Why Christians need Flannery O'Connor
In her "Prayer Journal," Flannery O'Connor says of sin, "You can never finish eating it nor ever digest it. It has to be vomited," but, she immediately concludes, "perhaps that is too literary a statement; this mustn't get insincere."
December 15th, 2013
06:53 AM ET

Why Christians need Flannery O'Connor

Opinion by Russell D. Moore, special to CNN

(CNN) - On my Christmas list of gifts to buy my evangelical friends, there's a little book of prayers.

This is less predictable than it may seem, since the prayers aren't from a celebrity evangelical preacher, but from a morbid, quirky Catholic who spent her short life with pet peacocks and wooden-leg-stealing Bible salesman stories.

But I think Flannery O'Connor's newly published "Prayer Journal" is exactly what Christians need, maybe especially at Christmas.

The book, recently discovered in the writer's papers in Georgia and now published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, reproduces the handwritten notebook prayers scribbled down by O'Connor during her years as a student at the University of Iowa.

The prayers are jarring because they are so personal and raw, clearly not written to "edify the saints" in a published manuscript. They are, well, just prayers.

Part of the rawness and authenticity of the prayers come with the way O'Connor refuses to sentimentalize her personal relationship with Jesus (thought it's clear she has one). She is here constantly aware of her own fallenness and of the seeming silence of the God to whom she pours out these little notes.

O'Connor notes that her attention is "fugitive" in prayer. She confesses that hell seems more "feasible" in her mind than heaven because, "I can fancy the tortures of the damned but I cannot imagine the disembodied souls hanging in a crystal for all eternity praising God."

She is constantly second-guessing whether her prayers for success as a writer are egocentric, or a genuine striving to use the gifts God has given her.

Moreover, O'Connor is constantly aware that she is a sinner, and she can't get around that. Perhaps the most widely publicized sentence in the book is her confession that she "proved myself a glutton, for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought. There's nothing left to say of me."

Even when she's confessing sin, she seems aware of her sinfulness in doing that. She says of sin, "You can never finish eating it nor ever digest it. It has to be vomited," but, she immediately concludes, "perhaps that is too literary a statement; this mustn't get insincere."

O'Connor's prayers are hardly "inspirational," in the sense that many American Christians want: a model of the "victorious Christian life" where "prayer changes things" and we've got "joy, joy, joy, down in our hearts, to stay." That's why we need them.

American evangelicalism, my own tradition, rightly emphasizes the biblical truth that the gospel is good news, that our sins are forgiven in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We rightly emphasize that the believer now has a personal connection to God, accessible in prayer through the priesthood of Jesus himself.

But sometimes we forget how hard that is in this time between the times.

Some of our worship services are so clean and antiseptic, led by grinning preachers and praise bands, talking about how happy Jesus makes us, that we forget that the Spirit prompts us to "groan" at our sin and the suffering all around us (Romans 8:22-23). This is especially true at Christmas, with so many evangelicals forgoing the dark longing of Advent to go straight to the tinsel-decked rejoicing of Christmas.

Some Christians, then, can wonder if something's wrong with them when they feel as though God seems distant, or when, despite all the smiles at church, they still feel guilty for the way their hearts don't seem to match up with their hymns.

But the good news isn't that we are all put together. The good news is that though we're wrecked and fallen and freakish, Jesus loves us anyway and has made peace for us with God and with each other. That's not something we always feel. We see it by faith.

O'Connor, elsewhere in her letters, writes of what it means to agonize over one's sin, to wonder "if your confessions have been adequate and if you are compounding sin on sin." She concludes that this agony "drives some folks nuts and some folks to the Baptists," while noting, "I feel sure that it will drive me nuts and not to the Baptists."

Those of us who were "driven to the Baptists" can benefit from a book of prayers that remind us that the Christian life is exactly what Jesus promised it would be - the carrying of a cross.

We can be reminded in prayers such as these to remind ourselves that between now and resurrection we will never be, in ourselves, anything other than sinners. That's why we need a Christ.

It's only when we grapple with the darkness of a fallen cosmos, only when we're honest about the fact that all our efforts look more like Herod's throne than Bethlehem's stable, that we can sing "Joy to the World." Flannery O'Connor wasn't an evangelical Protestant, but we need her.

We need her, especially perhaps, as we pray for peace on earth, goodwill to men, for Christmas in a Christ-haunted world.

Russell D. Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns. The views expressed in this column belong to Moore alone. 

- CNN Belief Blog

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soundoff (1,505 Responses)
  1. Dyslexic doG

    Yo dyslek! How's it hanging? Hey, how often do you delete your posts, any idea?

    December 24, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
  2. Dyslexic doG

    At this time of the year, I send out a reminder to all my friends:

    Jesus wasn't born, he was written!

    December 23, 2013 at 11:26 am |
    • Sam Bo

      One ounce of proof a bit much for our girl

      December 24, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
  3. John

    "American evangelicalism, my own tradition, rightly emphasizes the biblical truth that the gospel is good news, that our sins are forgiven in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We rightly emphasize that the believer now has a personal connection to God, accessible in prayer through the priesthood of Jesus himself." God Bless you, American evangelicals. Unfortunately, the foregoing is not "biblical truth." You do need Flannery O'Connor. And you do need the Catholic Faith. As she said, "If the Eucharist is just a symbol than to hell with it." The Catholic Faith is True, and Flannery O'Connor knew that her personal sin could keep her from the Kingdom of Heaven. That is Biblical Truth. Fortunately Christ provided several remedies for it. Not the least of which is the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), the origins of the "biblical truth" of which is found in John 20:19-23 wherein Christ gives his disciples the power to forgive and retain sin. Please, give the Catholic Faith a second look. Christ prayed that we might all be one.

    December 17, 2013 at 7:52 pm |
    • Youtube - Teresa MacBain "Shift Happens"

      John Compere, PhD

      I was a fifth-generation Baptist minister, ordained at age 18, while in college. I served until age 32 when I left the ministry and the church to get a PhD in Clinical Psychology. I had already completed a three-year seminary degree following college, which only increased my doubts about the authenticity of the theology I had learned from childhood. Leaving the ministry was not an easy decision to make since all my friends and family were in the church. But it was a decision I ultimately HAD to make if I didn't want to risk being publicly phony and privately cynical. I became an agnostic, then an atheist, NOT because I hadn't read the Bible, but because I had! An atheist, by the way, is simply someone who does not believe in a supernatural being. I am convinced that the evidence supports that view. All religion suffers from being bound by unchanging myth.

      As a psychologist, I continued to try to help people find meaning in their lives. I taught at the university and medical school, had a private clinical practice, and then became a professional speaker on "Psychology You Can USE!" I seriously doubt that life has any ultimate meaning, but I'm convinced that we can make our own meaning, and I have spent the last 45 years since I left the ministry trying to help people do just that. Success is not the goal - all therapists have dealt with many a successful person who was miserable - life satisfaction is the goal.

      When I made my career change, I was essentially on my own. I wish something like The Clergy Project had been around then. I could surely have used it. The goal of this project is not to try to convince believing clergy to give up their faith. Rather, it is to help those in the clergy who, for their own individual reasons, are no longer able to believe, to try to figure out how to make a huge sea-change in their lives. It may well be the absolutely most challenging career change anyone can make. We simply want to help make it easier.

      December 17, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
      • doobzz

        AUSTIN, Texas (RNS) A former United Methodist minister-turned-atheist was dismissed from her high-profile position at Harvard University on Thursday after it was revealed she falsified her resume.

        Teresa MacBain, one of the most high-profile nonbelievers in the country after profiles by NPR, The New York Times and Religion News Service, was fired from her newly created position with the Humanist Community at Harvard.

        MacBain, who started her job at the beginning of September, had planned to travel the country starting humanist communities at schools and organizations nationwide.

        In a statement posted on Facebook Thursday (Sept. 26), MacBain acknowledged she had misrepresented her education to Harvard, to the broader atheist community and to reporters.

        “I have committed a grave error in judgment that I deeply regret,” MacBain wrote. “While I did not do anything with malice or with intention to harm others, my actions were still wrong.”

        December 17, 2013 at 10:47 pm |
      • Vic

        John 3:16,17
        "16 For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

        Ephesians 2:8,9
        "8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast."

        Scripture Is From

        New American Standard Bible (NASB)
        Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation


        December 18, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
        • Vic

          This was meant as a reply for the root post

          December 18, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
      • neved

        congratulation Madam.

        December 19, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
  4. Doris

    "Russell D. Moore is President of the Southern Baptist Ethics ...."

    LOL. OK ladies, get your aprons on – Mr. Moore will be by soon for inspection.

    December 17, 2013 at 7:16 pm |
    • Youtube - Teresa MacBain "Shift Happens"


      December 17, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
      • devent

        what you did is not funny,you have accomplished a divine mission to hasten the dialectical process of change,Atheism is not the end,its just the other part of the process towards a synthesis beyond our lifetime

        December 19, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  5. It's a fact Jack

    Many archaeologists have explored the land of Palestine. Has any one of those scientists ever discovered anything which disproves the Bible? No. Many archaeological discoveries have confirmed the Biblical record. However, none has ever contradicted the Word of God. This ought to be very reassuring to those of us who believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. At the same time, it ought to convince the skeptic, the agnostic, and the atheist, that this Book is God’s Book. Therefore, not only does God exist, but He has revealed His Will to man.

    December 17, 2013 at 5:26 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Jack, Posting half-truths and leaps of logic is not convincing.

      No evidence of a global flood has been found, and the logistics and facts do not support that story.
      Obviously the stories are from the Middle East, you'd expect some archaeological discoveries to match places mentioned in those stories, but nowhere near all claims in the bible have been verified.
      The creation myths are not only not supported by any evidence, they are contradicted by the available evidence.
      There is no evidence of a god.

      December 17, 2013 at 5:36 pm |
    • Joey

      What is so impressive about the fact that the people who wrote the bible knew the names of the towns around where they lived, and where those towns were located? That is like if I wrote a book and mentioned Nashville, would you then believe everything in my book because Nashville exists?

      December 17, 2013 at 5:39 pm |
      • fred

        Hundreds of cities have been verified.

        December 17, 2013 at 5:58 pm |
        • Philip

          Of course they would use known cities in their stories. So what?

          December 17, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
        • fred

          That is how historians validate they use sources outside the text in question. Moses wrote the older books in about 1400 BC yet some claim it was not until 750 BCE. Details in the story would indicate one had intimate knowledge not just hearsay.
          My main point however was that was not just one town validated but 100's

          December 18, 2013 at 2:42 pm |
        • Pete

          That's why the world's largest research complex has stated in a report that the bible is NOT an historical doc.ument because it contains literary genre and folk lore. There are many fictious books that include things from history but it still means it's not true.

          December 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm |
        • fred

          If you are referring to the inaccurate statement from the Smithsonian that atheists love to post regarding the Bible at least read the entire letter which excludes this:
          ‘ … On the other hand, much of the Bible, in particular the historical books of the old testament, are as accurate historical documents as any that we have from antiquity and are in fact more accurate than many of the Egyptian, Mesopotamian, or Greek histories.
          ‘These Biblical records can be and are used as are other ancient documents in archeological work. For the most part, historical events described took place and the peoples cited really existed. This is not to say … that every event as reported in the historical books happened exactly as stated.’

          December 18, 2013 at 5:47 pm |
        • Pete

          Fred, what you are not comprehending is the fact that the conclusion of that report specifically states that the bible is NOT an historical doc.ument because it contains literary genre and folk lore. You can try to spin the report in your favor but that is all you are doing, spinning the truth, just like you always do with your delusional mind.

          December 18, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
        • Steve

          Yeah, people like fred love to leave out the part that states "It must be remembered that the Bible is primarily a book of religion, a guide to faith. It was not a book of history, poetry, economics, or science"

          December 18, 2013 at 6:07 pm |
        • fred

          Steve, the Bible is the collection of mans revelation of God over a 6-10,000 year period possibly longer. The revelation is mostly from the perspective of a group of people Chosen by God (Hebrew in the early days and a few Christians in the New Testament). In short it is about the salvation of your soul.
          The names of places, people and events were as the writers saw them. Doesn't everyone know that? Why write it down every time.

          December 18, 2013 at 6:52 pm |
        • Pete

          "The names of places, people and events were as the writers saw them. Doesn't everyone know that? Why write it down every time."

          LOL! Dude, it's a bunch of fictious stories that were edited over time, it's not about actual events or history, that's the point. Your book of religion is just like all the other books of religion – a fictious story about a god, nothing more and doesn't mean it actually true! If we used your poor logic then any book writien about religions should be true. LOL!

          December 18, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
      • neved

        regardless of what is the issue of the bible,the fact that it influences the lives of billions of people for meliniums or thousands of years ,that magnitude of effect is beyond doubt that it is the will of God.He guided the events in history for a purpose,a process of evolution that will be the foundation of another cyclic event for the future of humanity.this has been going on for 13.7 billion years ,and this will go on for billons of years more.Will you be part of history.?what did you do,what is your accomplishment,oh my boy ,think of this.

        December 19, 2013 at 6:38 am |
        • Pete

          Only 33% of the people on this planet believe in your religion and that number has been pretty stagniate for a long time. It's hilarious how Christians lie to promot their god.

          December 20, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
        • ven

          only 30 percent of this planet are christians but they are the most dominant,there are millions of species living now in our planet but only 1 that is us who are dominant and significant,so its not the numbers but the influence

          December 20, 2013 at 9:04 pm |
        • dev

          Pete dont worry because the future religion will unify all of us,its not the ultimate but for a long time it will be.After the dialectical process of change involving us the theists in one hand and the atheist in the other,we will arrive to merging of faith.though its beyond our lifetime,scientific methods of prediction and reckoning is ongoing

          December 20, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
        • Pete

          "only 30 percent of this planet are christians but they are the most dominant,there are millions of species living now in our planet but only 1 that is us who are dominant and significant,so its not the numbers but the influence"

          Wow more lies from the Christians trying to sell their god, too funny!

          December 23, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
    • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

      The only reason people like you claim the bible has never been proven wrong is because its claims have never been proven correct. And when the bible is proven to be too absurd to believe you stick your fingers in your ears.

      December 17, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • Vic

      Something important that escapes a lot of people is that the Old City of Jerusalem was laid to waste about 40 times throughout its history, that wiped out significant places and their remnants, like the Temple of Solomon.

      December 17, 2013 at 6:25 pm |
      • Thusly Spoken Thencely Presently

        Woot. What a hoot! More funny is that your god can't present clear, modern evidence of its existence. If he/she/it was halfway intelligent it would have to realize that is decent grounds for people to have major doubt. So maybe your god just isn't very bright.

        December 17, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
    • RB

      Thanks Jack

      December 17, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
    • panthrotheist

      ideas has to be accepted first before they are converted to reality, and they passed through a process,at first they are rejected,but the will of God cannot be stop

      December 19, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
      • In Santa we trust

        There is no evidence of a god.

        December 19, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
    • Saraswati

      There's plenty of evidence againt, for instance, the flood story. What most Christians do is ignore it or describe it as irrelevent.

      December 23, 2013 at 10:50 am |
  6. 7

    Hello Folks.

    Everyone is invited to visit...


    December 17, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
  7. It's a fact Jack

    "During the devastating Black Death of the fourteenth century, patients who were sick or dead were kept in the same rooms as the rest of the family. People often wondered why the disease was affecting so many people at one time. They attributed these epidemics to ‘bad air’ or ‘evil spirits.’ However, careful attention to the medical commands of God as revealed in Leviticus would have saved untold millions of lives. Arturo Castiglione wrote about the overwhelming importance of this biblical medical law: ‘The laws against leprosyin Leviticus 13 may be regarded as the first model of sanitary legislation’ (A History of Medicine)." Grant R. Jeffery, The Signature of God With all these truths revealed in Scripture,how could a thinking person deny that the Bible is supernatural in origin? There is no other book in any of the world’s religions (Vedas, Bhagavad-Gita, Koran, Book of Mormon, etc.) that contains scientific truth. In fact, they contain statements that are clearly unscientific. Hank Hanegraaff said, "Faith in Christ is not some blind leap into a dark chasm, but a faith based on established evidence." (11:3 continued)

    December 17, 2013 at 3:11 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      That's really a stretch Jack. The priest makes a decision after 7 days? Wouldn't have helped much with the Black Death.
      You know why people say "bless you" after someone sneezes, right? Because sickness was believed to be caused by evil spirits; we've know for a few centuries that that is not true. No one is fooled by your dance. Move into the 20th century or better still this one.

      December 17, 2013 at 4:04 pm |
  8. It's a fact Jack

    Charles Darwin converted to Christianity on his deathbed.

    December 17, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • lunchbreaker

      And many Christians believe in evolution. Your point is moot.

      December 17, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • sam stone

      so what?

      December 17, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • Vic

      Charles Darwin's own trek made him one of the most suspicious of and troubled by the Evolution Of Species.

      December 17, 2013 at 2:31 pm |
      • In Santa we trust

        What does that mean? His main trouble was – he knew how the religious community would react (they had even more power then).

        December 17, 2013 at 4:09 pm |
    • Topher

      I converted while I was on the can.

      December 17, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
      • Vic

        I converted when I have dismissed all proclaimed religions, and while not seeking God at all. I just have always had an open mind and heart.

        December 17, 2013 at 2:52 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          Vic, So what were your criteria and why specifically did you reject the scores of other active religions and the thousands of other christian sects.

          December 17, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      There's no evidence to support that – only a christian, Lady Hope – his family deny it.

      December 17, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • ?

      So do death row inmates. Does that count? Do what you want, and before you get the needle, convert??

      December 17, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
      • Dan

        Death row may not give much time to physically benefit from salvation, but there's complete spiritual benefit nonetheless. No waste.

        December 17, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
        • ?

          So the answer is yes. One can do what they want, and convert right before they die. Rape, murder, molest, convert, all good.

          December 19, 2013 at 9:15 am |
  9. Anbesaw

    If the Pole is not the most humble, good-hearted mankind on this planet, I don't know who is!
    He is simply a saint in human flesh. I wish all the world religion leaders take a lesson or two.

    December 17, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • rong

      Is that an ethnic thing or did you mean the Pope?

      December 17, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.