Sunday, January 20, 2013

Violence, Grace and the Whole Damn Thing

In her 1952 novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor speaks a language in which I am nearly illiterate. She’s writes about the Southern fundamentalist obsession with Christ as seen through Catholic eyes. She creates a protagonist who talks of a new Jesus, murders a man, mortifies himself, renounces worldly goods and finds grace in the process. He does not just believe but he knows and thereby achieves a kind of evangelical sainthood.

In an interview, O’Connor spoke about the high cost of religion to an individual, how much harder it is to believe than not to. Many people, she says, think of faith as a warm blanket when it is, of course, the cross.

At one point Jesus is seen going from tree to tree, in his mind, motioning him to come into the dark where he might walk on water, not know it, then suddenly know it and drown. It is implied that the relinquishing of cognition and will are requisites for attaining faith.

As a secular humanist my notion of the religious experience is a soulful interchange with another person or a sense of the transcendent, that a larger metaphor can be felt in a universal sense. There might be an element of submission, a yielding to the inevitability of forces beyond my will. All the mystery I need is right here and there’s plenty of it. We are unfathomable creatures. There may be recognition of the limits of cognition but I see no need to park my brains outside.  

The South, then and now, is haunted by the abomination of slavery and the doctrine of original sin. The former lies in their subconscious the latter on their tongue. O'Connor depicts Christianity degraded by commercialism with billboards and hypocrisy. Today's religion is marked by televangelists, notions of material success and riddled with conservative ideology. It seems clear to me that the southern Church has been complicit in the continuation of racism over the past 150 years at very least by failing to exercise their moral imperative. 

O’Connor’s people are damaged goods, Southern grotesques. She wants us to stare evil in the face…. with the promise of grace to follow.  In his 1979 film version, John Houston seems to have grappled with the material and gives a slightly comedic touch to the book which works on a level I don’t think was intended by the author. Perhaps Houston didn’t know quite what to make of it all in the same way it baffled readers.

O’Connor is an American original who wrote like no other. Her language is precise and imagistic and her characters come alive on the page but they are beyond my imagining. If I ever met one my instinct would be to run like hell.

What I witness in Southern States, admittedly from a distance, and happily so, is anti-intellectualism, bigotry and resistance to change. I see a violent Christianity with fear and loathing at its base and little evidence of enlightenment or a sense of the religious dimension in terms of compassion.

We had a word, sixty years ago, for the political force that pushed back against progress. The word was reactionary. It seems to have withered away but deserves a comeback. The virulence against Obama and his proposals regulating assault weapons, promoting healthcare and other social programs, is as senseless as any outcry in human history considering that the agenda under attack is beneficial to those making all the noise. I can’t help wondering what role white churches have played in serving the reactionary voice we hear coming from our American underbelly.

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