Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Moments of Grace

Back to my previously scheduled programming, ie, semi-reviewing books/authors who have changed my life.

College was my first contact with the southern author, Flannery O'Connor.  And I hated her.  Perhaps that isn't a strong enough word for how I felt, but it turned my stomach to read her fiction.  People did terrible things to each other, always reacted in the worst possible way in any situation, were mean, selfish and unjust.  The end.  I read O'Connor for some class or other at the great liberal University of Oregon back in the late seventies, where, though the sixties had ended, things continued to have the vibe of them on campus and certainly through-out the town of Eugene.  In fact, I have a hunch that there are pockets of Eugene even to this day where the inhabitants aren't quite sure what decade it is, or much else.  At 5th Street Market, for instance, you'll find some great crafts, some fine honey--if you like honey, which I don't (see yesterday's post)--but reek of the decade that first 'turned them on', if you know what I mean.

After that class, I gladly put down Flannery O'Connor and didn't pick her up again until my first semester at Regent College.  In a life-changing seminar with a life-changing professor, after a couple of life-changing events (Dad's death and our family's move to accommodate my education), I was more ready for O'Connor.  Maybe.  Or maybe it was my maturity.  Maybe it was the understanding of my prof of O'Connor's intent that did it.  In any case, something had changed within me.  I wanted to understand what she meant.  My prof said she was a Christian writer, and I believed him.  Enough that I bought her edited letters, called Mystery and Manners, and read them with pen in hand, searching for my answers to why she wrote what she wrote, how she could bear to.

And I discovered this:
"When you assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use 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."

Flannery O'Connor wrote about rot in the world because she had a purpose.  She believed that Redemption, or Grace, was possible for every person, but that that action of Grace, that moment when the world opened the door of the prison of self could only be revealed through everyday horrors.  She was particularly interested in the exact moment in a person's life when Grace is made available to him or her, and with this she concerned herself in her stories.  And she knew that these moments must come through the material world, one way or another.  In real life, every day events might do it, but in her fiction--drawing large and startling figures--she uses violent means: a killing, a kidnapping, banging a child's head on a rock, a fall down a stairs, a beating, fire.

And there it is.  I don't know if you've caught it, but right there in that last sentence is the germ of transformation in my own life. Sometime during the time that I was reading and writing about Flannery O'Connor, I had also had a dream about a man shooting himself in the chest while his wife and daughters went about their ordinary day downstairs in their kitchen.  It was a gruesome, difficult-to-deal-with dream until I began reading O'Connor's understanding of her work.  That dream and her words marinated together for a couple of years until I finally wrote that down the story of that dream, my now-again-marinating novel October Afternoon.  It was standing on the shoulders of writers like Flannery O'Connor that helped me write it as I did, though.  The entire time I composed, and revised, and revised, and revised, ad nauseum that novel, I had folks--well-meaning, helpful, lovely folks--ask me about writing a Christian novel, which I knew I wasn't writing.  I never intended it to be one.

Except.  Except that everything I write is from an utterly Christian worldview.  From an utterly Christian heart.  I find Flannery O'Connor to be a subversive apologist of the faith.  She says: "Let me make no bones about it: I write from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.  Nothing is more repulsive to me than the idea of myself setting up a little moralistic universe of my own choosing and propounding a little immoralistic message.  I write with a solid belief in all the Christian dogmas.  And find that this in no way limits my freedom as a writer and that it increases rather than decreases my vision."

My Young Life leader in high school was fond on saying, "Christians should be the least shockable people in the world, because we should never be surprised at what sin can do."  And it's about this O'Connor taught me to write.  In large and startling figures.   To show--I hope--a moment when grace, er, I mean GRACE breaks in.

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