The World Within: Lillian Smith’s Global Journey of Rediscovery

(Based on a lecture presented at Reinhardt University on June 27, 2019)

Lillian Smith is certainly not the most recognizable writer from the South, and now the light from her star is practically imperceptible in a literary sky illuminated by the likes of Faulkner, O’Connor, and Welty. I have written about her life as a writer and civil rights advocate in a previous post. During her lifetime Lillian Smith was a highly acclaimed author, successful businesswoman, a creative educator, and one of the most effective champions of human rights of her generation. She is probably best known for her controversial psychological memoir, Killers of the Dream, a 1949 publication that is still in print and occasionally featured in anthologies of women’s studies, southern literature, and civil rights history. Today, Lillian Smith is generally regarded as a respectable novelist who was among a handful of white liberals fighting racial discrimination in the South during the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. But it is a mistake to limit Smith’s interests, passions, concerns, and influence solely to these parameters. With brutal honesty she exposed and fought injustice everywhere she witnessed it, while maintaining her characteristic Southern manners and eloquence. I would argue that there is no writer from mid-20th-century America whose work is more germane to the crises we face in 2019 around the world than Lillian Smith.

Lillian Smith, 1963; photo by Joan Titus
Lillian Smith, 1963; photo by Joan Titus

Like most people of the South in the early 20th century, and even the nation at large, Lillian Smith grew up in a racially segregated society. She was well schooled in the paradox that characterized Christian teaching of her region and her time, including the Methodist denomination in which she was reared. Jesus loved all the children of the world, but white children were inherently superior to black children. White children played with white children and black children with their own kind. There were white churches and black churches, just as God had intended it to be. These were among the unquestionable manners that made the post-bellum South tolerable to its white citizens who insisted on perpetuating a caste system 25 years after Reconstruction had made their earth tremble. These “truths” were accepted by Lillian’s Smith’s parents, both of whom had descended from slave-owning families.

In her early twenties, Smith studied music intermittently at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, but she ultimately accepted the disappointing reality that her talent was insufficient for her dream of becoming a concert pianist. However, her training at Peabody prepared her for an opportunity that would change Lillian Smith’s perspective on almost everything and challenge all her preconceptions about her homeland. In 1922 at the age of 24, Lillian moved to China where she would remain for the next three years working as a piano teacher at Virginia School, a Methodist mission for girls from wealthy families in the city of Huchow. She was one of about a dozen westerners in a city of 250,000 in what was then a remote part of the country.

While working at Virginia School, Smith reported to a female principal who was liberal in her philosophy and had a deep appreciation for China’s rich culture and resources. Lillian immersed herself in that culture, learning from her students, their families, and from the people of Huchow. She read extensively during this time, exploring Chinese poetry and philosophy. She wandered through Buddhist temples and began to contemplate faith traditions other than Christianity. She also became familiar with the history and current events of India and South Africa. “Suddenly, the whole earth opened to me,” she wrote, “and I saw us as one people, as human beings, all aching for freedom, all longing for knowledge and understanding, all reaching toward the light of truth, all wanting to love and be loved.”

The 1920s were a turbulent time in China. The hopes and aspirations that inspired the Revolution of 1911 and the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty had been crushed shortly after the establishment of the Republic of China. The provisional government became a puppet of strong military leaders and ultimately disintegrated. By the time Smith arrived in 1922, the tenuous government was under a military regime. Ruthless provincial warlords were in command of much of the region, spreading terror as they mounted revolutions and counterrevolutions, exploiting rich and poor alike. Smith learned about the country’s turmoil from people who were intimately involved in the transitions of power. She met the sister-in-law of the President of the provisional government, a woman named Soong Mei-ling, but we are more familiar with the name she adopted after she was married: Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, First Lady of the Republic of China.

It was in this environment that Lillian Smith began to see injustice and affronts to human dignity with fresh eyes. She was horrified by the effects of war on the Chinese people, specifically the lowest class of unskilled laborers, the coolies. She witnessed them being treated no better than slaves by soldiers who came through Huchow. She also recognized that some of the worst indignities were at the hands of Christians, even the people she worked with, who seemed to tolerate blatant abuse. In a letter to her father dated February 23, 1925, Lillian wrote, “All of it makes one wonder how Christians can sit by and say: ‘Of course war is wrong – but’. There is no ‘but’ to it.”

In her letters, essays, and articles, Lillian Smith would return over and over to these painful memories of China. She also had some wonderful memories of the country. During the early 1930s, she worked on a novel about China under the title, And the Waters Flow On, where she was exploring the connection between racism and sexual attitudes in a Chinese setting. Tragically, the manuscript for this novel was later lost in a fire at her home in Clayton. Like other southern writers, Lillian Smith made the connection between sexual attitudes and racism, but she did so with unusual fervor and explicitness. These connections were likely formed in her mind during the China years.

Her experiences in the Far East changed her at a deep level, which as it turns out, was not an unusual phenomenon for Smith’s generation of white southern liberals. Morton Sosna speaks to this pattern in his 1977 book, In Search of the Silent South: Southern Liberals and the Race Issue, published by Columbia University Press. Sosna writes, “An important influence upon Southern liberals was their experiences outside the South.  Even when they returned home, they found that residence elsewhere had added new dimensions to their views about the South’s racial situation.” For Lillian Smith, the parallels between the discrimination on opposites sides of the globe were crystal clear. Sosna continues, “Lillian Smith was shocked by white foreigners, including the missionaries, who established enclaves in China that excluded Chinese. She drew an immediate connection between what was occurring in China and life in her own native South.”

Many years after her return to the states, Lillian Smith continued to express her deep concerns publicly about social injustice, in her native South and elsewhere. She made references to the evils of white supremacy and imperialism in China but also in Russia, Burma, Java, and on the continents of Africa and South America. She stressed that people from around the globe were searching for a democracy that works, one they could trust. In a time where Americans believed their most valuable export was democracy, Lillian Smith said they had to prove they really believed in it by using a language the whole world understands: the democratic act.

She witnessed on the world stage in real time the tragic results of systematic race-based hatred. “It is just possible that the white man is no longer the center of the universe,” she wrote. “It is just possible that even German Nazis, British imperialists, and white southerners will have to accept a fact that has been old news to the rest of the world for a long, long time.” Lillian Smith recognized that the South, by passing and enforcing Jim Crow laws, was trying to buy its future with a figurative currency that no longer existed: Confederate money. She expanded that metaphor when she wrote, “The new world will be found only when the people dream about it. . . .  And when we find it, we must buy it. Not with old Confederate bills of race slavery and prejudice and frustration; no. Not with the imperialistic British pound of arrogant exploitation; nor with blocked marks of madness and hate; nor with violence and death. But with the democracy of the human spirit, with intelligence, with creative understanding, with love, with life itself.”

In his article, “Lillian Smith, Racial Segregation, Civil Rights and American Democracy,” published in the Moravian Journal of Literature and Film in the Fall of 2011, Constante Gonzalez Groba notes that Lillian Smith adopted Gandhi’s view of the negative effect of segregation on the oppressed and the oppressors, a premise that she would return to many times during the struggle for civil rights in the South. According to Groba, Lillian Smith “was one of the first to see the transnational dimensions of the cultural and racial practices of her region, and one of the first to characterize the white dominance of the South as a colonial relationship.”

The outbreak of World War II and the unavoidable involvement of the United States in the global conflict was of great concern to Lillian Smith as it was to most people of her generation. She was not as repulsed by the physical part of war as she was the more permanent effects it had on minds and emotions. To her way of thinking, war was an extreme example of human segregation. She was convinced that the threat from abroad made it even more important for the races in America to understand each other. In a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt from April 7, 1942, Smith wrote, “There is something heartbreakingly valiant about the young of the Negro race, so eager to prove to white America their willingness to die for a country which has given them only the scraps from the white folks’ democracy. There is resentment also; a quiet, strong resentment, running like a deep stream through their minds and hearts; something I think few white Americans are aware of, or want to face.”

Following the war, Lillian Smith made two trips to India. During the summer of 1946, she traveled as a member of Britain’s Famine Commission, an initiative to gain American support for India’s famine victims. Her second trip to the subcontinent in 1954-55 was much more substantive – a six-month visit with financial support from the U.S. State Department to gather material for a book comparing India and China. She had the opportunity to meet Prime Minister Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and a number of other dignitaries, artists, and writers. The book project never materialized, but it is clear from her correspondence after returning from this second trip that Smith had immersed herself in the culture of India, especially the arts.

Given her work in advancing the cause of civil rights, it would be natural to assume that activism was Smith’s greatest passion, but that’s not the case. She expressed on numerous occasions how she disliked struggling against injustice, even racial discrimination. The idea of fighting for a “cause” was rather unappealing to her. She was much more interested in literature, poetry, painting, and music. Her humanitarian efforts were not as much a passion as they were a deep, moral obligation. In a letter to Richard Wright from June 12, 1944, she wrote, “I am not in the least interested in political movements or in being any kind of a reformer or political leader. Hence, I find myself avoiding – too much, I suppose – organizations. I simply want to say what I believe and say it my own way. I have an idea that you feel much the same about this. Because you do, I believe we together might be able to work out some suggestions for other writers that might encourage them to do more creative thinking and writing about our cultural problems, and yet leave them free of any ideological ties.”

By the late 1950s, Smith’s views about democracy and colonialism were reflecting over 35 years of reading and writing about world events and the shifting international political landscape. In the introduction to the 2nd edition of Killers of the Dream from 1961, she observed that Asian and African colonists thirsted for independence but not necessarily Democracy as the U.S. assumed. They wanted equality and would “trample the earth to get it.” They wanted their human rights and their recognition by the United Nations. What they hated and feared more than death were the symbols of oppression: segregation, apartheid, and colonialism. Smith urged Americans to listen to the desires of these young nations, whose leaders she feared may be driven to overcome their hurt dignity with racial supremacy, just as white Southerners embraced White Supremacy during Restoration in mutual hostility toward people of color. “African and Asian nationalists may harness the hatred of tribal hostilities” she said, “and turn it into hatred of whites who continue so stubbornly to think of themselves as superior.”

Lillian Smith boldly spoke out against the injustices of her day, even those occurring in other countries. The most obvious abuse and that which was closest to home for her as a southerner was racial discrimination. She combined her talents as a creative writer and her keen sense of observation to publish persuasive books and articles about the growing civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. Her fiction reflected her sensitivity to prejudice and injustice. Her travels abroad filled Lillian Smith with wonder and excitement, but she also let the experiences mold her conscience as well as her consciousness. She had a more inward view of the words of her contemporary, T. S. Eliot, who in his “Four Quartets” reminded us that after our explorations are over, we arrive back where we started and know the place for the first time. Lillian Smith’s version goes like this: “I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within.”

So Many Books, So Little Time

The title of this post is familiar to reading enthusiasts. We have seen it on mugs, posters, social media memes, etc. I once had a tee-shirt with the slogan printed in multiple colors on navy blue fabric. Serving as a professional librarian for fifteen years of my career, peddling books was my trade. Librarians everywhere through the years have repeatedly attempted unsuccessfully to dispel a popular myth about the profession: librarians spend all their time reading. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have no more time to devote to reading than most other professionals. We spend our time, talents, and energy making sure that our patrons have what they want to read. Libraries have certainly undergone major changes in recent decades, but the central mission of making information available to users is still the same as it was when the Library at Alexandria was established over 2,000 years ago.

I was fortunate to have family members who read to me as a small child and instilled within me an appreciation for books. We had a set of the World Book Encyclopedia even before I started school, and as I learned to read, I spent an increasing number of hours browsing through the volumes. In elementary school, my teachers appointed me as a student library assistant, which probably gave me an early understanding of the importance of libraries.  I was turned on to reading on my own with our Weekly Reader elementary magazines in school. I went through the comic book phase that most young boys did during the 1960s but eventually moved on to science fiction novels as I moved into adolescence. The first lengthy novel I can remember reading in high school was Jaws by Peter Benchley, published in 1974. From that point on, I began to move away from science fiction and toward mainstream fiction. I am forever thankful to my mother for driving me to the central branch of the public library and allowing me to spend so much time perusing the shelves for the next reading adventure.

In addition to three wonderful English teachers in high school, I had several professors in college who helped me develop a thirst for literature. My undergraduate degree was in English, and after going on to get an MA in history, I started my first full-time job in a public library. A few years later, I earned a degree in librarianship. I continued to read classics in literature while also adding works by contemporary writers of serious fiction, with the occasional nonfiction book thrown in as well. It was during this period of my life that I made a conscious decision to devote most of my valuable reading time with either literary classics or contemporary award-winning books. I am willing to spend two or three hours watching a movie just for fun, but typically I want more than just entertainment when committing over ten hours to a book. The major exceptions to this rule are audiobooks and titles associated with my profession, gardening, religion, and science.

As is true with so many aspects of our lives, modern technology has had a tremendous impact on the practice of reading. From the early experiments with electronic books in the 1970s to the e-readers of today, the definition of the book is constantly evolving. My wife bought my first Kindle in 2008, and as much as I love bound pages of print, I was enamored with the device from the moment I downloaded a title, which was The Road by Cormac McCarthy. To read a review of a new book and have it in my hands ready to read in less than 60 seconds is miraculous to me. Yes, there are some disadvantages to e-readers, but to my way of thinking, the benefits far outweigh the shortcomings. For readers who also enjoy traveling, the ability to carry multiple books in the palm of your hand is just about perfect. I am on my fourth Kindle so far.

Book collection
Book collection

In 2010, a dear friend introduced me to Goodreads, my first social media site for readers. To date I have added to my profile 559 books completed over my lifetime, 190 of those since I joined the site. Goodreads is a web community that allows members to share with Friends what they are reading, look at book descriptions, read and write reviews, and see author’s profiles. The site boasts 80 million members worldwide. I primarily use Goodreads to track my own books and to write reviews of what I have read. I also share my reviews and recommendations on other social media sites, primarily Twitter.

I have never been ambitious enough nor had the attention span to have two books going at once — until last year, when I became an Audible subscriber. A subsidiary of Amazon, Audible is an online portal for purchasing, downloading, and listening to audiobooks. It allows customers to search for or browse a large collection of audiobooks, which they can buy using money or membership credits. Users can listen to downloaded titles on computers or mobile devices. I spend a significant amount of time driving, and my car is equipped to play audio files from my phone through its speakers. Now, while I am reading a book in print or on my Kindle at home, I am also listening to an audiobook when I am away from the house. With this new reading approach, I have drastically increased the number of books I am completing. From 2010 to 2017, I was averaging about fifteen books per year. In 2018 alone, I read or listened to 63 books.

According to Forbes magazine, there are anywhere from 600,000 to 1,000,000 books published in the United States each year. Only a small percentage of those will become best-sellers. A much smaller fraction will win the most prestigious awards in the publishing industry, such as the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Even with the expanded capacity provided by audiobooks, I struggle to keep up with reading each year what I consider the best books published that interest me. I have to pick and choose from the award-winners and highly-recommended titles, while working through classics from the past that I still haven’t read. This is a frustrating process for everyone who loves books, but it is a sweet dilemma that comes with the passion.

 

Books for Critical-Thinking Christians

Does the title of this post sound a tad arrogant? Intellectually elitist even? Arrogance is not my intent, and I don’t have an elite intellect. I do have a keen and personal interest in religion generally and Christianity specifically. I was raised on conservative Christian values — the Southern Baptist variety, which is quite fierce. Over the years, my beliefs, practices, and worldview have changed considerably due to education, travel, social interaction, and perhaps above all, reading. The following is an annotated bibliography of authors and books that have influenced my thinking about religion. I offer this suggested reading list for those who want to approach faith from a critical and thoughtful perspective that does not always confirm but instead challenges traditional assumptions about religion.

I have read all or parts of numerous books on world religions, and there are plenty of good introductions by major publishers, especially academic presses like Oxford, Yale, and Cambridge. A book I read not too long ago that addresses religious faith in general is Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief by Huston Smith. No one would question how influential Huston Smith was (he died in December, 2016) in the study of world religions. His book on the subject has sold over 2 million copies since it was first published in 1958. In 2000 he wrote this apologia for religion in the face of the growing post-modern position that faith is no longer necessary in the age of enlightenment. He is a skilled writer, and his prose is certainly accessible, even entertaining. In Why Religion Matters, Smith lays out his case for why religion exists, why it has survived for tens of thousands of years, and why it will continue in spite of opposition from the agnostic and atheistic sector of the scientific community.

I think Smith makes some good arguments, and I tend to agree with him that there is evolutionary evidence for the necessity of religious faith for humans. Where I question Smith is on the broad assumptions and emphatic stands he takes along the way. I also take issue when Smith seems to resort to tired religious clichés and platitudes. As an example, Smith writes: “Scientists would give their eye-teeth to know what the non-material component of photons is. For religionists, it is Spirit.” With this type of dismissive assumption, Smith is falling into the “god of the gaps” trap that atheists so often describe.  At any rate, this book is a good source for lay people (like me) who want to hear justification of faith by someone who spent a lifetime studying the subject.

CHRISTIAN HISTORY

It is probably my interest in history that has attracted me to books on early Christianity, so I add here several titles from well-respected scholars. The Historical Figure of Jesus by E. P. Sanders studies the relationship between Judaism and Christianity, distinguishing the certain from the improbable, and assessing the historical and religious context of Christ’s time. In Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity, Paula Fredriksen explores the religious worlds, Jewish and pagan, of Mediterranean antiquity, through the labyrinth of Galilean and Judean politics, and on into the ancient narratives of Paul’s letters, the gospels, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and Josephus’ histories. Both of these books are dated now but are fine contributions to our understanding of the social and religious contexts within which Jesus of Nazareth moved, and to our appreciation of the mission and message that ended in the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. For a less traditional perspective on the historical Jesus, I recommend The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus by Amy-Jill Levine, who has dedicated her career to helping Christians and Jews understand the Jewishness of Jesus, thereby deepening the understanding of him, and facilitating greater interfaith dialogue.

One of my favorite scholars who enjoyed studying the life and legacy of Jesus is Marcus Borg. He apparently also enjoyed stirring up controversy, along with his frequent co-author, John Dominic Crossan. It isn’t really necessary to provide details of these books here because the subtitles are fairly descriptive. I freely admit a significant bias toward Borg and his approach toward examining the Gospels in a historical context, and I know that many readers will criticize him for recycling material in his books. The man was a master book salesman, and his prose is accessible and thought-provoking.

  • The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Birth
  • The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’s Final Days in Jerusalem
  • Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith
  • Jesus: A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship
  • The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon

A recent title by another scholar whom I respect is The Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire. Bart D. Erhman doesn’t break any new ground here, but as in previous works, he manages to make early Church history more palatable for a large audience. He writes well and can manage to find opportunities to be witty with a subject that is not inherently humorous. Most of what we read here is generally covered in any survey of world civilizations, except in far more detail, which is why the book is worth reading for those of us who are not scholars but are nevertheless interested in history, religion, and the evolution of Christianity. Ehrman takes a direct and well-documented approach to explain why Christianity did indeed triumph over all the long-held religious traditions of the classical world.

THEOLOGY

Again, the titles in this category are not necessarily complex nor heavy. My intent is to introduce books that the rest of us can grasp and appreciate. Some of these would be considered more like apologies than theology, but subject headings are not my focus either. Here are a few books that have had the greatest impact on my thinking.

  • Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
  • The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
  • Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
  • Waiting for God by Simone Weil
  • Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith by Marcus Borg (I told you I was a fan)

I will add a couple of books here that are much more recent than the previous selections. These two titles by Philip Gulley and James Mulholland changed the way I thought about some fundamental tenants of Christian theology. If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person presents a radical departure from traditional teaching for most Christians. The element of this book I found most interesting was the authors’ belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which begs the question: do they believe in the supernatural traditions of other major religions, like the stories surrounding Muhammad or Siddhartha Gautama? I decided to email Philip Gulley and put the question directly to him, and he wrote back! He responded, “Yes, bodily resurrection is an issue with which we both continue to struggle.” I truly admire his honesty. The other book by Gulley and Mulholland I recommend is If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World. As idealistic as the premise of this book is (and perhaps a bit naïve in places), these guys make a compelling argument for how challenging it is to truly embrace the teachings of Jesus and the basic tenants of the major world religions.

RELIGION AND SCIENCE 

In so many ways, the last 250 years of religious thought and practice have been defined by the conflict between religion and science.  My intellectual interests as an adult have been concentrated in these two areas resulting from my heritage and a childhood curiosity about the natural world. Much of my reading that touches on both topics has been in the area of anthropology and evolution. Here are two titles that take a more general and conciliatory approach, one from a scientist and one from a minister. Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life allows science and religion to coexist peacefully in a position of respectful noninterference. Science defines the natural world; religion our moral world in recognition of their separate spheres of influence. More recent scholars have scoffed at Gould’s compromise, especially scientists and humanists, but I still believe the concept is worth considering.

Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion is the fourth book thus far that I have read by Barbara Brown Taylor. It is actually a collection of essays from 2000 that predates the bestsellers by this Episcopal priest who left the ministry to finish her career teaching in the small liberal arts college where I am working now. Taylor was named by TIME magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2014. The principle thesis and the sharp observations in this book are still perfectly relevant. Taylor is a priest with a sincere interest in science, which places her in good company with some of the greatest minds in history going back to the Middle Ages with Thomas Aquinas and up to the 20th century with people like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was both a priest and a scientist. I think Taylor believes in and is always searching for what Teilhard de Chardin named the “Omega Point,” that evolutionary conclusion where God and the physical universe are united, or as some have phrased it, a “divine unification.” To Taylor, God is not superseded by science nor is God made irrelevant by the scientific method. She clings to the idea that science and religion are equally in pursuit of the truth — the former in its exploration and explanation of the physical universe and the latter in its attempts to find meaning and purpose.

AGNOSTICISM AND ATHEISM

A critical study of Christianity is incomplete without the most challenging opinions of all. My fascination with science has led me to scholars and writers who completely dismiss religion as supernatural nonsense at best and dangerous, manipulative propaganda at worst. On any given day, I may find myself in sympathy with their judgments, but I still embrace mystery in the universe that I am not yet convinced science can explain nor dismiss. Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg M. Epstein is a nice overview of how people who do not believe in God live an ethical life, how they are charitable, loving, compassionate, fulfilled, and inspired without religion as their primary motivation. Epstein is obviously trying to soften the message of the irreligious that has been expressed with sarcasm, indignation, and even rudeness by leading atheists. It does seem to me, especially toward the end of the book, that Epstein is attempting to find ways in which humanists can enjoy the worldly fruits of religion through culture and ritual, as if living a humanist life without the type of community that faith offers is empty or disconnected. No doubt, his Jewish heritage is coming into play here, which he fully discloses. Perhaps this perspective also comes out of his role as a humanist chaplain (still an odd title for a humanist in my opinion) at Harvard.

In his cleverly-spelled title, god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Christopher Hitchens is just a bit too unreasonable about the evils of religion in general. Of course, he is correct about so many of the atrocities committed in the name of religion, and I certainly wouldn’t dispute his calculated and logical arguments dispelling the myths that are at the center of religion. However, I maintain that religion seems to be a necessary component for so many humans, as history and other social sciences have firmly demonstrated. He thinks because he has successfully faced facts, reality, mortality, and the cosmos apart from the supernatural, that everyone else should be able to do so as well. Obviously, he is mistaken. And frankly, no amount of evidence or persuasion on his part or that of any other atheist will likely win over the multitudes around the globe who prefer supernatural beliefs about the universe instead of rational, scientific explanations. I suppose he is, nevertheless, compelled to keep trying. Hitchens is as brilliant as any of his contemporaries who have presented the case of atheism.

Speaking of brilliant, it is probably good form to give the last word on critical thinking to one of the leading evolutionary biologists in the world, who also happens to be the most outspoken and popular atheists of the 21st century. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserts the irrationality of belief in God and the grievous harm religion has inflicted on society, from the Crusades to 9/11. As much as I respect Dawkins as a scientist, scholar, and writer, I think he overstates the danger of religious practice. I prefer the more mellow and considerate position of humanists like Greg M. Epstein. However, anyone who truly wants to cover the range of opinions about religion, from pure devotion to intransigent denial, should consider reading this and other books by Richard Dawkins. Oh, and you can’t insult him by calling him the Devil’s advocate — he doesn’t believe in Him either.

(Note: some of the book descriptions in this post were lifted from the Goodreads website.)

Book Reviews: Two by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me
Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me. Some readers will criticize him for his lack of attention to a few basic grammatical rules. Okay, he needs to brush up on the mechanics, as many journalists do. Others may not like his style — the book takes the form of a long message to his son about what it means to be a black man in America. I think it is the perfect approach for his subject, making the book personal, emotional, and thoughtful. It reminds me of the innovation with narrative that the white civil-rights advocate Lillian Smith used in books like Killers of the Dream and Our Faces, Our Words. Coates could do a whole lot worse than follow Smith’s example. In our deeply divided society, this book will be rejected by many readers who have lost patience with what they perceive as a hypersensitive generation coddled by American universities where almost everyone is a victim of mistreatment and therefore has an excuse for irresponsibility. I don’t think Coates has fallen into that trap, either real or imagined. I highly recommend this title to anyone who wants some insights into the struggles of what an African-American colleague described once as “waking up everyday, looking in the mirror, and knowing you are wearing black skin.”

We Were Eight Years In Power
We Were Eight Years In Power

Coates is one of the most powerful voices in the country on identity politics and its ill effects on social justice, most especially for African-Americans. In interviews, Coates has made it clear that he sees little hope for conditions in America to improve with regard to the plight of African-Americans. We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy is a collection of essays, many appearing previously in The Atlantic, that reaffirms that opinion. His vision is definitely pessimistic and perhaps depressing. It would be easy to dismiss Coates as a man made bitter by his own struggles to be heard and to overcome the legacy of bondage that characterizes the black experience in America. But, his analysis is careful and calculating, and to some degree even objective. He is relentless in shining the scorching light on white supremacy and how it has systematically crushed the spirit of African-Americans, even during the Obama administration. Coates now sees white supremacy back on full exhibit, in the open, and he dubs Donald Trump as the “first white president.” The election of Barack Obama clearly set a standard and was perceived by his supporters to alter the course of American history. However, many white Americans distorted that monumental watermark into perversion: “If a black man can be president, then any white man — no matter how fallen — can be president.”

Flannery O’Connor: A Born Writer

“He’s a born politician.” “She’s a born actress.” “He’s a born preacher.” “She’s a born lawyer.” These are examples of an expression I heard often when I was a young man describing someone who seems to possess an innate talent or skill for a profession or avocation. People who excel in this fashion often exhibited certain predispositions at an early age that their family and friends recall and associate with their success. I am not qualified to comment on the influences of DNA over environment in determining aptitude, but most of us can remember that one child who seemed almost obsessed with a certain activity, pursuit, or area of interest and eventually grew up to turn that fixation into a lifelong career.

  • The librarian who as a child organized into collections and sub-collections every single book, DVD, and CD in the house
  • The biology teacher who as a child captured and studied every living creature within a one-mile radius of home and could spout off a half dozen facts about almost any major species
  • The information technologist and software architect who as a child voraciously read encyclopedias and was fascinated by computers and programming (think young Bill Gates)

When I served as the director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation in Milledgeville, Georgia, I frequently gave presentations about O’Connor, which included a brief overview of her life that was cut short at the age of 39 from the effects of lupus. Along with many others who have studied her life and work, I perceived that Flannery O’Connor was indeed a born writer. I’m sure the same case could be made for any number of writers, but I know much more about the childhood of Flannery O’Connor than any other author.

Mary Flannery O’Connor (her full name) was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, and was the only child of Edward and Regina O’Connor.  She was raised by a Catholic family that sometimes viewed children much like small versions of adults, a perspective largely abandoned by the 19th century. Young Mary Flannery thrived in this atmosphere. She was a bold, precocious little girl who took herself quite seriously. She referred to her parents by their first names, not “Daddy” or “Momma.” When he was away from home, her father wrote her affectionate letters that he playfully addressed to “Lord Flannery,” and she would sign her correspondence to him with the same title, addressing them to “King of Siam.”

Young Mary Flannery was encouraged to read, and perhaps the most recognizable photograph from her childhood shows her in profile sitting with a large book in her lap, staring down at the page with a look of determined concentration. She would later use that same fierce gaze to observe the world around her and depict it through a grotesque and outrageous filter. As a young reader she collected a small library of familiar children’s titles and took the liberty of writing brief reviews on the flyleaf or title page of the books. Always assertively opinionated, the young critic praised some books as “First rate,” while others, such as Georgina Finds Herself, she dismissed as “the worst book I have read next to Pinnochio.” It is worth noting that, at the height of her career, Flannery O’Connor wrote more than a hundred book reviews for two Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia. Also, she carried to adulthood her sharp words in assessing the value of books, as is illustrated in her acidic comments about the works of other southern writers such as Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. To put it in today’s vernacular, she was savage.

Not unlike many bright children, Mary Flannery wrote stories from her own imagination. Some of them were about animals with human characteristics, which is a typical theme explored by aspiring young writers. However, she went a few steps further than most children. Not only did she write clever and often hilarious stories, she also illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession. The volume of her published letters, The Habit of Being, includes correspondence to her agent, editors, publishers, and other professionals in the book industry where O’Connor demonstrated shrewd business acumen.

As a high school and undergraduate college student, Mary Flannery turned her artistic energy to cartoons, which she created through sketching and drawing but more elaborately through printing with linoleum blocks. Although she ended up in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under the direction of Paul Engle, she initially entered graduate school at Iowa thanks to a scholarship in journalism — she intended to pursue a career as a cartoonist. O’Connor’s biting satire and wicked humor were clearly developing even as a cartoonist, not just in the illustrations, but perhaps even more so in the captions. Some critics have argued that, as a mature fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor continued to exhibit the eye of a cartoonist in the creation of her most exaggerated characters. Little wonder that, when asked why her stories were so shocking, O’Connor explained “for the almost blind, you draw large and starling figures.”

In the private journals Flannery O’Connor kept as a college student, she undoubtedly believed that being an artist was so much more than a career choice.  It was a vocation. As she focused her attention toward writing, O’Connor yearned for her work to be used by God. She wanted to craft stories that would miraculously reveal God’s grace. As she matured into one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, she became less sentimental, but she never lost her appreciation for the mystery of art as it is interpreted by the Church, to which she remained devoted for the rest of her life. Perhaps she returned to the intensity of her younger years. She certainly became much more confident. When repeatedly asked why she decided to become a writer, without hesitation O’Connor always replied, “Because I’m good at it.”

Most of us get some level of education and eventually find a job that, with any luck, will get us out of our parents’ hair and their bank accounts. We will end up with about five different full-time jobs before we finally clock out for the last time, and our career paths will largely be determined by factors such as education, employment opportunities, salary, family obligations, and just plain old simple fate. But for a select few, a seed will be planted at a very early age that will germinate into a thriving métier that brings with it fulfillment and a deep sense of purpose. The term from my Southern Baptist heritage was “a calling.” The vocation of writing for Flannery O’Connor required serious devotion, discipline, sacrifice, and a form of genius that appears only a few times in each generation of artists. She was born with an incredible gift, which she carefully and skillfully nurtured, and her readers are the fortunate beneficiaries.

Lillian Smith: One Writer’s Brave Journey

Lillian Smith was a highly-acclaimed writer, successful business woman, a creative educator, an early civil rights advocate, and one of the most effective champions of social justice in the 20th century. She is probably best known for her controversial psychological memoir, Killers of the Dream, a 1949 publication that is still in print and occasionally excerpted in anthologies of women’s studies, southern literature, and civil rights history. Her best-selling first novel, Strange Fruit, was published in 1944 and told the story of an inter-racial love affair in a rural Georgia town shortly after World War I. Although she lived most of her life in Georgia, Smith was born in 1897 about 90 miles east of Tallahassee in the small town of Jasper, in Hamilton County, Florida.   She was the seventh of the nine children of Calvin Warren Smith and Anne Simpson Smith. The town of Jasper was founded in the 1830s, but it really didn’t begin to grow until shortly before Lillian was born with a rich trade in turpentine, tobacco, cotton, and pine lumber. Calvin Smith was one of the entrepreneurs in the area who capitalized on that trade with his business ventures in lumber and naval stores.

Lillian Smith (left) and Marjorie White
Lillian Smith (left) and Marjorie White

Lillian Smith spent all her childhood and the better part of her teenage years in this town. On many occasions throughout her life, she introduced herself with a story from her childhood years in Jasper, a story she later titled “Trembling Earth.” She said the land in North Florida is strange. She described it as “a thin little island that is hung on to the Okefenokee Swamp and hung on to the Georgia Islands and hung on to Alabama.” It felt like the ground was floating. Much later, as a seasoned writer, Lillian Smith used this image to describe the human experience: “I wonder if the whole, everything that happens to a human being is just like trembling earth? Is it all floating on something that we’ll never know, something unknown and mysterious?”

There’s little doubt that her years in Jasper shaped Lillian’s worldview for the rest of her life. As she put it, “No one could read my books without finding these early signs of my childhood,” which included telling stories to her friends, like Marjorie White. For a story to become vividly real, it needs a listener, and Marjorie played that role very well. As Lillian put it, “Her heart was lonely for what my heart was lonely for.” Near the end of her life, Lillian confided in a friend that when her family moved from Jasper when she was 17, the whole town was all frozen for her – she could go back in her mind and see all of it, and in a sense, she never left it.

When his Florida businesses failed in 1915, Calvin Smith moved the family to the small town of Clayton, in northeast Georgia, where he had recently acquired property on Old Screamer Mountain in his wife’s name and where the Smiths soon opened a summer camp for girls. During the 1915-16 academic year, Lillian Smith attended a small college thirty miles south of Clayton in Demorest, Georgia, called Piedmont College. Many years later, Smith wrote about her short tenure at the institution and expressed her gratitude for the fine instructors she had, some of whom were trained at prestigious universities such as Harvard, Oberlin, Smith, and Cornell. Although she was offered a scholarship to continue at Piedmont for the next year, family obligations prevented her from returning.

In her early twenties, Smith studied music at Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and in her mid-twenties she served as the head of the music department in a Methodist mission school for girls in China. She witnessed terrible cruelty and repeated examples of discrimination and injustice. In her letters, essays, and articles, Lillian Smith would return over and over to these painful memories of China. With the demands of the growing summer camp operated by her family, Lillian Smith was obligated to leave China and return to Georgia in 1925 to help with the operation. She had different ideas from her father on how the camp should be structured, and with her parents’ blessing, she soon became the owner and director of the family-run business: Laurel Falls Camp for Girls. Moving far beyond the traditional hallmarks of summer camps, such as swimming, horseback riding, archery, arts, and crafts, Lillian Smith created a female community at Laurel Falls that challenged Southern conventions of gender, sexuality, religion, and race.

Through writing, drama, music, visual arts, and in-depth discussions, she instilled within her campers the importance of independent thinking, compassion, and confidence. Very few camp directors in the South were as bold as Lillian Smith in confronting the issues of segregation and racial inequality. Laurel Falls Camp continued through the late 1940s and developed quite a reputation. Lillian Smith did not manage the camp alone. A woman named Paula Snelling came to work for the Smith family for the summer of 1921 as an athletic director for the camp.  The two women formed a close friendship after Smith returned home and took over the camp, an intimate and loving relationship that developed and grew into a life-long partnership.

Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling
Lillian Smith (right) and Paula Snelling

Lillian Smith was diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 1953. Later that year, her third book, titled The Journey, was published. The book expresses the author’s hope for humanity and her belief in our infinite possibilities. The final paragraph of the book begins with this sentence that exemplifies this optimistic vision: “To believe in something not yet proved and to underwrite it with our lives: it is the only way we can leave the future open.” Smith would go on to publish several more books, fiction and nonfiction, and numerous articles and essays on social justice and racial equality, all of which were written from her home on Screamer Mountain. She died on September 28, 1966 and was buried there. Paula Snelling suffered a stroke in 1979 that left her partially paralyzed.  She died in 1985.

Lillian Smith
Lillian Smith

Lillian Smith boldly spoke out against the injustices of her day, even those occurring in other countries. The most obvious abuse and that which was closest to home for her as a southerner was racial discrimination. She combined her talents as a creative writer and her keen sense of observation to publish persuasive and powerful books and articles about the growing civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century. So many of the words we read from her works are just as relevant today as they were sixty years ago.

Pilgrims to Andalusia, the Home of Flannery O’Connor

During the thirteen years that I served as the director of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, I had the privilege of meeting thousands of fans of this gifted writer. They came from every state in the country and from almost every continent around the globe. O’Connor is one of those rare authors whose work attracts an amazingly diverse audience. On any given day at Andalusia farm, we might have welcomed a busload of World War II generation grandparents in the morning followed in the afternoon by college students dressed all in black with spiked hair, black fingernail polish and lipstick, tattoos on all visible surfaces, and metal piercings decorating their faces who would walk in the door and say, “Flannery O’Connor is so kick-ass!” Her fan base covers almost every segment of society: straight, LGBTQ, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist (one of our largest donors was an atheist biology professor), Democrat, Republican, alt left and right, blue and white collar, and readers representing all income levels. Her books have been translated into at least twenty different foreign languages, indicating the cultural diversity of her following too.

What draws readers to O’Connor’s work, and why do they travel great distances to visit Andalusia, the place where she finished all of her published books? From my standpoint, there are only a few definitive answers but plenty of speculation. When we welcomed visitors to the farm, the first question we asked them was, “How did you find out about Andalusia?” Their answer would usually give us some clues of how to structure their tour to give them the best experience possible. If their response was, “We just saw the sign on the road and wondered what was back here,” then we would give them plenty of biographical information to introduce them to O’Connor’s life and the significance of her contributions to American literature. If on the other hand they told us that they had been teaching O’Connor’s work for 25 years and had always wanted to see the place that inspired her fiction, we would go in a different direction, encouraging them to ask questions that would satisfy their curiosity about O’Connor’s environs.

Andalusia, Home of Flannery O'Connor
Andalusia, Home of Flannery O’Connor

Anyone who has read O’Connor’s fiction even once immediately recognizes that her characters are particularly odd and not altogether admirable, which is probably the most polarizing point for her readers. Consequently, there are few lukewarm reactions to O’Connor’s stories; people either hate them or absolutely adore them. The haters walk away puzzled at why the lovers become nearly obsessed. Many of the die-hard fans who visited Andalusia had a mission to locate every place on the property that supposedly appears in the stories: the hayloft where Hulga lost her wooden leg; the milking parlor where Asbury drank the unpasteurized milk; the equipment shed with its tractor that ran over Mr. Guizac; and the white water tower in “A Circle in the Fire.” Other admirers weren’t as fascinated with such direct physical connections but were nevertheless impressed with how the farm clearly served as an inspiration for the fiction. O’Connor is revered by so many writers, some of whom made the pilgrimage to Andalusia while I was there: Allan Gurganus, Padgett Powell, and Salman Rushdie were among them.

Who else visited Andalusia and why? Here is where the story becomes more intriguing and just a tad O’Connoresque. A few examples may shed some light on how wide the spectrum was and render a snapshot of the author’s devotees. The true pilgrims were the visitors who regarded O’Connor and her home with a certain sense of reverence, like the woman who stepped up to the front porch and asked me if she should remove her shoes before entering the house, as if she were about to tread on holy ground. I assured her that I always kept my shoes on in and outside the house. Those who were specifically drawn to O’Connor’s use of grace bestowed, if not slammed, on her characters truly considered Andalusia to be a place of religious significance.  This was especially the perspective of practicing Catholics and most notably clergy, like the two priests who requested to hold a prayer vigil in the guest bedroom on the second floor where they would be less likely disturbed by, or be disturbing to, other visitors. They were up there for an hour. I was impressed with their stamina — the room was hotter than three hells in the summer, which was the time they elected to visit, in full black vestments.

A common observation shared by so many Andalusia visitors was a sense of the author’s spirit being present in the main house and on the property. For some this was merely a recognition that the authenticity of the place — buildings, furniture, and furnishings original to O’Connor’s time at the farm — helped them somehow feel closer to its famous occupant. Of course, we also had our fair share of ghost hunters and paranormal investigators who, for reasons that defy understanding, believe that the departed with celebrity status are more easily detected than your run-of-the-mill homeowner. I have never understood why ghost hunters don’t spend more time at hospitals, the very place where so many people pass on to the “next plane of existence.” I could usually tell if a visitor had high hopes for a Poltergeist encounter by the familiar question, “So, did she die in the house?” She did not. She died in the hospital.

Some of our guests went the extra mile to make their visit to Andalusia a truly memorable experience. A couple of folk singers recorded an original song on the front porch. Artists painted landscapes and farm buildings. Writers drafted stories while sitting in the iris gardens. Photographers snapped shots everywhere their eyes pulled them. One young woman was so taken by the beauty of the place while she was attending the college in town, O’Connor’s undergraduate alma mater, that she decided to have her wedding on the front lawn under the enormous oak trees, complete with peacock feathers in her hair. (O’Connor raised many different breeds of domestic birds, but peacocks are the species so identified with her life at Andalusia.)

O’Connor fans have found inventive ways to demonstrate their devotion to the author, from naming their daughters “Flannery” to having elaborate tattoos of peacock feathers permanently decorating their bodies. It was a pleasure to meet them all and to hear them share their admiration for this comic genius. Some made great sacrifices to pay homage to O’Connor at Andalusia, like the four scholars from Japan who spent most of a Saturday at the farm. When I asked what brought them to the states, the only one who could speak any English at all looked at me with a surprised expression and then smiled warmly and said, “Flannery O’Connor.  This place.” I was moved.

Flannery O'Connor's bed
Flannery O’Connor’s bed

The impact that O’Connor’s work had on some visitors’ lives was immediately apparent when they walked in the front door of the main house. Their countenance, their excitement, and their strong emotions spoke volumes. Several claimed that O’Connor had drawn them to the Catholic Church. Others credited O’Connor for launching their vocations as writers, artists, teachers, or ministers. It is rather ironic that a writer who has brought great joy to so many readers also endured great suffering for the last third of her 39 years as lupus slowly took away her life. This is an inescapable part of her story that no sensitive visitor to Andalusia would ever miss. I watched big, burly men apologize to me as they wept standing at the doorway of O’Connor’s first-floor bedroom where she slept and worked. No need to be sorry — I cried too, more than once.