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A Mystery To Inhabit: We Need Stories and Art That Go Beyond Easy Solutions, Being Clean, Safe, and Instantly Uplifting

You simply must read this. This is from Jonathan Rogers, author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor and many other excellent books (pretty much all of which I have and love). Here is an excerpt from an interview he did with Treven Wax. This was my favorite part. -Sam

O’Connor once wrote,

“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”

She was making a theological statement. Everything deserves our attention because the world of human experience is shot through with meaning.

That’s the sacramental vision – the idea that ultimate meaning doesn’t just live off in some Platonic ideal that we strain toward “spiritually,” but that God reveals Himself to us, does His work on us, through the concrete facts of the material world. For that reason, the artist has an obligation to depict the world that she sees, the way that she sees it. It is not her job to clean anything up or tie up loose ends or offer simplified answers to complicated questions. It is her job only to portray what she has seen in the world God has made.

All Christians agree, of course, that God reveals himself through the world around us. In that broad sense, all Christians have a sacramental vision.

But O’Connor, as a Catholic, was much more comfortable with mystery than most Protestants tend to be. She wrote:

“The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery.”

We Protestants aren’t looking to inhabit mysteries; we’re looking for explanations, solutions, household hints. Just stroll through a Christian bookstore. Seven Steps to This, Ten Steps to That, Your Best Life Now! It’s all very pragmatic and solution-oriented, thoroughly modern and slickly marketed. The modern/post-modern impulse is an impulse toward demystification, and American Protestantism is right in the middle of it.

O’Connor’s sacramental vision frees the Christian writer from the tyranny of “edification.” We assume that the Christian writer’s job is to edify the reader – which is true enough, I suppose – but we have such a narrow definition of edification.

What passes for edification is, to borrow a term from O’Connor, “Instant Uplift.” It doesn’t invite us into a mystery. It’s “safe for the whole family,” as the billboards for the Christian radio stations say. I don’t know that the Bible is safe for the whole family. It’s hard to imagine Christian bookstores stocking a book so wild and ragged and mysterious as the Bible if it weren’t the Bible.

(Again, this is from Jonathan Rogers here.)

3 Comments

  1. “That’s the sacramental vision – the idea that ultimate meaning doesn’t just live off in some Platonic ideal that we strain toward “spiritually,” but that God reveals Himself to us, does His work on us, through the concrete facts of the material world.”

    This must be why I love Frederick Buechner’s writings (especially his novel, Godric) and “Gilead” by Marilynne Robinson. Yep, that’s why.

    Good stuff 🙂

    Weird, but I just listened to the Rabbitroom podcast about Flannery O’Connor (with Jonathan Rogers) this morning, then proceeded to go and buy his book! 🙂 I’m excited to explore her writings soon.

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