Last week the students in my Writing Close to the Earth online class read George Orwell's classic essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it ... Read More
I loved that first year of teaching high school literature, but I didn’t love the way lesson prep set me behind on my own reading. Suddenly I had to devote long nights and weekends to organizing stories that were already familiar instead of exploring new ones.
Next year will provide a sixth reread for some of these same books, but I no longer feel frustrated about prep time. Working this job has shown me how certain literary characters need to deep soak.
Every time you and I come to a book, we bring baggage from the lives we live. This is why a book that feels too extreme one year can become our life boat the next. A private conflict can suddenly crash into a chapter on grace. A dark night of the soul can find its echo in a 200-year-old pilgrim. What doesn’t move us much on a first read can explode on a seventh or eighth pass.
In this post, I’m going to share three characters who have become increasingly important to me over the past few years. Two of those are from Flannery O’Connor stories (“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and “The River”), and one is from Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.
These aren’t long or thick pieces of literature, so if they are new to you, I hope reading this post will convince you to scoot off and get to know them. Then I hope you will come back and tell me what you have found.
The first character comes from “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” a Flannery O’Connor story about a grown woman named Lucynell who acts like a child. I guess we would call her mentally-challenged in today’s lingo.
Our whole nation is Christ-haunted right now, and as Chesterton warned, many of our virtues have splintered off to do more harm than our vices.Rebecca Reynolds
Lucynell is the sort of woman who would draw stares if you took her with you to Kroger. She would probably rock, and moan, and point to things, and pull on her own dress. Yet against the dirty, grey backdrop of O’Connor’s short story, this child-woman seems otherworldly instead of just underdeveloped. She has the blue eyes of a peacock’s neck and hair of pink gold.
Two other characters contrast against Lucynell. Mr. Shiftlet is a greasy, one-armed charlatan who represents the discipline of philosophy. The second character is Lucynell’s mother, a conniving, bawdy woman who represents pragmatism.
O’Connor uses these two bumpkins to create a battle royale of advanced civilization. The reader watches her dark and comic figures volley back and forth in a coarse Socratic dialectic, seeking dominance while Lucynell floats above the conflict, embracing neither path. The child-woman is only a fool, disconnected and vulnerable.
Yet O’Connor drops hints that Lucynell is tuned in to a deeper reality. When her mother wants to marry Lucynell off to Shiftlet, she urges her daughter to call the man by a seductive nickname. However, the single word Lucynell is able to mimic is not “sugarpie” but “bird,” a symbol for the realm of the spirit. And when Lucynell sees Shiftlet playing with a lit match (fire is a symbol of spiritual danger), she responds to it at an intuitive level, making loud noises and shaking her finger.
In the presence of physical danger, however, Lucynell is at perfect peace. In fact, she rides off to her own abandonment with Shiftlet, happily dropping cherries from her wedding hat out the car window. In her gravest hour, the girl-woman falls asleep with her head on a diner counter, far from home, oblivious.
“She looks like an angel of Gawd,” says the young man working at the café—and she does. Lucynell is an otherworldly creature, destined to be raped, destined to starve, unable to speak well enough to tell anybody how to take her home to her wretched mother.
She seems to be born to be ravaged by evil, a lost, holy fool, a sheep to be slaughtered—which was repulsive to me at first. I was angry at O’Connor for creating such a hopeless scenario for an innocent person. Yet every time I reread this story I feel more hushed around Lucynell, like that reverence that comes over you when you’ve first stepped into a great cathedral.
If you have read George MacDonald’s Lilith, you remember how parallel “worlds” existed on top of one another without being understood by either realm, and in a similar way, Lucynell makes me wonder if a fool in our world is often a sage or a saint in the next. Or maybe sometimes it’s the other way around.
Post-Enlightenment humanism is our briar patch. Our culture has such a deep, unflinching trust of human ability, which (of course) means we elevate pragmatists and philosophers. But with every reread Lucynell challenges me to ask how many of us will get to heaven and realize we’ve only been carrying two fistfuls of Confederate bills.
My second mentor comes at the end of O’Connor’s short story, “The River.”
A tiny boy, Harry, is trapped in an abusive, urban home life. His parents are atheists, hedonists, cynics, and one morning while they are sleeping off their drunk, the child sneaks off to the country to try to baptize himself so he will matter to somebody.
Harry makes it to the bank of a river, but he is frustrated when the water rejects his efforts to self-heal. No matter what he does to get himself down inside the water, the river spits him back out. It’s only when Harry gives up trying to save himself that he is caught in a delicious current that bears him by its own power.
Like all who are willing to receive the salvation offered by Christ, Harry’s baptism into a new identity is also a death scene. “You have died with Christ,” the preachers say, but we never seem to take that part as seriously as we should. Flannery knows what we’ve missed, grabs us by the shoulders, and turns us to stare into the truth.
The first time you read “The River,” it will take you a while to realize you’ve just watched a child drown, and the reason you won’t be able to tell is because the language is so pretty. By beauty, O’Connor shows us that Harry’s physical state is secondary to the gentle and loving pull of the River — that by being taken into the water, the boy is saved.
He is saved from what? From the living hell of a child molester who has followed him and is waiting to pounce? Yes. From an abusive, neglectful home life? Yes. But mostly he is saved from an upside-down, irreverent world where authority mocks what is holy and beautiful. He is saved from the pride, from cynicism, from self-absorption, from self-salvation. He is saved from the hell of becoming what his parents are — self-reliant, sour-hearted fools.
I hope you remember Laura from The Glass Menagerie. (Watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3TrLczE9Oo)
Laura was born a cripple (though her mother insists we shouldn’t use that awful word) and she is now shy to the point of being emotionally disabled. She has flunked out of business school because of social anxiety, so she spends every day in the tiny, dingy apartment she shares with her mother and brother (Tom) looking at her collection of glass ornaments and playing old phonograph records. When you first meet Laura, you want to reach out and cup your hands around her, because she flickers like a match in the wind.
Tennessee Williams writes the best stage directions anybody ever has (and don’t argue with me on this). In Scene Six, he describes Laura standing in a new dress that her mother has bought for her as the poor girl waits for a visit from her one and only hope for a husband.
“A fragile, unearthly prettiness has come out in Laura: she is like a piece of translucent glass touched by light, given a momentary radiance, not actual, not lasting.”
The delicate inner world in which Laura lives has taken on physical form, but only for a moment. Williams carries us across the great divide into her realm, and if we watch closely, a glimpse of her strange sort of beauty will make us ache. Like her visitor Jim, we will be drawn into the trance of her realm before we snap back awake to remember that we have previous obligations.
I don’t know if Williams was intentional about the nickname Laura received from a high school friend, but it’s one of the most powerful elements of the play for me. She is called “Blue Roses,” a moniker that points back to a German Romantic philosopher from the 1700’s (Novalis) who wrote about a evasive blue flower so beautiful that it was worth a pilgrim’s lifelong search.
The blue flower came to represent Sehnsucht, a German term that means homesickness for a place we haven’t yet encountered. This concept of Sehnsucht passed from Novalis, into the writings of George MacDonald, where C.S. Lewis found it.
“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”
Remember that Lewis quote? When I first read it, I didn’t realize what a struggle he had faced before arriving at that conclusion.
As a young academic, Lewis tried to live by cold, hard rationalism. He cast aside the theology of his childhood, abandoning failed attempts at a faith that had never scratched his itch. And he wasn’t just defiant, he was disappointed, frustrated and hurt that God hadn’t revealed Himself more tangibly when Lewis had asked.
He was also disillusioned by gaps he saw in the Bible, hitting the same barriers nearly every thinking person encounters when he stops sucking on the breast of his parents’ religion. But after years of wrestling with hard questions, Lewis came to believe in Christ in Whipsnade on September 28, 1931, one day after hashing faith out with Dyson and Tolkien.
Some scholars question Lewis’s memory, because in later years, when he wrote about his conversion experience, he described masses of bluebells making a carpet on the earth. But this was September, and bluebells don’t bloom in Autumn. Did Lewis make a mistake? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. I think Lewis was offering a wink to the astute. I think he meant that during those first few moments of finally beginning to see, he was walking in a realm in which the blue flower always blooms.
So let’s talk about you now. As you look back over these three stories, which character fits you best?
Are you Shiftlet, toying with matters of reason and ethics in a way that allows you to keep your hands on all the game controls?
Are you Lucynell’s weasly momma, with eyes slit and sliding around to find whatever will bring in something you can grab and hang on to for all your life?
Are you worn out brother Tom, exasperated from do-good self-sacrifice, ready to do something dangerous and exciting for once?
Are you Harry’s parents, hung over from emotional opiates, and snickering about those fairy heads who still believe in miracles?
Or might you have a little holy fool left in your blood, yet? Have you tried it all and found that you couldn’t quite transpose the universe down to a dusty handful of animal dimensions?
Over the past ten or fifteen years, a significant chunk of the modern church seems to have pulled away from heaven-oriented spirituality. Instead we are embracing a fleshier faith that scratches grace into the soil of the here and now.
We talk about orphans, poverty, hunger, refugees, community, and art—but when was the last time you heard anyone mention “sin,” “hell,” or “getting saved?” The younger generation of faith seems to be leaning increasingly away from anything invisible—away from the idea of a Rapture rescue (Shazam!)—away from any threat of future judgment—and toward anything that our hands can do for Jesus in 60 or 70 years of breathing this close air.
There are many reasons for this. For starters, let’s be honest … it’s easier to Instagram an orphanage selfie or a gallery opening than it is to hashtag thousands of angels circling a throne. My generation and the next are prone to a narcissism that slides right in to social justice but has trouble squeezing through the door of a confession booth. (Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa.) The work of compassion is still good, but sometimes our enthusiasm for it can be tainted by the values of our time.
But after we admit that, there’s still more. We aren’t just selfish, we are also reacting against legitimate errors made by previous generations. Extremes in revivalism scorched America in the 20th century, a time when the movement of Christianity was driven primarily by threats of hell and promises that a simple sinner’s prayer could help us all escape it. And although I do believe in both hell and salvation from it by childlike faith, I sometimes fear that evangelicalism has done significant damage by offering only the prologue of rebirth without including vital, correlating chapters on discipleship.
Compound this easy believism with political fear and anger promoted by the Christian Coalition (started in 1989), and you’ve got quite a mess. You end up with large numbers of frightened, furious people who self-identify as Christ followers, but other than voting for whichever politicians shout “Jesus” loudest and freaking out about America’s moral demise every month or two, they aren’t sure what a life of faith could mean.
Flannery O’Connor talked about the “Christ-haunted South,” a culture where superstitious remnants of religion twist the truth, but this is not only true of the South. Our whole nation is Christ-haunted right now, and as Chesterton warned, many of our virtues have splintered off to do more harm than our vices.
While these oversights needed be tweaked, vision can be over-corrected. And in my generation’s reactivity against a fire-insurance-fire-breathing sort of faith, I think too many of us now operate with an assumption that we can fix all that has been wrong with Christianity by simply stretching out into relevant and winsome lifestyles.
We have studied the values of our time until we have mastered them. We know how to fit in. We know the music. We know the movies. We are tolerant, enlightened, aware of what’s happening. We know how to word spiritual concepts so that we don’t show up to a faith conversation like dads in plaid shorts and dress socks.
“The last generation was dorky, yeah. But give us another shot, you doubting world, will you? Look and see how we are thoughtful instead of reactive — how we are creative instead of superstitious. We shop at the farmer’s market instead of at Wal-Mart. We drink craft beer and bourbon. We are your kind of people, and if you come hang with us, you will know that we are Christians by our love, by our love.”
When the values of a time are so skewed that what is beautiful, wise, and true cannot be appreciated by the masses, rejection will be an inevitable part of engagement.Rebecca Reynolds
When this dynamic is authentic, it can be beautiful. Some of my favorite believers have come to know Christ through relaxed and generous friendships very much like this. But there are other situations where attempts at relevance feel false, because common ground is being used only as a conversion strategy. There are opponents to the faith who sense this game plan, and they will never be moved by style. They will never care how we package the gospel, because they are bright enough to see what the existence of a living god could do to their life choices.
They know what sort of dominoes would fall if they were suddenly bumped down to the second or third-highest life form in the universe, so they carry around a steely resistance to the very core of Christianity. When we interact with this barrier, we cannot be artsy-fartsy enough, witty enough, non-judgmental enough to win a soul. It’s going to take something bigger than our charm to move that mountain. (Thank God.)
I understand why our faith generation trusts relevance so deeply, but I think we would be wiser to hold expectations of our own abilities more loosely. Because even our favorite methods can become idols. And in our belief that we are enough to fix the world, we can end up making the same mistakes the last generation made, just on the opposite side of the spectrum.
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong,” and while I suppose the right shade of hip could make us heroes in a few nooks of American culture, we are just as likely to appear as fools in others before it’s over.
I don’t mean that I intend to turn away from relationships, from intellectualism, or from art. But I do mean that there are no promises from God that my charm, my research, or my artistry will create the cultural renovation I desire. There are some truths that can only be comprehended by the spirit, truths that will look foolish from any other vantage point. Because of this, there will be times when love is misunderstood or rejected. Because of this, there will need to be martyrs as well as superstars. When the values of a time are so skewed that what is beautiful, wise, and true cannot be appreciated by the masses, rejection will be an inevitable part of engagement.
So when I see O’Connor’s little Harry carried off to drown in the current, or Laura flickering like candlelight in a piece of glass, or Lucynell sleeping on a diner counter, I am moved to correct several assumptions of my generation. These three characters help me see how the most tragic thing that could happen to a person isn’t a failure to fit in. There are far worse dangers yet.
The people of the world mocked and slaughtered the Savior I love, so I’m not sure I can avoid that as a possibility if I’m going to follow Him. That’s the risk of the message I carry. The gospel is good, but it is not safe.
Perhaps when we are old, we will stretch out our hands in love to the lost world, and another will dress us and carry us where we do not want to go. Perhaps we will be misunderstood despite our best altruism and creativity, accused falsely, and condemned. Perhaps our tenderness will be labeled hatefulness until we vigorously approve of all things that all people do. Perhaps we will find Aslan, and he will ask us to come with him, but no one will believe us when we try to explain what we have seen.
Lucynell, Harry, and Laura call me back to these possibilities. They are reminding me that I have resigned any right to popularity here — that I have offered the whole of my time on planet Earth to a Lord who doesn’t always grant His followers a fan base. Sometimes he lets them be thrown to the lions instead. (Thanks be to God? Thanks be to God.)
So while I will let love compel me to be all things to all men, and while I will serve the desperate, and speak the vernacular, and shine brightly before as many as can bear my blare, it’s still possible that in the end of things—after I’ve given love all I had—the world will see me only as a fool angel of Gawd, rocking back and forth on my haunches, mumbling “Burrddttt! Burrddttt!” After I spend time in the fog of the high mountain with my Lord, maybe I will come back to live and die in a world that will not hear what I have to say, no matter how well I say it.
This is not the end I would pick for my story, but staring that possibility in the eyes has been good for me as a writer. It has driven me to a different level of intimacy with Jesus, and it is rescuing me from measuring success by approval numbers. It has taken a mighty burden from off of my shoulders, and it is prying my fingers from controls that I never held to begin with.
“But the unbeliever does not welcome what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually.” (I Corinthians 2:14 HCS)
“How blessed are those servants whom the master finds watching for him when he comes! I tell all of you with certainty, he himself will put on an apron, make them sit down at the table, and go around and serve them.” (Luke 12:37 ISV)
P.S. If you enjoyed these Flannery O’Connor stories, you should buy Jonathan Rogers’s book on Flannery O’Connor here:
(Photo Credit: Donna Murray)
Rebecca Reynolds teaches Classical Rhetoric and Philosophy of Faith in eastern Tennessee, and is a contributor to the Story Warren website. She’s the author and illustrator of the pediatric series From the Medical Files of Dr. Phineas C. Bones and collaborated with Ron Block as the lyricist for his critcally-acclaimed album, Walking Song. She lives in Kingsport, Tennessee, with her husband and three children.