The burning effect of Flannery O’Conner’s fiction on Richard Beck

Flannery O'ConnerA while back, I wrote about Richard Beck’s fascinating series of blog posts that explored the development of demons in the Bible. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of Beck’s biblical exegesis, I appreciated his willingness to probe the relationship between a person’s spiritual state and his or her actions.

Recently, he has been writing about the effect Flannery O’Conner’s writings have had on his Christian outlook.

I have to confess, Flannery O’Connor has wrecked me. Over the last two years, I’ve read all her short stories and have read her two novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, twice. And I don’t read fiction.

Reading Flannery O’Connor has been a profound and destabilizing experience that I’m only just starting to reckon with. I’m still exploring the contours and jagged edges of the changes O’Connor has wrought within me. What have I rejected and turned my back on? What have I changed my mind about? How have my theological biases and prejudices been altered?

Am I still the same person, theologically and spiritually speaking, or have I changed in some significant way? Has my spiritual pilgrimage been enriched, or knocked off course? …

I guess the first thing I’d say is that Flannery O’Connor beat the liberal Christianity clean out of me. To speak as Flannery speaks, it might be more appropriate to say that Flannery burned the liberal Christianity clean out of me.

The acid bath, if you’re interested in undergoing it, was mainly a mixture of Wise BloodThe Violent Bear It Away, and the story “The Lame Shall Enter First.” Speaking only for myself, the liberal, enlightened humanism that informs and guides much within liberal Christianity just withered in these stories. I saw way too much of progressive Christianity in Hazel Motes’ “Church of Christ Without Christ” (Wise Blood), and in the enlightened humanism of the characters Rayber (The Violent Bear It Away) and Sheppard (“The Lame Shall Enter First”).

Because of Flannery O’Connor, I struggle to think of myself as a liberal, progressive Christian anymore. No doubt, I’ll continue to use that label to describe myself when it’s helpful to draw quick, rough contrasts between my views and conservative, evangelical views. I haven’t shifted toward conservatism in the religious, culture and political wars.

The only way I can describe what’s happened is this.

I’m not liberal or conservative, progressive or evangelical.

I am something stranger.

Figuring out just how strange, and it what ways, is now the adventure that I’m on.

Beck used his next post to clarify his thoughts.

Many liberal and progressive Christians struggle with doubts. The forces of secular disenchantment strongly affect liberal and progressive Christians.

Consequently, there is this impulse within progressive Christianity to make faith lighter, to believe less and less, to dilute faith.

As a progressive Christian, over the years I’ve contributed my fair share to this impulse, doing my best to sing the praises of doubt. But a few years ago, I began to grow concerned about this trajectory if left unchecked. I began to worry about my spiritual health, as well as the health of many other progressive Christians.

I am not the only one who has grown worried. After years of praising doubt and deconstruction, many progressive Christians have begun to speak about the need for a turn, a movement back toward reconstruction and a second naïveté.

To be clear, because the label “progressive Christianity” is messy and vague, I’m not speaking of progressive viewpoints, theologically or politically, but about the deconstructing, disenchanting, Enlightenment-driven impulse that runs through much of progressive Christianity. The impulse that keeps diluting faith, where you are believing less and less.

Reading Flannery O’Connor finally brought all these worries to a crisis point for me. I think it was Hazel Motes’ preaching about the “Church of Christ Without Christ” in Wise Blood that did it. “The Church of Christ Without Christ” sounded a lot like what I saw going on within progressive Christian circles, a Christianity that gets so watered down and diluted you don’t, in the end, believe anything at all.

The trouble with the incessant deconstruction at work within progressive Christianity is that, left unchecked, all it tends to produce are agnostic Democrats.

This realization hasn’t made me conservative. My voting hasn’t changed. Especially with Trump in office.

The effect hasn’t been political. It’s metaphysical. I’m simply tired and bored by a progressive Christianity that doesn’t believe in anything, at least anything beyond Jesus being a model exemplar of liberal humanism. I’m not angry or disgusted, I’m not rejecting progressive Christianity. Plus, everyone is at a different developmental stage. You might be just starting out on a necessary and vital season of deconstruction, especially from toxic forms of Christianity. You can’t be expected to be where I am right now. So for you, friends, I hope what I’ve written about doubts and deconstruction is a blessing to you as you start your journey.

All that to say, I remain very sympathetic to progressive Christianity.

But a Christianity that doesn’t believe in anything–a Christianity that dilutes and dilutes and dilutes until you have a “Church of Christ Without Christ”–that Christianity just doesn’t interest me anymore.

I’ve made a long and hard journey carrying my doubts, and now I’m just bored by them.

I am blown away by Beck’s candor and insights. It takes an immense amount of courage to write publicly that one’s strongly-held views have been withered away.

However, O’Conner seems to have that effect on people. She had no “chill”, as the kids say nowadays.

That lack of chill can be seen in a letter she once wrote:

“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. (She just wrote that book, A Charmed Life). She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.

Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the ‘most portable’ person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’ That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

No wonder Beck’s Christianity withered from O’Conner’s prose. I could only imagine how Mrs. Broadwater survived her response.

I don’t know how Beck’s Christianity will evolve in light of his reading O’Conner. However, I am extremely hopeful. The fact that Beck feel like a “stranger” is an encouraging sign.

Could he be getting closer to the heart of Christianity, which, in O’Conner’s words, is her “center of existence”?

One can only pray and hope.

One thought on “The burning effect of Flannery O’Conner’s fiction on Richard Beck”

  1. Sometimes it takes a fiery Southern belle to “burn the liberal Christianity clean out of” a person. I hope to one day be half the writer and devout Christian as was Flannery O’Conner.
    Thanks for the insightful blog!

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