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Flannery O’Connor and theological writing

I’m in the middle of reading Mystery and Manners, a posthumous collection of Flannery O’Connor’s non-fiction. As to its style, the whole book is predictably inspiring; as to its substance, it’s less consistent. (For example: the opening essay, on raising peacocks, dragged on more than I would have liked. And her essay ‘On the Nature and Aim of Fiction,’ despite the occasional gem of a paragraph, is too scattered to be really involving.) There are a few real masterpieces in here, though, that are as useful to the theological writer as they are to the novelist—at least so long as the theologian is prepared to think of what she is doing as an art form, as I think we should anyway.

My favorite selection so far (though I haven’t yet read the final part, which contains her sustained reflections on being a Catholic novelist) has been her speech on ‘Writing Short Stories.’ The bits directly about short stories are fascinating in themselves. She gives a wonderful definition of a story as “a dramatic event that involves a person because he is a person, and a particular person” (90). She lets loose a few enjoyable rants against the reduction of stories to their themes, to abstract statements. And the essay nicely encapsulates some of her most common contentions: that fiction begins and ends with the senses, that it hinges on the intrinsically meaningful portrayal of the concrete, that it aims at a believable presentation of the real, even (maybe especially) the invisible or impossible real. I think those contentions themselves could be helpfully translated into theology or philosophy, recognizing that those disciplines quite properly do deal in abstractions. It might be that theology could be understood as the intrinsic inverse of fiction, speaking constantly of the concrete under the guise of the universal rather than speaking constantly of the universal under the guise of the absolutely concrete.

What really struck me, though, were a few brief observations at the very end of the piece. The speech was given at some kind of writers’ conference, and O’Connor had apparently been given a few of the participants’ short stories ahead of time. She finished by marking a few problems she had seen in them. First, she noted “the use of language in these stories was such that, with one exception, it would be difficult to distinguish one story from another” (102). There were clichés, she said, but not one enduring image. Second, it was impossible to tell where these stories unfolded. They could have happened anywhere in the world without changing the story. Finally, the characters functioned as siphons for ideas or particular actions; they lacked real, story-driving personality.

Again, mutatis mutandis, these are the problems in a great deal of theological and philosophical writing. In some circles, language is intentionally stripped of its evocative power and made (so we are told) completely transparent; in others, the ‘evocation’ is so commonplace and so disconnected from the unique conceptual structure as to be meaningless—the very essence of a cliché. That doesn’t count the vast majority of essays or books written without any thought of their language at all. As for context, this is probably the principle problem of theoretical writing: its necessary abstractions are treated as absolutely self-sufficient, blithely indifferent to any concrete position whatsoever. The rise of ‘contextual theologies’ of various kinds have gone some way to correcting this terrible habit, but it’s not obvious to me that they have quite cornered the relation of thought to its setting—and in any case, most theology has not learned its lesson. The idea of personality in theoretical writing is perhaps on its face the most foreign, but not too hard to understand. A concept of Augustine’s is almost always recognizable as such, as is a line from Heidegger. It’s not only that these thinkers have stamped their own historical personality on their writing, though that is certainly true; it’s that in capable hands, their ideas acquire a life and spirit of their own. Just like O’Connor’s characters, thinking becomes a matter of following the inner dynamism of an idea always just beyond grasp.

  1. Todd Walatka
    August 3, 2010 at 9:05 am


    Great post. Would you say that theological ‘classics’ tend to succeed in terms of evocative power, contextuality, and personality? Do works lacking these tend to fail the test of time?

    I keep trying to think of particular theologians: Maximus the Confessor: certainly not given to clichés; much of his work is a direct response to his context and theological disputes of his time; I find personality to be the hardest but since Maximus was exiled and died for his positions I’ll say yes. But what about Ps-Dionysius? Evocative, sure; contextuality and personality: the pseudo seems to reject the contextual entirely, although maybe the personal can be included with your definition, “in capable hands, their ideas acquire a life and spirit of their own.”

  2. August 3, 2010 at 10:18 am

    Excellent post.

    “That doesn’t count the vast majority of essays or books written without any thought of their language at all” – ouch!!

  3. August 3, 2010 at 12:10 pm

    Thanks to you both!

    @Todd: I would probably say that a really enduring piece of work has to succeed on one of these levels, at least–maybe most commonly the ‘personality’ criterion–or else it just won’t be memorable. As for Dionysius in particular, I actually thinks he succeeds at the context criterion better than most: the context is partly fictional (the first-century) and partly real (the monastery), but extremely palpable throughout.

    @Ben: O’Connor also mentions at one point that the characters in the stories she read all talked like they were on TV: no local color, no distinguishing turns of phrase. It’s probably not fair to TV anymore, but I think most academic writing does sound like it all comes from one placeless place.

  4. Mark Godin
    August 4, 2010 at 6:23 pm

    Thanks for this post; there are some very good observations from your reading of Flannery O’Connor’s reflections.

    I was wondering, though, if we could look at some of the issues from a slightly different angle. Does theology HAVE TO deal with abstraction? Is theology restricted to necessary abstraction that must move from the universal to the concrete in a way that privileges the universal? If not, what would theology look like, and how might that change what theologians learn from writers such as O’Connor?

    Some musings that might make for some good discussion, I hope.

    • August 4, 2010 at 7:02 pm

      I’d be interested to hear what you think a theology that doesn’t privilege the universal would look like. I would think it would just look like good storytelling, but that’s not quite what we mean these days when we talk about theology. I don’t mean to say that theology can’t learn from good stories; obviously it can. I don’t even mean to say that storytelling isn’t often better at speaking of God or the human situation or whatever; it obviously is.

      But the disciplines of theology or philosophy seem to exist usefully as something besides storytelling. I think there’s a great deal of understanding to be had by speaking universally, about the absolutely singular in the midst of the concretely plural. That’s part of what theology and philosophy are supposed to do, I think.

  5. Mark Godin
    August 5, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    It’s not that theology should not deal with abstraction, models, or questions of what is or is not universal, but that we could learn from O’Connor and others the value of attending to the particular. Brainstorming, for a moment, would suggest liturgical theology as an example of a theology that would do well not to privilege the abstract, a theology which begins with the way that actual churches and their congregations actually worship. Another possible example would be theological reflection upon human relationships, both among human beings and with God. For Christian theologians, Christology also could benefit from remembering particularity, so as not to lose touch with Jesus of Nazareth, the Jewish man of a specific time in history.

    Mainly I was thinking that your original post concerning the ‘locatedness’ of good fiction and suggesting that it would be good for theologians to embrace the fact that they speak from somewhere (to gloss things rather quickly, yes) makes some very good points, particularly around notions of context and personality. But your mention in your reply of ‘the absolutely singular in the midst of the concretely plural’ makes me realize that I, for one, have not differentiated the universal and the abstract enough. The absolutely singular is not necessarily the absolutely abstract, but could very well be the most particular and concrete of all. In the Abrahamic faiths, at least, God is very particular.

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