California Literary Review

Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South by Ralph Wood

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June 10th, 2007 at 5:19 pm

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Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South
by Ralph Wood
Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company, 272 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

THE GHOST OF ANDULASIA

Flannery O’Connor was Catholic and Southern, and that combined with her genius produced a writer whose works have become something of a cottage industry. These days, many of the literary critiques of Flannery’s work are inherently secular, predicated on contemporary multicultural fads, and filled with the garbled psycho-babble that has become the trademark of the Deconstructionists, who require the author to be a supplicant at the alter of political correctness. For these folks, the spawn of academe, Flannery does not fare well. She’s been accused of being a closet lesbian, a feminist, a racist, and, perhaps worst of all, a pre-Vatican II Catholic.

Fortunately, the Deconstructionists, at least for now, have failed to do significant harm to Flannery’s reputation. In part, because there will always be those students and teachers of literature who approach Ms. O’Connor’s work with ontological objectivity (the work stands on its own merit). One such critic is Ralph C. Wood, a Baylor University professor of Theology and Literature who has recently published a delightful book, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.

Dr. Wood, a Texas Baptist, writes in his preface of his student days at East Texas State. He tells us of his transforming, ecumenical epiphany, guided by the only Yankee-Papist on the faculty, one Paul Barrus, a teacher whose “courses were reported to be electric with religious no less than literary interests.”

Because of Paul Barrus’s intellectual and moral influence Ralph Wood determined that he would follow in his mentor’s footsteps and “…teach the great works of English and American and European literature as he taught them.” But then, another event transpired while Wood was still a student that would not only his underscore his new found intellectual aspirations but expand his theological perceptions as well.

In the spring of 1962 Paul Barrus met Flannery O’Connor at a literary gathering in Spartanburg, South Carolina and asked her if she’d speak at East Texas State. She agreed and delivered a well-received lecture entitled: “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Literature.” Ralph Wood sat in the audience enthralled with the lady. He had read her collection of short stories (A Good Man is Hard to Find) and confessed, “…there is no doubt that they created the chief turning point of my entire academic and religious life.”

Flannery O’Connor had awakened in Ralph Wood an awareness of a vibrant and perfervid Christianity. “For I saw in her work the integration of two worlds,” he wrote, “that I had theretofore thought to be not only separate but opposed, even divorced: uproarious comedy and profound Christianity…O’Connor taught me…that the deepest kind of Christianity, as well as the best kind of literature, is finally comic and joyful, glad-spirited and self-satirizing. For the Cross and Resurrection, because they free us from taking ourselves with a damnable seriousness, enable us rightly to delight in all of the good things of the good creation. I also discerned, no less remarkably, that O’Connor had made world-class art from the stuff on my supposedly retrograde region and its seemingly small-minded Christianity.”

Flannery O’Connor was more saint than writer, more theologian than layman. She bore her gifts as a light that revealed not only a pernicious nihilism that had swamped the West, but had, also invaded the church and was happily corrupting the torporific Christian seminaries, universities, and community. “The summons to the sweet incense of the nonpositivist gospel,” Wood’s writes, “to the Good News that refuses to reduce everything to empirical evidence and material causation-rings clearly throughout the whole of Flannery O’Connor’s work.”

Wood’s unique approach to O’Connor’s work succeeds in illustrating both its profound social criticism and her strict adherence to the gospels. She does not mock the Christian fundamentalists of her region; rather, she understands that they are true believers, a people who have kept and nurtured the faith of their ancestors. Dr. Wood also writes intelligently, trenchantly, and passionately on: O’Connor’s view of the value of Southern civilization and her hope for a revival that will reclaim a “grotesque” Christian radicalism, her warning for the church to avoid “aligning itself uncritically with the mores of the time and place, not only those of the racist right but also of those of the self-righteous left,” her criticism that the South has no “Christian community” to effect “racial reconciliation,” the Southern Christian rejection of sacramentalism and its strict adherence to preaching as “…the proclaimed Word of God’s own speech act,” the spiritually dynamic confrontation between “demonic nihilism” and the “gospel of life,” Flannery’s exegetical brilliance inherent within her defense of the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, and her eschatological vision of heaven where the “last enter first, and that limited virtues must be painfully purged.”

Wood’s argues that the church is in need of “the awakening jolt of O’Connor’s fiction,” as it fails in providing the salvific message. The church, in its yearning for diversity, multiculturalism, and political correctness, in its whorish and tireless propitiation of modernity, has failed to understand that “the glad news that God’s goodness is even more shocking than our own violations of it.” He argues that the church must abandon its inclination to embrace certain contemporary trends that result in her efforts to “make modifications to the gospel that would make it fit modern needs and thus ensure its success,” because it is a false path that leads away from the Word, and in the end, leads to perdition.

Wood informs his readers that O’Connor shared with Protestant Theologian, Karl Barth, a “comic” view of the gospel that describes not a wrathful Creator, but One who is intent on impressing on His creations an “undeserved” mercy. He is the “hound of heaven,” always eager to forgive the most heinous sin. We have but to accept Him, accept that mercy, and the last word is “Yes”…but then, “pride goeth before the fall.”

In her essay, The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South, Flannery O’Connor said, “I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. It is interesting that as belief in the divinity of Christ decreases, there seems to be a preoccupation with the Christ-figures in our fiction. What is pushed to the back of the mind makes its way forward somehow. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive.”

Flannery O’Connor succumbed to the ravages of lupus erythematosus in 1964 at the age of thirty-nine. She lived most of her short life with pain and suffering a daily visitor.

Ralph C. Wood has written a sagacious, thoughtful, and seminal study of one of America’s finest novelist, perhaps our best. His analysis of Flannery O’Connor’s work is both penetrating and succinct and is a must read for anyone who has enjoyed the company of the Lady of Andalusia.

  • Lyn Van Atta

    This is one of the most clearly intelligent bits of writing I have ever read. I need to read it again and again to take it all in and I can’t wait to re-aquaint myself with Ms. O’Conner’s work! Thank You!

  • Pall Leosson

    I read Ralph Wood’s study Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South three years ago (not long after, I believe, it was first published), and I found it one of the most comprehensive appreciations of O’Connor’s art and thinking in terms of her Christian faith. This review compels me to return to Professor Wood’s book for a second reading. Needless to say, I love the short stories and novels and essays and letters of the great Flannery O’Connor. Her Christ-Haunted South intrigues me, for it is really the whole world. (I speak as an Icelandic-Canadian!)

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