Flannery O’Connor on Freelance Protestantism

I hope you have had a chance to read through the discussion on “The River” over the last couple of days. It has been extremely insightful and lively–and also courteous, I might add. One thing that has become evident is that a reader’s interpretation of the story’s end hinges on how that reader understands the baptism–big Bevel baptizing little Bevel. If that is a true baptism, then Harry/Bevel’s being pulled down by the river at the end is a rescue from the clutches of Mr. Paradise. If it is a false baptism, then the boy’s drowning is a terrible sadness, and Mr. Paradise is a benefactor who tried and failed to save him. Those aren’t the only two possible readings, but they do represent two poles of interpretation.

Given the fact that O’Connor was both Catholic and highly educated, it would seem that she would have little sympathy for the countrified Protestants in her stories. In fact, her stance toward them was complex. I offer up these quotations from O’Connor’s letters as a catalyst for further discussion…

On Wise Blood‘s Haze Motes:

Haze is saved by virtue of having wise blood; it’s too wise for him ultimately to deny Christ. Wise blood has to be these people’s means of grace–they have no sacraments.The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It’s full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work them out dramatically. If this were merely comic to me, it would be no good, but I accept the same fundamental doctrines of sin and redemption and judgment that they do. (Habit of Being, p. 350)

 

To a Protestant correspondent:

The Catholic finds it easier to understand the atheist than the Protestant, but easier to love the Protestant than the atheist. The fact is though now that the fundamentalist Protestants, as far as doctrine goes, are closer to their traditional enemy, the Church of Rome, than they are to the advanced elements in Protestantism. … It’s the Catholic Church who calls you “separated brethren,” she who feels the awful loss. (Habit of Being, p. 341)

 

To a friend who said she couldn’t quite believe Christianity because it wasn’t emotionally satisfying:

I can never agree with you that the Incarnation, or any truth, has to satisfy emotionally to be right. … There are long periods in the lives of all of us, and of the saints, when the truth as revealed by faith is hideous, emotionally disturbing, downright repulsive…. The thought of everybody lolling about in an emotionally satisfying faith is repugnant to me. I believe that we are ultimately directed Godward but that this journey is often impeded by emotion. (Habit of Being, pp. 99-100)

  • http://www.bryanajohnson.wordpress.com/ Bryana Johnson

    These comments – and especially the first one – make it sound to me like she intended for the baptism she described in this story to be accepted as “real.” It’s a sacrament, and therefore (in her mind) has eternally consequential meaning by very nature of its occurring. Even though Bevel the child isn’t emotionally satisfied by what has occurred, even though he goes back that night to the hell-house he calls home, even though he has no understanding of what is happening to him, the sacrament wraps impersonal fingers around his life and redeems it. I think this is the most reasonable interpretation of the story if you take O’Connor’s Catholicism into account.

    Is she correct? Well, I don’t think so. I think the theology is a little skewed, for sure. And that is why we Protestants are perhaps having a more difficult time understanding her: in our minds, baptism is only a symbol of something else that is already happening/has happened. In her mind it is a thing that brings other things about. It is to be sought after even on behalf of those who don’t understand it. It is God saving us whether we wish to be saved or not. Because He did, didn’t He?

  • Madeline’s husband

    I was going to post this on the River discussion, but it applies here:
     
    Infant baptism as described in the NT (and not by the RC church) does not require understanding, but it does require believing parents. It is a covenant promise to the children of believers. At Pentecost, Peter said it was for you and your children. Not for all children everywhere. Baptism is not to be applied willy-nilly to any child we can get our hands on. Otherwise, we should go into the city and try to get as many kids into the church as possible, at least once, so we can baptize them. This is why I read Bevel Summers as false. His words sound right, but he did not try to convert or disciple the boy, only apply a sign that is not rightfully applied to him. When I first read this, I saw it as a warning against that false church (perhaps also characterized by those who insist that children just say a prayer a certain way and then they’re saved). This baptism seems good, but really just misleads, and in this case it mislead this boy all the way to his own death. He still needs true salvation!
     
    But reading the quotes from O’Connor and the other comments on here, I don’t really know anymore if she was representing that baptism as true or false. But if she meant it as true, then I still counter that she was wrong and that boy wasn’t really helped.

  • Madeline’s husband

    By the way, I’m definitely open to being charged with O’Connor eisegesis here – reading into Flannery what she didn’t intend. But isn’t that half the fun of a book club?

    And I think you are right on, Jonathan, that the interpretation of the baptism influences one’s interpretation of the whole story. I wanted the preacher and Mrs. Connin to be the good guys. But when he dunked the child and declared that he now “counted”. That rang so false to me that it discolored the rest of the story.

  • April Pickle

    I’d like to suggest that Bevel Summers is not simply dunking Little Bevel.
    ” ‘If I baptize you,’ the preacher said, ‘you’ll be able to go to the Kingdom of Christ. You’ll be washed in the river of suffering , son, and you’ll go by the deep river of life. Do you want that?’
    ‘Yes,’ the child said, and thought, I won’t go back to the apartment then, I’ll go under the river.”
    Little Bevel doesn’t fully understand what is happening, but what infant, child or adult does FULLY understand what is happening when baptized?
    “He had found out already this morning that he was made by a carpenter named Jesus Christ.” This tells me that he believed it. Then, he is drawn to the Bible story book because he takes it. And it is this same Christ that when asked about going to His Kingdom, Little Bevel says “yes.” Little Bevel miunderstands the meaning of the water for sure, but I don’t think he was misled. 

  • Amy L

    I agree.  I’m fully a believer in adult baptism, but I felt that this scene showed little Bevel with the best possible understanding of his state as was possible.  O’Connor believed in infant baptism, but the people on the shore wouldn’t have – and the scene is written to try to satisfy both parties, I think.

  • Amy L

    I love the final quote.  Basing a faith on how you feel is silly.  I can’t even think of a suffient simile right now.

  • Loren Warnemuende

    Madeleine’s husband and Madeleine, every time I read your comments I think, “Exactly!” kind of freaky, but also encouraging to know there are others thinking the same way I do. And I believe you’re writing them much more clearly than I’ve been able to put it. Thank you!

  • Loren Warnemuende

    Ack! The “kind” after “Exactly!” was supposed to start a new sentence.

  • Loren Warnemuende

    Thanks for bringing this point out more, Jonathan. I replied to your comment in the previous post, and this helps clarify things more.

  • http://profiles.google.com/mosessupposestwo Rebecca Reynolds

    I think it’s important to note who actually baptizes Harry. It is not a person (Big Bevel baptizes a fictionalized name). It is not even Harry himself, though that is likely his intent in returning to the River. (He wants to get himself saved.) However, Harry finds he cannot force salvation upon his own willing heart. He must wear out his strength and find that the River is a force of its own. The River itself is the baptizer of the real Harry.

    This same truth jolts most Christians at some point in their walk. We find that this religion we’ve been trying so long to perfect, this effort to become new, does nothing but kick up mud. We can’t even sink ourselves in it.

    Harry attempts to baptize himself, just like he tries to give himself a new name. However, something keeps pushing him back up to the surface. The full irony of flesh-propelled redemption is exposed.

    Note these references to human ability:

    1.) The story opens with this: “He ain’t fixed right.” “Well then for Christ’s sake, fix him.” (Powerful exchange, if you think about it.)

    2.) Regarding the painting in Harry’s house, the old woman commented she wouldn’t have bought it, “I’d have drew it myself.”

    3.) Harry’s adoption of the preacher’s name.

    4.) The preacher clearly teaching (over and over again) that healing goes beyond physical,  but the people are stubborn and refuse to hear what he is really saying.  Both their admiration and their mockery focus on physical healing. Did you notice which “testimony” the witness actually gives? “This preacher can heal.” Of course HE cannot heal. That’s Christ’s job. He’s been telling them he’s there to point to Jesus, they just won’t listen.

    Meanwhile, Harry treats the baptism comically, because, “Where he lived everything was a joke.” That’s why Harry didn’t count. Maybe I’m wrong, but I didn’t hear the preacher’s statement that Harry would now “count” as a declaration that his life gained sudden value as much as I heard it as an acknowledgement of reality. This kid hasn’t counted to anybody. We can see that clearly. But from now on, he will. 

    I got chills when I saw Harry’s reaction as he was held by the preacher for baptism. I didn’t see demons in his playfulness as much as I saw a little kid who had been ignored all his life and didn’t know what to do in a moment of sobriety except act like the joke he’d always been. The seriousness of the preacher’s face and words shocked him into a whole different reality. He might matter.

    For goodness sakes, he might matter! That’s why he returned to The River. 

    I thought the candy was clearly a phallic symbol carried by a child molester. I thought it was also a symbol of the hedonistic abuse and neglect of Harry’s whole life. Pursuit of temporal pleasure (candy) had screwed Harry over, and it would keep screwing him over. Mr. Paradise is there to show us how this story will end without death as a rescue.  

    I am not advocating mercy killing, abortion, etc. Those are deaths caused by the hands of men — additional attempts at flesh-fueled redemption. Neither am I fatalistic. I am simply saying that there is a death Christ provides spiritually (and in this case physically) that is protective. The main reason this is shocking to us is because we are so deeply wedded to self-preservation. We think life is life instead of death being life. We long to protect ourselves, and baptize ourselves, and find healing in men with magic words. 

    True life is being carried into death by The River. That is salvation and baptism. What O’Connor doesn’t show in this story is what we all know happens after death. Resurrection. Have we forgotten that? We do forget it, and that’s the point. It shows what we’ve missed about life and death all along.

    That she doesn’t show us everything is brilliant, because it forces the reader to resign to the River. It requires us to place our faith in a current greater than our own.

    P.S. If I’m commenting too long or too much, delete this. Please.

  • Amy L

    “I am simply saying that there is a death Christ provides spiritually (and in this case physically) that is protective. The main reason this is shocking to us is because we are so deeply wedded to self-preservation. We think life is life instead of death being life. “  — thank you for saying that so well.  That’s what I had been trying to say.

    In discussing with my husband, he whipped out Isaiah 57:1-2, that the righteous are taken away to be saved from suffering, and they enter into peace. 

    Bevel doesn’t commit suicide.  That wasn’t remotely his intent.  And, as Rebecca said, The River takes him — he doesn’t do it to himself.  That matters, too.

  • April

    Beautiful, Becca. Thank you. The name thing had not occurred to me. It makes total sense given the discussion about Harry’s real name when he is returned home.

  • http://lorenwarn.blogspot.com/ Loren Warnemuende

    Thanks, Becca. Once again, very helpful!

    I had just popped back on because I had an epiphany on this thanks to bouncing this whole story and discussion off of my husband. Actually, I didn’t really have the epiphany; Kraig did the revealing :) . And your point ties into it exactly.

    Kraig pointed out that much of our discussion has revolved around what each character did or did not do: Did the preacher handle baptism correctly? Was Paradise trying to save Harry or harm him? Did Harry understand or didn’t he?

    The reality is that nothing could be done by any of these characters. Only God can extend the grace to save. And in this case, after reading your comment Becca, I see that O’Connor is using The River symbolically for Christ and His redemptive work. Cool!

  • http://profiles.google.com/mosessupposestwo Rebecca Reynolds

    Good comments, Loren. I had a moment of regret after posting, because I thought my interpretation might be all wonky, and I feel like I sort of exploded too much. But Jonathan can correct me if I’m way off. I’m so glad we have the master here. I feel like I’m bowling with bumpers. :)

  • April Pickle

    “He must wear out his strength and find that the River is a force of its own. The River itself is the baptizer of the real Harry.” Still reflecting on that and just wanted you to know. This makes me LOVE this story! Chris Rice sang a song called “Thirsty” several years ago, and I think it could work for the rolling of the credits for this story. Blessed Thirst, Blessed River.

    I’m on the shore now, of the wildest riverAnd I kneeled and beg for mercy
    from the skiesNo one answers I’ve got to take my chances’Cause something
    deep inside me is cryinThis is why you are aliveSo I plunge into the
    riverWith all that I havePraying this will be the river Where I’ll
    never thirst againI’m abandon to the riverAnd now my life depends on the
    riverHoly riverI am so thirsty, so thirstyI am so thirsty, I am
    so thirsty

  • http://profiles.google.com/mosessupposestwo Rebecca Reynolds

    Beautiful, April. Thanks for telling me about that song!

    When I read Flannery’s stories lately they just jump out and grab me by the insides of my chest. There is an amazing alignment in what I seem to be reading and what the Lord has been unpacking in the privacy of my heart.

    This week’s story (if I’m reading it correctly) sums up my past five or six years. I saw myself in that little boy feeling unwanted, wanting to hide under a new name, not knowing how to take himself seriously, laughing at holy things, realizing something is missing, trying to baptize himself, never being able to get under the water. 

    I know what it feels like to attempt God-seeking religion in your own strength. I remember kicking up the muddy waters of trying to do things right, looking for something evasive, growing angry and disappointed… then suddenly, my feet found that my grip on the earth was gone below me, and I was pulled along in something bigger and stronger than what I ever dreamed existed. 

    Intense religious struggle leads to exhaustion. (“God, I can’t do this thing I was so determined to do.”) But when human strength and balance are finally gone, God picks us up and sweeps us into what is life and death at the same time.

    So, if I’m making interpretative errors, this is why. I just hear my own story in this one so clearly.

  • http://twitter.com/Brandywinebooks Philip Wade

     Man. I love this run down and this whole discussion. I kept trying to highlight lines in your response, Rebecca. Yes, we forget about resurrection. That is the end of our life with Christ.

  • April Pickle

    Yes, yes and yes! And what a blessing your story along your ability to read Flannery O’Connor are to us. Thanks for sharing that so beautifully. I can relate to the experience for sure, but I did not see it in The River. I don’t think you are in error on the interpretations as they can be backed up by quotes from the story. And if you do err, I like it that you’re erring on the side of redemption!

    Tonight I read a story to one of my children from The Jesus Storybook Bible. We just opened it up and it happened to be about Naaman and (you guessed it), the river! I love the way Sally Lloyd-Jones words this, and I saw parallels to The River all over it:

    “Just wash?” Naaman laughed. “In that slimy, stinky river?” He looked around to see if this was some kind of joke. It wasn’t. Any person can wash in a river! he thought. I am Naaman. I am important. I should do something important so God will heal me! And he rode off in a rage. (Of course, you and I both know, that’s not how God does things. All Naaman needed was nothing. It was the one thing Naaman didn’t have.)

  • http://lorenwarn.blogspot.com/ Loren Warnemuende

    Seems to me you’re bowling like a pro, Becca! I’m thoroughly enjoying this :) .

  • http://lorenwarn.blogspot.com/ Loren Warnemuende

    Beautiful connection, April!

  • Jess

    Aha, I like that better than I did my own reading of it. I wish I could say things just as well as you do. (And I wish you were my English teacher.)