Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South

Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South

Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South

Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South

Excerpt

No one understood both the promise and the failure of the modern church better than Flannery O’Connor. In a letter written in July 1955 to her new friend Elizabeth Hester, O’Connor specified both qualities: “I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it” (HB, 90). This is the judgment of no abstract thinker or writer, but of a thoroughly engaged Christian. Though safely situated in a Georgia hilltop farmhouse, seemingly sequestered from the terrors of history, O’Connor detected the demonry that was everywhere in the air. The racial bitterness and violence that would strafe her own native region served as but one of the many shocks that made up O’Connor’s “terrible world.” She saw racism as a species belonging to a much deeper and more pernicious genus of evil. In a letter she wrote just a month later to the same correspondent, O’Connor called this evil by its rightful name, and she rightly saw it as the pandemic of our age: “[I]f you live today you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the Church it’s the gas you breathe. If I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it, I would be the stinkingest logical positivist you ever saw right now” (HB, 97).

It was a religious void, a cultural abyss, a moral nothingness that O’Connor sniffed as surely as Nietzsche did when, a century earlier, he de-

1. Since the identity of the anonymous “A.” in O’Connor’s letters has long been known, I
will refer to her by name. For a full interpretation of Elizabeth Hester’s complex relationship
with O’Connor, we must await William Sessions’ forthcoming study of her troubled and tragic
life.

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