Evangelicals Today: Breathable Air

Five years before her death, in a 1959 book review published in her Georgia diocesan paper, Flannery O’Connor made a startling and prophetic claim.

“It is an embarrassment to our fundamentalist neighbors,” she wrote, “to realize that they are doctrinally nearer their traditional enemy, the Church of Rome, than they are to modern Protestantism. The day may come,” she added, “when Catholics will be the ones who maintain the spiritual traditions of the South.”

To many readers O’Connor’s thesis will seem as grotesque as her fiction. There, among many similar scenes, a farmhand seeking to satisfy his cold-hearted wife has “a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes” tattooed on his back; a rebel prophet baptizes an imbecile child while also drowning him; and a former evangelist for his own self-invented Church Without Christ binds barbed wire around his chest, wears shards of glass in his shoes, and splashes lime into his eyes — all in order to demonstrate that he is not clean, cannot see, and wants therefore to pay. We Southerners are strange creatures, our fundamentalist faith stranger still, and Flannery O’Connor’s fiction — written out of this recalcitrant Christ-haunted region — is perhaps the strangest stuff in all of American literature.

Why would so crusty a Catholic as Flannery O’Connor have had such reverent regard for fundamentalists — for Christians who would have accused her of popery, monkery, and cohabitation with the scarlet woman of Rome? In high academic and ecclesiastical places, there is no worse abomination than fundamentalists. They are the one group about whom we can all give thanks that we are not as they are. They are a rigid and narrow, a close-minded, and mean-spirited people. They use their infallible Bible as an ax for slashing and slaying the world. We think of ourselves, by contrast, as an enlightened and open- minded, an inclusive and diversity-desiring people. The Bible, for such advanced and liberated fork, is the Christian equivalent of the Muslim’s Koran or the Hindu’s Gita: a great religious text, but still a book among books.

With her typically mordant wit, O’Connor explained her deep sense of kinship with these abominable fundamentalists. Scratch a Southern Baptist, she declared, and you know what you will find: a hard-rock believer in the inerrant Word of God, if not worse. Scratch an Episcopalian, she wickedly added, and you don’t know what in the hell you might find. On another occasion, O’Connor was asked to name the church she would join if she were not a Catholic. The interviewer expected her to specify a communion having a liturgical and doctrinal dignity akin to her own — surely the Lutheran or the Presbyterian, perhaps even the church that had not yet made a bishop of the Reverend John Shelby Spong. To the great perplexity of her interlocutor, O’Connor replied with dead-pan outrageousness: “If I were not a Roman Catholic, I would be a Pentecostal Holiness.”

The point of O’Connor’s quipping is that, for all their knot-headedness, old- fashioned fundamentalists have more in common with traditional Catholics than either of them share with modernists in their own camp. As their name indicates, fundamentalists hold hard to the fundamentals: to Jesus Christ as God in the flesh, to the cross and resurrection as the central events of history, to salvation by God’s atoning grace alone, to the final authority of Scripture in matters of faith and practice, to preparation for eternal life as the chief aim of our pre-sent life. O’Connor was glad to share these bedrock claims with fundamentalists; they are, after all, the basis of Christian faith in all ages and places. Yet she also honored fundamentalists because they stood their ground against the erosion of Christian essentials that she discerned not only in secular culture but, alas, in the church itself. “If you live today,” O’Connor wrote in a 1955 letter, “you breathe in nihilism. In or out of the church, it’s the gas you breathe.”

A veritable sea change has occurred in American culture and churches since Flannery O’Connor’s prophecies of forty years past. The Southern fundamentalists whom she admired, both black and white, were once the poor and emarginated and passed-over Christians of her region — the outcast believers whom proper society, even proper religion, paid no notice. Yet they sought no such attention, having put their trust in the God who gives our brief lives their ultimate worth. Today many of the fundamentalists whom O’Connor esteemed have grown materially prosperous and politically powerful. Their churches are so large, their coffers so full, their votes so numerous that she would hardly recognize them. Yet one thing has not changed. The same nihilism that prompts us to live “as if God didn’t matter” (to cite John Wesley’s succinct definition of atheism) still threatens to asphyxiate our culture and our churches, including the rich and powerful fundamentalist churches.

The novelist Walker Percy likened his own work to the function that canaries once served in coal mines. When the oxygen began to run low, the tiny birds would keel over and the miners would know it was time to flee. Fundamentalists who now seek their hope in Washington, like liberals she believed the Kingdom will come only if they are kept out, are both quarrying without the aid of canaries. Traditional Protestants and Catholics ought to be united, as Flannery O’Connor prophesied, in providing gas masks for the nihilism that gags the left and the right alike. Positively put: it is the climate of our common Faith that pro-vides the only breathable air for the human spirit.


  • Ralph C. Wood

    Ralph Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.

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