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Did Flannery O’Connor Write Christian Fiction?

She is routinely considered one of the greatest Christian writers ever. An avowed believer, passionate and unashamed to speak or write of her faith, O’Connor’s work is often upheld as a standard for what religious fiction should (or could) be.  Nevertheless, many readers of contemporary Christian fiction still have a difficult time answering the aforementioned question: Did Flannery O’Connor Write Christian Fiction?

In her favor, O’Connor clearly had 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.

So O’Connor wanted to bring “the ultimate reality. . . the Incarnation” to “people who think God is dead.” I’m not sure I know a single Christian author who doesn’t aim for that end. However, it’s this “audience” issue that muddies the question. For in attempting to reach “people who think God is dead,” O’Connor eschewed didacticism in favor of shock. She explains:

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. *emphasis mine)

Notice that the Christian novelist, when writing to an audience that “holds the same beliefs you do,” can… “relax a little.” Exactly how do Christians authors writing to Christian audiences relax? And does this “relaxation” hurt or help our stories? Whatever the answer, it was O’Connor’s perceived audience that prompted her to employ shock and grotesquery. And 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 with a clear evangelical aim. But by current standards, language like this immediately disqualifies a story from the ranks of Christian fiction. So perhaps that’s the problem: We use today’s Christian fiction as the yardstick for what the genre should be.

It’s not a stretch to suggest that O’Connor would take issue with today’s religious fiction. In Mystery and Manners (p. 163) she writes:

Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible. (emphasis mine)

The “sorry religious novel” is one where the writer gets herself “as little dirty in the process as possible.” Which makes me wonder whether or not our “family friendly” approach to Christian art isn’t somehow detrimental.

So on both of these counts — audience and language — Flannery O’Connor’s stories would NOT be considered Christian fiction. However, I think that says more about how we have come to view Christian fiction than anything. Which is a shame.

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What say you? Did Flannery O’Connor write Christian fiction?

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{ 101 comments… add one }
  • Katherine Coble June 23, 2011, 11:42 AM

    I needto clarify one thing. I dont LIKE Flannery O’Connor’s work. I admire it stylistically and appreciate the synbolism and craftsmanship. But I am far from an O’Connor fangirl. When kicking back with a book I prefer George RR Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, Michael Connelly, Phillip K Dick…more entertaining stuff.

    So dont misunderstand my defence of her as having sprung from some sort of fervid O’Connor worship. I merely have great respect for her talent and sacrifice and feel those should not pass unremarked.

    • Johne Cook June 23, 2011, 11:55 AM

      Fair enough. (Apropo of nothing, I note from that list that those all appear to be novelists, and in at least two cases, writers of very LOOOONNNNGGGG novels. Interesting. I also adore GRRM and PR.)

  • Jessica Thomas June 23, 2011, 5:38 PM

    I’m very rarely offended in a debate. Only when it gets personal, which happened when I was debating a bunch of atheists during their so-called blasphemy challenge. I guess you could say I asked for that one. This is forum is quite tame, which is why I like hanging out with Christians. Even when they are “mean”, it’s nothing compared.

    By the way, I read O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” today. If I wasn’t already depressed enough by the horrid weather. Well written, but I don’t like it when a story leaves me with a rock in my stomach. And children getting hurt…especially babies…no… There’s too much of that in real life already.


    • Katherine Coble June 23, 2011, 6:36 PM

      Alas, that story is a prime example of why i admire the craft of, but do not like Flannery O’Connor’s work. Then again, i dont enjoy the work of many Southern writers outside of Conroy.

  • Niki Turner June 23, 2011, 7:10 PM

    Just wanted to let you know I linked to this post today at my own blog. Certainly makes us all think hard about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it! http://www.nikiturner.net/2011/06/is-christian-fiction-for-christians.html#disqus_thread

  • Megan Willome June 25, 2011, 9:00 AM

    I am a Christian. I love Flannery O’Connor. I despise Christian fiction.
    ‘Nuff said.

    • Tim George June 25, 2011, 9:15 AM

      A bit of disclaimer first Megan.
      1) I have already stated I have read and enjoyed O’Connor on more than one occasion.
      2) Since I am trying my best to be as non-confrontational as possible these days I would like to just ask a few questions of you and others that make comments like, “I despise Christian fiction.”

      Despise is an intense word loaded with emotion. Would you qualify that your despise the style and content of Christian fiction or the writers who produce it?

      Until a few months ago I would have made the same kind of blanket statement about Christian Hip Hop (The Beat of Our Story) until I took time to sit down with a Christian Hip Hop artist and hear things from his point of view. I still don’t like rap but there is no way I can despise something that honors God through the intense devotion of that young man.

      So do you really despise Christian fiction or is it just not for you?

      Honest question that I hope to learn something from.

  • Keiti June 25, 2011, 6:28 PM

    I’ve only perused the comments, and haven’t read all of them, so I apologize if someone already brought this up.

    Flannery O’Connor was a writer of Southern Gothic fiction. I think this is an important point of note because of what Gothic fiction in general aims to accomplish – which is to address that which society fears or disdains. If you look back at 18th & 19th century Gothic fiction, it is typically laced with religious overtones – either railing against the Catholic church (which was _the_ church at the time) or holding religious beliefs up as the ultimate ideal for behavior.

    A bit of background: I did my masters dissertation on what I’m calling Christian Gothic fiction – focused on Ted Dekker/Frank Peretti, Travis Thrasher, Tosca Lee, and John B. Olson. I mention this because one of the things I had to decide was what the dividing line was between Gothic Fiction with religious overtones and Christian Gothic fiction. My thesis was that the basis of the novels was reversed. Gothic fiction started from a point of horror and used religion as a means to address that horror. Christian Gothic fiction started from a religious point and used horror to address religion. Everything else is simply window dressing, including foul language or lack thereof.

    I think Flannery O’Connor answered the question herself, at least in terms of how we view Religious fiction today, when she noted “the sorry religious novel” and noted a distinct inability (by choice or otherwise) to “penetrate concrete reality.” By those standards I would venture to say that she wasn’t a Christian author but rather an author who was Christian. Just as I would say that her writing is Southern Gothic that uses religion to put a spotlight on “concrete reality” rather than Religious that uses Southern Gothic to put a spotlight on religion. I’ve only read a couple of her short stories, so my sample is relatively small. I may change my mind upon further reading.

    Of course, all of this hinges on whether you accept my definition of what defines Christian Gothic. I’m still working out all of the details. 🙂

    • Jill June 27, 2011, 10:15 AM

      This is one of my particular areas of interest/study. I’m especially interested in the divergence from Walpole to Radcliffe and Lewis–and, then, of course, Gothic lit ever since. I will visit your blog and would like to take up this conversation elsewhere. Perhaps I will start a conversation on my blog. Good stuff. Thanks.

      • Keiti June 27, 2011, 3:10 PM

        Hi Jill,

        I would *love* to have someone to parse this stuff out with. There were only 4 people on my course and we all had very different interests. I haven’t really approached this on my blog, so if you start a conversation on yours I’ll be right there to join in. Am off to bookmark it now. 🙂


  • aunty belle July 28, 2011, 3:50 PM

    Somethin’ y’all might like to see: Acclaimed artist paints Flannery and show bloggers the day by day development.


  • Skadi meic Beorh May 5, 2012, 8:42 PM

    Maybe this will help somebody:

    A notion, or temptation, is not a thought. Sin only begins in thought, and moves to word and/or deed (action). Therefore, I can live without sinning. Ever.

    Now, about Flannery, yes, she wrote Christian fiction. The Bible is filled with sinners spouting their blasphemies. Does that mean that the authors of the books these sins are found in were sinning when they were describing their worlds? O’Connor is no different. She is a Christian writing literature that draws others eyes up to Him. I can only hope that my work will be so well received, and also so criticized for His glory. Please think about that. Many saints have become so because they have been martyred by those calling themselves Believers.

  • Steve Daniel November 1, 2012, 3:41 PM


  • Maggie January 18, 2014, 11:33 AM

    Would anyone know of a writing coach, who is an Evangelical and who does applaud the works of Ms. O’Connor as a first class artist?

    On the hunt for a friend.

    Many thanks!

  • Proctor S. Burress June 8, 2014, 5:22 PM

    Please advise as to whether I should find a psychiatrist or check myself into an asylum. I don’t understand this!

    You speak of Flannery O’Connor as a “great Christian writer.” And yet her lupus was so profound at times that her mental/emotional balance had to be marginal or even defective. How can so many worship or adore a woman who offered such gratuitous violence to cripple ‘fictive’ people in the name of ‘grace’. How can the “only American Christian novelist of the 20th century” who consistently brutalizes her characters…figments of her distorted inner world…be given a free pass in doing so?

    Are evangelicals so desperate to adopt flawed human beings as saints in the present age that they have loss all of the spiritual discernment they are encouraged to develop?

    Should writers be encouraged and praised for dredging up horribly twisted characters from the depth of a twisted, crippled soul and then brutally assault them in the name of Christian values…and call it salvific literature? And pray explain, the same writer claims to be absolutely dogmatic in proclamations of her orthodox faith creating the impression that her absolutism was straight from the throne.

    Where did I get the idea…”inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me”? (does NOT apply to writers of holy fiction)

    Proctor S. Burress

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