Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

"Light Even More Than Love": The Irony of the Cross in J.F. Powers's Wheat That Springeth Green

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

"Light Even More Than Love": The Irony of the Cross in J.F. Powers's Wheat That Springeth Green

Article excerpt

In the flourishing of American Catholic literature during the 1950s and 60s, no author outranks the inimitable Flannery O'Connor or Walker Percy. However, one peer of these two masters--J. F. Powers--earned high praise from O'Connor, who wrote of his short stories, "Those that deal with the clergy are as good as any stories being written by anybody." (1) Indeed, if Powers is remembered in this estimable group of masters, it is because of his many short stories detailing the ironic lives of priests and monks populating the Catholic suburbs of Minnesota. His oeuvre does surpass his peers in one particular regard: the publication of his second novel Wheat That Springeth Green in 1988 reflects the radical changes to American Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council. While Percy's later work acknowledges those changes within American Catholicism, his increasing cynicism seems to lament the lost idyll of 1950s and 60s America, particularly in the darkly horrific Thanatos Syndrome; by contrast, Powers's literary vision precludes nostalgia for the forgotten days of Catholic unity prior to what Mark Massa calls the American Catholic Revolution of the 1960s until now. His fundamentally comic vision of human nature pervades this second novel and highlights the simultaneously biting and charitable satire that makes it a literary masterpiece. When read against the ecclesial divide resulting from Vatican II, Wheat That Springeth Green employs Powers' masterful sense of irony in one scandalizing image that haunts the characters attempting to perform the work of the Church faithfully and efficiently: the Cross pervades this novel's pages, calling its protagonist Father Joe Hackett to receive failure as a gracious witness to the scandal of a complacently divided American Catholic Church.

To explore this haunting image of the Cross within Powers's last novel, this article will be divided into three major sections. The first will review the critical conversation that has developed around Powers's small body of work with the intention of reaching critical consensus about his fundamental artistic achievement, namely his adaptation of an ironic humor to a deeply Catholic understanding of the lived experience of the Church. The second will then contextualize Powers's second novel within the unique historical moment immediately following Vatican II. This is necessary for the reader to see how Powers's irony is a way of addressing the world of his own time and one that still pervades contemporary Catholic America. Lastly, I will offer a reading of Wheat That Springeth Green through the nexus of Powers's irony and the historical contextualization developed in the first two sections. This framework provides a particular way of reading the novel's central and recurring image, the Cross, as an icon of faithful failure and holy limitation as the means to achieve holiness.

As early as 1964, in an interview for American Benedictine Review, Powers identified himself as a comic writer, although he often deals with religious figures like priests and monks. Indeed, he states in this interview, "I write about priests for reasons of irony, comedy, and philosophy. They officially are committed to both worlds in the way that most people officially are not." (2) That tension, which results from the priest's simultaneous commitment to the work of the Church as a spiritual body and to the Church as a job, is Powers's central concern, and the irony of a character trying to honor both commitments with the same life propels the comedy of Powers's works when these figures inevitably and humorously confront their limitations.

However, for Powers, writing about such characters is not solely about practicing his great skill as a humorist; instead, Powers's focus on priests as main characters mirrors what he believes to be the situation all Christians face in the modern world. He states, "That is, of course, one of the big ironies. Here we are, Christians, and here we have the clergy who are descended spiritually from the apostles. …

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