The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor

Complete StoriesThis is part of a series I’m doing on my summer reading. I’ve chosen nine books, with a few ground rules: nothing by straight white men, balance fiction and nonfiction, limit the amount of theology. I’ll write something here about each book…a review? reflection? something else? We’ll figure that out as we go, I guess. You can find all posts from this series here.

MARFA (TX)–You have driven west. You hoped to escape city life and stress by going into the high desert of west Texas. Your plan is to do as little as possible: read, eat some food, lay about. This is supposed to be relaxing. One of the books you’ve brought with you is the Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor.

An atheist woman is seduced by an hillbilly Bible salesman, who, before the act begins, steals her wooden leg and flees, leaving her stranded in the hayloft of an abandoned barn. Her fate is unknown. “‘We are all damned,’ she said, ‘but some of us have taken off our blindfolds and see that there’s nothing to see. It’s a kind of salvation.’”

You spend at least four hours a day in a hammock. You read for most of this time, interspersed with sleep filled with dreams inspired by O’Connor’s stories. You read so much that plot details, the ability for literary analysis, even basic comprehension all dissolve into the background. After about the seventh story, all that remains in this fever dream of a vacation is her characters. They are deeply human and deeply flawed. You remember a line from a country song: “baptized in muddy waters.” O’Connor didn’t write this line, of course, but it’s a better encapsulation of her characters than anything you can come up with.

An insufferably smug college student falls ill. The disease is traced to unpasteurized milk, which he drank in an attempt to bond with the black farm workers milking the family’s cows. The workers themselves did not, and indeed never do, drink the milk. It is heavily implied that the college student dies.

In the hammock, in your tent, in the wide expanse of the desert, you feel simultaneously connected with everything and more alone than you’ve ever been in your life. You did not know these were not mutually exclusive. You take late night drives on the backroads, pulling over to look at a sky so star-filled it’s unbelieveable. You feel immensely grateful to be in a place so seemingly exempt from human engineering, but there is also a twinge of sadness that comes with the realization that this desert doesn’t need you, and would be just fine without you here.

Two young people attend a town festival, but are more concerned with the fate of a man who had committed a mass shooting during the town’s preparations. They both greatly identify with the shooter. His loner status and disdain for phony pageantry attract them. The two visit him in his incarceration and find he is legitimately and dangerously insane. The young people are unsure what this says about them.

After reading 500 pages of O’Connor, something profound emerges, and despite not being in the south while reading these Southern Gothic stories, you realize that Marfa and the trans-Pecos are the perfect places to read her work. The beauty and the bleakness of the land mirrors the beauty of her prose and the bleakness of her characters. It is not the land’s job to comfort you; it is not O’Connor’s job to make you feel better about yourself. After five days, you go home, more aware, but also deeply unsettled. This seems to be the point.

An elderly woman is gored by a bull that is loose on her land. As she dies, “she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.”

Flannery

 

Advertisements

Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith

This is part of a series I’m doing on my summer reading. I’ve chosen nine books, with a few ground rules: nothing by straight white men, balance fiction and nonfiction, limit the amount of theology. I’ll write something here about each book…a review? reflection? something else? We’ll figure that out as we go, I guess. You can find all posts from this series here.

Zadie Smith’s nonfiction collection, Changing My Mind, is subtitled “OccasionalZadie Essays,” and, according to the forward, was “written without [the author’s] knowledge.” Subject matter ranges from Franz Kafka to her experience of Los Angeles during Oscar weekend. This is all to say that there is nothing in particular which binds these essays, no deliberate through-line. Sure, the pieces are divided into categories (Seeing, Being, Remembering, etc), but lacking a cohesive subject matter, what truly unites the works contained in the book is the voice of its author. Through her wonderful gift for the phrase and a slightly non-standard approach to punctuation (the use of colons in particular is delightful), Smith suffuses these essays with a voice that is at once intelligent and self-conscious.

Continue reading

Coming Out as Sacrament by Chris Glaser

Coming Out as SacramentThis is the first post in a series I’m doing on my summer reading. I’ve chosen nine books, with a few ground rules: nothing by straight white men, balance fiction and nonfiction, limit the amount of theology. I’ll write something here about each book…a review? reflection? something else? We’ll figure that out as we go, I guess.

I was waiting for this book. I wanted something that integrated queer theology with a strong sacramental understanding; I was hopeful that I had found it in Chris Glaser’s Coming Out as Sacrament. Unfortunately, after a strong start, Glaser’s work struggles with the same question every freshman comp student faces: who is this for, exactly? Is this a book of serious theology or a devotional guide for the layperson? Glaser never seems to pin this down, oscillating between insightful theological reflection and almost embarrassingly simplistic biblical exegesis.

The good stuff is really good, though. Continue reading

Review of Exile as Forced Migrations by John Ahn

Exile as Forced Migration

A sub-thesis running throughout Prof. John Ahn’s Exile as Forced Migrations is the idea that social structures repeat; specifically for our purposes, that generational patterns of consciousness repeat throughout history, within radically different contexts. Ahn identifies two such contexts in the first chapter of his book: Hebrew Scriptural reaction to the Babylonian Exile, and the scholarship surrounding the Exile since the mid-19th century. In both settings, responses emerge from a first, second, and third generation, as well as a transitional, 1.5 generation. In the case of the Hebrew Bible, Ahn points to the 2 Kings account of the end of the Davidic covenant and the displacements of 597 and 587 BCE as the first generation response. This view of the Exile focuses on the people displaced (kings, rulers, skilled workers, etc), and sees the Exile as overwhelmingly negative. A second generation’s response is found in Jeremiah. Here displacements are described in stark figures, with no mention of class, presenting a less “caustic” or confrontational view (pg. 4). Jeremiah explains that this experience is part of God’s plan. Taking this one step further is Second Isaiah, who represents a third generation. This prophet emphasizes that the experience of exile is part of being made a “new creation,” and holds a constructive view of the situation.

Continue reading

Review of The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Cover via FSG

The goal of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath is clear from the prologue: Heschel wishes to reestablish the Sabbath day as a celebration of holiness in time. In a civilization that cherishes production, tangible products carry utmost importance. The condition runs so deep, in fact, that Heschel describes our reality itself as being comprised of tangible objects: “Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space” (pg 5). In opposition to this model, Heschel identifies what is first declared “holy” in the Genesis creation story. It is not a place, or an object, but the seventh day. It is this time that God sanctifies, and in the next ten chapters, Heschel makes a compelling argument for the return to observance of the Sabbath as holy time. This is not in opposition to labor or the civilized spaces of this world, but rather that which gives meaning to these other endeavors. Heschel argues that both are necessary, but one must always remember the priority: “We must not forget that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things” (pg 6).

Continue reading

My Evening at Lakewood Church

(Originally Posted 10/12/2009)

A few weeks ago I decided to put my money where my theological mouth was and attended a service at Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, founded by “Pastor” Joel Osteen. For those not in the know, Lakewood is a church that preaches a version of what is called the “Prosperity Gospel.” This “theology,” boiled down, posits that material possessions are blessings from God, and are to be cherished and held on to.

From the abundance of sarcastic quotation marks in that last paragraph, you can probably guess that I don’t subsrcibe to this particular philosophy. In short, I think it is dangerous and insidious. It is, at best, only the half truth; at worst, it is the exact opposite of the gospel. Let me explain:

Continue reading