The Instrument of the Story
In a previous post, I wrote about how I became a Christian and the ways that God very pointedly used my writing in that process. He used my undergraduate thesis that featured a Christian protagonist, my subsequent study of the Bible, friends who faithfully shared the Gospel with me, and even a serious illness, dermatographic urticaria, whose name means skin writing in Latin. However, there was another key player in my conversion. Her name is Flannery O’Connor, one of the greatest short story writers of the 20th century, my favorite writer of all time, and a Christian artist whose work reached out across a span of half a century to speak to me.
I first read O’Connor’s most anthologized story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” in a high school English class. It centers around a dysfunctional family’s trip through Georgia, which goes horribly wrong when they encounter a fugitive serial killer who calls himself The Misfit. It is a disturbing, violent, stress-inducing piece. After reading it, I made two very incorrect assumptions about O’Connor as a person. The first was that O'Connor was a man, a sad indictment of gender stereotypes in our culture and how strong, forceful writing is too often attributed solely to men. The second was that she was an atheist.
It wasn’t until I read more of her work in college that both of these false perceptions were corrected. I was stunned to learn that a Christian could write such disquieting material. At the time, I was still a committed agnostic, and the disconnect between her writing style and her spirituality threw a major monkey wrench in my understanding of “Christian art.” In my previous entry, I discussed how I was afraid to become a Christian because I was scared I wouldn’t be able to write anymore. While it would be a couple of years yet before I followed the Lord, I see my reading of O’Connor’s most famous stories as the beginning of my realization of how irrational this idea was.
During my senior year of college, about the time dermatographic urticaria was going to town on my immune system, I read her first novel, Wise Blood. On the surface, it seems like the least likely book to play a role in anyone’s salvation, but it was absolutely crucial to mine. It tells the story of Hazel Moates, who returns home from World War II to find that he no longer fits into the world he left behind. Incensed by abandonment and trauma, he becomes an atheist, founds his own religion called The Church Without Christ, and enlists the hapless Enoch Emery to aid in his increasingly bizarre efforts. God, however, isn’t done with Hazel, and the conclusion shows him in a battle against the God he tried to forsake, which quickly turns fatal.
What makes all of O’Connor’s stories so riveting is that she addresses theological themes in a way that is subtle and underhanded rather than in an on-the-nose manner. Her writing style provides a sharp contrast to what our culture calls “Christian literature,” which frequently indulges in melodrama and heightened emotionalism and usually ends with the central character getting saved and everyone living happily ever after. Rather than speaking to an audience of skeptics that needs Christ, they instead preach to the choir in a kind of Christian pep rally that only believers can connect with, leaving agnostics and atheists like I was early in college feeling alienated. More often than not, the Newsboys don't burst into song when someone accepts Christ. Instead, a personal crisis often emerges that requires new believers to exercise the faith they've placed in the Lord. It is rarely easy and more than simply celebratory.
One of the reasons I consider O’Connor to be one of the greatest Christian fiction writers of all time is that she doesn’t shy away from this truth. In all her stories, the characters face the question all of us must encounter: what do we do with the Lord Jesus Christ? Some of them respond with outright rejection, some attempt to establish false religions that uplift and glorify themselves instead of Him, and others living in spiritual vacuity are saved, albeit in strange and unexpected ways that frequently require the central character to endure a violent or abusive test.
This description certainly characterizes Hazel, and also explains what I found so powerful about Wise Blood. In Hazel, I saw not just an angry young man with a mind full of distortions about his suffering and God. I saw myself and my own anger toward a God who would allow me, like Hazel, to feel as if there was no place for me in the world. And, as a result of O'Connor's novel, I saw how irrational my rage and unbelief were. I had a choice - to keep fighting against God as Hazel does, or to give in to the increasing realization that I needed Him desperately. Hazel's ultimate demise is graphic and violent, certainly not something you would expect a presentation of the Gospel to be. But the Lord Jesus Christ, too, suffered a graphic and violent death on our behalf. The idea that the sacrifice of God's only Son was necessary to pay the debt of sinners, that without the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sin, is a messy concept. However, when you view the Gospel this way, as it is meant to be viewed, O'Connor's writing style becomes shockingly appropriate.
O’Connor doesn’t shoehorn the Gospel into her writing. There are no conversion scenes where the protagonist falls to his knees, arms outstretched, shouting, “Yes Jesus! I need you!” There are no tearful scenes where a family member talks to an unsaved loved one about asking Jesus to come into his heart. Instead, her stories feature murderers, racists, thieves, charlatans, and people too overcome by their own pride to see how far they’ve fallen – and not all of them make it out alive. “[O’Connor] would come to realize that her faith would naturally manifest itself in her art, regardless of the story she might be telling,” O’Connor scholar Angela Alaimo O’Donnell writes. “This is a key discovery for O’Connor, as she had no interest in writing ‘churchy’ stories about priests and nuns.”
This, too, is my philosophy for my own writing. Because the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is what I believe and because I am empowered by His Spirit, He’ll embody my work Himself, and He’ll use it to accomplish the purpose He has in mind for it. I don't have to put Him there myself. I’m not saying that contemporary Christian books and movies don’t impact lives – I know people whose salvation is owed as much to God's Not Dead as Wise Blood is to mine. However, I do believe that the idea of writing a story for the sole purpose of evangelism is fundamentally flawed and is what accounts for the often maudlin nature of these stories and their largely ineffective attempts at reaching the unsaved. Authors of spiritual work would do well to let the Spirit work as He will instead of trying to do His job.
In the journal she kept during graduate school to explore the relationship between her faith and her art, O’Connor wrote, “Dear God, tonight it is not disappointing because you have given me a story. Don't let me ever think, dear God, that I was anything but the instrument for Your story—just like the typewriter was mine.” Christian artists should indeed endeavor to tell the stories the Lord gives them, and tell them well. However, there is a larger Narrative we are all a part of, that requires us to serve as His tools for conveying it. We not only tell His story when we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others, but also when we create art that cannot help but declare His glory. O’Connor knew this, though in her lifetime, I don't think she completely grasped how powerfully her writing would impact others, particularly those who have come to believe in the God she so faithfully served through her creative gifts.