Thursday, August 30, 2007

What Flannery O'Connor Knew

I am always on the lookout for anything that comes along pertaining to Flannery O'Connor. An article in the September issue of Touchstone caught my interest: Writers Cramped, Donald T. Williams on Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O'Connor. Williams, an Evangelical author and professor at Toccoa Falls College, ponders why Evangelicals "have not tended to write...anything recognized as having literary value by the literary world." He finds this troubling, particularly in the light of Chesterton, Lewis, Tolkein, Greene, Solzhenitsyn, Percy and O'Connor--all from liturgical churches--whose contributions are acknowledged even by those who do not share their Christian commitment. Williams finds no such luminaries among Evangelicals, challenging the reader to "try to think of a conservative Baptist, a Free or Wesleyan Methodist or a Nazarene, a conservative Presbyterian, a Plymouth Brother, a member of the Evangelical Free Church or the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Pentecostal, or a member of an independent Bible church who belongs in that company." He can't think of any, and neither can I.

Just to be clear, Williams outlines what constitutes an Evangelical:

I consider an Evangelical to be a person comitted to Nicene and Chalcedonia orthodoxy, a high view of the authority of Scripture, the Reformation doctrice of justificaton by faith alone, and the necessity of personal faith in Christ (and therefore the importance for most people of a personal conversion experience, as long as we do not sterotype it) for salvation.

I find this to be a curious listing. I suspect that the inclusion of Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy is just thrown in for good measure. If you hold to an Evangelical understanding of the authority of Scripture, the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, the Evangelical notion of a non-sacramental, personal conversion experience, you will have some real problems with "Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy," or at least as understood by those who are in fact, orthodox believers. But the Protestant Reformation prism must be retained at all costs, for in the next sentence Williams observes that if committed Evangelicals must give up any of that in order to nurture serious artists and writers, then we are prepared to let art and literature perish from the earth!

Williams believes that Evangelicals can indeed learn from the great Christian writers and their church traditions, which may be then applied to their own "discipling communities." He finds, in Flannery O'Connor particularly, an example for Protestant authors to emulate. O'Connor noted at least 3 ways in which her Catholicism had nutured her art.

First, the Catholic Church provided a "true worldview, encapsulated in dogma, which constituted a lens that brings human nature and human significance into piercing clarity." She knew that one could not simply parrot theology in literature, however. "Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

Second, she received from the Catholic Church "a definition of art that affirmed a spiritual purpose." She noted that "we are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God." Williams agrees. "That which reflects God may have an evangelistic effect. But if evangelism must be the primary purpose of everything we write, then a lot of God’s character will remain unreflected—which will,ironically, not help the cause of evangelism." Williams complains that for Evangelicals, "fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a Scripture verse tacked under them."

Finally, O'Connor's fiction was nourished on the sense of mystery within the Catholic Church: "the type of mind that can understand good fiction is . . . the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery." While Williams acknowledges the role of sacramentalism in relation to mystery, he does not see it as foundational. He does not conclude that a belief in the Real Presence is essential to good writing, but notes that "Evangelicals have too quickly and too often reacted to what they perceive as the abuses of the biblical sacrament in the Mass by relegating the Eucharist to a marginal role in their worship."

While clinging steadfastly to his Reformation prism, Williams is still able to pinpoint an Evangelical shortcoming.

"This cannot be unrelated to the fact that we as a community can seem too much like the generation O’Connor described, 'that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to eliminate mystery.' Our services, like our fiction, are justified by their efficiency in achieving pragmatic goals. Our sermons are full of practical, easy steps to spiritual victory, a better marriage, or financial success; our music is designed to express comfortable emotions; everything is aimed at maximizing the body count at the altar call. Some of these goals are worth pursuing, but perhaps if abasement before a transcendent deity, felt as such, were one of them, we would produce better Christians and better writers."

Williams concludes that "It is not the distinctive emphases of Evangelical theology, but rather a lack of other emphases, equally biblical, that has kept us from being a community good at nurturing the arts," but this "could be changed without threatening any of the doctrinal emphases that we think we have been right about."

Frankly, I am not convinced. Dr. Williams seems to believe you can just tack-on these "other emphases"--the particular worldview, the appreciation of the spiritual dimension of art, and the mystery of a faith rooted in the sacraments--that are all nourished within the churches of the Apostolic tradition. In my view, these dimensions flourish in the liturgical churches in large part because they are not saddled with Evangelical theology. His reasoning reminds me of the books I read by Dr. Thomas Oden several years ago, as well as, I suppose, Emerging Church guru Brian McLaren's Generous Orthodoxy. But it just doesn't work that way.

From my own experience, I see this clearly demonstrated in realm of prayer. The Evangelical in prayer is one whose head is bowed, eyes closed, concentrating on their personal prayer to God. Even in collective prayers in a large church auditorium, every believer in the room will basically be alone in their personal, private prayer to God. It cannot be otherwise in a faith community that places such all importance on the personal conversion experience, and one's own interpretation of Scripture, etc. It has been said that Orthodox prayer can be personal, but never private. For prayer in this tradition can get a bit crowded. One is standing, eyes open, if in church then surrounded by the icons of the saints, but actually before God at the throne of Heaven, surrounded by the Theotokos, the saints and martyrs, the archangels, cherubim, seraphim--the whole host of Heaven gathered around. In fact, it can get downright crowded. Praying in this manner places one's own pathetic concerns in proper perspective, places one in the celestial community where Heaven and Earth are one, and where you are part and parcel of something much larger than your individual wants and needs. And what Dr. Williams is looking for is all there--the worldview, the beauty of art, the mystery. But these things do not naturally flourish outside their habitat, the Church and its cycle of life and worship.

Read the article, here.


cdgilpin said...

Williams finds no such luminaries among Evangelicals, challenging the reader to "try to think of a conservative Baptist, a Free or Wesleyan Methodist or a Nazarene, a conservative Presbyterian, a Plymouth Brother, a member of the Evangelical Free Church or the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Pentecostal, or a member of an independent Bible church who belongs in that company." He can't think of any, and neither can I.

At the risk of climbing out on a literary limb which may be sawed off because I missed something, but what about Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner? Technically, he was Presbyterian, and the Bible was heavily inculcated in themes in his works. I would be hard pressed to exclude him, even though he might be an exception, rather than the norm in "evangelical" circles.

John said...

Good point. Dr. Williams is a little vague as to whether he is considering literature in general, or specifically those authors who address the great Christian theme of mankind's redemption. When he observes that they "have not tended to write...anything recognized as having literary value by the literary world," he indicates he is considering literature in general. But then when you look at the authors he cites in contrast to this, and speaks of their "Christian commitment," then it seems he is addressing those writers (and why was Doestoevsky not included?) whose works tackle the great themes of Christian redemption. This latter approach is how I interpreted the article, for certainly there are authors of great genius--on both sides of his divide--whose works do not fall into this category. I don't know about Faulkner. Certainly his works tread Biblical territory (and how could they not, in O'Connor's "Christ-haunted" South). But his name does not immediately spring to mind, as do these others for this type of literature. And as a nominal Presbyterian, Faulkner would definitely be considered "high church" by most Evangelicals. (I'm a little rusty on Faulkner since my high school/college "Faulkner phase" of long ago!)

Jacob said...
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Jacob said...

Frank Peretti.

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.

'Nuff said.

(I haven't read Ted Dekker, though.)

John said...
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The Scylding said...

You have a point here - I do think that the "personal conversion experience" part of the definition throws a spanner in the works.

It is interesting that the dividing line might just be sacramentology - but I fully concede that your sacramentology is tied in with all of your theology. But a high view of the sacraments is something that is commonly held by virtually all the protestant creative geniusses mentioned - be it a "high Anglican" or "high Lutheran" view.

Interesting, some creativity has been blossoming out Idahao way of late. Not that I agree with all of Doug Wilson's clan - in fact, in some areas I vehemently disagree - but it is clear that their Federal Vision Theology, while still reformed, has a high view of the Sacraments.

I think a high Sacramentology precludes the presence of a mechanistic view of the universe, which is normally associated with a lack of imagination.

Interestingly, JK Rawlings is a practising member of the Church of Scotland.

John said...

scylding--I am totally in the dark about Doug Wilson and/or the Federal Vision theology. Tell me more...

The Ochlophobist said...

Excellent post.

I live not far from Rowan Oak, Faulkner's home in Oxford, MS, and my family and I make pilgrimage there frequently. There is a decent coffee shop/bookstore in Oxford and a great little meat and three should you ever find yourself there.

I am no expert on Faulkner, and given that every other lecture offered at the annual Faulkner seminar in Oxford would fall within the category of queer studies (as with most literary criticism today), I am not planning on becoming one soon. I have read, to my knowledge, all of his printed fiction.

It seems clear to me that while Faulkner was nominally Prebyterian, he was in no way an Evangelical. I think that the primary religious impulses in Faulkner's work are Greek myth and a sort of romanticised catholicism (like that of Willa Cather, only much more vague and based on much less primary knowledge). Faulkner treats the Bible in some ways as if it were a Greek myth and his is a dark romance of the interplay between tradition and tragedy. His drinking and sexual habits would have left most Evangelicals of earlier years not wanting to claim him. But what pertains to this question is whether or not a Protestant religious tradition informed Faulkner's writing. I would finally have to say no, not in any substantial sense. He simply uses the Biblical material because it is there. His use of it is not particularly formed by the Presbyterian tradition, it is more formed by his reading of myth and his struggle with Southern traditions and popular imagery in the South. In Faulkner one finds an innate ritual and an aversion to literalism and the false mythologies that spring from would be literalism. All that said, there is a determinism in Faulkner (one might say many determinisms, some quite little and petty), and that alone begs the question of some residual influence of Presbyterianism upon him, though even there I would be inclined to see Faulknerian determinism as more a mixture of the influence of Greek thought mixed with a healthy dose of modernity.

cdgilpin said...

I attended Ole Miss as an undergraduate and stopped in at Rowan Oak quite often (the former curator is a friend of mine). Please go have some good catfish for me. I am in California and miss the area a great deal.

I appreciate your insight and I think he worshiped at the altar of Southern Culture more so than any particular denomination.

Your post begs the question: Is the only good evangelical writer a lapsed evangelical? That is probably a question for our Dr. Williams to write another article on.

John said...

Ochlophobist and cdgilpin, I remember well the Oxford bookstore--one of the best anywhere. (Lemuria in Jackson, MS is another good bet). There used to be a local cafe a half block away from the bookstore, basically unchanged since Faulkner's time. I believe it may have been called "Smitty's." I am used to good, Southern cooking on a regular basis, but I still remember, fondly, breakfast at this establishment. Last time we were in Oxford, it had closed, replaced by some foo-foo place, if I remember correctly.

I am ill-equipped to comment on Faulkner. I read him extensively, though decades ago. But what I do recall certainly fits the Greek myth template--and the interplay between tradition and tragedy--you reference, rather than any classical Christian themes. One of his most vivid characters in my memory is straight out of Greek mythology--Clytemnestra (Miss Clytie) in "Absalom, Absalom."

cdgilpin said...

I had not thought of Smitty's in a very long time. Thank you for that blast from the past! I am sorry to see that it no longer serves sumptuous Southern fare any longer. I have not been to Oxford in 11 years and I hope it has not completely lost its small town flair.

Theron Mathis said...

Great comments. Shouldn't be a red flag that your "tradition" may be deficient if has trouble creating beauty?

Mr. G. Z. T. said...

A bit late, but Marilynne Robinson makes good literature and is fairly close to Evangelical.