Flannery Ain’t No Baptist

By Kevin Cole

There is a curious strain of scholarly criticism on Flannery O’Connor, exemplified by Joanne Halleran McMullen, that regards O’Connor as essentially self-deluded about the kind of fiction she was producing. In articles and a full-length book, Writing Against God, McMullen accuses O’Connor of not being Catholic enough. Despite O’Connor’s claims of being a Catholic writing Catholic fiction, McMullen argues O’Connor’s fiction suffers as a result of her effort to find “authenticity as an artist” through the “dissemination of a Christian, as opposed to a Catholic, message” (172). Let O’Conner’s own words stand as the definitive refutation: McMullen’s problem is assuming that O’Connor ought to “raise [herself] from the stuff of [her] own imagination by beginning with [Catholic] principles and finding the life that will illustrate them” (MM 182).[1] Yet O’Connor herself rejected this very train of thought, preferring to find and tell the story and let it be merely suffused with Catholic principles.

The bulk of O’Connor scholarship, on the other hand, is convinced of her distinctive Catholicity and has attempted to tease out how these Catholic principles manifest themselves in O’Connor’s two novels and nearly two-dozen short stories. And although O’Conner herself wrote extensively about the relationship between her writerly self and spiritual, Catholic self, there is little evidence that she ever felt too much tension between the two. Protestants, on the other hand, have not always escaped so easily. Lorentzen writes that “a Christian has no right to attempt the art of storytelling with an uneasy conscience about the form itself” (419). Yet an uneasy conscience is exactly what most Protestants have, both in writing and reading stories, particularly fictional stories. The lack of a robust Evangelical imagination, the poverty of our aesthetics, has been well-documented.[2] I intend to tackle the problem as one living in the Baptist wing of the house of Evangelicalism, and will seek to highlight several aspects of our theology itself that impairs our judgment and receptivity to the arts, and particularly literature. A number of theological inclinations could be and have been highlighted, but I will focus on those identified as crucial by Flannery O’Connor herself, using her fiction as the site of critical inquiry.[3]

In first approaching this subject, we find a chief irony at the outset: O’Connor almost exclusively wrote about Protestants. To Father J.H. McCown, O’Connor quipped that “a Catholic has to have strong nerves to write about Catholics” (HOB 130). There might be further reasons, whether psychological or creative, that she chose to focus on sharp eye on Protestants. She explained one to Sister Mariella Gable:

“If you are a Catholic and have this intensity of belief you join the convent and are heard no more; whereas if you are a Protestant and have it, there is no convent for you to join and you go about the world getting into all sorts of trouble… This is one reason why I can write about Protestant believers better than Catholic believers – because they express their belief in diverse kinds of dramatic action which is obvious enough for me to catch” (qtd. in Orvell 43).

            Yet it is my contention that O’Connor’s body of work, even though it features Protestants, could not have been written by a Protestant. Furthermore, that there are certain specific reasons this is so, particularly for Baptists. Namely, our preference for non-liturgical, non-sacramental theology; our dependence on an overly-cognitive (though paradoxically, anti-intellectualist) faith; and lastly, our perpetual flirtation with the twin influences of Manichaeism and Gnosticism. These three dominant factors, and their interweaving threads, converge to explain our almost innate suspicion and misunderstanding of literature; Or, why Flannery O’Connor could not have been a Baptist.

            Firstly, and perhaps principally, is the Evangelical & Baptist aversion to mystery and sacramentalism. This may be the chief difficulty from O’Connor’s perspective since “the word ‘mystery’ is of course the key word in O’Connor’s critical vocabulary” (Orvell 18). In the sacraments – seven for O’Connor – the concrete act is a testament to the invisible working of God and the vehicle through which grace is conferred. All of the sacraments have a deep mystery at their core, though perhaps none more so than the Eucharist, the defining point of the Christian life for O’Connor (“Well, if it’s just a symbol, to hell with it” [HB 125]). Yet her sacramental outlook extended to all of life, so that the Real Presence of Christ in not just in the Eucharist: “the sacramental view of life sees the Real Presence of God at work in the lives of sinful men to bring them to redemption” (Lorentzen 430). The means of this redemption is grace, and yet the word had a larger connotation for O’Connor than for most Evangelicals. For her, grace is “a door [that] is always open to possibility and unexpected in the human soul” (MM 197). Grace operates with what is already there, latent, in the human soul; we can contrast this “traditional Roman Catholic thinking (where grace perfects nature) with the approach of [Evangelicalism] (where grace destroys nature and perfects it)” (Noll 11).

            In O’Connor’s fiction, mystery serves to both propel the story forward and compel readers’ thoughts upward. At the core of her stories, she writes, are the same assumptions that “underlie… those of the central Christian mysteries” (MM 109). For her, the choice between salvation and damnation was stark and often painful, and this is reflected in her “grotesque” stories about Christ-haunted prophets and anti-prophets struggling with this monumental either/or. Yet her work deliberately avoids didacticism, preferring subtlety over preachiness: “In fiction two and two is always more than four” (102). Yet the Baptist is theologically bent toward the rigidness that fiction defies, making us dispositionally unprepared for the mysterious moments of grace that pervade O’Connor’s work. The mystery of violence itself is entirely foreign, seeing as we prefer our Christ safely off the cross while Catholics habitually envision him still on the cross, burdened in his hour of torment. That period of violence is sacramental for O’Connor, for whom receiving violence, but not committing it, is a “means by which God’s grace takes saving shape in the natural world” (Sykes 42). And this ‘taking shape’ is not always clearly demarcated and defined using obvious clues and referents. Yet this is exactly how Baptists approach all reading, beginning with the Bible. We are accustomed to an “interpretation of the Christian scripture that is so literal that it might be considered ‘more than literal’ or even ‘pictographic.’ Fundamentalists take for granted that the Bible conveys clear and distinct ideas keyed to the dictionary sense of the word;” hence, writes Kevin L. Cope, our preference for the “intense, straightforward didacticism” of Left Behind-type fiction (184). Without those clear and distinct ideas so simply presented for us, we’re left with shades of gray and nuances; in a word, mystery.

            Furthermore, all mystery, as ultimately knowable, invites the kind of ambiguity that makes Evangelicals uncomfortable. This is directly tied to the second major hindrance that impedes a truly Baptist philosophy of literature, and that is an emphasis on propositional faith. For outsiders looking in, such as Cope, this can be a surprising discovery: “Those who stereotype fundamentalist groups as know-nothings will be surprised to learn that the fundamentalist [approach] is essentially cognitive” (191). According to Douglas Frank, it is precisely our “rationalistic neatness and systematic comprehensiveness” that sets apart dispensationalism, which has become the dominant theology within most Baptist circles (Noll 121).

However, there are dual movements here: on the one hand, the rational character of our religion leads to the impressive systematization of doctrine in the fashion of Scofield, Hodges, Ryrie, and so forth. But this is paradoxically a manifestation of our fundamental anti-intellectualism, for none of our systematizing was aimed at discovering what it meant to think Christianly about all areas of life, least of all the arts. It is true that Catholicism has its own extensive catechism, and one can hardly here ignore Thomas Aquinas’ own methodical record of Christian doctrine. Yet with Aquinas, the systematizing was aimed at cultivating right action or virtue in the life of the believer; with the rise of fundamentalism, the aim became cultivating right belief in the mind of the believer. We inculcated a myopic “world where belief, and only belief, matters” (Cope 198).

Mark Noll has taken pains to document this historically, demonstrating how the “didactic Enlightenment” in America (84-93) led to the Evangelical/Fundamentalist creation and cultivation of “a culture where intense, detailed, and precise efforts have been made to understand the Bible,” (15) largely dependent on supposedly scientific means (97-98). Yet tragically, however, Noll continues to argue that Evangelicalism is “not a culture where the same effort has been expended to understand the world or, even more important, the processes by which wisdom from Scripture should be brought into relation with knowledge about the world” (15).

To cultivate an authentic, vibrant intellectual life requires, for Noll, that we “exercise sensitivity concerning the interpreter’s stance over against the data being interpreted, self-criticism about the way pre-commitments influence conclusions, and critical awareness of the symbiotic connections between methods and results” (130, cf. 126). This stance was typical of O’Connor, though she combined it with humbleness to avoid becoming the kind of condescending intellectual she so often mocked in her fiction. O’Connor never relied on the overly cognitive approach that has typified Evangelical, and specifically Baptist, expressions of faith. Writing fiction was a connection with reality, and she quickly learned that one “cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth” (MM 146). Instead of abstract truth squeezed into neatly processed propositions, O’Connor favor a conception of faith that was continually wrestling with salvation, or working it out “in fear and trembling,” to use St. Paul’s words. This struggle is a “conflict which we escape at our peril, one which cannot be settled beforehand by theory or fiat or faith,” unlike the manner in which we Baptists prefer it. This is why O’Connor continually wrote about people violently engaged in that mysterious struggle who “continue it until, like Jacob, we are marked” (MM 180). Of course, next to Jacob we might add O’Connor’s own Obadiah Parker, Francis Tarwater, or perhaps most notably, Hazel Motes. These kinds of people, O’Connor argues, think about faith in ways quite divergent from Protestant ways. Thus for her, “our response to life is different if we have been taught only a definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac” (MM 203).

The propositional, cognitive nature of Baptist theology often also results in a preference for the expedient and immediate. For Noll, this manifests itself as a utilitarian ethos, one of his defining characteristics of Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, the utilitarian mindset “allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment” (12). No moment, of course, is more critical than that moment of salvation. Unlike that trembling Abraham and marked Jacob, the Baptist prefers the dramatic and instantaneous experiences like those of Saul/Paul. This “conversionism” is one of the hallmark traits of our Evangelical faith according to David Bebbington, who notes our over-arching “emphasis on the ‘new birth’ as a life-changing religious experience” (Noll 8). Note, too, that this is generally regarded as an once-in-a-lifetime experience,[4] not an ongoing process as it is for O’Connor. For her, “salvation is no instantaneous emotional cure but a rather a painful yet joyful conformity… of sinful human wills to the sinless sacred will” (Wood 7).

Unfortunately, our Baptist traits carry over into our approach to fiction. The utilitarian mindset is always looking to “get something out of” a work, insisting that, in O’Connor’s words, a novel “must do something, rather than be something” (MM 123, emphasis mine). Cope identifies this mindset as one of the reasons Left Behind has assumed such a dominant role in Evangelical life: “ease and immediacy are important twin concepts in the cybernetic world of modern fundamentalist fiction,” hence the reason our literal readings don’t just create an imaginative world, but “always trigger supplemental actions that move texts out of books and into meaning-supplementing additional actions” in the real world (196). Thus any fiction, and of course this includes O’Connor’s, that does not provide practical, immediate benefits – notably in affixing right theological belief – is not going to seem of much worth to a Protestant with this mindset.

A cognitive, systematized cognitive faith is part-and-parcel of the third theological stumbling block – our suspicion of the material world – for Baptists looking to their theology to orient them in the world of literature. After noting that “Christ didn’t redeem us by a direct intellectual act,” O’Connor points to the Incarnation as of utmost concern because her main concern is “with mystery as it is incarnated in human form” (MM 176). Of course, her incarnational view is intimately tied with the previous discussion of her sacramental view; for O’Connor, the more sacramental one’s theology, the more inclined one would be to directly delve into the mysteries of the natural, concrete world of experience (MM 163). Thomas Howard characterized the incarnational view in a number of ways, but O’Connor would particularly agree with his regard for “the commonplace as the vehicle of ultimacy,” which Howard explains as the belief that “freedom and fulfillment lie in the obvious, and that participation in the given rhythms of existence (dawn and twilight, spring and fall, birth, marriage, working, eating and drinking) is the beginning of glory” (50-51). This accords very well with O’Connor’s emphasis on the mundane, bare facts of existence as sites of Divine activity, of grace and mystery. More specifically, the body itself is “the site at which our salvation must be worked out” (Sykes 40). This is precisely why O’Connor’s work so often features characters notable for their physical features, whether tattoos or wooden legs. It is the body itself that is “the site on which the drama of salvation is played out” (Sykes 69). This kind of theology, of course, requires an affirmation of the goodness (albeit fallenness) of nature and human body; hence O’Connor’s agreement with original sin, but denial of total depravity (MM 197). The Baptist tendency, on the other hand, has been an intellectual affirmation of creaturely goodness, but a practical aversion to all things material. O’Connor faults the “Protestant temper” for precisely this, accusing us of “approaching the spiritual directly instead of through matter” (HOB 304, cf. HOB 594). In fact, O’Connor attributed this to the remnants of Manichaeism lurking within Protestantism (HOB 360, cf. MM 68).

O’Connor’s accusation of Manichaeism should be properly coupled with Gnosticism, its theological bedfellow. Again, Noll has been critical in documenting the historical reasons for fundamentalism’s flirtation with these ancient philosophies, noting that the end result has been “a tendency toward docetism in outlook and a Gnosticism in method that together constitute the central intellectual indictment against the fundamentalist past” (123). Compare this with O’Connor, who was Jansenist in outlook and Thomistic in method.[5] Her Thomist influence is particularly notable in O’Connor’s bent toward hylomorphism, as ­­­­­Helen R. Andretta has documented in “The Hylomorphic Sacramentalism of ‘Parker’s Back’.” O’Connor’s hylomorphism manifested as belief in the total unity of body and spirit, soul and form, over against the “heretics” who buy “the notion that you can worship in pure spirit” (HOB 594).

Yet this heretical notion is precisely the one most Baptists espouse, if not exactly in those words. This Manichaean/Gnostic legacy lingers on as a result, according to Noll, of our predilection for dispensational theology, on the one hand, and holiness theology on the other. The former promotes a supernaturalism that lacks “a sufficient place for the natural realm and [tends] toward a kind of Gnosticism in its communication of truth” (132). The impact of holiness theology – though more of a factor in Wesleyan/Nazarene, not Baptist, circles – is evidenced in the wide “assumption that, in order to be spiritual, one must no longer pay attention to the world” (123). In a sense, then, Baptists have opted to view the supernatural in a vacuum, in a realm only marginally or tangentially connected to that of the physical world.[6] However, when a novelist is “going to show the supernatural taking place, [she] has nowhere to do it except on the literal level of natural events” (MM 176). Viewing such a level – one with, say, bulls goring protagonists – becomes uncomfortable for an Evangelical who is unable to see grace operative throughout the material world. O’Connor’s realistic fiction is thus alien and forbidding precisely because of her profoundly sacramental perspective that saw spirit penetrating all of the physical world.

Thus if it is true, as Noll contends, that “various modes of intellectual activity may fit better or worse with the shape of Christianity itself,” then my contention has been that the shape of Baptist Christianity fits quite worse with certain intellectual activities which O’Connor exemplified; namely, reading and writing great literature. O’Connor maintained that her staunchly Christian outlook on life uniquely prepared her to author the fiction that she did, while I have maintained that it was certain elements of her broadly Christian outlook that were particularly Catholic that prevent fundamentalists, and particularly those in the Baptist tradition I’m closest to, from being able to approach O’Connor’s work with ease of conscience and familiarity. Specifically, our aversion to a faith rife with mystery, our affirmations of propositional and utilitarian theology, and our inability to see the supernatural in the natural (remnants of Manichaean and Gnostic influences) have rendered us theologically ill-equipped to either read or write literature that is as spiritually profound as Flannery O’Connor’s.

Works Cited & Consulted


Andretta, Helen R. “The Hylomorphic Sacramentalism of ‘Parker’s Back’.” Inside the Church of Flannery O’Connor: Sacrament, Sacramental, and the Sacred in Her Fiction. Ed. by Joanne Halleran McMullen and Jon Parrish Peede. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2007.

Cope, Kevin L. “Never Better Than Late: The Left Behind Series and the Incongruities of Fundamentalist Idealisms.” Fundamentalism and Literature. Ed. by Catherine Pesso-Miquel and Klaus Stierstorfer. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Howard, Thomas. “Mimesis and Incarnation.” Imagination and Spirit. Ed by Charles A. Huttar. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1971.

Kilby, Clyde S. “The Aesthetic Poverty of Evangelicalism.” The Christian Imagination. Ed. by Leland Ryken. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2002.

Lorentzen, Melvin E. “A Good Writer is Hard to Find.” Imagination and Spirit. Ed by Charles A. Huttar. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1971.

May, John R. “Flannery O’Connor and the Discernment of Catholic Fiction.” Inside the Church of Flannery O’Connor: Sacrament, Sacramental, and the Sacred in Her Fiction. Ed. by Joanne Halleran McMullen and Jon Parrish Peede. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2007.

McMullen, Joanne Halleran. “Christian but Not Catholic: Baptism in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The River’.” Inside the Church of Flannery O’Connor: Sacrament, Sacramental, and the Sacred in Her Fiction. Ed. by Joanne Halleran McMullen and Jon Parrish Peede. Macon: Mercer University Press, 2007.

Noll, Mark A. The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1994.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1971.

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (abbrev. MM). Ed. by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.

O’Connor, Flannery. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor (abbrev. HOB). Ed. by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Noonday Press, 1979.

Orvell, Miles. Flannery O’Connor: An Introduction. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1991.

Ryken, Leland. “Thinking Christianly About Literature.” The Christian Imagination. Ed. by Leland Ryken. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2002.

Spivey, Ted R. “The Writer as Young Prophet.” Flannery O’Connor: the Woman, the Thinker, the Visionary. Macon: Mercer University Press, 1995.

Sykes, John D. Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and the Aesthetic of Revelation. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.

Terrell, Richard. “Christian Fiction: Piety is Not Enough.” The Christian Imagination. Ed. by Leland Ryken. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2002.

Walker, Percy. “On Being a Catholic Novelist.” The Christian Imagination. Ed. by Leland Ryken. Colorado Springs: WaterBrook Press, 2002.

Wood, Ralph C. “The Quest for Christian Vocation in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.” Literature and Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008.

Wood, Ralph C. “The Scandalous Baptism of Harry Ashfield in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The River’.” Literature and Theology. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008.


[1] For more detailed refutations, the subsequent chapter by John R. May in Inside the Church of Flannery O’Connor serves well enough. For a better interpretation of “The River” than McMullen’s, see Ralph C. Wood’s “The Scandalous Baptism of Harry Ashfield” in both the aforementioned book and his collection of essays entitled Literature and Theology.

[2] I take this as a given, but for evidence see, for example, Richard Terrell’s and Clyde S. Kilby’s essays in The Christian Imagination, or Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a book I will return to extensively later.

[3] Among those theological inclinations not addressed, for example, we might include our bent toward individualism & intimately personal expressions of piety; the nature of protest that is at the heart of Protestantism (see Lorentzen 431); and our bent to Calvinistic determinism, or the “centuries-old problem of Protestant art: how to represent spontaneous action in a world whose fate is determined by God” (Cope 188, cf. 186).

[4] Which is, of course, supposedly the ultimate “Instant Answer” that O’Connor disparages (MM 184)

[5] Cf. Orvell’s note that O’Connor had a “tempermental affinity with Jansenism,” notably with regard to her affirmation of “a profound sense of mystery [and] a simplicity of worship,” and her view of Jesus as “a severe and inscrutable redeemer” (22).

[6] Thus, according to Noll, our preference for Frank Peretti novels with their “nearly Manichaean vision of life where conflicts on earth are paralleled by conflicts between angels and demons in the heavens, and where the line between good and evil runs, not as Solzhenitsyn once wrote, through the heart of every individual, but between the secular forces of darkness on one side and the sanctified forces of light on the other” (140-141).