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Flannery O’Connor: The “Other” Christian Fiction

So I’ve gotten embroiled in another debate about “Christian Fiction.” It’s all good. And Becky Miller rocks so I’ll forgive her jabs. . . provided they don’t end in a double chickenwing camel clutch. I’ve expounded flannery.jpgmy views on the subject more extensively in a recent series: What is Christian Art: #1, #2 and #3, which outlines my position and suggests a paradigm for grappling with the subject.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is a perfect example of the schizophrenia our current definitions of “Christian Fiction” have induced. For instance, Becky includes The Lord of the Rings in her Top 25 Christian Fiction list. (And of course, I had to interject some snide comments.) Hey, I’m cool with LotR in any Christian Fiction list. Problem is, it’s far from a consensus! Many Christians DO NOT consider Tolkien’s epic “Christian” at all. Which is indicative of the problem.

Flannery O’Connor is another Christian author who pushes the envelope of what we currently call “Christian Fiction.”

I’ve got O’Connor on the brain for several reasons. One, I’m currently reading through The Complete Stories, a 500 plus page collection of her works. And Two, the recent unveiling of some new O’Connor letters.

While many Christian authors cite O’Connor as an inspiration, including her stories in the “Christian Fiction” camp is another story. Why? O’Connor clearly has a “redemptive agenda.” In her collected letters, The Habit of Being, she writes:

One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, the whole reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.

How much more “Christian” can you get? O’Connor wanted to bring “the ultimate reality. . . the Incarnation” to “people who think God is dead.” If I’m not mistaken, this is at the heart of the Gospel. But to do this, she often used shocking, grotesque images.

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural …. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

It is precisely these “large and startling figures” that often befuddle and offend the contemporary Christian reader. Take for instance, this paragraph from her story, Parker’s Back:

Suddenly Parker began to jump up and down and fling his hand about as if he mashed it in the machinery. He doubled over and held his hand close to his chest. “God dammit!” he hollered, “Jesus Christ in hell! Jesus God Almighty damm! God dammit to hell!” he went on, flinging out the same few oaths over and over as loud as he could.

O’Connor is undoubtedly a believer and she has a clear evangelical aim. But, by current standards, language like this immediately disqualifies a story from the ranks of “Christian Fiction.” Is it true to character? Yep. Does the story contain redemptive themes? Absolutely! So what’s the rub?

Perhaps the real line between “Christian Fiction” and, uh, secular, close-to-christian, or non-christian fiction, is who one writes for. While one targets an “audience [who] holds the same beliefs,” the other focuses on an audience who needs those beliefs. But the fact that believers would then disown, disenfranchise and/or distance themselves from these “Christian” works — at least, squirm at their content — says a lot. In this case, however, I’m starting to wonder who “the hard of hearing” really are.

Either way, O’Connor serves to illustrate the difficulty of defining the genre. But is the issue really redemptive content, authorial authenticity or biblical themes? Methinks not. Maybe we should start two camps for “Christian Fiction” — one that includes Parker’s Back and its author. If so, I’m in that camp.

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{ 6 comments… add one }
  • janet June 8, 2007, 6:46 PM

    Mike, I actually read Parker’s Back this past year at a good friend’s recommendation. I loved it- was the first Flannery thing I ever read. She is amazing. I’ll admit I didn’t totally “get” the story. Want to explain it to me? It did make me laugh a lot.
    I guess the bottom line is truth. Was what her character said “nice?” not really. But was it “true?” Yeah.

  • Mike Duran June 9, 2007, 12:03 PM

    Hey Janet, in The Flannery O’Connor Repository, there’s a great article entitled The Ultimate Heresy: The Heartless God in “Parker’s Back”. It’s an insightful overview of the story and how it fits in O’Connor’s worldview.

    And Jason, you’re obviously assuming that fiction is only “Christian” when it is aimed at believers. But who says? Once again, this position requires the importation of a set of subjective religious — not necessarily biblical — standards. The heart of the Gospel is to penetrate Darkness with Light, sow seeds, build bridges, expose sin and extend mercy. But how can we do this without aiming at unbelievers? Perhaps the most “Christian” stories are the ones that are not directed exclusively at the choir.

  • Michael Ehret June 10, 2007, 12:12 AM

    Why do we humans have to struggle so to define everything? We’ve got to categorize, file, organize, alphabetize, and queue everything up just so — and nothing can be filed in more than one place! God forbid! (Wait, does that God reference make this a Christian post???)

    What is so important about this discussion that we keep having it over and over and over again?

    When I worked in the research library for The Indpls Star, we took each story in the paper and filed it in MULTIPLE places. We filed by topics, sub topics, main character names, date, anything that would help us find the story again later for further reference. We would have one story with many many cards filed throughout the system (this was before electronic) just to be able to find it.

    Is it just the constrictions of the CBA market that prompt this discussion over and over? If so, buck it up and write ABA. You know your work is Christian, what does it matter what I think, or what Jason thinks, or what Flannery O’Connor thinks? (Note to self: Must go find a book of her short stories now!)

    Not trying to tell you to shut up or anything, but just trying figure out why this matters … to all of us, because it does matter to me, too. Why can’t we just write?

  • Mike Duran June 10, 2007, 3:33 AM

    It’s a great question, Mike! I can tell you why this topic is important to me, why I think it matters. There are many groups that call themselves “Christian.” Nevertheless, some of them embrace and emphasize caricatures that are unbiblical. How many times have you had to do damage control (i.e., address misconceptions conveyed by “religious extremists”) before sharing the Gospel? My fear is that Christian publishing is in danger of doing so.

    Take for instance, the guidelines for this major Christian publishing outfit: “Because * * * sells to both CBA and ABA bookstores, we must adhere to CBA conventions. The stories may not include alcohol consumption by Christian characters, card playing, gambling or games of chance (including raffles), explicit scatological terms, hero and heroine remaining overnight together alone, Halloween celebrations, magic, or the mention of intimate body parts. Lying is also problematical in the CBA market and characters who are Christian should not lie or deceive others. Possibly there could be exceptional circumstances (matters of life and death), but this has to be OK’d by an editor.”

    This is not made up. The fact that these strictures are considered “CBA conventions” is disturbing. Why? Because CBA is positioned as THE representative and purveyor of “Christian Fiction.” Of course, not all CBA publishers follow such a strict code (hallelujah!). Nevertheless, similar “codes” are embraced by all CBA publishers. Is this what “Christian Fiction” is — touch not, taste not, handle not? As a Christian, I grieve over this and feel it misrepresents the Gospel.

    To simply “buck it up and write ABA” is to concede that Christian authors like myself have NO PLACE in the major — the only — Christian publishing industry. Is that what I should do, just concede? Maybe the reason this matters to me, is that I still have a fighting interest in what we call “Christian Fiction.”

    Thanks for your comments, Mike. Grace to you and yours!

  • Jennifer Fletcher June 18, 2007, 4:19 AM

    Huh, the named sparked some memory. After going through a few of her works online, I found out why the name is familiar to me. O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” was one of the first pieces of work I read as a literature student. At Chaffey the piece was assigned reading, and I read it again in my first year at Cal State Fullerton. It’s interesting what you say, she was never taught to me as any sort of a religious author. Now I’m intrigued to re-read some of her short fiction and analyze it from a historical context. So for now I have nothing to add to this debate but I find it very interesting.

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