Do You “Get” Flannery O’Connor? She Writes Like a Biblical Author

Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood left me scratching my head. I think that was part of her technique, honestly. The “meaning” of her stories isn’t right there on the surface as it is in a Dickens novel. Her works really have to be pondered, and you’re best off pondering from the perspective of the biblical authors (by the way, learning the perspective of the biblical authors is the point of biblical theology).

I think the technique of writers like Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce is actually closer to that of the biblical authors than what we find from the likes of Dostoevsky, Dickens, Tolstoy, etc (writers who are easier to enjoy). What I mean is that as in biblical narratives, the plot isn’t always there on the surface, and you have to read carefully for the perspective from which the narrator presents the story. Once you understand the narrator’s perspective, you can tell whether his presentation is meant to be taken positively or negatively (note: if Miss Flannery can use the generic “he” when talking about what authors do, and she does, so I can).

Consider this example: suppose a hard-left abortion-activist is describing the activities of a pro-life person trying to persuade women not to have abortions. If the abortionist says the words: “He was standing outside that clinic distributing literature,” we know that statement is meant as an indictment.

But consider the statement.

It’s only an indictment because we know the abortionist’s opinion of such activity.

The same words could be spoken by a pro-life attorney defending such behavior: “He was standing outside that clinic distributing literature.” When the pro-life attorney says the words, they are a declaration of innocence rather than an indictment.

My point here is that this is how the biblical authors often operate. The authors of Kings and Samuel expect their audience to know Deuteronomy, and they expect their audience to understand that their accounts are written with the Torah as the standard of evaluation. The meta-narrative in which they have couched their plot has also been articulated by Moses in passages like Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 4:25–31, and Deuteronomy 28–32, and this meta-narrative is assumed rather than directly invoked in a passage like Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8.

So to understand these texts, we have to know the perspective of the biblical authors. That is, we have to understand biblical theology. (Want some help?).

All this to say, I think that writers like James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor are imitating the artistry they have seen in the Bible, and I’m grateful for people who have studied the writings of Joyce and O’Connor with the kind of rigor a biblical theologian applies to the Bible.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I’m really grateful that Jonathan Rogers has started The Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, and I think you should get Flannery’s Collected Works, read along with Mr. Rogers, and with his help, let Miss Flannery shock you into sensibility. It will not be like a sweater clad visit to a safe neighborhood. It will be a different kind of beautiful day in the neighborhood.

The first post on “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is up, along with a discussion of the Misfit’s moral clarity, and you can listen to Miss Flannery herself read the story here.