A Catholic Reader

Reading Literature in the Light of Faith

Menu Close

Tag: literary exegesis

Grace and purification in Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation”

Everything that Rises Must Converge, Flannery O'Connor

UPDATE 2016: This has proven to be one of the most popular posts on the blog, which suggests that lots of people enjoy, but perhaps are puzzled by, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I would be happy to explore more of her stories (I’ve got a couple of half-written posts that are hanging fire). If you have a particular O’Connor story that excites, interests, or puzzles you, leave a comment at the end of this post and let me know — or you can email me, if you don’t want to leave a public comment.

Original post:

A recent comment on an old post about Flannery O’Connor raises some questions that I thought I would  respond to in a separate post, rather than depositing them in the obscurity  of the comm box. Janet Baker left a long comment (you can read it in its entirety there), which says in part:

I’m currently working on the short story Revelation, looking at the text for what it says about Flannery’s Catholicism, rather than listening to her pronouncements in non-fiction, like her letters. If you read the story, you will note that it is Mrs. Turpin’s virtues that must be burned away before she enters heaven, and that people enter heaven in groups, racial and social. Perhaps you don’t read either St. Thomas Aquinas, or Teilhard de Chardin, nor have I extensively, but if you begin to read about it, you’ll see that St. Thomas promotes the virtues of which Mrs. Turpin is guilty–generous almsgiving, supporting the Church, helping others regardless of their worthines [sic] of help. It was Teilhard, whom Flannery really loved and read even when it wasn’t time for bed, as she did Thomas. Teilhard, on the other hand, supports the idea that we enter heaven in groups and all enter, all, after their individual identities had been burned away. That’s why he was a heretic and rejected by the Church, along with all his bogus evolutionary crap, although he influenced the Church deeply, and perhaps mortally.

Read more

Flannery O’Connor and the Overwhelming Power of Grace

Billboard: Don't make me come down there. God.
In O’Connor’s stories, God sends billboards.

I had a friend who used to say, “Sometimes God gives you a sign, sometimes BILLBOARDS!” Flannery O’Connor is famous for saying that her characters were so colorful (critics like to call them “grotesque”) because you have to draw large pictures for the blind and shout at the deaf: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” I’ll admit that, fascinated as I was with her work when I first began to read it, I was often puzzled as to what was going on. I remember waking up in the dark hours of the night, years after first reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” with a sudden understanding of what the Misfit meant when he said, “She would of been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

For anyone similarly puzzled, my advice is to read “Revelation,” which probably makes clearer than any of her other stories just what Flannery is up to. (See my analysis of the climactic scene here.) If I’d read that one before I read “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” maybe my sleep wouldn’t have been disturbed at 3 a.m. years later. Then again, maybe not. Perhaps I had to learn something about the nature of Grace before I could get over being blind and deaf to what O’Connor was going on about. The great thing about her stories is that they fascinate even those who haven’t a clue about God or His grace or how it operates in the soul. Such readers will remember her strange characters and puzzle over their behavior, perhaps until one night God bonks them on the head and shouts, “Wake up, dummy!”

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Please leave your thoughts or comments below!

Learn to read intelligently, even when you are out of your depth

Child reading Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book

My experience teaching college taught me that most college students are poorly equipped to read on their own (most of them don’t read at all, unless you hold a gun to their heads, as I’ve pointed out before), by which I mean that they don’t know how to make sense of what scholars call “primary texts” (works as they are actually written, rather than works as they are digested and described by others — such as textbooks). To help my students learn to read primary texts from any of a number of fields (e.g., I regularly taught philosophical and theological works in my Humanities classes), I developed a 4-step method for understanding, analyzing, and evaluating works of all sorts. From time to time, a student would tell me, in a tone of amazement, that this method had helped them read books and articles for their other classes. (They were amazed the method worked, I was amazed that they’d actually tried it and noticed that it worked.)

Now over on the Catholic Reading Project web site, I’m going to be reading and discussing (hopefully in the company of others — how about you?) a series of magisterial documents of the Catholic Church, and it just so happens that I am no expert on the subject, and I imagine that most of those who drop in on the project or even follow along regularly are going to be no more expert than I. For this reason, I’ve posted my 4-step method over there, in hopes that it will encourage people who might otherwise be intimidated by the idea of reading documents that were not written for general lay readers. If you enjoy reading serious works, but wonder if you’re really getting out of them what you should, you should click the link above and take a look at the method. Then let me know what you think!

Planet Narnia: Tutelary Deities

Last week when I was writing my previous post about Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia, I visited Ward’s website and left a comment on his blog, telling him how much I like his book and inviting him to take a look at what I had said about it on my own blog. A day or two ago I received this reply from him:

Dear Lisa,

Thanks for your post on the Planet Narnia blog.  I’m delighted to know you enjoyed reading the book; it was certainly the greatest pleasure to write.
Thanks also for your post on your own blogsite, which I read and admired.  One thing I would slightly question though is the use of the word ‘red herring’ with respect to Aslan as Christ.  Sure, it’s a red herring insofar as it has led critics to concentrate far too exclusively on Biblical-allegorical readings of the Chronicles.  But Aslan certainly IS a Christ-figure, beautifully so, and the planetary scheme Lewis adopted means that the Christology he is trying to communicate is far more sophisticated than ‘mere’ Biblical allegory of a simple one-to-one kind.
But that’s a small point.  Generally, I thought what you wrote was excellent, and I found it personally very encouraging.  Thank you!
With kind regards,
Michael

I can see that my use of the term “red herring” was confusing, so I’ve revised the original post to make my meaning a little clearer. I didn’t mean to suggest that readers are mistaken to discern an identification between Aslan and Christ, or that Lewis was misleading readers to make an erroneous connection (that’s the usual meaning of “red herring”). It seems quite clear to me — as I think it will to almost any reader — that, in the first Narnia story, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (LWW), Lewis deliberately made the parallels between Aslan’s actions and the atoning sacrifice of Christ virtually unmistakable. What I had meant to convey is that this connection was so obvious that it may have distracted critics from discerning or pursuing less obvious (non-Scriptural) allusions.

medieval engraving of Roman god Jupiter

For those who have not yet had an opportunity to read Planet Narnia, I’ll explain a little bit about Ward’s thesis. What Ward calls his “Eureka moment” occurred one night when he was struck by a phrase from Lewis’s poem, “The Planets,” which describes the allegorical personae of the planets as they were used poetically throughout the Middle Ages. The phrase that struck him referred to the influence of Jupiter (a.k.a. Jove, the Latin equivalent of Greek Zeus): “winter passed / And guilt forgiven.” Immediately this made him think of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in which Narnia is caught in an unending winter, until Aslan arrives on the scene and allows himself to be sacrificed by the White Witch, in substitution for Edmund Pevensey, who has betrayed his siblings to the Witch. Ward wondered:

Could there be a link somehow between poem and Chronicle? That thought was the stray spark connecting Jupiter to The Lion in my mind, and one by one the other planet-to-book relationships began to be lit up in its train. (Planet Narnia, 251)

That spark lit a blaze which resulted in Planet Narnia, a wonderfully illuminating study of how the medieval allegorical use of the pagan gods influenced the composition Lewis’s Narnia stories (and his other novels, as well).

Why would Lewis use Roman gods as the inspiration for his wonderful Narnia tales? Well, the short answer is, “Because he was a medievalist and an ardent amateur astronomer.” Here’s a longer answer: Much of the poetry of the Christian Middle Ages — and well through the period of the Renaissance — was modeled on, and influenced by, the norms of pre-Christian Latin poetry, which was considered exemplary (think of how deeply influenced the thoroughly-Christian Dante was by the pagan Latin poet, Vergil). The Greeks and Romans, of course, believed that there were many immortal gods, who had their own distinctive personalities and attributes and who intervened in the human realm and governed the cosmos. Today we still call planets by the names of the gods who governed them: Mars, Venus, Jupiter, etc. One of the borrowings (or, better said, inheritances) from the pagan Graeco-Roman world that had the most pervasive influence on the medieval imagination, poetically and otherwise, was their concept of a cosmos in which everything beyond the orbit of the Moon (Diana’s planet) was eternal and immortal, the realm of the gods.

medieval conception of the cosmos

Medieval man, of course, was not a pagan and did not believe in the pagan gods, but he was profoundly influenced by the conceptual model of the universe that he inherited from the ancient pagans. (You can read about this in C. S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image.) For medieval man, too, the earth was the realm of all that is mortal, material, passing, and fallen, while everything in the heavens was spiritual and immortal, charged with the Divine Presence. Thus it was natural for medieval man to find the ancient pagan gods who had given their names to the heavenly bodies to be transformed into personifications, or allegories, of the one true God who reigns over all Creation. Thus, when a medieval poet wrote about the god Jove (Jupiter), he was really writing about those aspects of God (Christ) that Jove embodies: his kingship and majesty, warmth and festivity, etc. Each of the gods represented by the planets of the night sky, in this Christianized cosmos, reflected different aspects of God’s nature, so that poems about the pagan deities were always really poems about Christ.

The insight that Michael Ward hit upon was that each of the Narnia books has its own tutelary deity; i.e., each is attuned to the aspects of a particular planetary god, giving that story its own peculiar flavor or atmosphere (what Ward calls its “donegality”). Not only does the planet in question “flavor” the story to reflect its corresponding planet/god, but the way Lewis portrays Aslan in each story also reflects the those particular aspects of Christ that the god in question embodies allegorically. Medieval writers delighted in complex and many-layered allegory, so it should be no surprise that Jack Lewis, medieval scholar and Christian apologist, should choose such a complicated and obscure way to compose his Narnia tales, such that you first have to find the hidden layer of planetary influence and then penetrate beneath it to the Christological meaning, in order to fully appreciate their significance.