The percentage of people who say they believe in God, pray, go to religious services, embrace religious practices or find their faith meaningful has declined over the last 50 years. A growing group of Americans do not believe in God or any organized faith whatsoever. In many communities, unbelief is even considered smart: religious conviction is perceived as strange, burdensome and outdated.
This is the context in which American Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor penned her fictional books and short stories, many of which are set in the 1950s and 1960s rural South. O’Connor wrote about the human condition and the state of the weak and the faithless. She wrote about unbelievers, lukewarm souls, narcissists and the spiritually illiterate. She wrote about racists, white trash, busybodies, snobs, fake intellectuals, poor folks, and beaten down and marginalized African Americans. Above all, O’Connor wrote about the unraveling of faith in America.
O’Connor’s works reveal that she believed America, particularly the South, was haunted by religion, but that its people were experiencing spiritual mediocrity, cynicism and emptiness – a rough-and-tumble nihilism. She argues that people might attend services or preach that their faith matters, but that many are just lying to their neighbors and to themselves. To her, they are just checking the box with a faith bordering on the tepid or the pathetic. God is deemed irrelevant. She suspects that many people would not recognize a theophany, or sign from God, if it slapped them in the face, and that countless souls are existentially lost and fumbling in the dark.
Through her works, O’Connor tries to show people what the world would look like without faith and religion. Nothing would be of real consequence – beauty, truth, sacrifice, love, history, death, honor and sex wouldn’t matter in the least. O’Connor was also determined to show the results of that prevailing attitude in the faces of the despairing, the fallen, the pretenders, the depraved and the lost.
Flannery O’Connor’s method of accomplishing this is not subtle; she knocks her readers over the head and tries to open them up to the frozen depths of their lethargy through comedy, tragedy and sometimes even violence. She writes: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you have to draw large and startling figures.” Throughout her life, O’Connor was bent on making her readers understand the importance of faith by shocking them with outlandish characters, striking scenes and painful revelations, as in her book Wise Blood.
She populates this work with an over-the-top cast of characters: peculiar loners, false preachers, rudderless souls, unabashed skeptics, spiritual zombies, men in gorilla suits, killers, zookeepers, sex addicts, mummified dwarfs, prostitutes and con men – the grotesque, the ignorant, the humorous, the marginalized and the saved, sometimes one and the same. Reading Wise Blood is akin to watching a Mad Hatter with Southern, fundamentalist tendencies hold a revival, or an Alice stand-in slither down the rabbit hole while running an illegal moonshine operation. Her characters are bigger than life, sometimes amusing, sometimes violent, and downright biblical in their ability to fail over and over again in a multitude of ways. Her characters are more than memorable; they are unforgettable.
In Wise Blood, as in all her writing, O’Connor asks her readers to pay attention to their intentions. At the time, religious understanding and conviction were already on the decline and indifference abounded. But O’Connor was staunch in her belief that apathy and nihilism wouldn’t give a person any hope, just a bucket of despair. Wise Blood and the rest of her works were her literary offering to those who found themselves like Dante: “In the middle of the journey of our life I found myself astray in a dark wood where the straight road had been lost sight of” (Dante’s Inferno).
Not much has changed since O’Connor passed away in 1964. Religious practices and church attendance are still on the decline. Perhaps there is also now a more virulent strain of atheism or disdain for the demands of belief flowing through American culture. Reading Flannery O’Connor, however, is still wildly popular. She tapped into something, then and now, of the American dissatisfaction with what the culture and the cultural elites have failed to offer – the mysteries and revelation of faith. She remains the “voice crying out in the wilderness.”