Ralph C. Wood is a guy I’ve heard a lot about.
The Baylor professor has shown up multiple times in writings of others I follow and in some casual conversations with friends. The book I keep hearing about is his Flannery O’Connor And The Christ-Haunted South.
This week, I began the book both because:
• O’Connor is one of those quintessential American (and Southern) writers everyone should at least know about, if not enjoy (which I do), and
• I get the South. I’m Southern. But putting my finger on the South enough to write about it is a challenge. I could write a million stories about the South and Southerners — no guaranteeing they’re good, or even passable as works of literature — but if someone asked me to explain why the South is the way it is, or what it all means, I would struggle. Some subjects elude straight expository writing.
I don’t think reading Wood will enable all his readers to be able to explain the South. But I hope his examination of someone so pigeonholed as the quintessential Southerner in the midst of American modernity will help me know both her work better and my place better.
From my own reading of O’Connor and Wood’s analysis thus far, two things strike me. The word “grotesque” pops up in Wood’s book in describing O’Connor’s jarring, at times disturbing, fiction. She felt such stark imagery and characters were justified to — like Walker Percy — awaken readers to the dangers of modernity in mid-20th-century America. But also to be true to the evils hung in the South’s air, even nearly a century after the Civil War.
Because the South has been a region characterized by its elaborate set of manners, O’Connor’s story entitled ‘Judgement Day’ shows how far a fundamental respect and regard can prevail between two peoples who are otherwise divided by race and experience: a black man and his white ‘superior’ come to live together in lifelong amity. Yet manners will not finally suffice for a church whose gospel calls for reconciliation rather than toleration. O’Connor’s most controversial story, ‘The Artificial Nigger,’ thus points toward the one basis for human commonality: a cruciform mercy and forgiveness. Here O’Connor corrects the inveterate Southern use of Scripture to justify slavery and segregation, as she has recourse to a sacramental understanding of black suffering. Thus does she offer deep Southern wisdom for a nation still vexed by racial antagonism. At the same time, she remains implicitly critical of her region and its religion, for her characters have access to no Christian community wherein they might live amidst rational reconciliation.
“The Artificial Nigger” is my favorite O’Connor work.
So what? What does all this analysis of Woods come down to?
In a word: hope. From the last passage of Wood’s introduction:
Diving hope always arrives when it is least expected, when God’s people have learned to hope against hope (Romans 4:18). Hence the hopeful irony of Southern history and the hopeful subject of this book. The South lost the Civil War in defense of an indefensible and evil institution. Yet it provided to be a blessed defeat. As we shall see, the South won the spiritual war by retaining its truest legacy, not the heritage of slavery and segregation and discrimination, but the Bible-centered and Christ-haunted faith that it still bequeaths to the churches and the nations as their last, best, and only true hope.
In the hearts of some of the most despicable characters of American fiction, there is hope. Because Christ is resurrected. That seems to be what Wood is suggesting O’Connor was getting at.
There are lessons here both for Southerners — because of our unavoidable past with regard to race — and for a 21st century Western church who by many is regarded as nothing less evil than the KKK of the 20th century because of our stance on human sexuality.
That’s what interests me: the hope in it all.
But also, I want to know my people better — for better and worse, blemishes and highlights. Despite the evils and defeats, I think we Southerners are still hope-haunted too.
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