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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hess

Stories That Speak With Fire

Updated: Jun 16, 2021

Ever since I first encountered Flannery O’Connor’s short story, Revelation, I have been a fan! Flannery O’Connor was such a talented novelist, with a wonderful ability to use her stories to call into question the culture of her time and point to the beauty of the gospel. If you have not yet engaged with her writing, I would highly recommend it. I hope you enjoy this new blog series on her life and work.

To begin this series, I want to share a little bit about Flannery O’Connor’s life, a background that sheds light on the themes that can be found within her writing. Flannery O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia in 1925 to Ed and Regina O’Connor.[1] O’Connor grew up as an only child in “a rigidly-defined Irish Catholic enclave.”[2] She never seemed to fit into the Southern Catholic girl mold that was set for her, but she found solace in her father, who she adored as a child and who supported her creativity.[3] Sadly, when O’Connor was fifteen, her father died of the same disease that would later take her own life: lupus. The effect of her father’s death had a deep impact on her. O’Connor would later describe the impact of her father’s death in a journal entry which not only resonates with the themes of some of her later stories,[4] but also connects to the general feeling of many during her own time. She writes,

"'The reality of death has come upon us and a consciousness of the power of God has broken our complacency like a bullet in the side. A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder. Our plans were so beautifully laid out, ready to be carried to action, but with magnificent certainty God laid them aside and said: ‘You have forgotten-mine?’"[5]

O’Connor grew up in a time of great upheaval in the United States and in the world at a large. The effects of the first world war could still be seen throughout Europe, causing modernistic optimism to continue to decline in popularity, soon to receive a blow of defeat in the wake of another world war and the atrocities of the Nazi regime. For America, however, notions of optimism still held strong. Even so, the United States experienced economic struggles that came to be known as the Great Depression, which dampened the hopes of the modern age. With “One-fourth of the labor force in the United States”[6] unemployed, the optimistic hopes that with education and technology the problems of the world would be solved seemed like distant memories of a generation prior,[7] or like “beautifully laid out”[8] plans that were now crumbling at the seams.

Strangely enough, it was the second world war that renewed not only the United States’ economy, but also the optimism that was threatened during the Great Depression. When Europe was struggling to rebuild after the destruction of two world wars, America was feeling the benefits of victory. “The industrial production of the nation had accelerated during the war in order to provide the materials necessary for the conflict. Now that production continued, resulting in the most affluent society the world had ever seen.”[9] This economic success allowed the United States to hold onto notions of progress and optimism that Europe could not afford to keep. It would not be until the upheavals of the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy[10] that European pessimism and notions of crisis theology[11] would finally make their way into the mindset of the wider United States public.

While O’Connor’s literature could be seen as a reflection of a growing sense of pessimism that began in Western Europe and eventually made its way to the States, it would be unfair to her work to say that such pessimism is all that her stories entail. While most of O’Connor’s stories do end in tragedy and sorrow, it was not simply due to a pessimistic outlook on the world in the face of crumbling modernistic optimism. No, O’Connor, like Karl Barth, Bonhoeffer and other crisis theology contemporaries,[12] sought to shock her audience into seeing themselves, and the dangers of modern culture, in the tragic tales of her characters.

Crisis theology was developed by Karl Barth and other, mainly European, theologians to deal with the devastating events of the modern age.[13] “This was a theology of a God who is never ours, but always stands over against us; whose word is at the same time both yes and no; whose presence brings, not ease and inspiration to our efforts, but crisis.”[14] In a time when people either saw God as the stamp of approval on their own projects of self-promulgation or ignored Him all together, Barth and O’Connor seem to have both sought to reveal that “God is Wholly Other and holy other”[15] from us. Both of their works point out how God’s intrusions may bring disruption into our little self-made worlds, but such disruption is an act of grace that shocks us into repentance and redemption.[16]

While O’Connor’s stories critique the intellectualism, secularism, and progressivism of the modern age, they also call into question the spiritually shallow existence of much of the Christianity that she experienced in the South. O’Connor grew up, and spent most of her life, in the South and her stories are often concerned with critiquing the atrocities of racism as well as prophetically speaking out against a Christian culture that claimed faith, but rarely lived into its reality in daily life.

For O’Connor,

“Faith is not another item in the laundry list of one’s loyalties: it’s all or nothing at all.”[17]

I could imagine that a Christian faith that was often wed with cultural norms to create a religiosity that only went surface deep would have been offensive to O’Connor’s own deep faith in Christ. While O’Connor used the simplicity and fundamentalism of Southern Christians to critique secularism and liberalism,[18] she also used the typical outcasts of her own Southern context (African Americans, poor whites, foreigners, and morally elusive characters) as avenues of God’s intruding grace which reveal the sinfulness, as well as the need for grace, even in the lives of the most seemingly righteous.

This is only a piece of O’Connor’s story, and the wider context that surround her writings, but I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to comment below or message me if you have any thoughts or insights of your own. I look forward to exploring Flannery Connor’s writings together over the course of this series!

If you enjoy Flannery O'Connor and want to follow this series, be sure to sign up for my email list and get a free download of my short story The First Encounter. Sign up below!

[1] John F. Desmond, ”Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor." Christianity and Literature 60, (no. 0148-3331, 2010) 151-55. Accessed May 5, 2015. 151.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 152.

[6] Justo L. González, The Story Of Christianity. 2nd ed. Vol. II. (New York, New York: HarperOne, 2010) 477.

[7] Ibid., 478.

[8] John F. Desmond, ”Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor." Christianity and Literature 60, 151.

[9] Ibid., 482.

[10] Doug Strong. Lecture. THEO 6080: Global Christian Heritage III (Seattle Pacific Seminary, Seattle).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Justo L. González, The Story Of Christianity. 2nd ed. Vol. II. 461.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Douglas Strong, "Neo-Orthodoxy/The Theology of Crisis." Lecture, THEO 6080: Global Christian Heritage III (Seattle Pacific Seminary, Seattle, May 11, 2015).

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 2004) 30.

[18] Ibid., 34.

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Jake Scott
Jake Scott
Jun 07, 2021

I’m hearing of this author more frequently, and I appreciate knowing some more background! I’m definitely going to check out her works now.

Jacob Hess
Jacob Hess
Jun 08, 2021
Replying to

Glad it was helpful!

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