Blog-a-Book: Christ, ’Christian Realism,’ and True Horror
|by Alyce Loeser|
In a letter to a close friend, referred to only as “A,” Flannery O'Connor talks about the reactions to her short-story collection A Good Man is Hard to Find, in the title story of which, a character called the Misfit murders an entire family.
I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call A Good Man brutal and sarcastic. The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism. I believe that there are many rough beasts now slouching toward Bethlehem to be born and I have reported the progress of a few of them… when I see these stories described as horror I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.
Flannery, writing later to the same individual, endeavored to clarify the concept of “Christian Realism”:
The term "Christian Realism," has become necessary for me, perhaps in a purely academic way, because I find myself in a world where everybody has his compartment, puts you in yours, shuts the door and departs. One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, and nobody believes in the Incarnation; that is, nobody in your audience. My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.
For Flannery, the reality of the Incarnation, like Jeremiah’s fire sealed up tight in his bones, formed the demarcation between horror and her patent “Christian realism.” So what happens when the audience that thinks God is dead addresses horror? Works like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in which the epically evil Kurtz screams out that very word when confronted with the blackness of the human heart, and movies like the recently released film Sunshine.
Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle, is set a scant fifty years in the future and chronicles the mission of a group of astronauts to reignite a slowly dying sun via a bomb with a mass the size of Manhattan. I pestered a small band of friends into paying ten dollars and roughly two hours to watch a flick I expected to be something like a re-vamped Armageddon. It wasn’t. My friends are now pestering ME for their ten dollars back. A waste of time, it was. But more than that, it is the “wrong horror” that Flannery’s critics so mistakenly identified in her Christ haunted works.
Sunshine is the portrayal of the ultimate sacrificial act without any conviction that people, individually or collectively, are worth the sacrifice. The group of characters spend years traveling to reach the sun, to save the world, forming shadowy Christ figures, but believe it or not, when pressed on the issue, none of them believes that humans are any more than dust. In the grand scheme of the cosmos, humans are the lowest denominator. Suicide becomes, and is blatantly called, the responsible choice. Flannery’s Hazel Motes would have recognized this type of drive towards saving a world one deems worthless as another version of his Church Without Christ. And this, this is what forms true horror: the absence of Incarnation, of Christ and His brutal, inescapable grace.
Far from being daunted by an audience inculcated with the horror of life without God, Flannery’s consciousness of the spiritual condition of her audience pushed her to greater lengths as an author. She continued to chronicle the “rough beasts slouching toward Bethlehem,” following them relentlessly through the grotesque absurdity of their deepest fears and terrors, because she was convinced beyond all doubt of Who was waiting in the manger to meet every horror with encompassing love: The perfection of “Christian Realism” -- Christ himself.