And How Flannery O’Connor Can Help us Learn Better

Donald T. Williams, PhD

A version of this essay appeared as “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 20:7 (Sept., 2007): 15-18.

There is a certain irony in the fact that I, an Evangelical, am now offering to you words I wrote down about why Evangelicals can’t write.  Whether I am the exception that proves the rule, Posterity will have to judge (if the publishing industry ever offers it the opportunity).  At the very least, the ironic presence of this paper in your hand is an opportunity for exegesis.  It suggests that my title is not to be taken literally.  Evangelicals obviously do write, and publish, reams upon reams of prose.  What they have not tended to write is anything recognized as having literary value by the literary world.

What makes this failure remarkable is that our Protestant forebears include a number of people who did: Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, John Donne, George Herbert, John Milton, and John Bunyan, to mention just a few.  Equally remarkable is that near-contemporary conservative Christians–sometimes quite evangelical and even evangelistic, though not “Evangelicals”–have often done so.  G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, T. S. Eliot, Graham Greene, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Madeline L’Engle, and Annie Dillard are all recognized as important literary figures even by people who do not share their Christian commitment. Where is the American Evangelical who can make such a claim?

The people I have mentioned who are both great writers and great Christians are all from liturgical churches:  Roman Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, Orthodox.  (Dillard, who started out as a Presbyterian, has recently converted to Catholicism.)  The closest thing Evangelicalism has to a name that could rank with these is probably Walter Wangerin, Jr., who is not really a “mainstream” Evangelical but a Lutheran–again, from a liturgical tradition.  Try to think of a Baptist (of any stripe), a Free or Wesleyan Methodist or a Nazarene, a conservative Presbyterian (OPC or PCA), a Plymouth Brother, a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, a Pentecostal, or a member of an independent Bible church who belongs in that company.  While there may be one reading these words right now who is destined to join them, and to whom this rhetorical gambit is being grossly unfair, our experience up to now has been such that the mind is simply unable to suspend its disbelief and imagine any such thing.   Instead, we get “Left Behind.”  In more ways than one.

Why?  Is there anything we can do about it?  Is there anything we can do about it without compromising our commitment to our Evangelical distinctives? What are those Evangelical distinctives anyway?

These are the questions I will try to wrestle with–I won’t promise to answer–in this essay.  I do not want to overstate the case.  No doubt someone could point out minor figures who are, or who have the potential to be, exceptions to the generalization which is my premise.  I should be glad to hear of them, but as we are talking about general trends, they hardly overturn that premise.  The liturgical churches foster a lot of schlock and kitsch of their own; but they are also communities that are capable of fostering and nurturing great writers and great writing.  So far, we Evangelicals have not.  In fact, one could make a case that we positively discourage “literary” writing as being of questionable spiritual value. I am just crazy enough to want to change that state of affairs.

Too often people like Thomas Howard or Sheldon Vanauken have migrated Romeward (or, like Franky Schaeffer, to Byzantium), partly because their commitment to serious art could find no home in Evangelicalism.  Some of them would deny that this was the major reason, but we would be naïve to think that it was not a factor.  I want to say forthrightly that I do not see such migrations as a viable solution.  For myself, I would define an Evangelical as a person committed to Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, to a high view of the authority of Scripture, to the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone, and to the necessity of personal faith in Christ (and therefore the importance for most people of a personal conversion experience, as long as we do not stereotype it) for salvation.  If we must really give up any of that in order to learn to nurture serious artists and writers, then Evangelicals are prepared to let art and literature perish from the earth!  But I cannot believe that the God who begot the incarnate Logos and whose Spirit inspired the Gospels desires, much less requires, any such thing.  So let us find another way, and ask, “What can we learn from these great Christian writers that we, as Evangelicals, can apply in our own discipling communities?”  Let me attempt a beginning to an answer by examining one useful example.


Flannery O’Connor, the Georgia writer who died of disseminated lupus in 1964, was a self-styled “hillbilly Thomist” whose two novelettes and small collection of short stories have transcended the local-color cubbyhole into which they were first placed to shock, puzzle, intrigue, and delight a growing body of readers ever since.  A devout and loyal Catholic who often had more sympathy with Protestant Fundamentalists than with others in her own tradition, she said that “I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer.  I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy.  This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that” (32).  In most of her stories the central character, whether secular or religious, starts off smugly self-sufficient but is given an opportunity to become open to the grace of God which is usually not responded to very well.  A master of irony, O’Connor often puts the most profound spiritual insight into the mouth of the character who is by conventional standards the farthest from the kingdom.  There are no cheap conversions, but the cumulative effect of her stories for those who understand them is to break down the modern sense of enlightened self-sufficiency and prepare readers to accept their need for grace.

Although she often expressed a bemused impatience with the expectations of the average Catholic reader, O’Connor also found in the larger tradition of that church a community that nurtured and supported her artistic vision.  She mentions at least three forms of such nurture she found there, only one of which is liable to be present in the typical Evangelical congregation.


First, she found a true world view, encapsulated in dogma, that constituted a lens that brings human nature and human significance into piercing clarity.  “Dogma,” she said, “is an instrument for penetrating reality” (178).  “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight” (179-80).  But it is not enough simply to have been taught the truth.  O’Connor understood that good writers do not simply parrot these insights; they must take this doctrinal understanding and apply it to the concrete realities of human life.  “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing” (91).  When we do not understand this distinction, Christian fiction becomes mere religious propaganda.  “The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality” (163).  Doctrine is a light to see human experience by, not simply a formula to be dressed up in a fictional disguise.

Some Evangelical congregations still do a good job of transmitting the biblical world view and the specifics of Christian doctrine, though too many of them have allowed the edges of that body of material to become inexcusably fuzzy.  Perhaps we have not done so well at giving our adherents the confidence to take this body of doctrine and use it creatively as a tool to understand life and experience.  But on this point at least we may with some credibility claim not to have been completely “left behind.”


The second form of nurture O’Connor felt she had received from the Church was a definition of art that affirmed a spiritual purpose for the artist distinct from that of the propagandist.  She quotes Thomas Aquinas as saying that art “is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made.”  And she adds, “We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself.  Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value.  Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God” (171).  This is a telling comment.  That which reflects God may have an evangelistic effect.  But if evangelism must be the primary purpose of everything we write, then a lot of God’s character will remain unreflected–which will, ironically, not help the cause of evangelism.  Also, an emphasis on “the good of that which is made” puts theology on record as affirming the value—indeed, the necessity—of the hard work and craftsmanship required for good writing.

I have searched the current popular Evangelical systematic theologies–Grudem, Erickson, etc–in vain for a definition of art.  For us, it does not seem to be a theological topos.  O’Connor complained that too many Catholic writers were too utilitarian in their approach, but at least their theologians thought art a topic worthy of attention.  Indeed, Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar has made it the organizing principle of his systematics, with series entitled The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics and Theo-Drama.  So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture is even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through that oxymoronic commercial institution the “Christian Bookstore” will quickly show.  Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a scripture verse tacked under them.  Perhaps when our theologians become concerned with the good of the thing made, some of our people will too.  Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”


The third form of nourishment O’Connor acknowledged as a gift from the Church was a sense of mystery.  Good fiction ultimately probes the mysteries of life: Why are we here? Why do we suffer?  What is the good?  “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners” (124), O’Connor wrote.  Therefore, “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is . . . the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery” (79).  In Catholic worship with its sacramental focus, O’Connor found her sense of mystery nourished, and saw such nourishment as a key to the writer’s ability to “penetrate concrete reality”:  “The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that” (163).

Does our Evangelical theology of the sacraments preclude us from nurturing our writers in this way?  I think it would be shortsighted to answer that question in the affirmative.  Metaphor and symbolism are central to the creative process for writers, and they are an important way that we evoke and assimilate mystery.   One need not believe in transubstantiation to make the Lord’s Supper more central in worship, nor would a symbolic or metaphorical view of the sacrament render it irrelevant to the lives of artists.  But we have too quickly and too often reacted to the abuses of the biblical sacrament in the Mass by relegating the Eucharist to a marginal role in our worship.  This cannot be unrelated to the fact that we as a community are too much like the generation O’Connor described “that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to eliminate mystery” (125).  Our services, like our fiction, are justified by their efficiency in achieving pragmatic goals.  Our sermons are full of practical easy steps to spiritual victory, a better marriage, or financial success; our music is designed to let us express comfortable emotions; everything is aimed at maximizing the body count at the altar call.  Some of these goals are worth pursuing; but perhaps if abasement before a transcendent deity felt as such were one of them, we would be better Christians as well as better writers. Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”


O’Connor can help us make the case that it is not the distinctive emphases of Evangelical theology, but rather a lack of other emphases, equally biblical, that has kept us from being a community good at nurturing the arts.  Our failure to encourage people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate; and our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failures to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture.  They could be changed without threatening any of the doctrinal emphases that as a movement we have been right about. Until that happens, we will continue to be “left behind.”


O’Connor, Flannery.  Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose.  Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald.  NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1977.


Donald T. Williams (BA, Taylor University, M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is Professor of English and Director of the School of Arts and Sciences at Toccoa Falls College in the Hills of N.E. Georgia.  His most recent books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice, 2008), Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012).

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.