Receiving Grace: with Jonah and Flannery

All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”

– Flannery O’Connor

In the last post I discussed some comparisons in O’Connor’s short works with Christ’s parables. I suppose outside of Jesus’ pointed stories, Flannery O’Connor owes the greatest debt to the life and story of Jonah, son of Amittai. Just as the protagonists in her Southern Gothic tales are hardly likable characters, so the prophet Jonah is far from the amiable hero. Mrs. Turpin in “Revelation,” the grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” and Hulga in “Good Country People” are self righteous, graceless figures devoid of compassion, but full of ferocious retribution. In other words, in them we see ourselves. Any grace which breaks through in the story comes in forcefully, unwelcomingly. It knocks them off their feet and, in at least one instance, quite literally hits them upside the head.

In commenting on her best known story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” O’Connor says, “There is a moment of grace in most of the stories, or a moment where it is offered, and usually rejected.”

We are meant to judge these characters as pig-headed, small-minded, bigoted and hateful, and then, with a sudden shock, realize we might be looking into our own heart.

Jonah, the largest recipient of God’s grace in his story, is commanded by God to warn the Ninevites of their wickedness and urge their repentance. Jonah, however, truncates the message from God by simply announcing certain doom and damnation to the Assyrian capital. God, in his bounteous grace and mercy, sends a storm, a great fish, a vine and a worm all to save Jonah from his judgemental attitude. Even by the end of the question dangling at the end of the book Jonah never understands the depth of grace God has offered him. He never see himself in need.

In his half-repentant and desperate prayer, Jonah preached against his own soul from the belly of the undetermined fish. “Those who cling to worthless idols forfeit the grace that could be theirs.” (Jonah 2:8)

Using Parables

“All human nature vigorously rejects grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”

-Flannery O’Connor

In a time of profound polarization, when we automatically write people off for their looks, or their geography, or their background, when we feel justified for excluding someone or fearing someone, Flannery O’Connor is good for us. In a time when we congratulate ourselves for being American, or Republican, or open-minded, for thinking the label “Christian” can be pasted on at whim to mean morally decent or “nice,” the southern Gothic writer still holds up a relevant mirror for us.

Flannery recommends her stories be read as parables. Narratives full of spiritual depth and earthy grit with shocking conclusions. If we grant her this request, then we might read “Revelation” as we would Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, (Luke 18:9-14) searching through our hearts hoping to find purity, wincing at our hubris and duplicity. This is not to say we take Flannery’s words as the inspired Word of God, but we honor her efforts as she employs similar medium to Christ’s teachings.

Jesus began with the familiar, the typical, the understood, and by the end of his story, his listeners were either hit between the eyes, or deeply offended and scandalized. We, who are religious and well-read, have become comfortable and de-sensitized to the parables of Jesus. Both familiarity with the stories and the strangeness of ancient culture can make them feel somewhat safe. Yet “Good Country People” and “The Displaced Person,” though now already sixty-five years old, are yet modern and relatable to us in startlingly interpretive ways; they slap us across the face so we can ultimately listen to Christ.

Jonathan Rogers, author and host of The Habit blog and podcast, is offering a six week online course, Writing with Flannery O’Connor beginning June 4. Rogers, though now in Nashville, originally hails a short drive from Milledgeville, Georgia, O’Connor’s home town. He has authored The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor.

I signed up. My family and I are currently going through some significant changes, some good, many not. We are dealing with different kinds of losses and sadness. This course comes at a good time for me. A writer whose themes are racism, bigotry and gratuitous violence may not seem an obvious way to extricate myself from emotional upheaval. However, grace is surprsing like that, whether it hits you in the hillsides of Galilee, the deep South or the morally tame Midwest.

There should still be time to sign up if you are interested. Find out more information here.

He threw himself to the ground and with his face against the dirt of the grave, he heard the command, GO WARN THE CHILDREN OF GOD OF THE TERRIBLE SPEED OF MERCY. The words were as silent as seed opening one at a time in his blood.”

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