A Critique of the Christ-less Church

Christianity has always had its critics—some from within the body of Christ, and others from spectator seats. While some criticize with tact and tastefulness, most do so in a tasteless fashion that is unbiblical. Still, there are those critics along the way who love Christ and hope to see His Church strengthened through their work. Flannery O’Connor was such a person.

Mary Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia on March 25, 1925 to Regina L. Cline and Edward F. O’Connor—their only child. Both of her parents were Roman Catholic. When Flannery’s father was diagnosed with lupus, the O’Connors moved to Milledgeville, Georgia where her grandfather had once been mayor. It was in Milledgeville that she spent the majority of her childhood and encountered the Christianity that consumed her mind and writings.

O’Connor showed great concern for the immorality and self-righteousness that she encountered in the Church. As a result, she was willing to do what she could to bring about reform within it. She was not interested in abandoning the Church. She simply wanted to call the Church to righteousness and show how the Gospel transforms all of reality. The way that O’Connor sounded this call was nothing short of striking! Like so many before and after her, she used shocking imagery and language to move the Church towards change [1]. Biblical prophets and apostles employed such methods to accomplish similar ends—repentance [2].

Make Fun of Your Own Religion!

Though a devout Catholic, O’Connor was most comfortable writing about evangelicals—more specifically, Baptists and Methodists. Her writings are flooded with biblical imagery and critiques of southern churches. Stanley Edgar Herman explains, “[A]t least at first, many of the townspeople resented her fiction as a mockery of the Baptists’ and the Methodists’ faiths. If she wanted to make fun of religion, a number of them felt, she should write about her own religion and make fun of it” [3]. Still, O’Connor makes her greatest contribution through critique to evangelical Christianity.

It is not that O’Connor simply wanted to drag every skeleton out of the Church’s closet. Rather, she sought to describe things as they truly were (and often are). She wanted her writings to be real to life. Mark Noll writes, “O’Connor’s writing was early acclaimed by Christian and non-Christian readers alike for its eerie truthfulness to experience, its masterful depiction of character, and its challenging moral implications” [4]. So what precisely did O’Connor critique?

A Critique of Immorality

One thing that O’Connor critiqued was the Church’s immorality. The Church has dealt with moral failure nearly since its inception (cf. 1 Cor. 5). While this ought not be the case, immorality nevertheless occurs within many local churches. And Miss O’Connor called it as she saw it.

One of her most vivid depictions of nominal Christianity and immorality is evident in “Good Country People.” In this short story, O’Connor addresses the sad reality that some pretend to be Christians, but have no concern for Christ or the Church. She personifies this notion in a young, door-to-door Bible salesman. While on his sales route, the young man is seduced by the well-educated atheist Joy Hopewell. Ms. Hopewell wants to prove a point about the frailty of Christians, and she will not be denied.

When the seductive Joy Hopewell and young man wind up alone in a barn, he reveals that his hollow Bible contains a flask of whiskey, pornographic playing cards, and a package of condoms. After this shocking revelation, Joy says, “You’re a Christian! …You’re a fine Christian! You’re just like them all—say one thing and do another. You’re a perfect Christian…” The boy replies, “I been believing in nothing ever since I was born” [5].

This is an eerie, provocative picture of how O’Connor saw the state of morality in the “Christian” South. While some may be quick to question her use of shocking imagery, they must assess honestly whether her depiction is accurate. And an honest assessment will reveal that she depicts reality much more than simple, crass hyperbole.

A Critique of Self-Righteousness

Not all of O’Connor’s assessments were quite so provocative. In “Revelation,” she writes about a more subtle sin—self-righteousness. The story begins in a doctor’s office waiting room with a woman (Mrs. Turpin) and her husband. As Mrs. Turpin waits for her appointment, she criticizes every person who enters the office. She joyfully casts her personal judgment on each person’s race, class, and body type. And in doing so, she strokes her sense of superiority and self-righteousness.

Mrs. Turpin eventually begins a conversation with a woman and her daughter (Mary Grace) who are sitting next to her. Her sense of spiritual pride climaxes as she proclaims to the woman next to her: “If it’s one thing I am, it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!’ I could have been different! …Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” [6]. Suddenly, Mary Grace lunges at Mrs. Turpin and begins to choke her. Mary Grace goes into an epileptic fit as others begin to restrain her. Mrs. Turpin quickly leans over the little girl seeking an apology. Mary Grace retorts, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog” [7].

While walking past a hog pen at her home later that day, Mrs. Turpin cries aloud, “How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?” [8]. As the sun begins to set, Mrs. Turpin has a vision of a swinging bridge going from earth through fire and up into heaven. O’Connor then says provocatively, “Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of…trash…and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs” [9]. Behind these heinous and disgusting souls, Mrs. Turpin sees a group of people who are like her in race and class. “Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away,” writes O’Connor [10]. As Christ stated to the Pharisees, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Mt. 21:31). Mary Grace had been just that—a gracious awakening to her true standing.

Make no mistake: O’Connor was (and is) seeking to call the church to reform. And by no means was she suggesting that some form of irreligion is the correct response to nominal Christianity.

A Critique of Atheism

Finally, let’s take a look at a clear example of her critique of atheism. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find”, a family of four goes on a trip to Florida. Their grandmother who lives with them also decides to go. Before they leave, however, they learn that a criminal is on the loose—he calls himself “The Misfit.”

After driving off of an embankment along the way, the family comes face-to-face with The Misfit and two of his fellow criminals. These criminals take father and son into the woods and shoot them. They then take the mother and daughter into the woods and shoot them too. In the story’s closing scene, the grandmother is alone with The Misfit, and she attempts to persuade him that he must have come from a good family and that he ought to try praying to Jesus. The Misfit retorts:

Jesus was the only One that ever raised from the dead…and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him [11].

The man then begins to explain how he wishes he had been there to know whether or not Jesus did really rise from the dead. The Misfit says, “…if I had of been there I would of known and I wouldn’t be like I am now” [12].

From this, O’Connor vividly explains that all of humanity’s acts hinge on Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Even her evil Misfit understands that all of his actions will be called into account if Christ was raised from the dead.

Conclusion

These three stories synthesize a great deal of what Flannery O’Connor believed about Christianity. At the center of her assessment of nominal Christianity and atheism stands the resurrection of Jesus Christ. If He really was raised from the dead, all we can do is fall before Him and worship. As C.S. Lewis popularized through his “trilemma,” it is simply not an option to pass Christ off as a good man or teacher [13]. You must whole-heartedly worship Him as Savior of the world, or you must defiantly reject Him and live as a rebel. It is impossible to serve two masters. This is O’Connor’s call to both the Church and the world.

_______________________________________

[1] We find examples of this throughout the Christian tradition. Among these are Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

[2] By so stating, I am not suggesting that O’Connor was a prophet of biblical proportion. But it is important to note that even Scripture implores shocking language and imagery when necessary in order to bring about change.

[3] Stanley Edgar Herman, American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies ed. Leonard Unger (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1974), 338

[4] Mark Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), 518.

[5] Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People,” in Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus an Giroux, 1971), 290.

[6] O’Connor, “Revelation,” 499.

[7] Ibid., 500.

[8] Ibid., 506.

[9] Ibid., 508.

[10] Ibid.

[11] O’Connor, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” 132.

[12] Ibid.

[13] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins. 2001), 156.

Author: Jesse Owens

Share This Post On

1 Comment

  1. Jesse,

    Excellent essay! It’s easy to pick up on many of O’Connor’s themes, but often hard to articulate the common thread. I appreciate your work on this essay and summarizing some very distinct and over-arching points of her work. Now if only we can get everyone to read her writings!

    Post a Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Links I Like – March 17 | Kevin Scott - [...] Jesse Owens at Helwys Society Forum summarized three themes of Flannery O’Conner’s work in A Critique of the Christ-less …
  2. The Top Blog Posts of the Week | SBC Today - [...] “A Critique of the Christ-less Church,” by Jesse Owens in the Helwys Society Forum blog, with a critique of …

Leave a Reply