Scott Postma

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The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor

Bring up the doctrines of grace and you’ll get Christians stirred up faster than a fox in a hen house. You’ll have them flapping around cackling Scripture back and forth at each other until hurt feelings fly like feathers.

Probably, these rascally doctrines are responsible for more split churches than Colonel Sanders is for split chickens. For people are always asking, “If salvation is according to God’s sovereign grace, what about the person who wanted to be saved but didn’t get chosen?”

Of course, such questions betray intelligence. Apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, who ever thought they needed saving? And who among us wanted God anyway?

One example that illustrates this point is where Luke tells how the Jews of Antioch in Pisidia, upon hearing the good news that God had sent their promised Messiah to redeem them, thrust it aside and judged themselves unworthy of eternal life by reviling the gospel.

Paul: Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen…we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus…

Jews of Antioch in Pisidia (paraphrased): Wait! You mean the One God promised Eve in the garden, the One God promised to our father Abraham, the One we’ve been waiting for all this time has actually come? Really? Well, go stick it in your ear! Whoever heard of such a thing? Now get outta here before you catch a rock upside your head!

But when the Gentiles from the same city heard the good news, “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”1

The key to understanding sovereign grace is recognizing it is inclusive in nature and not exclusive.

The gospel is not sinners choosing Jesus as part of a scheme to live a good religious life that measures up. That’s impossible on a number of levels, particularly on the level that sinners are condemned already, dead in their trespasses and sins.2

The gospel is the good news that God saves sinners by giving Jesus Christ for us.

One person who had her finger on the pulse of the inclusive nature of God’s grace was Flannery O’Connor (who, incidentally, raised chickens when she wasn’t writing).

O’Connor, a Roman Catholic, who ironically, understood Luther’s doctrine of simul justus et peccator, wrote in the Southern Gothic genre. Southern Gothic employs macabre, irony, and deeply flawed, grotesque characters usually set in the midst of a decaying southern aristocracy to critique the social values of the American South in the early 20th century.

In the short story, RevelationO’Connor teaches her protagonist, Mrs. Turpin, a lesson about grace via a profound revelation.

Mrs. Turpin is a heavy set southern woman who has hogs that aren’t dirty and don’t stink. She is a hard-working, church-going woman who has everyone—including herself—all sized up.

Self-consumed, she frequently contemplates her status in life:

Sometimes at night when she couldn’t go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, “There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white trash,” what would she have said? “Please, Jesus, please,” she would have said, “just let me wait until there’s another place available,” and he would have said, “No, you have to go right now and I have only those two places so make up your mind.” She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, “All right, make me a nigger then—but that don’t mean a trashy one.” And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.

When Mrs. Turpin walks into a medical clinic with her husband, Claud, her presence makes the room feel smaller. And we get a glimpse into her “Christian” worldview as she sizes up the people there. Among some less notable characters there is a “pleasant lady,” a “stylish lady,” a “white-trash lady,” and an “ugly girl.”

The ugly girl, Mary Grace, is an acne-riddled college student who is home for the summer from Wellesley College, an all-girls’ school in Massachusetts. She’s the daughter of the stylish lady, and keeps herself occupied in the waiting room with a big blue book titled Human Development.

Jesus would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.

The more the church-going Mrs. Turpin talks and interacts with the others in the waiting room, the angrier Mary Grace gets—until finally she explodes and hurls her huge book at Mrs. Turpin, striking her directly over her left eye. Mary Grace follows the book by jumping over the coffee table onto Mrs. Turpin and tries to choke her to death.

Grace is like that sometimes. It catches you by surprise knocking you upside the head with something you never imagined God using.

After a scuffle, the doctor is able to restrain and sedate Mary Grace and sends for an ambulance. But before the girl loses consciousness, Mrs. Turpin, expecting some sort of revelation, confronts her.

Mrs. Turpin: What you got to say to me?

Mary Grace: Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog.

At home, while she and Claud rest from the traumatic event at the clinic, Mrs. Turpin imagines a razor-back hog with warts on its face and horns coming out from behind its ears, snorting.

Mrs. Turpin (tearfully): I am not a wart hog. From hell.

But the denial has no force. Ruby Turpin struggles to believe the message is for her.

But later that evening, as the sun is setting, and she’s all alone spraying down her hogs with a hose, she speaks out loud.

Mrs. Turpin: What do you send me a message like that for? How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?

Because she is blind and locked into her religion, Mrs. Turpin can’t make sense of simul justus et peccator—how believers, the redeemed of God, are both justified and sinner at the same time. We are saved and from hell too!

Mrs. Turpin has a catalog of moral standards that doesn’t exist in God’s economy. It is the same struggle most professing Christians have: they see everyone else in relationship to themselves–some better, some worse. And they see themselves as mostly good enough for heaven, and some others as not.

But God has a standard that doesn’t exist in Mrs. Turpin’s economy. His standard puts us all on the same plane–under sin.3

Grace is like that sometimes. It catches you by surprise knocking you upside the head with something you never imagined God using.

Those who, like me, experimentally came to realize the exceeding graciousness of grace later on in their faith journey will appreciate Mrs. Turpin’s revelation, God’s response to her question.

As the sun set

There was a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and a band of black niggers in white robes, and a battalion of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, has always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away…

 Did you catch that last line? Go ahead. Read it again.

It leaves the nagging question, what virtues are standing in the way of you grasping the grace of God in all its graciousness?

 


[1] Acts 13:46-48

[2] John 3:17 cf. Ephesians 2:1

[3] Romans 3:9-19

About Scott Postma

Scott lives in North Idaho collecting more books than he'll ever read in a lifetime. He helps people cultivate their capacity to perceive and appreciate the good, the true, and the beautiful by sharing rich insights into the arts and humanities, meaningful perspective on faith and culture, and valuable tips on writing and teaching. You can subscribe to the tribe and follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus.

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5 Replies

  1. Gilead Rose

    Thought provoking, insightful, and convicting. Thanks Bro. Scott.

  2. Scott, I believe your observation from Acts is right on as well. However, I don’t believe telling anyone their argument lacks intelligence will persuade them. I’m also afraid a lot of readers will not read past the use of the “n” word in your other illustration.

    1. Hi Ken,
      Thanks so much sharing. First, I think you’re right on both counts. Telling someone their argument lacks intelligence would not be the best approach at persuasion. In this case, the expression “such questions betray intelligence” is a figure of speech referring to the kind of fallacious logic that leads philosophers to ask the wrong questions. It’s basically a rhetorical device that steers the conversation, not an insult to someone’s position. In the second issue, I’m afraid you’re right on the money as well. Many readers won’t be able to get passed the offensive language to see the reason for its use in the Southern Gothic genre. Literature is like that though. It envelops us into the human experience, whether bad or good. Be blessed, my friend.

  3. Ken Gillespie

    Hi Scott,
    This was very thought-provoking, especially the question about those who want to be saved but are not chosen. I appreciate you illustrating that with the reaction of the Jews of Antioch Pisidia to Paul’s preaching to help make the connection; that was very helpful. I’ve read some Flannery O’Connor, but not her short story “Revelation.” Great scene where she sees souls marching to Heaven with the proud in their “virtue” bringing up the rear. I know God is working in my life to burn my “virtue” away, as Flannery says. I think it would be a lot more fun up front with “the battalion of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs” anyway!
    Ken

    1. Ken, you’re right… The crowd up front seems a whole lot more fun. Unfortunately, with each reading of Revelation I see more of myself I see in Mrs. Turpin. It’s downright shameful how easy it is to cultivate a performance-based relationship with God and miss the glory of God’s graciousness. Be blessed my friend.