Bizarre Narratives and Christian TruthCHARLES COLSON
For twenty years the letters sat in sealed boxes in a library at Emory University.
But in mid-May, the seals were broken. Lovers of great fiction are now reading hundreds of private letters penned by the celebrated Christian writer, Flannery O’Connor.
O’Connor wrote the letters to her friend, Elizabeth Hester, who donated the letters to Emory on condition they remain closed to the public—until now.
The correspondence sheds light on the private musings of a writer whose novels and short stories provide one of the undisputed bright spots in twentieth-century fiction.
Flannery O’Connor was born in 1924, in Savannah, Georgia. After spending two years at the famous Iowa Writers Workshop, she returned to Georgia, where she wrote short stories and raised peacocks. Although she died young—at age 39—she produced some of the most powerful fiction with Christian themes ever written.
O’Connor represents the tail end of the Southern Literary Renaissance that included William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, and Robert Penn Warren. But she differed from them in that she was, above all, a Christian writer. According to critic Dorothy Walters, O’Connor’s “bizarre narratives of absurdly comic Southerners are governed by the stern purity of a rigidly Christian view.”
O’Connor knew her Christian faith was an anomaly in a world grown complacent, materialistic, and secular. So to reach the prosperous, comfortable folk who made up the bulk of her readers, O’Connor used jarring, comic situations and grotesque, unsophisticated characters. She intended to shock her readers out of their entrenched complacency, especially in matters of faith.
The genius of O’Connor was that she could portray religion in an up-close and unfiltered way she knew many readers would find uncomfortable. For example, in her novel, The Violent Bear It Away, a sophisticated schoolteacher named Rayber dismisses faith as irrational. But then he stumbles upon a little girl evangelist. Her sermon on God’s love hits him like a punch in the stomach. “Do you know who Jesus is?” the little girl asks. “Jesus is the Word of God and Jesus is love. The Word of God is love and do you know what love is, you people? If you don’t know what love is you won’t know Jesus when He comes. You won’t be ready.”
Well, you won’t find that kind of talk in many other 20th-century novels. O’Connor knew her audience would identify with the schoolteacher and would be as disturbed and affected as he was by the powerful words coming from the mouth of an innocent little girl.
Much of O’Connor’s fiction had this effect on its readers as it has had on me. There is something in her writing that haunts the reader so that he cannot easily dismiss it.
You may not have a chance to visit Emory University and read Flannery O’Connor’s private correspondence. But if you’ve never read O’Connor’s fiction, tuck one of her novels or books of short stories into your beach bag this summer. And then, the next time you encounter a sophisticated, modern secularist—one who sneers at religious faith—ask him if he’s read any Flannery O’Connor.
Her writing just might be the instrument God uses to open his or her eyes to the truth.
Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1988).
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960).
Dorie Turner, “O’Connor Letters Draw Biographers, Fans,” Associated Press, 5 June 2007.
Paul Gray, “Letters Off Flannery O’Connor,” Time, 5 March 1979.
Lawrence Downs, “In Search of Flannery O’Connor,” New York Times, 4 February 2007.
Eric Knickerbocker, “Flannery O’Connor: Heaven Suffereth Violence,” Mr. Renaissance, 20 April 2002.
Katherine Lundquist, “A Proper Scaring,” GodSpy, 25 September 2006.
Kim Moreland, “The Mystery of Being,” The Point, 13 June 2007.
Breakpoint Commentary No. 981010, “A Good Book Is Hard to Find: The Fiction of Flannery.”
Breakpoint Commentary No. 060427, “Modern-Day Renaissance: The Resurgence of Christian Fiction.”
Breakpoint Commentary No. 011219, “More Christians Reading Fiction: Becoming Better Readers.”
Charles Colson. "Bizarre Narratives and Christian Truth." BreakPoint Commentary July 6, 2007.
From BreakPoint ® (7/06/2007), Copyright 2000, Prison Fellowship Ministries. Reprinted with the permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries, P.O. Box 17500, Washington, D.C. 20041-0500. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or distributed without the express written permission of Prison Fellowship Ministries. "BreakPoint ®" and "Prison Fellowship Ministries ®" are registered trademarks of Prison Fellowship Ministries.
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