A Subversive Gospel (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Michael Mears Bruner. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Academic, 2017.
Summary: Proposes that the grotesque and violent character of Flannery O’Connor’s work reflects her understanding of the subversive character of the gospel and the challenge of awakening people in the Christ-haunted South to the beauty, goodness, and truth of the gospel.
A number of years ago our book group decided to read the collected works of Flannery O’Connor. It was a challenge. The stories involved everything from a stolen wooden leg to a rape to the murder of a whole family. The word “grotesque” is often used to describe her work. The question arises, why did this single Catholic woman, who lived on her parents’ farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, suffering and ultimately dying of lupus, write such strange stories?
Michael Mears Bruner explores this question in his contribution to the Studies in Theology and the Arts series. His discussion focuses particularly around the novel The Violent Bear It Away (an allusion to Matthew 11:12 in the Douay-Rheims version) and a statement about the main character, Francis Tarwater, about whom O’Connor says:
“His black pupils, glassy and still, reflected depth on depth his own stricken image of himself, trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus, until at last he received his reward, a broken fish, a multiplied loaf.”
Bruner’s thesis is “that through the medium of her art, Flannery O’Connor showed her readers how following Christ is a commitment to follow in his shadow, which becomes a subversive act aesthetically (“bleeding”), ethically (“stinking”), and intellectually (“mad”).” Elsewhere, and repeatedly in the text, he refers to the “terrible beauty, violent goodness and foolish truth of God.” Bruner helps us realize that O’Connor writes in a Southern context that has been effectively innoculated against the Christian gospel–grown so comfortable with Christian language that it is impervious to the radical and startling claims of the Christian faith–the beauty of God’s love revealed in suffering, the goodness and righteousness of God revealed in the violent death of Jesus, and the foolishness of a message wiser than human wisdom. The grotesque and the violent in O’Connor’s stories startle us awake to realities to which we’ve grown too accustomed.
Bruner begins with tracing the development of O’Connor’s writing from the earlier to the later works which reflect a theological turn that he attributes to the influence of Baron von Hugel’s thought. He then looks at the moral and theological vision that shapes her work as a Roman Catholic in the fundamentalist south. He connects her dramatic vision with her subversive aesthetic and then goes deeper into how her work subverts the transcendentals of beauty, goodness, and truth. Finally he applies this approach to her last novel, The Violent Bear It Away. A brief conclusion is followed by a liturgical celebration of the Eucharist using O’Connor’s work.
The body of this work consists of dense literary analysis, and it is helpful to have recently read and have a copy of O’Connor’s work handy. In the process, Bruner joins O’Connor in challenging the nostrums and platitudes of Christian faith with the subversive character of O’Connor’s work. One example is this passage:
“Yet this hardly settles the matter regarding the notion that God might indeed be terrible, and so what do we do with this component of O’Connor’s fierce theology? She refuses to placate us with religious euphemisms and spiritual jargon, preferring instead to ‘shout’ and ‘draw large and startling figures” in our faces” (p. 154).
O’Connor wrote to disturb the comfortable, and Bruner demonstrates just how subversive she was in her story writing. He also helps us understand the theological turn in her writing and the influences other critics have noted briefly or not at all. He helps those of us disenchanted with enculturated, saccharine versions of Christianity who ask, “is that all there is?” to see that O’Conner writes out a more bracing vision, one we might even need to brace ourselves against. She defies all our conventions of beauty, goodness, and truth, Bruner argues, because that is what the gospel does. She bids us ask the dangerous question of whether this is in fact the gospel we’ve believed–as dangerous a question as a Flannery O’Connor story.