In Mystery and Manners, a collection of Flannery O'Connor's essays, O'Connor discusses what I think about as the dumb versus the smart reading of what is her most anthologized story "A Good Man is Hard to Find." In this story, we have the Grandmother, who can never seem to shut her mouth, and like so many Southern grandmothers, she has no second-thoughts about placing herself on a pedestal from which to judge the world. It's a typical sentiment among the older and wizened, that the current generation is carrying the world to Hell in a hand basket, that times used to be simpler, safer. The dumb reading ends there; O'Connor wants the reader to judge the Grandmother as a hypocrite, as someone who picks on the mote in her brother's eye while ignoring the beam in her own, and as such, when the Misfit, the story's villain, shoots her chest full of slugs, she deserved this violent end. She would have been a good woman, says the Misfit, if someone had been there to shoot her every minute of her life. Done and done.
O'Connor insisted in her essay that this reading missed or glossed over a crucial piece of evidence, that seconds before the Misfit recoiled like he'd been snake bit, the Grandmother placed a hand on his shoulder and said, why, you're one of mine. You're one of my babies. In that moment, O'Connor says, the Grandmother earned her redemption, her salvation. This is what I'll call the smart reading, the reading that aligns the story with O'Connor's Christian moral vision.
American readers, I argue, don't know quite what to do with O'Connor's characters in this Christian moral context. I've said to students, there's something about O'Connor's work that sets it apart from the Christian literature that one is likely to find on the shelves at Wal-Mart or Barnes & Noble, that forces the reader to take O'Connor's Christianity seriously, and that starts with how O'Connor's characters are all, more or less, compromised. I'm reminded of a typical trope in lesser works of Christian literature, such as the film God's Not Dead. This film takes all of the Christian-lit stock characters, the atheist professor, the pure-at-heart Christian youth who challenges him, and presents a tidy package about the faith of the child versus the cynical professor who had all the Jesus educated out of him, but who, in his heart, longs for this Jesus to return, he being so broken by the loss of faith and his reliance on stone-cold facts and reason. You know this story. It's a a popular parable in contemporary Christian circles. O'Connor would find this film embarrassing.
The Grandmother is a Christian, or at least fancies herself one, but she has never earned the mantle. It's one thing to be good when it is easy to do so, when nothing forces a choice, when one has never confronted the devil living inside her. It's quite another to be good when one is presented with choices about pathways. Jesus said in the Gospels that the Christian path was undeniably the more difficult, that to live as a Christian was difficult, and that one had to freely choose to take this thorny trail. The Grandmother, to this point in her life, never made that choice.
Jesus, when he wrestled with the devil in the desert and managed to resist temptation, was offered what he could have already had, which is why the temptation is so powerful, something that hadn't really clicked with me until recently. To be tempted is to be presented with a choice that is already right in front of us. The Devil offers Jesus the world, the role of the tyrant. He could have it all, and of course, Jesus already knew this. He is God. But it seems God has to make this choice, too, to take the harder path. God, the being of pure love, has this one choice. He could reorder the world to eliminate pain and sin and suffering, but surely in doing so He deprives humankind of not its free will (an argument too often made by otherwise well-meaning Christians) but of the hard path that will harden them and strengthen them and make them worthy of the divine. Christ's task is to deny himself what he most wants . . . everyone to be happy and free from suffering, because he knows that suffering, and indeed the acceptance of that burden, is the only pathway to salvation. Christ's task then, having rejected the Devil's offer, is to take the sins of the world onto his shoulders and be crucified with them. Following Jesus' example, Christians must do likewise. They must put aside their desire for life to be easy, and instead pick up the sins of the world, and against all odds, find a way to carry them. That's a central task of the Christian. Jesus said, first, love God, and second, love everyone else. And everyone else is looking for the easy path, the shortcut. They'll lie, cheat, and steal, because that's easier. The world is full of death, destruction, torture, murder . . . suffering. The Christian must look at this ugliness, accept it, pick it up, and carry it.
In the Grandmother's final moment, she sees this. Her family has been murdered, and she's pleading for her life, and I argue she realizes at that moment that her life is not the thing of most value. It is her soul, and the soul of the Misfit, that are at stake, and so, against all odds, against the very face of evil, she accepts that the Misfit is one of her own, one of her babies, and she picks him up; she finds the hard path, and in that moment, she finds Jesus. The Misfit, who has embraced the easy path of murder and violence, realizes, too, that he has unwittingly served as the Grandmother's crossroads, as the agent of Jesus Christ, and from that he recoils, again, as if a snake had bit him.
Salvation must be earned, and it is earned by taking the harder path, the path that forces one to look the Devil square in the eye and say, no. I will not follow you. I will carry this burden of sin and death and despair. I will love my neighbor, and I will love my enemy. Jesus was clear about this: loving one's family and friends is easy, but loving one's enemies is hard. That is the only way one can learn how to love, and that is as close as one can get to God's love, the perfect love. This rather difficult lesson is seldom presented in contemporary Christian literature, which, quite in opposition to Christ's teachings, sells the message that Christianity is easy, that its better to be the innocent lamb than the rapacious lion. (Sells is the word, because that is precisely where the materialist thrust of contemporary life has eroded American Christianity into something Jesus would scarcely recognize.) All of us are that predator, looking for that easy path. All of us are Misfits, and only by choosing to carry the same burden Jesus carried can we ever hope to earn wholeness.