Review: Dark Faith
Susan Srigley, ed. Dark Faith: New Essays on Flannery O'Connor's The Violent Bear It Away. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2012. 219 pp. ISBN 978-0-268-04138-0.
An unfortunate development among many contemporary critics of the fiction of Flannery O’Connor is a propensity to skate right over her theology. Several examples of this oversight are extant, the most dramatic being Brad Gooch’s 2009 biography, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor,which presents O’Connor’s faith as a mere peripheral and idiosyncratic aspect of her personality. Fortunately, Dark Faith is not one of these books. Rather it is a collection of essays by critics who are careful to relate O’Connor’s fiction to her profoundly Roman Catholic faith, delving deeply into her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, to reveal the intricacies of an aesthetic that is both grounded in theology and true to the most stringent demands of the art of fiction.This is a book that will appeal to the reader who has been attracted to O’Connor’s grotesque characters but who has also struggled with the apparent darkness of her vision. As a student once said to me after reading his first O’Connor story: “How could she be Christian?” The answer is complex, but it is directly connected to the scandal of the cross and its attendant violence. The authors of this collection of essays start from that point of understanding and develop angles of vision that peel open a novel permeated with both suffering and grace.
Richard Giannone shows how O’Connor has respect for the humanity of even the darkest of sinners and the most adamant of unbelievers. In fact, he insists, in her fiction unbelief becomes “one way to God” (31). John F. Desmond develops the importance of the protagonist Rayber’s early life in forming him as a contradictory figure—highly rational yet subject, because of his baptism, to feeling an overwhelming and non-rational love that floods his being. He is a theodicist, an Ivan Karamazov, who rejects any God who allows children to suffer. Unlike most other critics, Desmond sees ambiguity at the end of the novel as Rayber, knowing his child has been drowned, waits for the hurt to begin and instead feels nothing. Desmond posits that, as is the case with so many of O’Connor’s anti-heroes, the possibility is left open that Rayber might suddenly turn back and accept the grace of God. Another approach to the novel is developed by Gary M. Ciuba, who explores the pervasiveness of forsaken children in O’Connor’s fiction, including The Violent Bear It Away. He connects this theme with the Fall and the soul’s resulting orphan state, but he also shows that at the end of the novel the orphan becomes a child of God.
Jason Peters emphasizes the importance in O’Connor’s work of the particular rather than the general, the concrete rather than the abstract, and the person of Jesus rather than an abstract idea of God. In this novel, Rayber is drawn to the abstract, and Peters demonstrates how abstraction violently separates individuals from each other and from themselves. Ruthann Krechel Johansen explores the influence of Simone Weil on O’Connor, delving into Weil’s thinking to consider how easy it is for the individual to choose affliction rather than God. Scott Huelin feels that the novel explores the question of what it means to be made in the image of God. Focusing on three characteristics of imago Dei—reason, will, and love—Huelin shows how three of the novel’s major characters embody those qualities, even if they also represent perversion of those qualities. P. Travis Kroeker presents a strong argument linking the novel with the apocalyptic vision of John, the prophet, and tying this vision closely to the Eucharist and baptism. Working not only with the title of the novel but also with the epigraph and what he feels is the pervasiveness of the influence of the Gospel of Matthew on the work, Karl E. Martin shows how Tarwater’s prophetic calling is transformed by his exposure to Bishop, the idiot child, who represents the messianic kingdom of heaven. Finally, Susan Srigley, the editor of this fine collection, explores the development within The Violent Bear It Away of the doctrine of the communion of the saints which stands side by side next to the high value placed upon the individual soul and the necessary tension and balance between the double movement of self-renunciation and self-fulfillment.
After immersing oneself in this rich variety of theological points-of-view regarding O’Connor’s work, one cannot help but marvel at the depth of O’Connor’s thought, the pervasiveness of God’s grace in her work, and the love she bestowed on even the most unlovely of her characters, who all fall short of the glory of God but who, even in their unbelief, believe.