I’m just beginning a church-wide Sunday School series on the life and writing of Flannery O’Connor. It’s a joy to be co-teaching with Dr. Gordon Johnston, Professor of English at Mercer University. This blog post is a column that will appear in The Macon Telegraph this coming Saturday in their From the Pulpit column in the Religion section.
Flannery O’Connor and Grace
This summer at Mulberry we’re doing a four-week class on the life and writing of Flannery O’Connor as part of our Sunday School hour. It’s a wonderful opportunity to gather a diverse group of people together in a setting different from their normal classrooms to learn and share about the extraordinary power of Flannery O’Connor’s writing.
If you’re from Middle Georgia, then you’re probably well aware of the fame of Flannery O’Connor even if you’re not that familiar with her writing. Her family farm, Andalusia, in the Milledgeville area is open to the public. And she has long been viewed as one of the most prolific Southern writers of all-time and one of the great gifts Middle Georgia has given to the world of art.
But the literary world is not the only place where the fruits of her writing have been enjoyed.
Flannery O’Connor has made a tremendous impact on the theological world as well. Perhaps no pastor, church leader, or theological thinker has ever come as close to defining the grace of God in such raw and passionate terms. Where most of us would hem and haw and talk about grace in vague or overly sentimental ways, Flannery O’Connor knew how to write about the grace of God in such a way that you could feel it – like a punch in the stomach that somehow wakes you up to a life you never knew you could live.
We can go no further than a couple of her great quotes:
“All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, and brutal.”
“Grace changes us and change is painful.”
You see, Flannery O’Connor had a gift that she shared with anyone who would dare call themselves a Christian – the gift of honesty. She knew the temptation to reduce the grace of God to overly saccharine and shallow terms; the sort of theology you might find in a Hallmark movie. While that sort of thing is heart-warming, it’s not nearly deep or strong enough to stand up to the forces of evil, hurt, sorrow, and prejudice we know in our own lives. She knew the only rebuttal for forces that strong is a force equally as strong and sometimes violent – God’s grace. She was also honest enough to admit that God’s grace is so amazing and powerful it could only come from God. You can’t manufacture that sort of thing yourself through money, prestige, or a strong work ethic.
Flannery O’Connor is a treasure for preacher and lay person alike because she calls us all to a greater honesty about ourselves and the world we live in. Her stories are often harsh and grotesque because they are stories about, well, us. But more importantly, her stories are about a God who will stop at nothing to sift through our prejudices and hypocrisies in order to grab us by the shoulders and shake us to our core. All the while shouting and screaming, “You are my child! And damnit, I love you!”