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« Re: Light summer reading | Main | Art for art’s sake »

July 30, 2007

Blog-a-Book: Christ, ’Christian Realism,’ and True Horror

Peacock2 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.

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Doug Kimball

Alyce, I need to disagree with you on your take of the film Sunshine. It is true that Christ is not the center of the story here, and things could be interpreted as somewhat nihilist. It is far from a waste of time, however. Have you taken the film in context with Boyle's previous work (like his excellent film, Millions)? Could it be that even the absence (perhaps truly painful absence) of the one true God in this film serves to point up our need for Him?

Of course, I know need to know what you think of 2001: A Space Odyssey as well...

Alyce Loeser

Your point about the way in which the absence of God forces us to focus on our desperate need of Him is well taken. I wonder if the same could not be said about any human work in which He is not the implicit, or explicit, focus…

I am, in fact, a big fan of the film Millions, which is to say the least, a brighter (pardon the pun) and more uplifting film. I didn’t make the connection between Boyle in my head so needless to say I did not evaluate the film in context with Millions. Honestly, however, I struggle to see how that work sheds any redemptive light on Sunshine. Some part of me thinks that to a certain degree, artistic works must be judged on their ability to stand alone, and apart, from other works, but I hear your point about other works being helpful in understanding a artist, or in this case, a director’s line of reasoning and worldview.

As to my opinion of 2001: A Space Odyssey, final portions of the Sunshine movie as well as of course the lilting voice of the omnipresent computer definitely brought the film to mind. But it’s been several years since I last saw it and as for further impressions, I’m afraid my response must be a HAL-esque, “I’m sorry Dave.”

Doug Kimball

You make good points in your response. At least we can share a mutual appreciation for one of Mr. Boyle's films!

I guess whether one thinks there is value in a film where God is notable only by His absence could hinge upon one's agreement or disagreement with this statement by Michael Foley in the latest issue of Crisis magazine (as quoted by Victor Morton of Rightwing film geek in his discussion of the late Ingmar Bergman):

There are, needless to say, a vast number of films that point to important truths about human existence without necessarily tapping into something that is quintessentially Christian or Catholic.
This can be true even of films that are bleak and godless — literally. If so many movies today are depressing and desperate, it is because they are an accurate (and hence instructive) mirror of the hell that is life bereft of grace or hope. As Pope John Paul II is reputed to have said, “We owe secular artists appreciation for showing us what the world without God looks like.”

Maybe we should wait for the upcoming I Am Legend to see if a different futuristic world has a more encouraging take on God and faith? Or perhaps the recent Children of Men (appreciated by many, reviled by some) is a better pointer to hope and grace as concepts.

Gina Dalfonzo

The image from "Millions" that has always stayed with me is actually from one of the deleted scenes in the attic: the frightened little boy hiding in the attic, while all around him, unseen by him, a group of saints is praying fervently.

And I'm a Protestant! :-)

Doug Kimball

Well, I'll be jiggered! I haven't watched the deleted scenes yet! Time to go do so ASAP. Thanks for that, Gina.

Alyce Loeser

I had seen that scene while perusing the special features, and had forgotten how nifty it was.

Speaking of watching things, this discussion prompted me to bite the bullet and sign up for a Blockbuster card so I could rent Children of Men. I think I'm still digesting it. Doubtless it's bleakness was as intense as what was in Sunshine and it was possessed by that same apocalyptic type feeling, but I suppose what made the difference was the strong pro-life sentiments that were raised. It seemed like it brought up the same essential question as Sunshine-is humanity worth saving?- but came out with a different answer even though both movies end with the same positive outcome for humanity as a whole.

It is interesting to me that both movies solve the immediate problem of mankind -a dying sun, infertility- but are unable to reconcile humanity's apparent essential rotteness with why we feel a need that it be saved. I guess somewhere in the heart of that disparity is the scandal of Christianity itself- it's mysteries enclosed in the blood, wood and grace of the cross.

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