Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

"Jesus Hits like the Atom Bomb": Flannery O'Connor and the End-Time Scenario

Academic journal article Flannery O'Connor Review

"Jesus Hits like the Atom Bomb": Flannery O'Connor and the End-Time Scenario

Article excerpt

Mason Tarwater, the backwoods prophet in The Violent Bear It Away, as a prophet's fascination with the future-specifically, the end of the world the end of time ultimate fate of humanity. He is adamant that a cross be put on his grave, in expectation of "the day those crosses are gathered" (V 15), and he works doggedly, sometimes criminally, to indoctrinate his nephews in Christian eschatology. After kidnapping Rayber, he teaches the boy "that on the last day it would be his destiny to rise in glory in the Lord Jesus" (64), just as, years later, he teaches young Tarwater a mix of biblical and American history, culminating in "speculation" about "the Second Coming and the Day of Judgment" (4).

This speculation links Old Tarwater to a narrative tradition in American religious culture, a tradition of end-time novels, or prophecy novels, dramatizing the doctrine of premillennial dispensationalism. As a southern fundamentalist, Old Tarwater would have been well versed in the doctrine, with its precise timetable of apocalyptic events and its promise that Christ would rescue true believers in a secret Rapture. According to the chronology of O'Connor's novel, Old Tarwater was born in 1868, which means he came of age as dispensationalism was spreading through American fundamentalist congregations. By the time he kidnapped Rayber, in 1921, dispensationalism had become fundamentalist orthodoxy.1

In the novel, of course, Old Tarwater has no apparent ties to any particular church or denomination. O'Connor emphasized this point in a letter to her friend William Sessions. "The old man is very obviously not a Southern Baptist," she wrote, "but an independent, a prophet in the true sense." Such independence, O'Connor reasoned, gave him direct access to God. "The true prophet is inspired by the Holy Ghost," she told Sessions, "not necessarily by the dominant religion of his region" (13 Sept. 1960, HB 407). Still, given the weight she placed on the "concrete circumstances" of southern life (CW 854), O'Connor could hardly deny the influence of Protestant fundamentalism, the South's dominant religion, on a character like Old Tarwater. If he was not "inspired" by fundamentalism, his prophetic message was nonetheless informed-even shaped-by its teachings. And one of its core teachings was the Rapture.

In 1960, the year O'Connor published her novel, the concept of the Rapture was largely unknown outside of fundamentalist churches. That began to change in the 1970s, when The Late Great Planet Earth, a compendium of apocalyptic predictions by evangelist Hal Lindsey, became the best-selling nonfiction book of the decade.2 Awareness of the Rapture would grow exponentially in the 1990s, thanks to a series of novels on "the Earth's Last Days." Between 1995 and 2004, the twelve novels in the "Left Behind" series sold more than 62 million copies, with each of the last six titles reaching the top spot on major bestseller lists.3 Soon, the books became a brand, generating a sequel, three prequels, a series of novels for teenagers, and three feature films, as well as video games and graphic novel adaptations. The massive success of the brand propelled the Rapture into the cultural mainstream, reflecting the political ascendancy of American evangelicals in an age of megachurches and values voters. The books are, quite literally, the product of the Christian right: one of the two authors, Tim LaHaye, helped found the Moral Majority in 1979 and mobilized evangelical support for Republican candidates from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.

The tradition of American end-time novels originated in a very different kind of evangelical subculture, far removed from the world of partisan politics. Before the 1980s, American evangelicals felt compelled to retreat from secular society, to safeguard the purity of their faith-just as Old Tarwater feels called to take young Tarwater "to the farthest part of the backwoods," where God can "preserve him from contamination" (K4-5, 17). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.