Monday, November 27, 2006

Christian Classics, Finding the Truth, and ... Why I Am Afraid of Flannery O'Connor

Dante to Dead Man Walking: One Reader's Journey Through the Christian Classics
by Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.
But the twenty-first century mind needs Dante's Divine Comedy, specifically its first volume, the Inferno, because Dante's moral vision often contradicts ours and makes us rethink the way we view the world. The Library of Congress lists 2,878 books on Dante, the ninth-largest number on any one person. Critics choosing the books of the millennium for the Times Literary Supplement say that the Inferno is the "greatest of cathedrals, with better gargoyles, and its towers are taller than the world." It "sheds light on every other work of literature written in the West, before and after."
Raymond Schroth makes a compelling case not only for reading Dante but for reading a wide assortment of Christian classic literature from ancient to modern times. Selecting fifty books that raise a moral or religious issue in unforgettable ways, Schroth wrote essays about each to give a sense of both the contents and the reason for inclusion.

I believe I have mentioned before that Rose is working her way through the list of books contained in The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. (Except for nonfiction books, she always hastens to add.) This has led to many things. Because of her enthusiasm about Uncle Tom's Cabin I wound up reading it, which I certainly had never planned on. Not only that, it has become one of my favorites among the Christian classics. That opened the door to giving other classics a chance that I certainly never would have before such as Mr. Blue and Catholics. However, I haven't found myself interested in pursuing the classics for their own sake. There had to be some other purpose as well. Therefore, I was primed to be open to Schroth's Christian classics reading list with supporting essays.

As is the case with most lists, this one does show Schroth's particular interested. In this case, Schroth is a priest in the Society of Jesus, a.k.a. a Jesuit. Therefore, no regular readers will be surprised to learn that his particular penchant is nonfictional social justice books which I find to be an unimaginative and boring aspect of his list. I was quite disappointed that he didn't have better candidates to offer us for the topics of nuclear war, the death penalty, and so forth.
The Iliad is only great because all life is a battle, the Odyssey because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle.
G.K. Chesterton
Steven Riddle has written of his surprise at encountering people who find nonfiction so worthwhile as conveyors of truth that they rarely break into fiction at all. He then writes compellingly of the truth that is communicated on many levels by fiction in a way that often is not possible in nonfiction. (Please do go read, I'll wait ...)

I agree completely. Fiction in the right hands can cut deeper than a sword , right to the bone of truth that is too easily obscured in these days of skewed facts and targeted audiences that we find in much of nonfiction. In fact, that searing truth is one of the reasons I am afraid of Flannery O'Connor. Oh, not of her letters, which I definitely plan to read someday. But her fiction is terrifying to many. In fact, when writing to a pal who is all about literature and not at all interested in Christianity, her response was the O'Connor was "too rough, too gruesome" which we see echoed in the excerpt below. And, yet, O'Connor is all too Christian. (Don't stop at the excerpt, do go read the whole thing.)
Still, something's odd about selling Flannery to Christians. Even when people know about her superior technique and Christian frames, they still usually choke after a story or two. Too rough. Too troubling. They're not hard to read, they'll admit, but still, there's all that weirdness and death.
None of her stories, though, turns out to be as gruesome as common PG-13 fare. She places most of the ugliness off screen. Her stories do not fit in horror categories at all. Her use of the grotesque and ugly doesn't delight in power or shock value. All her stories focus on grace, grace, grace. That's what they're about. Every one of them. Real people wrestling with bodily grace.
And that's what disturbs many readers. They don't want their grace black. It feels like an alien faith to them, and they resist it. O'Connor herself heard this complaint. In her essay "The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South," she argued against that pietism typical of Christian readers: "The reader wants his grace warm and binding, not dark and disruptive."
Here's the rub: her stories might be more palatable to modern Christians if she were just writing shock-jock horror stories. Frank Peretti sells, after all. That sort of writing goes down easier because we don't really believe it. It feels like someone else's world. It's alien enough that we're not truly threatened. But O'Connor's world is too close. And if her picture of dark grace is right, then our typical take on life fails.
In considering the ability of fiction versus nonfiction to tell us the truth, it would seem that I have gone far astray from a mere book review. And, yet, I believe that Raymond Schroth would be pleased with that result. Without his book and my disagreement with some of his choices, I never would have pondered that larger picture. Therefore, it already has begun to do what he intended, which is to open our minds to a larger world. For that, and for his suggestions, many of which I welcome, I am quite grateful. In fact, I am going to begin working my way through most of his list, with suitable substitutions for those I don't agree with. That list and my comments will be posted tomorrow. Substitution suggestions will be welcomed.

Needless to say, this book is highly recommended.

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