Generous Orthodoxy  

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Annie Dillard, Flannery O'Connor: "spirituality" and radical grace

As the language of "spirituality" becomes more entrenched in the churches, there is all the more reason to be wary of it. Even the best writers in this genre fall into the trap of making it seem that grace follows upon our spiritual disposition. Annie Dillard is one of my very favorites, and her observation about wearing a crash helmet in church (because God may strike) is justly well-known. Not even Dillard, however, avoids the problem I am identifying. Take for instance this passage from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

The secret of seeing is, then, the pearl of great price. If I thought he could teach me to find it and keep it forever I would stagger barefoot across a hundred deserts after any lunatic at all. But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise. I return from one walk knowing where the killdeer nests in the field by the creek and the hour the laurel blooms. I return from the same walk a day later scarcely knowing my own name. Litanies hum in my ears; my tongue flaps in my mouth Ailinon, alleluia! I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam.

Dillard's ferocity is one of the best things about her. She holds sentimentality rigorously at bay. Moreover, she rightly insists on "gift" and "surprise." She speaks of "waiting," a significant biblical theme. However, much of her language is gnostic without meaning to be. "Secret,"illumination," "adept": these words are alien to the biblical worldview where the word of life is not to be searched out in the heavens or in the deeps and is not secret but is on your lips and in your heart, the word of faith which arrives in the apostolic preaching (Romans 10:6-9). Many people put themselves in the path of the light and experience nothing. More important, many people have been struck by God's lightning when they were running in the other direction. Annie knows this, but she does not keep it consistently in view in her writing. The emphasis tends to fall on our responsibility to be in the right spiritual place.

The conversion of the apostle Paul is the illustration par excellence. Far from being in the path of the light, he was on his way intentionally to put it out. This is strangely comforting. We cannot shut God out by our failures to practice the right spirituality. This is where Flannery O'Connor comes in. Her theme is consistent throughout her work: God's lightning strikes people who are not looking for it, who are headed away from it, who are resisting it all the way. Think of Haze Motes of Wise Blood. When his mother says, "Jesus died to redeem you," Haze mutters darkly, "I never ast him," and he founds his own "Church Without Christ"--only to be found by Christ through shocking violence in the end. In "The Artificial Nigger," unlooked-for grace seizes a cantankerous old man who has betrayed his own grandson. Even more striking is the story of Ruby Turpin in "Revelation." Mrs. Turpin is a self-satisfied farmer's wife, a veritable embodiment of those who seek to establish their own righteousness (Romans 10:3). Ruby Turpin is as far from the light as the Pharisees in the New Testament. Light strikes her in the waiting room at the doctor's office in the form of a homely, angry girl named (what else?) Mary Grace, who hurls a book at her and calls her a "wart-hog from hell." This becomes the occasion of Mrs. Turpin's metanoia and an epiphany at her pig-pen.

So if I had to choose, I would choose Flannery. There is inestimable comfort in knowing that God will seek me out even when I am not seeking him. He is the Hound of Heaven who follows me when I run away from him. Jacob sought to hide from his brother and from God, but God jumped upon Jacob in the middle of the night by the river Jabbok, leaving him a marked man for ever.

O Lord, mark me in spite of myself, and make me yours for ever. Amen.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Preaching in these times

When my husband and I lived in Charlottesville during the tumultuous late 60s, we observed the leadership of University of Virginia president Edgar Shannon. His handling of the potentially mutinous students was masterly. He was able to communicate to them that he was on the front lines with them, though in a more formal, more traditional way. In his commencement speech in 1970, he made some statements that are just as pertinent now as they were then. Here is one quotation from that speech:

"There are times when personal neutrality -- and failure to express convictions on issues gripping the nation and the university community -- can be fatal. In such take no position is in fact to take the worst of positions."

Today on NPR we heard from Senator McCain, who has been debriefing Army Captain Ian Fishback of the 82nd Airborne about the habitual abuses of prisoners by the members of his First Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry (NTYimes, 10/5/05). We also heard from Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, who opposes restrictions on prisoner ("detainee") abuse and torture. Stevens said, We need to be able to treat these individuals the same way they would treat us. (I have not put this in quote marks because I may not have the wording exactly right, but I certainly have the basic idea right.) It was an inversion of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." A new Golden Rule by Senator Stevens.

Don't we need to be correcting these sorts of statements from the pulpits of the land? and don't we need to hold up the Ian Fishbacks among us as models? Senator McCain said, after interviewing him further, "I'm even more impressed by what a fine and honorable officer he is." Senator McCain's praise may not do Capt. Fishback's Army career any good. It took him 17 months to get a hearing; the Army refused to listen. Whistle-blowers tend to get demotions. Nevertheless, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness.