Are We Good Men and Women? Flannery O'Connor Thinks "A Good Man Is Hard To Find"
Are We Good Men and Women?
Modernism was a period that, much like the Enlightenment period, rejected the old habits and thoughts of the previous era. Modernists began to fear organized control so many people turned away from religion with its rules and regulations. Human experience was highly valued as Modernists did not want to blindly follow tradition--they wanted to know how they knew what they knew.
In literature, authors began to be inspired to transform society and to cause people to break away from the "old" ways of looking at things to discover the "new." Flannery O'Connor was one such author of the time period who wrote about such ideals in, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." This fictional story is about a typical Bible Belt family who goes on vacation and has an accident that causes them to meet up with three killers, who, as fate would have it, also murder this good, Christian family. Flannery O'Connor uses this extreme, fictional situation to confront shallow religion and those who blindly follow tradition.
First of all, Grandmother tries to offer The Misfit empty religion. She asks him to pray and says, "Jesus will help you" (1893). He tells her he does not want any "hep" showing that you cannot force people into something they do not think they want tor need (1893). She is telling him that if he will just call on Jesus (a man or a God he is not sure even exists) and be a good boy, everything will be okay. Grandmother does not have any answer for him as to why he should pray to Jesus for help; she just hopes that he will "find God" and therefore spare her life.
Much like the Pharisees in Biblical days, religion (as opposed to true Christianity) has always tried to manipulate and control people into doing the right thing. Well, that is not appealing enough for The Misfit. He is not willing to settle for a religious formula without being able to see a tangible solution. He cannot be manipulated because, as he recalls what his father spoke about him, "it's some that can live their whole life out without asking about it and it's others has to know why it is, and this boy is one of the latters" (1891), He wants to know why he should call on Jesus.
Instead of conforming to her wishes, The Misfit confronts her theology by commenting about Jesus raising the dead: "If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him" (1894). (He's using the pronoun "you" but he is referring to himself.) He obviously has never had any kind of encounter with God that would give him the "proof" he needs that would cause him to believe the former about Jesus to make him "follow Him."
It appears that even though The Misfit is somewhat divided in his beliefs, he chooses to believe that Christianity is probably false. He says he "wasn't there" to see if Jesus really "raised the dead" and so he will live life the way he sees fit--that is, unless Grandmother can prove otherwise (1894). Again, he wants to know why something is the way it is. He chooses not to blindly follow, but his eyes are wide open and he wants proof that Grandmother's superficial religion cannot possibly offer.
Consequently, it is here that the author reveals just how shallow Grandmother is in her relationship with Christ. All Grandmother can say is, "Maybe He didn't raise the dead" (1894). Did she really believe what she had been taught? Grandmother quite possibly believes in Jesus Christ and the traditional doctrines of the Bible--at least in principle--but it appears her relationship with Him probably has never grown much past the beginning stages of a relationship. In a natural sense, to have any kind of meaningful relationship, whether with one's friends, children, or partner, it takes much time to develop and much effort to keep the relationship from dying. One cannot possibly know another without spending time with him or her. The opposite can also be true--the more time invested in a relationship, the deeper and more personal it can be.
Many have found the same to be true in a spiritual sense. When this is realized, Christianity then moves progressively beyond just becoming a "believer"--being introduced to Christ--to actually having a meaningful relationship with Him. It is like the difference between knowing information about someone you may or may not have met and actually being involved in his or her life.
Hosea 4:6 says that, "[God's] people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge." But, the word that has been translated as "knowledge" means much more than how we understand the word in the English language. The Spirit Filled Life Bible states this about that particular verse of scripture, " 'Knowledge of God' refers to intimate fellowship with [God] rather than to an understanding of who He is" (1262). Another passage that refers to knowing God, Matthew 7:21-23, records a small part of Jesus's "Sermon on the Mount" in which Jesus is teaching His disciples one thing that will happen on the Day of Judgement. He says that people will come to Him and call Him "Lord," but He will sadly tell them, "I never knew you; depart from Me." This possibly suggests that there will be many who will claim to have met Jesus Christ, yet never continued to develop a true relationship with Him that would have moved them beyond mere belief in Him to daily experiencing knowing Him.
For those who have moved beyond surface Christianity, their belief system continually evolves from being more than merely knowledge stored in the mind, but the heart is ever increasingly convinced also because of their experiences. In other words, the intellect and the heart are married instead of thinking independently of one another, because again, it is about relationship instead of just theology or tradition. It appears that Grandmother has intellectual knowledge about Jesus Christ, but very little experience--does her heart believe what her head knows?
Furthermore, The Misfit makes a comment that further confronts shallow religion and those who blindly follow tradition. After shooting Grandmother, The Misfit says, "She would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life" (1894). According to The Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces, Flannery O'Connor "felt that human beings confront their inner natures only when forced away from everyday routines." and that "extreme situations" expose who we really are (1882).
Many believers take pride and comfort in the fact that they do "good deeds" and regularly attend church, only to find that at the point of a serious illness or some other catastrophe that they really don't know the One they think they have been serving.
The New Testament Scribes and Pharisees took pride in the fact that they were careful to observe The Law, which included the Old Testament laws of Moses and hundreds of rules the religious leaders kept adding over the years. They thought that keeping these rules made them righteous, or in right relationship with God. Yet, Jesus confronts them in Matthew 23:3-33 by telling them that their religious observances do nothing for their spiritual condition if their hearts are not continually right with God. Again, being a good person and following a set of rules cannot possibly take the place of a close, meaningful relationship with God.
Grandmother, who before this extreme situation, most likely thought herself an upstanding Christian, would have been "a good woman" if she would have constantly lived in a state of being in a right relationship with God instead of just coming to that point at death.
Wikipedia article about Flannery O'Connor
Fitting into the Modernist time period, O'Connor tries to change society by causing people to question shallow, religious tradition in hopes that they will discover what they really believe. This at times comical story, in an extremely startling way, questions, "Are your theology and your everyday life beautifully woven together or are they separated as mythology and reality? Does your Sunday morning ritual and and your Monday through Saturday lifestyle have anything in common?"
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- Flannery OConnor: Experienced Meaning Slow Muse
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