the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

a convincing believer is hard to find

Flannery O'Connor: two images

As part of my freelance writing ‘career’ I’ve been reading some interesting bits and pieces, including Flannery O’Connor’s famous story ‘A good man is hard to find’, first read several years ago.

Attuned as I currently am to religious thoughts and references, I can’t pass this story by without comment. The Christian aspect of the story would no doubt have struck me when I originally read it, but I would’ve dismissed it in concerning myself with the realism or otherwise of its more grisly aspects.

Now it’s more obvious to me that the Christian message, albeit muted, is central.

O’Connor was a devout catholic. The famous story has a simple enough plot. A family of six – grandmother, father, mother and three kids – are on holiday. On the insistence of the grandmother, they take a detour down a dirt road to visit a house the grandmother remembers from years before. They have an accident, and the car flips over. They’re all unhurt, and while they’re recovering, a car comes along and stops. Out steps The Misfit, an escapee from a local penitentiary, about whom there has been news on the radio. He’s accompanied by two other men. They’re all armed. At a signal from The Misfit, his accomplices lead members of the family away into the bushes and shoot them. Finally, only the grandmother, who has been talkative throughout, remains. She asks him to pray, and tries to connect with him, but just when she thinks she has made a breakthrough, he shoots her. His last words, the last words of the story, are ‘aint no pleasure at all’, or something like that (sadly I don’t have a copy of the text).

O’Connor is a subtle and complex writer, who uses humour and irony to great effect, yet, though the grandmother (she’s never named, and this I think gives her a deliberately archetypal quality) is often undercut and portrayed as flawed and even occasionally silly, she’s essentially a symbol of Christian grace in the story. She’s serene, optimistic and kindly, unlike her tetchy, morose and sometimes cruel son Bailey. The Misfit, an even sketchier character, is also a symbol – of those who can’t or won’t or have trouble accepting the message of Jesus. In the confrontation between these two central characters, the grandmother speaks to The Misfit of Jesus, and here’s a part of his response:

“Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what he said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can – by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness…”

“If I’d been there, I would’ve known, wouldn’t be like I am now.”

The capitalizations are O’Connor’s of course.

The Misfit may have been a victim of injustice – he certainly believes himself to have been, though this part of the story is a bit weak. He says he doesn’t know what he did wrong, what he has been punished for in being sent to the penitentiary – and in this, he compares himself to Jesus. The question I would ask is how could this be – how would he not know of the charges against him, after presumably having gone through a trial and a sentencing process? O’Connor apparently glides over this in order to maintain the comparison with Jesus, but also to provide The Misfit with some justification for his negativity. Of course the author can also absolve herself of responsibility by claiming that the obfuscation is entirely The Misfit’s own, but this greatly weakens the Jesus comparison.

In any case, The Misfit’s lines here are, to me, at least, tediously familiar. Add a generous load of slickness, glibness and self-confidence, and you have here the sort of sermon we’ve been hearing since the days of Paul of Tarsus, Christianity’s inventor.

The Misfit is clearly saying that, if Jesus raised people from the dead (that’s to say, if he was indeed a supernatural being, or the son of Yahweh), then he must be followed, worshipped and so forth, and if he didn’t – or you can’t bring yourself to believe it, which amounts to the same thing – then morality is meaningless, and you may as well do as you like, regardless of the feelings of others. It’s much as the gospels say – Jesus is the light, the saviour, while modern sermons or glosses hail him as our great moral guide, our collective conscience, etc etc. It also lines up with the hoary old argument, massively discredited by the evidence, that if Yahweh didn’t exist, anything would be possible.

It’s a singularly unconvincing, not to say absurd, argument. There’s no evidence, outside the New Testament, that Jesus even existed let alone performed supernatural acts, and there’s no reason to assume that such acts, however conceived, would make the slightest difference to our complex moral being, a moral being formed largely by the process of evolutionary adaptation long long before Jesus was ever thought of (and I’ve just begun a series of posts on the psychology of morality on my other blog).

The Misfit blames his moral failings on his uncertainty about Jesus’s claims to be this great moral saviour, and this encourages us to think likewise. We know nothing about the man’s background or whether his incarceration was justified – such detailed knowledge would detract from the good versus evil simplification of the story. O’Connor doesn’t use the word ‘evil’ in the story, but the word ‘good’ is frequently used. The evil in the story, of course, hardly needs to be named, but it is, nonetheless, a manipulated evil. The Misfit’s two accomplices are rarely mentioned by critics, but together they shoot dead five people, including a babe in arms. Are they also escapees from the penitentiary? Are they mere weaklings under the bizarre control of The Misfit? Are they Satan’s minions? The more I reflect upon these elements, the more dissatisfied and irritated I become, frankly. We’re not permitted much of an insight into the motives behind these extremely violent acts, and we’re certainly encouraged into a sense of horror at the advent of something like pure, unadulterated evil, which strikes this family down as swiftly and ‘naturally’ as an ‘act of god’. It’s a disappointing end to a story of an ordinary, and ordinarily dysfunctional, family, a family sketched out with great psychological acumen. But such are the distortions and limitations of religious belief.


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