Being a Christian, in Spite of Yourself 

Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood: Notes from the Mockingbird Book Club.

Ben Self / 6.16.21

I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. — Flannery O’Connor, in Mystery and Manners

Flannery O’Connor’s fiction is nothing if not jarring. In the second meeting of Mockingbird’s Zoom Book Club last month, we got together to try to figure out what exactly she was trying to do in her first novel, Wise Blood (1952).

It is indeed a bizarre but fascinating read. As O’Connor explains in her introduction to the second edition, the book is a “comic” tale about a “Christian malgré lui” — or Christian in spite of himself — named Hazel Motes. Hazel’s great doomed mission in the novel is to completely blot out the imprint that Christianity has left on his life and inspire others to do the same. It’s clear he had a difficult experience with the church growing up, and, after returning from service in the army during World War II, has resolved to jettison every vestige of his former faith and become a kind of evangelist for atheism, nihilism, and the pleasures of sin — which of course, he contends, doesn’t exist.

He awkwardly goes around injecting his non-belief into every conversation. For example, he asks a random woman he meets on a train, seemingly apropos of nothing, “Do you think I believe in Jesus? […] Well I wouldn’t even if He existed. Even if He was on this train.” The bewildered woman responds, “Who said you had to?” Who indeed?

According to Hazel, “If Jesus existed, I wouldn’t be clean,” but thankfully he doesn’t, so, as Hazel seems laughably determined to assure both himself and the world, “I AM clean.” Not quite sure what to do with himself in a new city, he tries his hand at street-preaching outside of movie theaters, proclaiming to the masses the good news of his newly-formed “Church Without Christ” in which there are no sinners and no need of redemption. As he pontificates,

I’m a member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption. […] [T]here was no Fall because there was nothing to fall from and no Redemption because there was no Fall and no Judgment because there wasn’t the first two. Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar.

Remarkably, Hazel struggles to win converts. Without giving too much away for those who might want to read the book, Hazel’s grand plans don’t exactly pan out. In the end, through a series of bizarre events, his quest for ultimate freedom and redemption apart from God ends in utter humility. His dream of self-reliance — symbolized by the “rat-colored” car he uses to murder an imposter — literally falls off a cliff, after which Hazel is reduced to a kind of shell of his former self and engages in a disturbing series of self-mutilations as a kind of penance for his sins.

O’Connor’s perspective clearly seems to be that such dreams are doomed. Hazel may protest that “I don’t have to run from anything because I don’t believe in anything,” but his fate suggests otherwise. His hopelessly hopeful struggle is evocative of the opening of Francis Thompson’s famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven”:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days
    I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
        Up vistaed hopes I sped;
        And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
    From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

For O’Connor, the “Hound of Heaven” clearly gets you in the end. Belief is inevitable. Probably even redemption. In the very first chapter, she seems to give that ending away as she recounts a memory Hazel had of being harangued as a boy by his fiery preacher of a grandfather in front of a large crowd:

Did they know [his grandfather would say] that even for that boy there, for that mean sinful unthinking boy standing there with his dirty hands clenching and unclenching at his sides, Jesus would die ten million deaths before He would let him lose his soul? He would chase him over the waters of sin! […] That boy had been redeemed and Jesus wasn’t going to leave him ever. Jesus would never let him forget he was redeemed. What did the sinner think there was to be gained? Jesus would have him in the end!

For all the book’s oddities and discomforts, it thus offers a powerful takeaway message: Despite his best efforts, Hazel couldn’t escape God. No matter how hard he tried, he could never really stop being a Christian — he was marked for life, forever destined to be “Christ-haunted” even if he wasn’t often “Christ-centered.” In fact, as O’Connor writes in her introduction, it’s precisely in the weakness of Hazel’s will that lies his “integrity”:

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. For them Hazel Motes’ integrity lies in his trying with such vigor to get rid of the ragged figure [i.e. Jesus] […] in the back of his mind. For [me] Hazel’s integrity lies in his not being able to. Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do? I think that usually it does.

In the most culturally counterintuitive way, if she’s right, that is actually good news for all of us. For aren’t even the most faithful and devout among us just as often “Christ-haunted” as we are “Christ-centered,” haunted by the law of love as much as we ever fulfill it? Aren’t we all to some extent Christian malgré luis — Christians in spite of ourselves? We might not be quite as full-on rebellious as Hazel Motes, but most of the time we don’t really want to be saved. We want to save ourselves, to be the captains of our own souls. We keep meaning to be leaning on God, but our M.O. is always self-reliance, not Christ-reliance. And that gets us into all kinds of trouble, again and again, and leads us into all manner of misery. 

Yet God doesn’t ever quite let us go. There is no escape from Him — even in church, or even in the most secular of places on this earth. Humanity can’t quite outrun its longing for God, let alone its ultimate reliance on God. There is a spiritual hunger in us all that’s never cured by self-indulgence or satisfaction, a stubborn hope that’s never cured by our noblest despair. May we thus all find hope in Hazel’s despair, his failure, the slow unraveling of his dream of “cleanness” and self-sufficiency. For it is also our own. 

[Note: This month’s session of the Mockingbird Book Club is coming up this weekend and we’ll be discussing Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. Next month, we’ll be digging into Marilynne Robinson’s latest book, Jack.]