Just finished reading Flannery’s essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” and my brain is about to explode. Her main message is that the Catholic artist needs to tell the truth, to be authentic, to pull no punches when it comes to communicating the Mystery of God. She states, “When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist” (O’Connor 146). I see this message beyond the Catholic Church although I know that was Flannery’s primary position. The artist needs to be honest.
As Christians, we are to live in the world but not be of the world. This means that we live as strangers in our world. We are set apart from the rest of the world because we understand, or we are at least grappling with, the mystery of God. However, we need to be a part of our world in order to help save the world. We have a great privilege and responsibility to continue the work of Christ in our world. This suggests that we must know the world to help save the world.
I love the Victorian era because it is such a great example of the struggle within the individual and the culture of Britain. Last night, my husband and I watched the last three episodes of season three of Victoria because that’s what you do on a Friday night. In one of the episodes, Queen Victoria was horrified because a newspaper had gotten a hold of drawings that she and Prince Albert had done of their family when they were young parents. The newspaper published a picture of the queen washing a baby, so Victoria was appalled that her people would see her as a washerwoman instead of as a queen. However, it seems that people began to relate to Queen Victoria more because of the pictures. In the episode, Lord Palmerston, then Foreign Secretary, says to Victoria that the people are able to relate to her because they see her with a baby and they see her with her dog. They can’t understand living in a palace, but they can understand a baby and a dog.
This isn’t much different from what Flannery may be communicating in some of her fiction. People understand tragedy. People understand heartache. People understand things that happen in life that may not follow strict dogma, doctrine, or theology. Flannery argues that “By separating nature and grace as much as possible, [the Catholic writer] has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliche” (147). The need for grace is because of nature. We cannot separate the two if we are to help people to see their need for a savior. In order to communicate the Mystery of God, we need to tell the truth even if that means communicating things that are not “Christian.”
Flannery’s work is often claimed by communities of people who are not believers. Several musicians have used ideas from her short stories and novels as inspiration for music. Al Jourgenson from the industrial band Ministry incorporated lines from the film version of Wise Blood, for example, in their well-known song, “Jesus Built My Hotrod.” There is a reason for this: Flannery wasn’t afraid to tell the truth. She showed what life was like, albeit using the grotesque to tell the story. But she told the story of human nature distorted and the need for grace.
Let’s work on telling the truth. Flannery says, “To look at the worst will be for [the artist] no more than an act of trust in God” (148). Let’s trust in God as we tell the truth about our world so that the world may know the Mystery of God’s grace through His Son, Jesus Christ.
“A Coburg Quartet.” Victoria, created by Daisy Goodwin, performance by Jenna Coleman, season 3, episode 6, Mammoth Screen, 2019.
O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1970.