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Novelist and O’Connor scholar Jonathan Rogers writes:

Readers are often offended by Flannery O’Connor’s stories.

They ought to be; the stories are offensive.

Jesus’s parables would offend us, too, if we hadn’t heard them so many times—or if we were paying better attention.

In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, we can all understand why the older brother, the one who has kept his nose clean, is offended by his father’s eager welcoming of the wayward brother. It’s a little shocking to realize that Jesus presents the older brother as just as big a jerk as the younger brother. Consider how much more shocking it would have been for Jesus’s original audience, who hadn’t already been told what they were supposed to think about the story.

The parables are driven by that dissonance between the truth and the way we feel about the truth. Jesus shows us what the kingdom of God looks like; if we allow ourselves to be offended by that vision, we begin to see what needs to happen in our hearts.

I say I love grace, but I’m bothered by the fact that the vineyard workers who showed up an hour before dark get paid the same amount as the workers who started at daybreak. I can either reject that parable altogether, or I can think about why my heart doesn’t line up with the things I say I believe. But it would be a big mistake to explain away the offense—to say it’s not really that offensive.

O’Connor was working from Jesus’s playbook. She used shock and offense to show us something about our hearts. “To the hard of hearing you shout,” she wrote, “and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Rogers explores these ideas in the introduction to his book, The Terrible Speed of Mercy:

images-Flannery_10_4_889237867If [O’Connor’s] stories offend conventional morality, it is because the gospel itself is an offense to conventional morality. Grace is a scandal; it always has been. Jesus put out the glad hand to lepers and cripples and prostitutes and losers of every stripe even as he called the self-righteous a brood of vipers.

In “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” it is painful to see a mostly harmless old grandmother come to terms with God and herself only at gunpoint.

It is even more painful to see her get shot anyway.

In a more properly moral story, she would be rewarded for her late-breaking insight and her life would be spared. But the story only enacts what Christians say they believe already: that to lose one’s body for the sake of one’s soul is a good trade indeed. It’s a mystery, and no small part of the mystery is the reader’s visceral reaction to truths he claims to believe already. O’Connor invites us to step into such mysteries, but she never resolves them. She never reduces them to something manageable.

O’Connor speaks with the ardor of an Old Testament prophet in her stories. She’s like an Isaiah who never quite gets around to “Comfort ye my people.” Except for this: there is a kind of comfort in finally facing the truth about oneself. That’s what happens in every one of Flannery O’Connor’s stories: in a moment of extremity, a character—usually a self-satisfied, self-sufficient character—finally comes to see the truth of his situation. He is accountable to a great God who is the source of all. He inhabits mysteries that are too great for him. And for the first time there is hope, even if he doesn’t understand it yet . . .

In O’Connor’s unique vision, the physical world, even at its seediest and ugliest, is a place where grace still does its work. In fact, it is exactly the place where grace does its work. Truth tells itself here, no matter how loud it has to shout.

You can read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” online, written in 1953, when Flannery O’Connor was 28 years old.

On April 22, 1959, the 34-year-old O’Connor visited Vanderbilt University and read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” You can listen to the audio below:

When she gave a reading of this story at Hollins College in Virginia on October 14, 1963—just 9 months before she died from complications of lupus—she prefaced it with some remarks.

Among other things, she addressed “what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story”:

I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies.  This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.  The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it.  It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make.  It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.

She identifies the place of such a “gesture” in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”:

The Grandmother is at last alone, facing the Misfit. Her head clears for an instant and she realizes, even in her limited way, that she is responsible for the man before her and joined to him by ties of kinship which have their roots deep in the mystery she has been merely prattling about so far. And at this point, she does the right thing, she makes the right gesture.

I find that students are often puzzled by what she says and does here, but I think myself that if I took out this gesture and what she says with it, I would have no story. What was left would not be worth your attention. Our age not only does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace, it no longer has much feeling for the nature of the violence which precede and follow them.  The devil’s greatest wile, Baudelaire has said, is to convince us that he does not exist.

On the violence in her stories, O’Connor comments:

In my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considerable cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world.

O’Connor knows that some people label this story “grotesque,” but she prefers to call it “literal”:

A good story is literal in the same sense that a child’s drawing is literal. When a child draws, he doesn’t intend to distort but to set down exactly what he sees, and as his gaze is direct, he sees the lines that create motion. Now the lines of motion that interest the writer are usually invisible. They are lines of spiritual motion. And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.

O’Conner elsewhere expanded on the comparison of stories and drawings:

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock-to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

You can get Jonathan Rogers’ spiritual biography of Flannery O’Connor (and follow his blog).

You can also get O’Connor’s complete stories for just over $10.

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12 thoughts on “What to Do If You Are Offended or Confused by Flannery O’Connor’s Stories”

  1. Nendir says:

    I have a special place in my heart for Flannery O Connor. Eager to buy an anthology of all her short stories. Yes, her work is grotesque but that is grace. There is so much beauty and deliberate thinking in how she decides to tell the story. I remember reading one of her stories when I didn’t understand grace and feeling so unsettled but now in reading them, the scandal of grace excites me.

  2. Wes Weber says:

    I had not heard of Flannery O’ Connor until today, and I just read the story “A Good Man is Hard to Find” twice. I also read this blog post.

    I’m walking away a bit confused, and struggling with the story. Possibly because I am usually a bit dull when it comes to interpreting this sort of literature.

    I think I understand what The Misfit is trying to say when he says, ” 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. No pleasure but meanness”

    I agree with the first half of his statement, but as I look around… those who deny Christ still seek pleasure in temporary things, seeking contentment in them. Why do you think she has him say that there is no need to seek pleasure, but meanness? Does this tie in with the last sentence of the story?

    Also, what did she mean when she said, ” “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!”

    In short, after reading this short story, it produced the same emotion as when I witness a horrific act of sin (Newtown, Paris, etc.), and I feel like weeping. “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law.” Ps 119:136.

    So I am both confused now… and sad.

    Maybe that was her intended response in writing the story.

  3. gary says:

    It just makes no sense to me how Christians can excuse Jesus’ inaction when it comes to human suffering such as that of this poor woman, but much more so when it involves little children.

    Imagine your outrage if you were to hear the following news report:

    An armed police officer stood by and watched as a group of men brutally attacked, tortured, sexually assaulted, and then murdered a five year old girl. When the officer was asked why he stood by and did nothing while this horrific crime was committed, he responded, “She deserved it.”

    Would any decent human being accept this police officer’s justification for his inaction in preventing this terrible injustice? No. In fact, most decent people would want the officer charged as an accomplice to the assault and murder.

    So why do Christians let Jesus off the hook for the exact same crime?

    If the Christian belief system is true, for thousands of years, little children have been dying horrific deaths while Jesus sits on his throne in heaven, watching it all happen, but doing absolutely nothing to stop their suffering. Every day at least one small child drowns. Every day at least one small child dies in a fire. Every day at least one small child is blown to pieces in a war. Every day at least one small child dies of starvation or thirst. Every day at least one small child dies of disease. Every day at least one small child is beaten and abused. Every day at least one small child is sexually molested. And every day at least one small child is brutally murdered.

    And every day, Jesus does nothing…time, after time, after time.

    Jesus is either helpless and therefore not God, or Jesus is a sick, sadistic monster, dear Christian.

    While you joyously give thanks every evening to your loving Jesus for blessing your food and keeping your family safe, little children all over the world are suffering horrific deaths. The stark truth is, Christians, if Christianity is true, Jesus is an accomplice to some of the most brutal crimes known to mankind. How in the world can you worship such a being?

    1. Gary, you’re restating one of the greatest challenges to the Christian faith, and I neither claim to be “okay” with it nor cavalierly dismiss it as if what you’ve expressed so articulately and passionately isn’t worth a Christian’s time.

      But please consider the following: when you judge Christ and Christianity, you are displaying your own moral compass. In relation to that moral compass, I respectfully ask you to ponder and answer this fundamental question: How did the world begin? (This will prove to have a monumental bearing on the very grave issue you’ve raised.)

      1. gary says:

        We do not (yet) know how the world began. But let’s not jump to the assumption that a “god” did it. We have found in the past, that many mysteries that were originally credited to gods (such as lightning, storms, droughts) turn out to have very natural (non-supernatural) explanations. Let’s keep an open mind and continue looking at the evidence.

    2. Ruth says:

      Dear Gary,

      That is the classic dilemma, so poignantly expressed. It goes, Because innocent people suffer, either God is willing but unable, or able but unwilling. Either ultimately not all powerful, or cruel.

      I suggest this is a “false dichotomy”. Just as Jesus answered so many arguments by showing an unexpected third option, Christians also see beyond this apparently airtight premise. There is a story. I’ll sketch it out briefly.

      Apart from the question of how the world began and thinking man appeared, at some point God entered into human life and began a relationship with the man Adam. He gave Adam a rich environment and many blessings. He gave one restriction, which gave Adam the option to obey of his free will. When he (and his wife) disobeyed, their relationship to God changed in some fundamental way. It seems that every one of us since have a soul that just wants our own way, and kicks at restrictions. Comply with the moral absolutes that transcend man’s best ideas for society? No, we rebel.

      So ,man sins. Some people are so broken, they can kill without guilt to get what they want. We all have experienced at times such a rage we would kill if we didn’t have some inner restraint. I think you see this.

      While there will be ultimate justice when we come before God at death, God’s plan is far more penetrating. He “redeems”–purchases back–a people who have broken his moral law, hurting others and scarring themselves. They do not deserve his love, but he breaks through their hardness to show them their infinite need. Biblical Christians are people who know their sin and hate it, and recognize that when Jesus died at the hands of Romans in the physical realm, he also died in the place of sinners in the spiritual. His resurrection confirmed that he spoke the truth about being God. Throughout history broken sinners have turned completely around by an encounter with him and have conquered hate with love, chaos with order, poverty with prosperity, ignorance with education, disease with healing.

      So. The little girl. Every human deserves from other humans protection from danger, and your guardian was wrong not to help. When a child dies, it is an outrage against her Maker and she will get justice. This world is not the end. But no one, not even an innocent child, can say before God, “I am worthy of your your best and to be kept from all suffering.” Suffering is part of this world because man is “free” for the time being to live as he wills, until his judgment. It is a bit of a mystery why we have to suffer now, but the Bible deals explicitly with this question and Christians have come to accept that all things will be made clear when we are face to face. (The Bible from Genesis to Revelation tells one coherent story of the creation, fall, and redemption of man. If you can handle a lot of strangeness, read Revelation which gives glimpses of the big Why, but if you need a more rational explanation, read Romans.)

      The reason Christians pray and give joyful thanks is that they know they deserve nothing. Every meal, therefore, is a reason to celebrate; every safe arrival is a joyful occasion; every day is a thanks-giving. They are gifts from God who owes us nothing. We have no claim on him to live comfortably. But know this: in all our suffering (and we have all had or will experience deep grief and injustice) mature Christians will still praise and thank God, who has already given us our ultimate need: to be forgiven for our wretched sin and given hope in Christ for our daily needs.

      Grandpa is waiting for me to pick him up so I must close. I don’t have time to look this over and make absolutely sure I come across as graciously as I mean to. I can’t tell you how your comment moved me and how much I respect you for your gracious, honest, insightful post.

      1. gary says:

        Why was it necessary to give the first humans a free will?

  4. Nendir says:

    @wes weber I think she has him say those lines to show how secularism views Christ, not that she essentially believes it’s true. The Misfit like most people in the world, says things like “if Jesus was real by all means follow Him but if He isn’t then you’ve missed out on a lifetime of ‘pleasure'”. O’connor is highlighting that when someone makes a comment like that from the depth of their heart, they really don’t believe in Jesus or what He claims to provide, so they would rather be sure of enjoyment here on earth than live in a way that promises eternal enjoyment in Heaven- a place they aren’t even sure exists.

    When she says he is “one of her own children”, O’Connor is highlighting the grace of Jesus, that hates the sin and grieves for the sinner but still longs to have the sinner return to Him as a loving child. Think of the biblical parable of the lost sheep, when one sheep goes astray, the good shepherd will with a single focus go after that one.
    The grandmother is not an example of perfection but the moment she does that, we are supposed to see how grace changes people, taking them from superficial Christians who think being a good person is as a result of coming from good blood to people who realize no man is good, not one. Yet God wants all men to be reconciled to Him. Hence, a good man is hard to find.
    (I hope that helped a little, I know her stories are saddening but when you take some time to get over the harsh offensiveness of grace, they become joyful).

  5. Mark says:

    I have to admit I have a really hard time with the racism. I’m not accusing O’Connor of being racist. I just can’t image having something written by her open while I’m sitting next to someone on a plane (no matter what their ethnicity may be).

  6. Andrew says:

    I was interested to hear Marilynne Robinson complain about FC’s failure to employ her imagination for the depiction of goodness. Seems like a fair objection to me.

  7. David Buskirk says:

    Why is there a question mark at the end of the title?

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      Good point. I’ll change it.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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