Novelists and theologians

For the Flannery O’Connor fans in our midst, there is a new online article about her over at The Atlantic. It’s worth checking out, especially the last half.

I loved O’Connor’s observation about the challenge a Christian novelist faces: 

[T]he novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural.

In other words, sin and brokenness will only be seen as such when pushed to the limits of their inherent absurdity. After all, sin and brokeness are essentially irrational and ugly, going against the grain of God’s rational and beautiful creation of shalom. In this regard, O’Connor’s genius is found in her ability to portray sin, which is so “normal” to us, in ways that we see it in all its ugliness, irrationality and abnormality. (By the way, I think this is also what makes The Simpsons, at least the earlier seasons, work so well–the show managed to unveil the truth about many of our modern day sacred and secular ideological cows for what they were–silly, absurd, and irrational…but I digress!)

Furthermore, O’Neill, the author of the article, suggests that what made O’Connor “so wickedly good” was her ability to help readers see sin and brokenness as absurd against the presence and reality of God’s involvement in the world. But this aptitude was due precisely to what I would call O’Connor’s “mystagogical realism.” As O’Neill puts it,

O’Connor declared her-self a realist, albeit one pushing “toward the limits of mystery.” Mystery, in her mind, was concerned with “the ultimate reaches of reality,” which is to say, the agency of the divine in human affairs.  

In some respects, the theologian has a similar problem to the novelist, though he faces it in the inverse. For a theologian, contrary to the O’Connorian type of novelist, has the task of being a “mystagogue” (i.e., a purveyor of mystery) who pushes divine mystery toward the limits of rationality. That is to say, the theologian must be constantly aware that there is no true mystery which finally leaves rationality behind. As GK Chesterton so ably, aptly and astutely explained it,

Whenever you hear much of things being unutterable and indefinable and impalpable and unnamable and subtly indescribable, then elevate your aristocratic nose towards heaven and snuff up the smell of decay. It is perfectly true that there is something in all good things that is beyond all speech or figure of speech. But it is also true that there is in all good things a perpetual desire for expression and concrete embodiment; and though the attempt to embody it is always inadequate, the attempt is always made. If the idea does not seek to be the word, the chances are that it is an evil idea. If the word is not made flesh it is a bad word.  [From GKC’s article entitled, Mystagogue]

 So, taking a cue from O’Connor’s observation’s about the challenges for the Christian novelist, I suggest the challenge for the theologian is this:

The theologian with worldly concerns will find in God’s self-revelation perfections which are self-evidently captivating to him, and his problem will be to make these divine perfections appear concretely captivating and real to an audience which is used to seeing them as utterly abstract, unnatural, and unreal.

In other words, conversely to the O’Connorian novelist who is compelled to witness to the mystery present in the outer reaches of reality, the Christian theologian is compelled to witness to the reality of the inward reach of mystery–the mystery which is none other than the wholly other God made real flesh to us in Jesus Christ.

One thought on “Novelists and theologians

  1. the thing that struck me with o’connor’s stories was that she’d get me to see the distortions and ugliness in myself too. her story would unravel like a finger pointing at a particular distorted thing (and my finger would point too) only to leave me at the end confronted most with the three fingers still pointing back at me. her stories are something else.

    that chesterton quote is fantastic, and the conclusion you reach here is compelling for theology.

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