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Mystery & Manners
Last week, the doctoral cohort I’m participating in with the Eugene Peterson Center for Christian Imagination converged to spend a week together. Our cohort is reflecting on the intersection of Christian faith and the vocation of writing, and it was a rich week together.
One of the gifts of those days was the chance to revisit some essays on writing by Flannery O’Connor. The Southern Gothic author is one of my favorites, and the book Mystery and Manners, published after her death in 1964, gathered together a number of essays in which she unfolded how she approaches her craft.
In a few of those essays, O’Connor mapped out how her work in creating her distinctive kind of Southern Gothic fiction, issued — paradoxically — from her devout Roman Catholic faith. (I’d add, her musings on faith and writing I found every bit as applicable as a Protestant.)
In “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” O’Connor insists that
The Catholic writer, insofar as he has the mind of the Church, will feel life from the standpoint of the central Christian mystery: that it has, for all its horror, been found by God to be worth dying for.
O’Connor’s audacious claim is that adhering to the mystery of the Gospel ought to enlarge, and not constrict the artist. She goes on to assert:
This should enlarge, not narrow, his field of vision… he will be more than ever concerned to have his work stand on its own feet and be complete and self-sufficient and impregnable in its own right. 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.
In other words, an artist who is a Christian, because she inhabits an incarnational, sacramental view of reality, ought to do her work with “a wider frame,” in the words of Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. Her work ought to be more honest, more unflinching, more courageous, attentive, tender, perceptive, and hopeful because of the Christian story, not less. Although often and sadly it has not been the case, people who believe in things like creation, depravity, incarnation, atonement, and resurrection should lead the world in cultivating beauty.
Flannery In Easter
It struck me as we gathered how deeply congruent O’Connor’s approach to her art is with the season of Eastertide, during which we met, as those resurrection Alleluias! still pulsed in our ears and our hearts. The bodily resurrection of Christ, after all, trumpets the living God’s unabashed ardor for God’s creation, and God’s unwavering commitment to heal and raise the cosmos he fashioned.
I didn’t always realize this. In early stages of Christian life, I absorbed by osmosis a dualistic, semi-gnostic version of the Gospel that assumed that our ultimate future was in a disembodied eternity, with this world (and by extension, all that makes up material life — bodies, music, science, writing, and so much more) burned up and forgotten.
But the full-bodied announcement of Easter — of bodily resurrection — is announcing God’s new creation in Christ breaking into the old. As Gregory of Nazianzus insisted while arguing for the full humanity of Jesus during the controversies of his own day: “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” God assumed a material life, in other words, to mend our material lives. Life in this creation has been found by God to be worth dying for. And Jesus rose to rescue and renew both souls and bodies, individuals and societies, the spiritual and the physical.
I love how N.T. Wright, a leading New Testament scholar, maps out the expansive dimensions of resurrection hope. In his excellent book Surprised by Hope, Wright contends that
The point of the resurrection… is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die. God will raise it to new life. What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it. And if this applies to ethics… it certainly also applies to the various vocations by which God’s people are called. What you do in the present — by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself — will last into God’s future. These activities are not simply ways of making the present life a little less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we leave it behind altogether. They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.
By God’s grace, I pray more of us who bear the name of Jesus will learn to cultivate the kind of beauty that’s worthy of the world God found worth dying for and Jesus rose to renew.
The idea that all I do now Is “part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
How powerful and what a great perspective you inspired me to live! Thank you, Jared.
Yes, yes, yes, except for the last line. “Building the kingdom” (which, admittedly, is Wright’s phrase, not yours.) I hear that phrase often, especially among Evangelicals and Calvinists. I understand the moticvation and desire. But the language, I believe, is misguiding. I can’t think of any scripture that says “building” the kingdom. The kingdom is already built, by God, upon the foundation of Our Lord Jesus. It’s “builder and maker is God.” So that Our Lord can tell his disciples, “Fear not, little flock, it is my Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Yes, desire the kingdom, yes, hasten the kingdom, yes, pray that the kingdom come, yes, enter the kingdom, yes inherit the kingdom, but not “build” the kingdom. We tend to identify our institutional efforts of “cultural discipleship” (Rich Mouw’s phrase) as buildings of the kingdom. It’s an easy equivalence, but I think a dangerous one. And yes, we are, Biblically to “build up the church,” so it’s easy to make the jump. But “building the kingdom,” I believe, is language importantly to be avoided.