Tuesday, January 5, 2010

O’Connor’s Overreach

For my holiday pleasure my wife picked up a volume of Flannery O’Connor’s short fiction from the local library. I have long been a fan of O’Connor’s hardnosed but sympathetic brand of Southern Gothic. Like Mildred Haun of Cocke County, Tennessee, who wrote of the peculiar mannerisms and beliefs of late 19th and early 20th century Southern Appalachia, O’Connor was a master of capturing the various seams of Deep South culture. One story I had overlooked until this past week was “Parker’s Back,” one that ended up affecting me on several levels. My passion against modern Gnosticism was greatly inflamed by Flannery’s prose; but, upon deeper reflection, I realized that O’Connor – a consummate Catholic evangelist – had succeeded through her characterization of Sarah Ruth in presenting only a warped caricature of the Southern Christian mind.

Essentially, “Parker’s Back” is the story of a ne’er-do-well named O.E. Parker, an unbeliever fascinated by body art who falls inexplicably for the sternly religious Sarah Ruth Cates. She has no reason to be attracted to O.E., either, until he reluctantly reveals the name behind his initials: Obadiah Elihue. Her infatuation with the sheer Old Testamentness of that name gives a hint into the weirdness of Sarah Ruth’s religion: it isn’t Christianity at all, but a perverted form of Judaism.

After crashing a tractor into a tree and watching his shoes consume in flames (a nod to Moses at the burning bush) O.E. flees into town to get another tattoo – one for the ages – on the only unmarked space on his body, his back. Divining that God had spared him from death in the mishap, O.E. demands a picture of God, one that he hopes will impress his wife. Thumbing through a book of images, he settles on a mosaic Byzantine Christ. O.E. can’t bear to look at the image in the mirror, because the steady gaze of the Pantocrator demands his obedience. Before going home O.E. stops at a bar, where his tender back is slapped by one of his buddies. He complains of soreness from getting another tattoo, so his friends gather around and lift up his shirt. Stunned, they exclaim, “Christ!” and commence kidding O.E. that he has gotten saved and is witnessing for the Lord. Like Peter of old, O.E. profanely denies this and goes home. Sarah Ruth, knowing her husband’s tractor accident cost him his job, has bolted the front door and refuses to respond to his banging cries of “It’s O.E.” Only when he identifies himself as “Obadiah Elihue” does she unlatch the door. In the light of a kerosene lantern O.E. reveals the tattoo to Sarah Ruth. Here is the climax, where O’Connor depicts what in her mind is the essence of Southern Manichean heresy.

Sarah asks what the image is supposed to represent. “It’s him,” says O.E. “It’s God.”

“That’s idolatry!” shrieks Sarah Ruth. “No man shall see his face!” She picks up a broom and beats Parker’s back until welts arise on the Savior’s face. The despondent O.E. goes outside and leans against a pecan tree, weeping bitterly.

When I first finished the reading I was smitten with sympathy for O.E., as well as the abused image of Christ on his back. The power of O’Connor’s work is her persistent demonstration of the extension of God’s grace in the lives of the most despicable and undeserving of characters – a work that ensures the ongoing suffering and patience of the Lord at His Father’s right hand. She famously observed, “Grace changes us and change is painful.” She rips away the hypocritical veneer of racist, pharisaic Southern religion where it occurs. Moreover, her work faithfully reminds us of the Incarnation as well as the continuous revelation of God through nature. Apparently, it is this that O’Connor perceived as lost in Southern Protestantism. But I believe she projects onto the fundamentalist South something that really isn’t there.

I have lived in the South my entire 48 years, both in town and country. I have attended every kind of (Trinitarian orthodox) church imaginable, and I have never yet seen or heard anything the likes of what spewed from Sarah Ruth’s mouth. I know of no fundamentalist more typically fundamentalist than my own independent Baptist aunt, who resides in East Tennessee. At Christmastime she keeps, on a shelf below her television set, a Nativity, or what the folk down here call a “manger scene.” At Easter she has, on that same shelf, a crucifixion scene – not a mere crucifix, mind you, but a near full-blown set with the thieves on their crosses and the Lord’s grieving mother in the arms of the Apostle John. Above her bookshelf is the classic, somewhat banal print of the Anglo-Scandinavian Christ, gazing serenely upward into heavenly light. It is for her, in effect, an icon in every sense of the term. It calls her attention to the very real Man, Christ Jesus.

She, like other fundamentalist Southern Christians, is waiting for that glorious day when she shall see Him “as He is,” not according to how either commercial artists or iconographers depict Him. But her religious art keeps the facts of His corporealness close at hand.

Returning briefly to Mildred Haun, her fiction depicts Southern Appalachian people as they once were (and possibly still are to some degree), a folk who blend Bible facts with superstitions about haints and spells. But the work of God’s grace as transmitted through nature is no less apparent in Haun’s work as in O’Connor’s. The transcendent God is everywhere immanent, showing “signs” of judgment and mercy through cattle, doves, stars and streams. O’Connor conjures a “turnip-shaped cloud” as a sign of the sacred heart in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.” But in Haun’s “The New Jerusalem,” Effena, seeing the stars and hearing the jar flies and crickets in their natural state, is fully convinced that God is all-powerful, good, righteous, and a deliverer of those that call upon Him.

Southern Christians may be many bad things, but they are not Manicheans.

My ardor for Flannery O’Connor’s work has not diminished one speck. She is unquestionably among the greats.

Mildred Haun is a just a hair greater, in my book.

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