A Subversive Gospel:
Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth
Paperback: IVP Academic, 2017
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Reviewed by Peter Surran
The cover of Michael Mears Bruner’s book, A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, features O’Connor in her familiar spectacles and headscarf looking very subversive indeed. She looks like she’s up to something and, the truth is, scholars have been debating on what that “something” is for decades.
Bruner adds to that debate by presenting a fresh key to unlocking O’Connor’s writing: the work of the theologian Baron Friedrich von Hugel. The answer to the question of, “Why do we need another book about Flannery O’Connor,” is that von Hugel’s influence on the writer has never been thoroughly explored, at least in Bruner’s estimation. In this regard, Bruner does prove his point. He points out seemingly obvious points of convergence, pun intended, with a “how-did-they-miss-this” level of certainty.
Bruner writes that “three iconic themes commonly attributed to O’Connor—that high spiritual realities are manifested in low material things…that the life of the prophet and Christian believer is costly and often fatal…and that God’s mercy and grace are most intimately expressed in the forms of mysterious and difficult, even foolish truths…come from or out of ideas she attributes to von Hugel” (48). Bruner sees in these themes a subversion of the traditional transcendental categories of beauty, goodness, and truth, respectively (hence the book’s title) and because these were such fundamental themes in O’Connor’s writing, he calls von Hugel “O’Connor’s most important theological influence” (11, at footnote 25).
The refrain that keeps repeating throughout the book is that “grace cannot be separated from nature,” an insight that, Bruner says, O’Connor gleaned from reading von Hugel (11). It is a reflection of the first subverted transcendental, beauty—high spiritual realities are manifested in low material things. For O’Connor, this often plays out in surprising and violent ways.
Understanding von Hugel’s influence on O’Connor provides insight into the violence and general mayhem that one finds in the pages of her writing. Bruner presents some of the other prevailing theories proffered by O’Connor scholars (maybe she’s angry because of her lupus diagnosis) and shows how the theological explanation is more compelling and true to the writer’s own explanations. “The mayhem that ensues in her stories,” Bruner writes, “is often nothing more than an illustration of what happens to those who follow “in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus,” (he quotes O’Conner there) “but it is a shadow of the grace they walk in, a shadow of that peace which surpasses all understanding,” (he quotes Paul’s letter to the Ephesians there).
This “shadow of grace” that underlies O’Connor’s writing leads Bruner to highlight the distinction between divine and demonic violence, or mayhem that can be attributed to the work of God vs. that which can be attributed to the devil, though the writer herself acknowledged that the line between the two is sometime blurred. That there is even such a thing as “divine violence,” to think that God might intrude into our lives in violent ways to “offer grace” highlights the relevancy that O’Connor’s writing has for twenty-first century readers.
O’Connor subverts modern popular theology just as thoroughly as she subverts the traditional transcendental virtues. If, as Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton argue in their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, the prevailing theological system of young people in America today is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, then O’Connor explodes it and her writing is not just as relevant as ever, but absolutely essential.
The primary tenets of MTD are a belief that God wants everyone to behave, to be happy and well-adjusted, and that God primarily leaves people alone and is not involved in their daily lives. It does not take much effort to look at contemporary culture and see that these beliefs reach well beyond those in their teen years.
The divine violence present in O’Connor’s writing subverts this modern theology. God not only does become involved in our daily lives but sometimes that involvement is violent. It is a divine attitude adjustment, as opposed to a primary concern for the contemporary definition well-adjustment.
For Bruner, O’Connor’s work provides artistic subversion as well as theological. As a Christian artist, her work needed bizarre elements to be considered in the larger cultural milieu. Walker Percy wrote in his essay “Notes on a Novel About the End of the World,” that when a Christian novelist engages a culture that may be hostile to his worldview, “He does the only thing he can do. Like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, he calls on every ounce of cunning, craft, and guile he can muster from the darker regions of his soul. The fictional use of violence, shock, comedy, insult, the bizarre, are the everyday tools of his trade.” O’Connor herself said, in one of her most familiar quotes, from the essay “The Fiction Writer and His Country,” “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
Shock, she did. Shout, she did. She drew large and startling figures. The result was a body of writing that stands the test of time because of its subversive elements. If her work was easier to pin down, if scholars could easily put a label on her, then perhaps we would not need her as much as we do today. But we do need her. We need to be shocked and startled into an opportunity for grace.
Bruner states in his introduction that the book grew out of his doctoral dissertation, and, as a result, the book leans heavily on the academic side. As a result, it takes some effort to work through. Like O’Connor’s writing, however, making the effort is well worth it. Bruner touches on vital themes and, perhaps most importantly of all, provides a new angle from which to approach O’Connor’s work, keeping her subversion fresh for a new generation of readers.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com