If, in some parallel universe, I were held down kicking and screaming and demanded to sum up the work of Flannery O’Connor in a single word, the word which I would choose (kicking and screaming, mind you…) would be disturbing. As I’ve noted before, O’Connor’s works—both her short stories and her novels—have penchant for taking the reader on a slow walk through the “innocent South” only to shock the reader with such a jolt that he or she is knocked from the blissful stroll into a reality that must be grappled with.
O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, is about a young grandson-of-a-preacher named Hazel Motes. Having decided to live a debauched life upon returning from military service, Motes encounters a self-blinded street preacher who irritates Motes to the point that he decides to become a preacher himself. Hazel Motes, however, does not wish to have anything to do with the Jesus his grandfather preached. The Jesus he encountered through his grandfather’s preaching unsettled him:
The boy didn’t need to hear it. There was already a deep, black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew that by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown. (p.22)
Motes founds and preaches the Church Without Christ, a church that doesn’t have to bother with Jesus because it summarily ignores him. Motes meets primarily with rejection, having only one follower, Enoch Emery, who, led by his “wise blood,” finds an entirely new Jesus which he presents to Motes. Throughout the novel Motes flees from this Christ who pursues him in the recesses of his mind.
The unflinching honesty set forth in the pages of Wise Blood earned O’Connor acclaim from wide audiences, both Christian and secular. In the preface to the second edition, she addressed the tension that the novel created:
It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death…That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.
Wise Blood’s characters are anything but squeaky-clean. Perhaps it’s this very stumbling block that makes the greater Stumbling Block that haunts the back-story all the more present…