel of Flannery O’Connor” is phenomenal for illustrating this.
Evan: OK. [laughs]
Jessica: Yes, he just gets her exactly right. I think I wrote amen in every single margin. I was so excited about someone recognizing that her interpretation of the Bible was subversive.
It was showing the reality of a Christ who is turning the entire world upside down, which is one of the best lines from Flannery O’Connor. The Misfit says, “Jesus done turn everything upside down,” and that is what O’Connor is doing.
She’s showing that the Bible if we follow it turns everything upside down. The poor will be rich, the last will be first. Those who are arrogant will fall down. Those who were humble will be lifted up.
It’s a completely different world view and it should be, but most of us walk around trying to live as though everything is right‑side‑up when in reality, we need to recognize that everything should be upside down from where it is.
Evan: I wonder if you talked about that because I’m not sure I even understand this in terms of the literary use of violence and suffering. Of course, it’s a kind of current perspective.
We have all sorts of media today that people who are concerned with holiness, people who are concerned with a subversive kingdom still find themselves drawn to the dark and to the violent and looking at the underside of fallen human nature.
That’s how we justify consuming a lot of media that we consume. How is that different for O’Connor? How can we think about the literary use of seeking the darkness, observing, doing almost a hamartiology of sin? [laughs]
Jessica: For Flannery O’Connor, violence was never an end in itself, she would say. Violence could be used for good or for evil.
One of the ways that you see violence coming out in her work is being actually an attraction for her characters that shows part of their evil nature, that they are drawn to violence. Then, when the violence hits them, they realize how much they didn’t want it.
You see, for example, in “The Violent Bear It Away,” you have Francis Marion Tarwater courting the devil through most of the story. When he, unfortunately, gets raped by the devil, he has been attracting that, desiring that, asking for that the entire time.
Then when it happens, this is where O’Connor scandalizes people. God redeems the moment so violence doesn’t become nihilism the way it would, maybe, in a Tarantino film. In her world, God is there and you are able to then accept grace instead and allow God to redeem violence for another purpose. That scandalizes people.
Violence in itself is awful, ugly, and disturbing. Most people want to leave it there. The idea that God could redeem violence or that it could become an instrument for his good because it’s there no matter what right now in the world, that scandalizes most people.
In that instance, the violence intrudes into Francis’ world. He realizes he does not want this, and instead chooses the second kind of violence that she talks about, the kind that can be good. The violence of depriving yourself of the things you want.
He turns to this ascetic life where he’s going to walk into the city and become a missionary prophet. He knows he could be persecuted and martyred. That’s a second kind of violence. He’s choosing that kind over the kind he was choosing earlier in the story. He’s going to bear away violence, and thus bring forth the kingdom of God instead of accepting the violence of murder, suicide, rape, etc.
Evan: Say more about the bearing away. There’s so much richness and fullness in Flannery’s chosen titles for her pieces.
Jessica: Yes. [laughs]
Evan: Say more about The Violent Bear It Away and the concept of bearing away violence for the sake of some other end. This speaks to the kind of redemptive suffering or redemptive violence. Now we’re playing with fire.
Jessica: Whew, yeah.
Evan: We’re just playing with fire. To say that violence can have a good end, that could go awry in so many ways, right?
Jessica: Right. It looks like you are taming or sanitizing suffering, which O’Connor was never one to do. As someone who suffered herself, she did not think suffering, in and of itself, was a good. She says, “With one eye squinted, I can take it as a blessing,” meaning the other eye fully acknowledges that she is “sick of being sick,” another O’Connor quote.
She knew the reality of suffering and violence was horrible, but she also believed in this mystery in which redemption was possible. When you look at The Violent Bear It Away, she steals the title from Matthew, in which Christ says, “The kingdom is being taken by violence and the violent bear it away.”
She talks about it as being a twofold nature of ascetic love that Christ is talking about, with not accepting the natural order of things as the end of things. Instead, rising above that and accepting persecution, accepting asceticism, going beyond your nature, going beyond your sin.
Evan: Is this speaking to a particular kind of violence that you’re talking about, the kind of ascetic violence that might be considered a violence to the false self?
Jessica: It’s both internal and external. It’s internal against the self. This can be done by God or by oneself. Internally, God is tearing away at you. He’s ripping out your pride. He’s cleansing you of your sin, which is going to burn. In some sense, it’s a violence that God is doing internally.
In another way, it’s a violence that can be done externally, ripping away the things that cause you to sin.
Evan: This is the spiritual disciplines?
Jessica: Yes, the practices that can hurt at first, to give up things that you love that you shouldn’t love. That would be the external violence. Then again, there’s the external violence that other people are going to bring on you for living this different life.
You may be persecuted. You may lose your job to hold your ground. You may not get the house that you want because the money needs to go to the poor and not to you. Some of those ascetic choices can hurt and should be a struggle.
For O’Connor, if you’re a Christian, you should be suffering in some way. If you’re not suffering in some way, then maybe you’re not following Christ as closely as you wish you were.
Evan: Coming up after the break, we talk about Jessica’s favorite O’Connor character, Mrs. Greenleaf, loving others by bearing their suffering, and the contemporary horror of desensitization. Stay tuned.
Friends, thank you so very much for listening to The Table Audio. You know, it’s just one of the many resources we offer through Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought. We also have a big library of event videos just like the clip of the one with our guest from this episode, Jessica Hooten Wilson. You’ll hear a couple more of those clips before the show ends.
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Jessica: My favorite O’Connor character, I believe, is a saint. Her name is Mrs. Greenleaf. She comes from a story that is named after her, “Greenleaf.” It actually revolves around Mrs. May, who’s another character. Mrs. May is “a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though of course she did not believe any of it was true.”
While she orders around her field hand, Mrs. May is stopped short by a guttural, agonized voice crying, “Jesus! Jesus!” Fearing that someone has been hurt, Mrs. May rushes to only find Mrs. Greenleaf sprawled out on her hands and her knees with her head buried in the ground.
Mrs. May shrilly demands, “What is going on here?” Mrs. Greenleaf hops up, her face a patchwork of dirt and tears, and ignores her entirely. “Jesus, stab me in the heart. Jesus, stab me in the heart.” Mrs. May has no idea how to respond. Now Mrs. Greenleaf considers these prayer healings, is what she calls.
Every day, she cuts the morbid stories out of the newspaper, those in which women have been raped, children have been burned, train victims, and the divorces of movie stars. She takes these to the woods and she buries them in the ground. Then she lies on top of them and prays.
Now when my students read this, they express probably what you’re expressing and what Mrs. May expresses. “Jesus would be ashamed of you. Get up and go wash your children’s clothes. Do something practical,” but Mrs. Greenleaf is experiencing an unseen reality.
Perhaps her response is better. She sees the persecution that Mrs. May does not see. How many of us respond that way anymore? How many of us see headlines and pray about them? Do we do what Evan suggested earlier, and mourn in less than a second as we flip to the next screen, or publicly express ourselves on Facebook?
O’Connor says, “You will have found Christ when you are more concerned with other people’s sufferings than your own.”
Evan: This is just raising that amazing line from Mrs. Greenleaf.
Jessica: [laughs] “Jesus, Jesus, stab me in the heart! Jesus, stab me in the heart!”
Evan: I can’t do it justice. [laughs]
Jessica: Yes, Mrs. Greenleaf is one of the great saints of Flannery O’Connor.
Evan: When I hear, I love the way she says it.
Evan: I won’t even do it justice. I also have this image of her. It’s muffled, right? It’s not clear. It’s spoken into the mud.
Jessica: Yes, her face laying down in the mud and her arms crossed out…
Jessica: …as though she’s trying to wrap the world in a giant hug. She’s begging to feel the pain of those who have suffered on behalf of them. It’s beautiful.
Evan: What I love about the image is, seeing O’Connor as a kind of system, from piece to piece. It’s like a world, you know? It’s a world of its own. I just think of the contrast between Mrs. Greenleaf, face down, cruciform, and I think of the grandmother, face up, cruciform.
Jessica: Right, with her legs crossed and looking up, like a child, in the ditch. I think the difference between those stories, the reason that something like “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” bothers most people, is because the revelation happens, and then she dies.
You do have alternative parts of O’Connor’s world, if I could use that language, in which the characters show you what it looks like on the other side. If the grandmother lived, she might have become Mrs. Greenleaf, which would be great. Her salvation would have led to a love of neighbor that would have allowed her to suffer and to put others first.
Evan: Say a little bit more about the Greenleaf phrase, “Stab me in the heart.”
Jessica: Mrs. Greenleaf is another Teresa of Avila. She’s asking for the piercing love of God. She’s asking to feel in a way that we no longer feel. When O’Connor was in her 20s at Iowa Writers Workshop, she writes this prayer in which she says, “Most of us have lost our ability to vomit.” I don’t usually use the word “vomit” in my prayers, but I think she’s getting to the truth of something.
We go through life watching the news and reading headlines, and we do not feel what we should feel. We have become desensitized to suffering of others and to the horrors in the world, and even to sin. We can talk to our friends about sins that should disgust us, not because they’re in other people, but because they’re in ourselves as well.
Most of us have lost the ability to recognize the pain of sin. Mrs. Greenleaf is asking for that kind of piercing pain in which she knows her place in the universe, how low it is, and how much she needs Jesus. She wants to feel that as a gap and as a wound. Most of us don’t want to feel that kind of pain.
Jessica: I am speaking about myself as much as about anybody else when I talk. [laughs]
Evan: I can only say the same. This is the sense in which I’m also thinking of O’Connor as a system. There’s, I think, a consistent theology that is present behind all of her work. I wonder if you might talk about some of those theological influences for her.
Jessica: You know what’s funny?
Evan: Especially that lead to the subversive stuff, the right turning of upside down and inside out. [laughs]
Jessica: When Flannery died, Caroline Gordon was visiting her home, and she said, [laughs] “I’m surprised that O’Connor read so much theology,” which, any of use who read O’Connor now, know that she is so rich in theology. You can peel back word after word, and no close reading is going to get to the heart of things, or cover all of Flannery O’Connor. She’s that rich.
O’Connor’s greatest influences were the saints, especially the early saints, those who did live in the desert and gave up everything. She’s always quoting [laughs] St. Anthony, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who talks about the dragon passing by.
She was constantly being influenced by these saints who, the reality of Christ dominated the reality of the concrete world, in such a way that they lived as though transcendent things were on the surface, and surface‑level things needed to be put backwards.
O’Connor prays when she’s young, “Lord, give me the courage to get deep down under things, to where you are,” because the things that we cannot see often, get hidden by the things that we can. The early saints had a way of digging up the things we cannot see, and putting them at the surface, and living with those realities being truer than the things that distracted us from God’s reality.
Evan: That’s what it is for the transcendent to be on the surface?
Jessica: Yes, instead of the world of advertising, and shoes, and commercials, and what we’re wearing, or what we look like, the things that would distract us from who we are and what is, essentially. O’Connor is always, in her work, trying to get at what is, through the particularities of time and place, and not ignoring flesh.
Even in her unfinished novel, you have a character who says, “Flesh is the greatest interference to love. The soul can move quickly without the body.”
Jessica: There’s this idea that, you have to split the world into two realities, and they’re fighting against one another. That is not a reality of the saints. The saints would see that, deep down underneath the particularities, when you dig far enough, you’re going to find the invisible and you can bring it up to the surface, but not that you divide the two, or you put them at war with one another.
Evan: Yeah, and because of that, it’s where the transcendent belongs. It belongs on the surface. Again, this is the sense in which, it’s only upside‑down to a particular advertising facade, image‑obsessed, narcissistic culture. The transcendent belongs on the surface, and it belongs there for the sake of a encounter with the particular. [laughs]
Jessica: To go back to Plato, it’s recognizing the truth of things, rather than the shadows. Instead, O’Connor would’ve always seen that we pay more attention to the shadows than we should, but the saints didn’t. The saints were living in the Light. They saw Light for what it was, they saw Darkness for what it was, they saw shadows as shadows, and reality as reality. O’Connor’s being influenced their vision of the world.
Evan: I’m unfamiliar with Cyril of Jerusalem, and the dragon passing by. I’m missing that.
Jessica: [laughs] St. Cyril of Jerusalem, she quotes him as saying, “Beware as you walk the road, because the dragon is waiting, and may devour you.”
It’s, you’re always passing by the dragon. It’s an acknowledgement that sin or the Devil is real, and that he’s going to guise himself in very innocent ways, along the side of the road. In that instance, she’s talking about the advertisers, who can lure us away into false gods.
Evan: Quite apart from being haunted by the Devil and other watchful dragons, O’Connor once described the South. Perhaps this best describes all of the, allegedly, post‑Christian America, as Christ‑haunted. That term resonates, but what does it mean?
The context of her comment was a question about freaks. Her stories are, to be frank, filled with freaks, monsters, sinners, deplorables, proud, and undeserving of the terrible speed of God’s mercy. So, why? What does good Christian writing have to do with freaks? Maybe everything.
[recorded audio starts]
Flannery O’Connor: Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly, have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it’s 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, and in the South, the general conception of man is still, theological, and that is a big statement, and it is dangerous to make it.
Almost anything you affirm on the subject of Southern belief, can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. I’m sure some [inaudible 35:54] could come along and get up a table to prove it, that the South doesn’t believe anything at all.
But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it’s quite safe to say that, while the South is hardly Christ‑centered, it is most certainly Christ‑haunted.
The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God, and ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature.
In any case, it’s when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement, that he attains some depth in literature.
[recorded audio stops]
Evan: Today, there is the sense that it’s no longer just the Southerner that is, “very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.” God’s shadow looms large on America, looms large on what O’Connor called, “this terrible world.” There’s a feeling of wandering displacement.
Just like in Nietzsche’s famous, “Parable of the Madman,” known for its quip, “God is dead,” “Those for whom God is dead, still smell the decay of God, as they wander into an infinite nothing, without her eyes, and without gravity, without any fixed point of reference, without God.” God’s shadow, in Nietzsche, is not unlike O’Connor’s Christ‑hauntedness, though each writer sees a much different future.
In 1955, she wrote to a friend, “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we’re coming to, endurable. The only thing that makes the Church endurable, is that it’s somehow the body of Christ, and then 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.”
Evan: I wanted to end by thinking of just about, Christ‑hauntedness. It’s a slightly different, final step here. There is a sense in which this is just perfectly in keeping, but when you think of being haunted, we don’t associate that positively.
Evan: It’s not surprising, given what we’ve been discussing, with O’Connor, to be haunted is, it can go one or another ways, there’s a violence in the, “being haunted,” and there’s a fear. To be Christ‑haunted, there’s this connotation of, again, bearing away the right kind of violence to find our end, to find a encounter with Christ, so this hauntedness, and what does that evoke for you?
Jessica: I wonder if O’Connor would’ve said the same thing now, about our culture being Christ‑haunted, as she did in the ’60s, because in some ways, yes, you had people attending church in seemingly more devotion manner, they were still separating their church life from their regular life.
I think that’s what she was talking about with Christ‑haunted, that they would still have remnants of scripture floating through their head, like idioms that they would use on a consistent basis. Christ was haunting their language, their manners, their ways of being, even if they were no longer believing in the substance of the Gospel. I think that’s what she was intending with Christ‑haunted.
I wonder if we could still say that about the current culture. Only a few years after O’Connor died, Walker Percy started “Love in the Ruins” with, “The Christ‑forgetting nation.”
I wonder if that may be a more accurate assessment of what things look like now, is that, it’s still a theism that may be prevalent, it’s still is, God is there even in our language and in our ways of being in the world, but there’s more of an intentional process of forgetting or pushing behind, or trying to remove that seems to be happening.
You have this whole controversy of the Museum of the Bible in D.C., but you have this idea that it becomes problematic if you bring Christ into the discussion, and that if Christ is brought into the discussion, it has to be treated sentimentally, or without substance, in order to bypass most people’s sensors. [laughs]
Evan: I’m also thinking about Christ‑hauntedness, I’m thinking about it through the lens of Nietzsche, and The Mad Man.
Jessica: “God is dead”?
Evan: Yeah, that passage. The shadow of God still looms large in the smell of the decay is still haunting us, because really, you might think the crime wasn’t completed, in some sense.
What’s interesting to me about this, is the kind of, [laughs] you don’t have to say haunting either, he was stalking, or something like that, it’s a sense in which there’s a long‑suffering Christ, haunting after those who have thought they forgot Him. That’s the sense in which…I don’t buy the post‑Christian entirely. I think that, that’s a term of success that I don’t think has been enacted just fully.
Jessica: I don’t have such a difficulty with the image, as well, because…and maybe it’s because I’m too embedded in Christian culture, and so more often than Christ‑stalking, I see the Christ whitewashing, or you have this Buddy Christ from Dogma, that seems to be the accepted Christ.
Jessica: We can’t see the real Christ, because we have this better version that we’ve come up with, that we like to place on our mantle, and put on the bumper stickers on our car.
We have such a tamed‑lion version of Christ that we keep with us, I wonder if the Devil has just become more persuasive in using the tamed version, so that we can’t see the stalking one or the subversive one. Maybe it’s only because I’m in the Christian world so much.
Evan: Maybe so, but I think even in that sense, the real Christ would haunt even those that just are worshiping Buddy Jesus.
Jessica: It’s got to be so much harder to get through, doesn’t it? If you like Buddy Christ, and then you see the homeless guy that’s stalking you behind the pillars in the church, it’d be so much harder to see that guy as the real Jesus.
I’m just wondering if there’s a different phrase besides Christ‑haunting anymore, because those people are still there, showing us the face of Christ. The suffering is still evident, but Christ is the refugee.
If we can see Christ in the refugee again, it’s not necessarily stalking, it’s almost like the waiting Christ, the ever‑present, patient, waiting Christ.
Jessica: It’s a little, maybe less stalking than the Christ‑haunted imagery.
Evan: I can’t resist, here’s just one more clip, this time about Flannery O’Connor’s own suffering battle with lupus, a sickness that led to her untimely death in 1964.
Jessica: When O’Connor prayed for suffering, at 20 years old, she would’ve never imagined her upcoming battle with lupus. As the disease debilitated her, she confession two truths. One, “I’m sick of being sick,” and then the other, “I can with one eye squinted, take it as blessing.”
Her honest frustration with sickness reveals her human limits to understanding her suffering, and yet she’s granted another vision. Through this other eye, she sees a potential blessing in her sickness. She writes, “Sickness is a place more instructive than a long trip to Europe, is one of God’s great mercies.”
If suffering is a grace, then perhaps it could be prayed for. If it cleanses us of impurity, and opens us up to a vocation of sainthood, and lessens the burden of others, then O’Connor’s prayer makes much more sense. It is hard to want to suffer, but if O’Connor’s vision is true, then may the Lord grant us all the courage we need to ask for it.
Evan: We started with a little bit of O’Connor’s own suffering, and thinking about her process as a sufferer. That’s just a really evocative phrase that she gives, “I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.” That comes from a letter?
Jessica: Yes, at the end of her life.
Evan: I love the imagery there, because of the kind of effort that it assumes, and the kind of blurriness. It’s a version of, “seeing through a glass darkly.” She also wrote that, “You’ll have found Christ when you are concerned with other people’s sufferings, and not your own.”
Where is that emerging in her work, in her life, and how do you take that to be a word that she has given us, almost a final word, as she’s writing in the end of her life, and in working on this novel that you’re preparing?
Jessica: One of the greatest letters that O’Connor wrote, she actually imitates Hopkins. She tells a young man, Alfred Corn, who was struggling about whether or not to believe in God, she said, “If you’re struggling, give alms.”
In other words, the act of love, reaching out to the neighbor, being concerned with other people’s sufferings more than your own, would engender in him a love of God, and that you could start first with that.
The same idea is, Father Zossima talking to the lady of little faith in “The Brothers Karamazov.” You began by doing the acts, tangibly, to your neighbor, and this can move you towards the love of God.
In O’Connor’s last work, “Why Do the Heathen Rage?” which she never was able to finish, she’s trying to understand what this active love of neighbor would look like, especially in the context of the Civil Rights movement, because she was beginning, more and more, to understand the need for loving neighbors that did not look like her, and trying to act out the love of God among people around her, instead of just the contemplative love, or only reading theology in your study, the practicing it forward.
For O’Connor, she never wanted to see suffering as something that could be exalted. When people talked about her own suffering with lupus, she said, “You may be right,” to a friend, and she said, “You may be right that suffering is a participation in the life of Christ, but so too is anything except for sin. So let’s not forget that experiencing joy is also participation in the life of Christ.”
“All things were experienced by Christ, except sin, and so all of our life, then, can be a participation in the life of Christ, not just suffering.”
She didn’t want to give suffering this special place‑hold in a person’s life. Yet at the same time, she was dealing with it every day of her writing life. It was something that she was encountering.
It also gave her a great ability to understand the sufferings of others, and the suffering of those around her. Because she was a sufferer, she could sympathize deeply with those who were suffering, and then act out a special kind of love to those around her.
She never turned people away. She had ministers come to her house, she had little ladies who loved books come to her house, she had teenagers, high schoolers wanting to come and learn from her porch, and she never turned away people. Even though she was completely immobilized, she lived out the life of hospitality to those who needed her. Her life was for other people more than herself.
Evan: Can you write a saint’s life without suffering?
Jessica: [laughs] No, I don’t think you can. I don’t think a saint has existed without suffering. Eleonore Stump makes this point, that if we try to think of the lives that are exemplary, we do not think of the rich and famous who were born with the silver spoon, and died with the giant, 10‑foot marble angel on their grave. Instead, we think of those who suffered and overcame.
Jessica: The suffering produced in them a quality of character that was like gold or diamonds, and that could feed us, and that we could dine on, and try to emulate in our own lives.
Evan: An immortal diamond.
Jessica: [laughs] Yes. A good phrase.
Evan: Jessica, thanks a lot.
That’s it for this episode. If you’re interested in more Flannery O’Connor, check out one of her short stories. I suggest starting with, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” As a final treat for getting to the end of the episode, here’s Flannery once more, reading a few lines from that story.
[recorded audio starts]
Flannery: “I call myself The Misfit,” he said, “because I can’t make what all I done wrong, fit all I gone through in punishment.” There was a piercing scream from the woods, followed closely by a pistol report. “Does it seem right to you, lady, that one is punished a heap and another ain’t punished at all?”
“Jesus!” the old lady cried. “You’ve got good blood! I know you wouldn’t shoot a lady! I know you come from nice people! Pray! Jesus, you ought not to shoot a lady. I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!”
“Lady,” The Misfit said, looking beyond her far into the woods, “there never was a body that give the
Undertake a tip.”
[recorded audio stops]
Evan: For a more personal look into Flannery’s life, check out her letters in, “The Habit of Being,” which contain all sorts of philosophical and literary reflections, or her thoughts on theology and spirituality, in her book, “Mystery and Manners.”
Wherever you jump in, read it with one eye squinted, read it upside‑down if you have to. Who knows, you might find that it portrays the Kingdom of God, right‑side up. Thanks for listening.
Evan: “The Table Audio” is hosted by me, Evan Rosa, and is produced by the Bible University Center for Christian Thought, which is sponsored by generous grants from the John Templeton Foundation, Templeton Religion Trust, and The Blankemeyer Foundation.
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