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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. Billy

    I know – I used to fantasize about Paul Walker too...

    December 16, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
  2. OO OO

    angels never rejoiced over them

    December 16, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
  3. OO OO

    never knew his will

    December 16, 2013 at 6:48 pm |
    • Billy

      Did you really think even if you knew Paul Walker that you would be guaranteed something from his will?

      December 16, 2013 at 7:27 pm |
  4. OO OO

    never ate a feast with him

    December 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
  5. OO OO

    never knew the impact of his love

    December 16, 2013 at 6:46 pm |
    • Billy

      especially this – you know – Paul Walker

      December 16, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
  6. OO OO

    never touched by him

    December 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
  7. OO OO

    never received him

    December 16, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  8. OO OO

    never dined with him

    December 16, 2013 at 6:44 pm |
  9. OO OO

    never walked with him

    December 16, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  10. OO OO

    never knew him

    December 16, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • Billy

      It's about time you get a little honest.

      December 16, 2013 at 7:28 pm |
  11. OO OO

    never heard his voice

    December 16, 2013 at 6:41 pm |
    • Billy

      well if you're going to fast-forward through Fast and the Furiious and just stop at every high-speed scene, of course, you're not going to hear his voice.

      December 16, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
  12. Realist

    --------------
    ...................................................

    NO CHRISTMAS because .........

    Christianity is built upon a LIE ...

    ................ because ....................

    ..... http://www.GodIsImaginary.com ...

    ... and thank goodness because he ...

    ............. emanates from the .............

    ...................... http://www.EvilBible.com

    -----------------
    .............................................................

    December 16, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  13. Vic

    Trivia:

    Sunday December 15, 2013 marked the 222nd anniversary of the Bill Of Rights.

    December 16, 2013 at 6:18 pm |
    • Doris

      More trivia: Three weeks prior to the original Independence Day in 1776, Virginia adopted the Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason with help from James Madison for the section on religious freedom. The Declaration, adopted at Williamsburg for the Fifth Virginia Convention, preceded the adoption of Virginia's first Constitution by two weeks. It ultimately became article I of the Constitution of Virginia. Mason references the English Bill of Rights (1689), but the Declaration can be considered the first modern Constitutional protection of individual rights for citizens of North America. It rejected the notion of privileged political classes or hereditary offices such as the members of Parliament and House of Lords described in the English Bill of Rights. Obviously Madison drew much from the Virginia model for his work on the U.S. Constitution and the eleven Amendments that he proposed that are still law.

      December 16, 2013 at 6:47 pm |
  14. Tel

    Reblogged this on Telly McGaha and commented:
    I'm intrigued with her new found collection of poems and have been reading up on them, which lead me to this great article.

    December 16, 2013 at 6:02 pm |
  15. Lionly Lamb

    My Christmas wish is to own one of these puppies...

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LHL16av4C9k&w=640&h=360]

    December 16, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
    • Doris

      No mixing of flyboarding and sinsemilla now, LL.

      December 16, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • Doris

      Also, attention all birds and other aquatic life near the surf: stay away from humans involved in this activity; I don't think you want to get in the way the output from these things...

      December 16, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
      • Lionly Lamb

        Sired Doris...

        How about all these manatee deaths due propeller driven boats... Zero deaths of any kind with these water driven jet packs usages...

        December 16, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
    • Vic

      Nice video, dolphin like acrobatic water skiing, but I like the WestJet commercial (earlier post) better, since it is season related.

      Nonetheless, it seems like the Christmas cheer started rubbing off on this blog, finally.

      December 16, 2013 at 6:00 pm |
      • truthprevails1

        For once we agree. They did a wonderful thing and definitely deserve the recognition they are being given.

        December 16, 2013 at 6:17 pm |
    • Youtube - "Context!!!!!"

      "My Christmas wish is to own one of these puppies..."

      Sure, because that is what Jesus would do.

      December 16, 2013 at 6:50 pm |
      • Sue

        Are you saying that Jesus was no fun?

        December 16, 2013 at 8:38 pm |
        • Youtube - "Context!!!!"

          I just think it is remarkable how Christians really do remake Jesus in their own image.

          December 16, 2013 at 9:17 pm |
  16. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    The Universe will continue to evolve, will not gain or lose any attributes, will not weep or fret if no one one ever knows how it works, where it came from, or even ever makes a true statement about it. Nothing cares outside of the people around you. If like Flannery O'Connor you believe that something close and personal other than you is aware of your every thought you are quite likely wrong. If you want someone to care about your thoughts, you'd best find someone real to share them with.

    December 16, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
    • Lionly Lamb

      Oh Sired Tom...

      Just being but 'one' universe amid the vast reaches of spatial nothingness is no more a justifiable position... Imagine that...

      December 16, 2013 at 7:02 pm |
  17. Tony

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIEIvi2MuEk&w=640&h=360]

    December 16, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
    • Vic

      Genius marketing, I love it!

      December 16, 2013 at 5:12 pm |
      • Other Marketing

        Ex-Muslims of Scotland has been formed | Press Release

        by Ex-Muslims of Scotland posted on December 16, 2013 01:02AM GMT

        Manifesto

        We are non-believers, atheists and ex-Muslims of Scotland, were born as Muslims and being Muslim was decided for us even before our birth. As free human beings with power of intelligence and decision, we have decided to leave Islam.

        As Islam does not permit us to leave it and Islamic law recognises apostasy as a crime punishable by death, we, ex Muslims living In Scotland aim to celebrate our right of freedom of speech and conscience and announce our apostasy as a public challenge. We also strive to represent numerous ex-Muslims who live in countries under Islamic law and are not able to announce their apostasy because doing so may mean execution and imprisonment.

        December 16, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
    • Akira

      I really liked this. Bet the guy who asked for socks and underwear wishes he had asked for the big screen...

      December 16, 2013 at 6:54 pm |
  18. Dyslexic doG

    Throughout history many of the human race's great minds give virtually no mention to any god for their discoveries and explanations. (Ptolemy, Isaac Newton, Laplace, Huygens, Galileo.) That is, until they reach the problem they feel they cannot and will never fully tackle.

    Perhaps that is all God has ever been – a placeholder for discomfort or frustration over the unknown; an excuse of last resort when, for one reason or another, one gives up investigation. It is at that point of discomfort over the unknown when one should remember what humanity has already witnessed: that today's scientific explanations were often yesterday's gods.

    What is the effect when man relies solely on his gap-filling gods? Consider this:

    Two-thirds of star names have Arabic names. They came from Islam's fertile period (AD 800-1100.) During that time Baghdad was the intellectual center of the world, open to people of all or no faiths. During that time were some of the greatest advances known to mankind: engineering, biology, medicine, mathematics, celestial navigation; this is the time and place that gave us numerals we use, terms like algebra and algorithm.

    Enter Imam Hamid al-Ghazali in the 12th century. The fundamentally religious period of Islam begins, and so begins the steady decline of free intellectual expression in that area of the world. Some would argue that it has since never recovered.

    America is following down the same path. Fundamentalist Christianity already has a large part of the country believing that the earth is 6,000 years old and that the end of the world is nigh. It is changing laws and the education system to support its fantasy land.

    Religion, and in particular the christian religion, is the cancer that will eventually kill this once great nation!

    December 16, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
    • A Reasonable Christian

      I see that plagiarizing Neil DeGrass Tyson is not below you either. You constantly copy/paste Colin’s posts, too.

      December 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        and you read the same book every day.

        this is a copy and paste of someone else's post (I wasn't sure who the author was) with some added by me, but it makes a POINT. Would you care to comment of the POINT or just sidestep it and insult the poster?

        Apologies to Colin and Mr Tyson. I admire you both.

        December 16, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
        • Doris

          No apologies necessary, doG – that was my post. I think I did make mention of Tyson in a later version as the inspiration, but I don't believe I used direct quotes. I did add later this sentence with regard to "What is the effect when man relies....":

          "Of course the effects of such reliance touches us today – even in the U.S. We see some who refuse medical care for their children for instance."

          December 16, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
        • Dyslexic doG

          Great post Doris!

          How can we save America from this cancer?

          December 16, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
        • Doris

          I don't know, doG. But I think the "wall of separation" is still strong and I think we are quite fortunate to have been able to, through our law, inherit the sensibility of our moderate Deist founders of the government.

          December 16, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
        • Doris

          And regarding sensibility, I see Topher's odd view of an increase in vegetarianism (as a sign of the second coming) as the opposite of sensibility.

          December 16, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
        • sam stone

          gopher is a funny little coward

          so interested in forever with his vindictive pr1ck

          so not interested in forcing the matter

          December 16, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        nope ... no reply to the point made. typical.

        December 16, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
      • Charm Quark

        A Reasonable ?
        Have you not noticed the morons that post bible verses over and over again, do you see a problem with them?

        December 16, 2013 at 5:03 pm |
      • AtheistSteve

        Well I'll bring up a point that isn't a copy/paste of Colin or Tyson.
        The theist worldview is dominated by whichever deity they worship. It's all encompassing and central. Every aspect and perception of their existence is a direct vector to their god. The origins of the universe, the planet, life, death, diversity, consciousness, emotion, abstract thought, morality, purpose and meaning are all inextricably and convolutedly bound to their god as the primary causal agent. That's why they seem completely befuddled and say things like "we believe in nothing" when tackling these profound topics and mysteries.
        And herein lies the fundamental difference. Atheists don't have that overarching commonality of all things to fall back on when addressing the various mysteries of and about existence. Every enquiry is distinct and largely divorced from consideration of another. So while it is impossible to contemplate the emergence of life from non-living matter without first a Big Bang bringing the universe into existence, the search to find the answers to abiogenesis don't require investigations into Big Bang cosmology. Reality outside the direct field of inquiry becomes axiomatic. So biochemistry is applied to study life and death. Evolution and genetics is applied to study biodiversity. Biology, psychology, ethics and philosophy are variably applied to study consciousness, abstract thought, emotion and morality. Many unknowns, many mysteries remain common to both theist and atheist but the answers aren't any clearer if you appeal to an even greater enigma like a god concept.
        I left purpose and meaning for last because when theists and atheists use these words we're talking about different things altogether. For the theist a prime mover, a causal agent with intent, means that all things everywhere have an intrinsic purpose. Existence is an act of will of a transcendent mind. Purpose and meaning are built in to the fabric of reality.
        I'll grant the theists this much. Purpose and meaning do require a mind. But the only minds know of are housed in brains. Physical gooey brains. A mind is a product of the universe, not the other way around. Purpose and meaning come from within us not from without.

        December 16, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
    • devin

      " Religion, and in particular the christian religion, is the cancer that will eventually kill this once great nation." Did you just say that? Seriously? I can understand if you just wanted to get some shock value out of the statement, or perhaps were just feeling an extra amount of malevolence towards christians, but if on some level you actually believe what you wrote, God ( or something in your case) help you.

      December 16, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        I absolutely believe that. All around us today, christians are suppressing science and tainting the education system with your fairy stories and oppressing Americans because of their se.xual beliefs ... just to name a few.

        December 16, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
        • devin

          Please, give me a few examples of where " All around us today, christians are suppressing science and tainting the education system..." Don't bother with the evolution thingy, macro evolution ( of which I adhere to) for the most part is not a point of objection for most christians, it's the exclusitivity with which it's taught.

          December 16, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
        • In Santa we trust

          Devin, What would be the scientific alternative to evolution?

          December 16, 2013 at 5:01 pm |
        • Alias

          Devin
          Stem cell research
          Evolution
          Birth control
          Religious school holidays
          "In god we trust"
          equal rights
          reducing the amount of times Thowas Jefferson is mentioned in history books
          Your religion is a cancer in America, BOTH TO OUR SCHOOLS AND OUR SOCIETY.

          December 16, 2013 at 5:29 pm |
        • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

          " it's the exclusitivity with which it's taught."

          That is because it is exclusive in that it can be demonstrated.

          December 16, 2013 at 5:40 pm |
        • devin

          Stem Cell Research- I'll assume you are referring to embryonic stem cells, in which case the point is now moot.

          Evolution – And exactly how does the belief in a supernatural creation produce a cancer upon the nation?

          Birth control- Objection to birth control among Protestants is virtually non-existent. 98% of Catholic women use birth control. Do the math.

          Religious School Holidays- Yes, this most certainly will be the downfall of the empire.

          In God We Trust – We've been saying it for over 200 years and by most accounts this is still the best country on the planet.

          Equal Rights- Of course you mean g a y rights, and to my knowledge the only issue in play is that of marriage, which is not a question of equality but rather morality. ( That ought to stir up a hornet's nest).

          " The genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored. Such as was practiced and preached by Himself."
          – Thomas Jefferson

          December 16, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        and I have to laugh at Christians when they say "god help you" because they usually mean just the opposite. what a nasty religion that uses the name of its god to curse people who believe differently.

        December 16, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
        • devin

          I've never known that phrase to be used with the implication you suggest.

          December 16, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
        • doobzz

          @ Devin

          It would be difficult to understand unless you've had someone snarl in your face that you're going to hell and follow up with "God help you".

          December 16, 2013 at 5:28 pm |
  19. Billy

    I knew I saw those eyes before..

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3pR83qsYD0&w=640&h=360]

    December 16, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
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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.