Flannery O’Connor: Orthodox Progressive?

Is it possible to be theologically orthodox while maintaining a progressive social outlook? Can I hold more traditional beliefs about God as well as dreams of a more tolerant, equal society? These are questions I ask myself.

Here in Northern Ireland, the phrase ‘orthodox progressive’ might sound like an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Most of us have seen at least a glimpse — others more than we’d care to say — of that old-time Belfast brew of fire-and-brimstone preaching shaken together with traditional ‘family values’ morality which has dominated conversation on theological and social issues here for decades. But is the stereotypical formula of orthodox theology and a distaste for social progress really the only recipe for being a Christian? How do we thin this mixture of ideological commitments in order for a refreshing stream of alternative ideas to flow?

One answer comes from an unlikely source: 1950s and 60s rural Georgia, the pounding heart of the Bible Belt in the heyday of American revivalism. This was the culture in which Flannery O’Connor lived and moved and had her being, yet O’Connor, as a Roman Catholic, was an anomaly in the predominantly Protestant American South. This is one possible font of inspiration for her evocative portrayals of what it means to be an outsider, and for a person to exist in a strange world with which they are at odds.

Let’s get our bearings by looking at O’Connor’s orthodox credentials before considering her progressivism. A practising Catholic for the duration of her short life, O’Connor prized her ability to inject ‘a nasty dose of orthodoxy’ into the theological thinking of her contemporaries. At a certain ‘Symposium on Religion and Art,’ O’Connor narrates in one of her letters, she criticised Emerson for his repudiation of the Lord’s Supper in direct contradiction to her fellow speakers, whose goal was to leave their listeners with ‘a stomach full of liberal religion.’ Her limited patience with any rethinking of the sacrament was driven by her orthodox belief that the body and blood of Christ are present in the communion elements. For O’Connor, a handful of theological matters were simple necessities. Is there anything wrong, or even amiss, with this approach to theology, however, when taken with a progressivist respect for minority identities?

Perhaps O’Connor’s theological orthodoxy is best illustrated in her debut novel, Wise Blood (1952). In this darkly comic tale, O’Connor lampoons, in the most laughable of terms, one man’s ill-fated quest to purge the Christianity of the Deep South of every trace of orthodoxy. Hazel Motes’ creed is simple: ‘the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way.’ His church is ‘the Church Without Christ.’ Bursting with morbid humour throughout, the narrative reaches a farcical climax whenever a disciple of Motes, not believing in the resurrection of the body and in search of a ‘new jesus’ to replace the risen Christ, breaks into the local museum and absconds with a mummified corpse that will do the job.

Though not overtly cautionary in tone, Wise Blood is a warning against the follies of abandoning theological orthodoxy wholesale. This is apparent from a passage in which O’Connor describes the fictional radio show, ‘Soulsease,’ a parody of the many shallow spiritualities which replace religious doctrine with a lethargic soup of ‘Mood, Melody, and Mentality.’ Characterising unorthodox religion as devoid of any substantive truth-claims, O’Connor satirises the mass-market appeal of modern spirituality with its alliterative slogans and obvious consumerism. She would go on to besiege the root of this thinking again, as detailed above, at the ‘Religion and Art’ conference.

So much for the orthodox theological commitments of O’Connor, but what of her social progressivism? We now turn to one of her short stories from around the mid-point of her career, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” as an example of both O’Connor’s loyalty to tradition and her love of humanity.

In order to understand how Flannery O’Connor marries theological orthodoxy with progressive social commentary in this piece, we must first understand her theology of sin. In Mystery & Manners, a compilation of O’Connor’s occasional prose on the nature of literature, the writer leaves no doubt that an orthodox understanding of sin underpins her entire fiction. My reading of “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” in which O’Connor’s orthodox doctrine of sin facilitates her progressive take on gender, will be heavily informed by her views on the craft of writing as presented in her astonishing collection of incidental prose. After all, what better insight is there into any writer’s work than their own first-hand explanations of it?

“A Temple of the Holy Ghost” is not the first piece in which O’Connor takes on the moral outrage of the so-called freak show (see “The Peeler”), but it is the one in which her progressive theology of gender is most thoroughly realised. Freak shows, according to the Britannica, were endemic within American circus culture in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries; it is this repugnant institution in which the main characters of the story entangle themselves. Against their expectations, however, searching questions will be asked of them all and their moral configuration laid bare before the reader. This degree of moral judgement is made possible by O’Connor’s orthodox belief that ‘you destroy your freedom by sin.’ A simple extension of this is that sin destroys the freedom of others, as in the dealings of those whose trade is making a spectacle of the marginalised by sensationalising aspects of their individual makeup.

Enter stage right, in the opening lines of the story, two teenage students of a Catholic girls’ convent school. Their actions later in the narrative, events in which O’Connor’s ‘moral judgement will be implicit,’ such is her form, spark a moment of revelation even in the midst of a dehumanising system.

Writing midway through the twentieth century, O’Connor complained that her fellow fiction writers were indulging in ‘a soggy, formless, sentimental literature, one that will provide a sense of spiritual purpose for those who connect the spirit with romanticism and a sense of joy for those who confuse that virtue with satisfaction.’ In other words, O’Connor was exasperated that the work of her contemporaries reflected more of an interest in escapism than in ultimate truth, and had more truck with passing pleasure than with true fulfilment. Instead of writers who wrote about moral ‘rot,’ like the freak show, in order to ‘recognize it for what it is,’ O’Connor observed a cloister of timid writers who suspended their moral judgement in the face of sinful structures to write hollow feel-good fiction.

Returning to the story, O’Connor introduces us to a twelve year-old child, the second cousin of the two teenagers, through whom she will impart the moral weight of her narrative. As the two older girls relate a particular lesson from their convent education, the biblical allusion in the title (to 1 Corinthians 6: 19-20) begins to make sense. A sister from the convent has instructed the older girls that, when confronted by male sexual advances, they are to put their would-be lover in his place by saying, “Stop Sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” Quite a different reaction to this phrase, importantly, presents itself in the internal monologue of the younger child:

‘I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost, she said to herself, and was pleased with the phrase. It made her feel as if somebody had given her a present.’ For the child’s teenage relatives and their austere convent mentor, these verses are little more than a tool for diffusing sexual tension and shoring up a poor substitute for a true morality whose province is much bigger than the intricacies of adolescent sexuality. For the child, on the other hand, the verse is a sign that God has placed within her an inalienable gift.

Some time passes, and the pair of older girls return home from having attended a fair in which they saw various ‘freaks.’ Among these was “the you-know-what,” by which they mean an intersex person, “a man and woman both.” Cruelly displayed in a secluded exhibition tent, this person — whom O’Connor will reveal to be the ‘temple of the Holy Ghost’ of the story’s title — is trapped in a circle of gawping onlookers. O’Connor’s use of setting is vital to what she’s trying to say; a sealed-off tent with paid admission guarantees the personal complicity of all inside in the degradation of a fellow human being. This is no vague or hazy portrayal of sin in the abstract, but an indictment of the participation of individuals — of whom, it need hardly be said, systems are composed — in a moral outrage. These details alone are enough for the reader to form an impression of O’Connor’s progressivism, but further evidence is to follow.

By way of interpreting and adding theological intricacy to the teenagers’ crude account of the freak show, O’Connor describes it again as imagined by the child, drawing out the import behind what unfolded there. Subverting the repressive conditions of entrapment in an exhibition in order, thereby, to ‘make the best of it,’ the intersex person addresses the crowd. Culminating with a self-identification as ‘the temple of God,’ the speech makes amends for the impoverished interpretation supplied by the Catholic sister on what it means to be ‘a temple of the Holy Ghost.’ Instead of just a stock phrase for preserving chastity, the biblical axiom recovers its true purpose as a sanctification of every human body across the gender spectrum. Rescued from the binary world of heterosexual identities by someone whose anatomy crosses biological categories, the verse that was recruited to the cause of repressive micro-morality is restored to its rightful and proper place as a blessing on sexual difference in the broadest sense.

How do O’Connor’s orthodox views of sin help form the progressive message of the story? ‘Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live,’ O’Connor points out. Without sin, what is the need of redemption? At the risk of trotting out the well-worn analytical trope of the literary Christ figure, the bondage of the intersex person is redemptive in as far as it exposes abuse of power, against which a more decent and egalitarian society may be defined. Although there is only one character, the child, who comes to realise that the person whom others call ‘the freak’ is, in fact, ‘a temple of the Holy Ghost,’ it is this very realisation on the part of the youngest girl which amplifies the moral judgement on the two convent students who ought to have known better.

This article has defended O’Connor’s progressive outlook on gender, but look only a little further into her work and you will discover a woman who comments thoughtfully on a wide range of other topics. She writes favourably, if not gushingly, of the civil rights movement and its leading lights, for instance. It isn’t just O’Connor’s nonfiction in which her sympathies are apparent. In other stories can be found characters who begin to see people of different races than their own on an equal footing; sinful discrimination is exposed and subjected to judgement, effecting restoration between groups by correcting inordinate imbalances of power.

There should be no doubt, by now, that an orthodox theology and a progressive angle on social issues are compatible. Flannery O’Connor, we’ve seen, represents just such a perspective. I’m very aware that not everyone is comfortable with embarking on a full-scale journey of deconstructing faith, emotionally taxing and temporarily disorientating as this can be, and that’s perfectly fine. If you feel a deep affection for orthodox Christianity and have found it — as I have — to be richly life-giving, but you’re frustrated that almost every major branch of our faith continually refuses to budge on social questions, then this article was written with you in mind. Hopefully I’ve spoken for someone out there.

Matthew Allen is a regular contributor to Left Side Up.

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