Saturday, November 07, 2015

Nov. 7, 2015, column:
Don't judge a book by its author
By Mike Haynes
When my wife, Kathy, and I decided to take a short vacation to Savannah, Georgia, last year, we did our usual Googling to find out what would be on our must-see list.
Having grown up Methodist, I was interested in the statue of John Wesley that commemorates his missionary work in Savannah in the 1730s. Wesley didn’t stay long, considered the effort a failure and returned to England to become known as the founder of the Methodist Church.
We wanted to see the southern mansions and the Spanish moss draped from trees around the history-drenched squares. Savannah was witness to Revolutionary War action. It was the end of Sherman’s devastating Civil War march to the sea.
John Wesley-Savannah, Ga.
And I ran across the name Flannery O’Connor, one I knew little about but had seen referred to as a “Christian author.” I thought we’d visit the now-public home where she lived from her birth in 1925 until age 13.
            The home on a leafy boulevard in the Savannah historic district was closed on the only day we had to visit it, but Flannery O’Connor books were front and center in the city’s bookstores. I bought her short story collection, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” published in 1954. She died in 1964 of lupus but had established a reputation as one of America’s finest writers.
            Based on her soft-sounding name and the fact she’s called a Christian writer, I expected some intelligent, perceptive, inspiring short stories when I opened the book in our historic district hotel. Man, did I get a shock.
            The title story, “A Good Man Is Hard To Find,” starts with a nice family deciding to take a vacation to Florida despite news reports of an escaped killer in that state. The parents, grandmother and children pile into a car, the kids read comic books, and they stop for barbecue sandwiches. It’s like watching an episode of “The Waltons.”
            Then the car runs into a ditch, they’re stuck in the country, and the grandmother flags down a car with three men in it. One of the men eventually expresses his doubts to the grandmother about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, they talk about life, and … well, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but when I closed the book and turned off the light to go to bed, I told Kathy the story was “disturbing.”
Flannery O'Connor home-Savannah, Ga.
            The second story, “The River,” is about a preacher baptizing in one. Except … well, its ending was disturbing, too. By the time I had finished all 10 stories, I was not a Flannery O’Connor fan. She was a talented writer, insightful, with Christian themes lurking underneath, but I didn’t like her approach of showing the need for redemption by illustrating the dark side of humanity.
            Luckily, I also had picked up “A Prayer Journal,” which she wrote privately in 1946 and 1947 while in college in Iowa. It had been published in 2013, and it redeemed my estimation of this southern writer.
            Whatever seediness and evil O’Connor dispenses in her stories, her prayer journal makes it clear that she based her worldview on a holy God, specifically from a Catholic perspective.
            In her early 20s, she wrote, longhand, “My dear God, … Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate.”  
            A few pages later, after mentioning that she’s reading Franz Kafka, she prays that she won’t let “the psychologists” influence her away from faith: “Dear Lord please give the people like me who don’t have the brains to cope with that, please give us some

Flannery O'Connor
kind of weapon, not to defend us from them but to defend us from ourselves after they have got through with us. …
“Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord.”
            The 40-page prayer journal abounds with humility from an ambitious writer who certainly was an intellectual. She writes to God about love, her disdain for romanticism and her belief that hell is easier for us to imagine than heaven because it’s closer to what we see on Earth.
            O’Connor uses the same prayer model that a Methodist pastor taught me: ACTS – adoration, contrition (I learned it as confession), thanksgiving and supplication. And as she never intended for it to be published, her journal seems to be a true picture of the struggle she was having with herself and with God.
            I still don’t like reading her sordid stories. But I’m glad I ran across her journal. I can identify with pleas such as, “If I could only hold God in my mind. If I could only always just think of him.”