I’ve only just started reading Flannery O’Connor’s posthumous book of collected prose, Mystery and Manners, but I have to write this post because she said something that blew me away. In one paragraph (published more than 60 years ago), O’Connor has managed to sum up one of the strongest reasons I feel compelled to write fiction, and she articulated those feelings in a way I had never considered before.
The essay from which I’m drawing is called The Fiction Writer and His Country, and was originally published in 1957 as part of a collection of articles by authors talking about their craft. The quote is this:
“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
I read that, said, “Holy shit,” aloud, then read it again, then read it a third time out loud to my wife. It was an epiphanic moment for me last night, sitting in my little mid-century green fake-leather chair and drinking a nice beer. I blocked out the entire paragraph with a bright red felt pen.
It may be mysterious to you just what I found so inspiring and helpful about this passage. In essence, it is this: the idea that one whose life has been redeemed by Christ has a more stark view of brokenness, sin, unhealth, and the state of the world as it actually is than does a non-Believer. Additionally, the idea that all of that brokenness and the hard, ugly, grotesque sides of life that a Believer sees are just ordinary things to an unsaved person. While this may not be universally accurate, I think that for the most part it is true, and is a fascinating concept to me.
O’Connor’s essay as a whole keeps coming back to the idea that fiction written by a Believer in Jesus ought to be more stark, more honest, and sometimes more shocking than it currently is (or was at her time) in order to get the author’s vision across to an audience that is jaded to the content. A Christian’s redemption unlocks a second-sight, so to speak, to recognize and understand just how fallen the world is, and that understanding can help them to reveal the true nature of things in an artistic presentation. These presentations—whether a novel, a painting, a song, a poem—are not always pretty or comfortable to look at, and just because they come from the mind of one redeemed doesn’t mean they need to force a barely-concealed Gospel message into the story. In the case of Flannery, I’d say that her examples were never pretty, not in the traditional sense. She presented her readers with extremely unpleasant people and situations, but always with purpose.
This concept could be taken to the opposite extreme (although this is not what O’Connor is saying in her essay) which is to suggest that all art created by Christians needs to be shocking enough to jolt a secular audience into attention, but I don’t hold to that, nor do I think it’s beneficial (or genuine) in most cases. Rather, how can we glorify the Creator by pointing out the very things that are most opposite of Him? How can we better understand grace by looking in the places where grace seems nowhere to be found? How can the darkest of the dark show us that His light shines more gloriously in comparison?
Art often tends to surface from out of our experiences—frequently painful ones—as well as from what we are surrounded by. Almost always, what we (humans, not only Believers) are surrounded by is brokenness of varying degrees, and stark imperfections in the world around us. We are often consumed by dissatisfaction and a nagging feeling of being incomplete, and sometimes creating something eases that discomfort ever so slightly. Being a Believer does not necessarily relieve the discord of being alive and being human; in fact, I believe that being ‘saved’ amplifies the great dissonance of life and reveals just how very much we need to be saved out of.
So let’s not take those thoughts and ideas and have a naval-gazing party where we sit and stew over what a mess the world is and do absolutely nothing about it. Let’s—and I’m preaching to myself, here—write really damn good books and good songs and good poems and paint incredible pictures and make great films. The world is damaged and dying, so let’s dig into that stuff and not shy away from it and show it for what it is, though not for the purpose of doom and gloom. Let’s make some flawed characters who go through real shit (the same as we do, by the way) and just maybe things don’t always work out so well for them, but one fact is almost universally true: they (and we) are longing for something.
I tend to think that it is in the darkest pits of despair and depravity where grace can show up unexpectedly, and violently. If the world was not incredibly wrought with disaster, then why would we ever have the need to be redeemed?