Flannery O’Connor is a force of fiction not to be ignored. Some Catholics want her to be sainted. In a way, I understand. She teaches us to see the world with different eyes. She exposes the hypocrisy that is within all of us and our own illusions of ourselves and our perceptions of others. She also helps us see the world sacramentally, despite the violent and sinful nature of the people in this world. Her stories are quite violent and the seemingly good characters are the ones who are attacked, wounded or killed, which opens grace in their lives.
In Michael Mears Bruner’s book, A Subversive Gospel Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, he illuminates the theological depth of her short stories and her final novel: The Violent Bear it Away. Bruner argues that modern Catholic scholar Baron von Hugal was a major influence to O’Connor that O’Connor scholars seem to have missed. Von Hugal talks about the speed of mercy. Bruner comments, “what he means by the speed of mercy is that mercy burns up what we are attached to, the word is a burning word to burn you clean.” Flannery O’Connor’s point in most of her stories is a purgation. To be knocked on the head (literally) with God’s mercy. Her stories are a wake up call to the nihilism and sentimentalism of this world and awaking us to Jesus Christ himself the dangerous tiger that Blake describes or the good lion, but who is not tame that C. S. Lewis describes.
O’Connor has a deeply moral and divine point in writing her stories. They are to shock the reader into realizing that grace isn’t a theoretical vague happening, but sometimes something that knocks us down, at times violently. That the world is saturated with God. O’Connor is a wake up call to our indifference and niceness and our turning church into a sentimental thing, something nice to think about, but not affect how we live or act. Flannery was deeply devoted to her faith, to Jesus Christ. Her mission was to show that the world is dangerous and harmful, yet God works through these things that nearly destroy us, God has a way of transfiguring us and most of the time it is painful.
Augustine knew this well. In his Confessions he spoke of the pain he felt when God was transforming him and needed to take the things he held on to so tightly. Purgation is not a pleasant thing, but it is a good thing. God is about our goodness; our aim is goodness.
“O’Connor’s central theological convictions… that redemption is hard because life is hard, and life is hard because we are sinners who resist redemption with every fiber of our being… Those who follow Christ are called to follow not merely in his light but in the shadow of that light, and for those who follow more closely, that shadow looms large and dark. … her stories were not fed by … anger … but were wrought … of the exacting severity of God’s divine love… …it is the shadow of grace they walk in… O’Connor’s stories are a fictional rendering of ‘the terrible speed of mercy’.”
As Michael Bruner elucidates, O’Conner’s stories are shocking because the gospel is shocking.
Bruner’s A Subversive Gospel is an important book in understanding Flannery O’Connor’s stories. Bruner helps illuminate grace in a hard world. Flannery O’Connor is certainly one of the most important writers in American Literature.