Sunday, February 21, 2010


I’ve always thought that I should like Flannery O’Connor. The only problem is that I have yet to read one of her stories that doesn’t leave me depressed. Being determined to like her, however, I brought her short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge, along with me on my trip to Poland and brought very little else by way of reading material.

I began reading while waiting at the airport in Wichita for my plane to Chicago. The story I started with ends with an old man sort of accidentally murdering his granddaughter. Not a good beginning. I made it most of the rest of the way to Poland without reading anything.

On the way back, though, I began to get bored and broke out the book again. This time, I managed to work my way through the rest of the book. I still didn’t find any stories that weren’t depressing. But I did find one that I found compelling.

The story “Revelation” tells of Mrs. Turpin, a self-satisfied, self-righteous woman. When Mrs. Turpin visits the doctor, she is surprised by the presence of a young woman who takes an immediate dislike to her and, seemingly without provocation, attacks her. In what seems to be a prophetic moment, the girl tells her, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.”

Mrs. Turpin is shocked. She can’t understand why she, of all people, should deserve such a judgment. She has always lived in a way that she thought was right. In fact, she regularly thanks God that she is not like most of the people around her.

As she rails in anger at God, she has a vision:

She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself …, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right….They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

When O’Connor writes that “even their virtues were being burned away,” I don’t think she’s talking about virtues like kindness, gentleness, and love. I think the “virtues” that are burned away are the things that were never really virtues to begin with. So many of the things that we think are our virtues are really nothing but thin veneers for our pride and selfishness.

Now, it’s kind of popular to complain about the hypocrisy in the church and blame the “Christian” community for being self-righteous, and that seems, to a certain extent, to be what this story is about. I’m all on board with that. Jesus certainly wasn’t a fan of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, from what I can tell.

The only problem is that when I start griping about hypocrisy and self-righteousness, I’m being a bit self-righteous myself. This is a problem that we need to address in the church, but the way we address it is not by complaining about everyone else’s self-righteousness. It is by realizing that we all are living on grace.

I’m not saying this because I want us to all start beating ourselves up. I’m saying this because, until we realize this, we can’t really accept grace.

I’m also not saying that we should stop trying to be virtuous. Instead, we need to realize that any virtue that we actually have is a gift to us. We are just dispensers of God’s grace.

I’m probably not ever going to be one of Flannery O’Connor’s biggest fans, and I probably won’t bring her along as reading material on my next international flight. But she is a brilliant writer, and she does make some valid points, so perhaps I should give her some grace…


  1. Well, you know you're welcome to borrow my copy of her Complete Short Stories anytime. ;-) I haven't actually read any of the novels, though.

    Anyway, my take on the virtues was a little different. I saw it as the fact that even our real virtues aren't really ours, or are tinged with sin, a la Isaiah, "all our righteous acts are like filthy rags." Our virtues are so paltry that they can't stand up to the glory of God's presence. So, I'll have to consider your interpretation for awhile now...

    Anyway, I recommend her letters (collected in "The Habit of Being"). I read them before most of her stories and was hooked. But maybe it just comes from being born in Arkansas. ;-)

  2. Hmm. Well, I'm not sure our readings are really that different, actually. The story doesn't really address whether there is such a thing as real virtues; it's just clear that the things Mrs. Turpin etc think are virtues aren't really that great. The story portrays her as pretty selfish and self-righteous, and all of her "virtuousness" stems from those things, I think.

  3. I wasn't trying to be disagreeable, just to share what I got from it; I think the end result is the same either way you take it. And it's fun to read what you have to say about good literature any time!

    I'm serious about recommending her letters, though. Alice Walker wrote an interesting essay about Flannery O'Connor, too, but I can't remember much about it.

    Any other good reads underway?

  4. I may have to read the letters, if only to see why they make you like her so much, despite her depressingness. :) She does an excellent job of capturing human interaction, but it's always ugly. I guess I just don't see much redemption in what she writes.