How Flannery O’Connor Became Human to Me

In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the day I accepted an offer from the lawyer representing the executors of the estate of the late author, Flannery O’Connor, to work for the executors to establish the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation. Among other objectives, this nonprofit organization would be charged with preserving Andalusia, the farm where O’Connor lived the last 13 years of her life and where she completed her published books. The year was 2000, and I was serving as the director of the local public library. I had been a devoted fan of O’Connor from the time I had studied her work as an undergraduate English major at her alma mater, Georgia College. The institution was called Georgia State College for Women during the time Mary Flannery O’Connor was there in the 1940s. She was larger than life, as so many writers of fine literature are to me. I was in complete awe that someone could write a novel like Wise Blood at the age of 27. She is considered an artistic genius by critics, an intellectual force by most scholars, and even a candidate for sainthood by some of her fellow Catholics. She was almost mythical in my imagination.

Flannery O'Connor
Flannery O’Connor

I spent most of 2001 working with memorabilia and artifacts associated with O’Connor’s life and career as a writer. O’Connor’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor, donated a collection of material to Georgia College six years after the author died. This gift included many of the manuscripts from O’Connor’s published works, along with much of her personal library. However, Regina O’Connor held onto a considerable archive of books, manuscripts, published and unpublished letters, photographs, visual art, cartoons, sketches, journals, notebooks, business and personal records, and juvenilia. I was charged with sorting through and organizing the archive, creating an inventory, and preserving the items using archival containers and methods of storage. The vast majority of that remaining archive is now reposited at Emory University in Atlanta.

I sifted through hundreds of images of O’Connor in posed and candid photographs from infancy to shortly before her death from lupus at age 39. Particularly touching were pictures of her as a young child with her father, Edward, who also died from lupus when she was only 15 years old. I held in my hands the cartoons and sketches that O’Connor created while she was in high school and college, with characters and captions that foreshadowed the wicked humor so central to her fiction as a seasoned writer. I read every letter to her mother when O’Connor was away at graduate school in Iowa, some of which revealed strong emotions as she seemed to be searching for her own voice and an identity independent of the Cline family based in Georgia and Massachusetts. I read through her personal journals where she articulated deep feelings, thoughts, and struggles. I suspect she would be more than embarrassed to know that one of those journals has been published as a monograph.

When the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation was officially established in 2002, the board of directors hired me as the organization’s executive director. I collaborated with professionals to design plans for restoring and preserving the farm and launched a campaign to raise money for the work ahead, which was monumental considering the farm was 544 acres with a main house that was not exactly in stellar shape and a dozen outbuildings in various stages of serious deterioration. While preparing the main house for public tours, I touched or picked up almost every object in the two-story 19th century structure, including many of Flannery O’Connor’s personal effects that had been left in the house for over three decades: medicine bottles, paint brushes, clothing, furniture, furnishings, Catholic paraphernalia, and of course, her crutches.

Main house at Andalusia
Main house at Andalusia

Honestly, I felt a bit uncomfortable at times in O’Connor’s private space, even decades after her death. I always tried to be respectful and mindful of the intrusion, necessary as it was. I arranged her bedroom/study as much as possible to the way Robert Fitzgerald described it in his introduction to O’Connor’s posthumous short story collection, Everything That Rises Must Converge. He had visited Andalusia shortly after the author died. He described the austere conditions under which O’Connor had written some of the best fiction of the 20th century. Indeed, I always sensed a certain ascetic atmosphere whenever I walked into that room.

Sadly enough, when a diagnosis of lupus forced her back from Connecticut to live at Andalusia with her mother, Flannery O’Connor faced a situation where privacy was almost impossible.  A plaster wall with a connecting door separated her bedroom from her mother’s. The young writer had to adapt the first-floor sitting room on the main floor into her bedroom/study because the steep steps would have made walking upstairs an insurmountable challenge for her. The two women shared the only bathroom on the first floor. They ate almost every meal together, many of which were at the kitchen table. During the time I was working at the property, the kitchen was still equipped with the same table, sink, stove, cupboard, and the Hotpoint refrigerator O’Connor purchased with proceeds from the sale of the television rights to her short story, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own.”

Andalusia Farm kitchen
Andalusia Farm kitchen

The house still contained much of what the O’Connors had when they lived there. The curtains that her mother had sewn while O’Connor was away on a speaking engagement were still covering the tall windows, clearly a hasty job performed by an otherwise gifted seamstress to avoid objections by the room’s unamenable occupant. On the mantle above the room’s fireplace, small photographs of grandparents in tarnished frames were nestled in with an assortment of novelties and knickknacks, several of which may have been gifts from some of her more unconventional long-distance friends.

Still hanging precariously in the bedroom window was the heavy air conditioner that O’Connor told one of her correspondents was an office supply, which she intended to write off her taxes. If the IRS questioned her, she had decided to argue that it “supplied” her office with cool air and was therefore a legitimate deduction. The humid summers of middle Georgia can be brutal and oppressive without air conditioning. Installed at the opening of the fireplace was a propane gas heater, which likely produced insufficient warmth on the coldest nights of the year to comfort O’Connor’s aching joints, under constant assault from disease and the effect of steroid treatments. She hated bitter cold temperatures, not only because of the physical pain they brought, but because they often resulted in frozen and burst pipes – no water, no plumbing. I can personally attest to the inadequacy of space heaters, which we were still using to heat the drafty old house while I was working there. The frigid air seeping in around the windows and doors and up through the hardwood floors chilled me to the bone. On some days, I wore two pairs of socks and thermal underwear in my office, formerly Regina O’Connor’s bedroom.

Mrs. O’Connor moved back into the Cline family home in town shortly after her daughter’s death, and the main house at Andalusia was never fully occupied again. No one was attempting to keep it clean or regulate the temperature. Regular maintenance was no longer a priority, although family members renovated the back portion of the house, replaced the roof, and rebuilt the front porch in the 1990s. The two-over-two spacious front rooms of the house, which included O’Connor’s bedroom, were mostly closed off for about 35 years. Time was not kind to the interior. Paint peeled and chipped away from the surfaces. The walls cracked, and in some places chunks of the horsehair plaster fell on furniture or to the floor. Insects took up permanent residence, along with the spiders who fed upon them and filled curtains and corners with cobwebs.

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

I worked at Andalusia for 13 years, the same amount of time that Flannery O’Connor lived there. I was alone in the main house a lot of that time, especially before the visitor traffic picked up and the foundation hired a part-time staff member to assist with tours and other tasks. His name is Mark Jurgensen, and he was a lifesaver. During those 13 years, I don’t know how many times, probably hundreds, I paused at the doorway of O’Connor’s bedroom and contemplated what her life must have been like at Andalusia. My eyes wandered around that room with its small bed, beautiful barrister bookcases, reading chair, and the crutches leaning against the wardrobe. O’Connor stared at the back panels of that piece of wooden furniture that served as her closet for several hours each morning at her typewriter, with only a brilliant imagination to assist her in crafting such powerful stories, letters, essays, and speeches.

I thought about the physical challenges she faced, the emotional and mental anguish she must have endured, perhaps the occasional sense of despair, the hopes and dreams she shared with no one, the doubts that surely surfaced, and the questions that remained unanswered to the very end. I am not superstitious. I tend to discount the metaphysical. I could never embrace the faith that was central to O’Connor’s understanding of the universe. And yet, there were moments when I genuinely sensed her presence in that place, not as a spirit or a ghost as so many visitors to Andalusia were ever hopeful to encounter. For me, the presence was a memory of someone I had never met. It was the manifestation of a courageous woman with an unusual name whose fictional characters were so bizarre, yet I recognized them immediately. It was the reflection of a living, breathing person, with all the flaws and imperfections inherent in our species, but one with a remarkable gift that is rarely exhibited or nurtured. For so many of us who have trouble hearing and seeing clearly, what she left behind is extraordinary.

Note: Andalusia is now one of several historic properties of Georgia College, which is responsible for its preservation and interpretation. Learn more at https://www.gcsu.edu/andalusia

Georgia College is also host to the Andalusia Institute, a public arts and humanities center that supports Flannery O’Connor scholarship, nourishes writing and the creative arts, and engages community members with the arts and humanities. Learn more at https://www.gcsu.edu/andalusiainstitute

Recommended Reading List: African American History and Race Relations

From the silent protests of athletes like Colin Kaepernick to the massive ground swelling of the Black Lives Matter movement, examples of discontent and outrage are growing in reaction to systemic racial injustice in the United States. Understanding and facing these challenges requires historical context – how we got to this dark place – and analysis from scholars and journalists who follow the issues closely and are gifted with the ability to explain the problems and offer possible solutions. The following annotated bibliography is in no way intended to be exhaustive. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of the books that have been published in recent years on African American history and race relations. It is simply a list of books I can honestly recommend because I have read them and think they are representative of the topic.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Although she is not the first person to write about America’s caste system, Wilkerson probably has better examples and research to support her conclusions than did previous writers on the subject, especially after the presidency of Donald Trump. She makes a compelling argument for why we need to dig much deeper than race and class to understand the complexities of white privilege, discrimination, injustice, prejudice, poverty, and a whole host of other societal ills in America.

She draws comparisons to the ancient caste system in India to explain how arbitrary lines are drawn between groups of people that are irrational, indefensible, and immoral. She illustrates the paradox of a country that was founded on liberty and justice for all that at the same time enslaved people for 250 years of its history and continued to enforce a segregated society, often with horrible acts of violence, long after slavery was abolished. The chapter describing how the Nazis in Germany used the rhetoric and Jim Crow policies of the United States to construct their own pogroms is chilling and painful.

One of the major strengths of this book is Wilkerson’s use of metaphors to describe how the caste system in America originated and continues to be perpetuated by the dominant caste: the power base mostly of European descent. She uses a neglected house as a symbol of how the caste system has slowly but effectively compromised the structure of American society, eating away at its foundation and crumbling its walls. The inevitable result will eventually be a pile of rubble if we continue to avoid the problem.

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

What a fine book. Not only does Gates bring a mountain of research to the table, but he also offers insight and thoughtful commentary based on decades of reading, thinking, teaching, and writing about Reconstruction and the Redemption period in American history that encompasses almost 100 years following the formal end of slavery. This topic has been covered to some degree by several scholars in recent years, with Doug Blackmon being the first to come to mind. I think what sets this book apart is the examination and analysis of the concept of the New Negro as it was proposed and argued by the major figures of African American society in the late 19th century and moving through the period now referred to as the Harlem Renaissance: W. E. B. DuBois, Frederick Douglas, and Booker T. Washington.

Gates recently published a book titled The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which is a wonderful history of African American religious communities and a study of how churches served much more than just places of worship. I am currently reading the book and cannot review it properly yet, but I do highly recommend it.

White Man’s Heaven: The Lynching and Expulsion of Blacks in the Southern Ozarks, 1894-1909 by Kimberly Harper

Harper presents a thoroughly researched and well documented scholarly study that helps explain why the southwestern Ozarks is such a white region of the country. Lynching occurred in many places across the South, and obviously, into the Midwest. Many white people who had lived during the time of slavery, whether they actually owned slaves or not, resented the new autonomy of black people in their communities during Restoration. Over the decades, resentment evolved into a fear. Obviously, much of the paranoia centered on the perceived sexual predation of black men. “It was believed that women were not safe in the country or the city, so long as African American men roamed free.”

However, Harper goes beyond the acts of horrible white mob violence to explore why African Americans were driven out of communities, often at the same time lynching took place. Similar action was taken in other parts of the country — Forsyth County in north central Georgia comes to mind. Other areas of north Georgia, especially in the Appalachian foothills, still have small black populations to this day. This book is a fine addition to American history and African American studies.

White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity by Robert P. Jones

Well, this was painful . . . and so relevant. Jones is armed with a searing spotlight that reveals how Christianity in America was nurtured and sustained by white supremacy throughout its history and is still embracing it today. With compelling data, careful research, and thoughtful commentary, Jones forces readers to confront how racial discrimination and social injustice are far more prevalent in all denominations of Christianity than most people are willing to admit, including clergy and elected officials.

One of the lightbulb moments for me in this book was the realization that people who do horrible things while also identifying as Christians, are indeed Christians by the way our society defines it. He uses the horrific case of Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot and killed nine African Americans during a Bible study session at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015. This young man was an active member of his Lutheran church and frequently posted Bible verses and Christian doctrinal messages through social media and his personal documents. He justified his actions with his Christian beliefs. As Jones astutely observes, if Roof had killed white Christians and had been attending a mosque and posting verses from the Koran, how many white Americans would have denied that he was a Muslim? Roof is a Christian terrorist, and the justification for his violence is directly linked to white supremacy. And, he is not alone in that twisted mindset.

The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X by Les Payne and Tamara Payne

I had a pre-conceived image of someone who was much more violent than Malcolm X actually was based on this book. I was intrigued with how the man born Malcolm Little evolved from being a petty criminal, often robbing even members of his own family, to become an intellectual force to be reckoned with by the U.S. government and even foreign powers. It may not be fair to say that a few years in prison turned his life around. It would even be a weak cliché; however, there is no doubt that some of the relationships he developed with older mentors he met while in prison had a tremendous impact on his self-awareness, his belief system, his intelligence, his understanding of racial inequality, and his vision for the future of African Americans.

It was also interesting to watch how he eventually abandoned his complete devotion to Elijah Muhammad as the head of the political organization, Nation of Islam, to pursue his own leadership role within the framework of Islam as a world religion. Leaving the NOI and speaking out against it precipitated his violent death. Before he died, Malcolm moved to the forefront in the fight for civil rights and was unapologetic about the means employed to overcome racial injustice. Malcolm X had no patience for pacifists who advocated a moderate approach. He wasn’t asking for justice — he demanded it.

Malcolm’s parents were heavily influenced by the separatist and sovereign ideas for people of color espoused by Marcus Garvey, which probably led Malcolm to make distinctions between segregation and separation. The former was imposed, but the latter was voluntary and desirable — a fascinating perspective. He wanted to see black people become completely independent of white influence, dominance, and charity. His disdain for white people (white devils, as he called them) waned toward the end of his life, but he never felt compelled to be conciliatory or to make excuses for racial discrimination and the privileged white society that perpetuated it. Nobody could ever mistake Malcolm X for a “team player,” and his vision for black people presented a stark contrast to that of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Revised Edition) by Michelle Alexander

Alexander presents us with a comprehensive and disturbing study of how mass incarceration resulting from the “war on drugs” in America has disproportionately imprisoned people of color in comparison to whites. As a well-trained attorney, she presents a mountain of evidence to argue her case, using quotes and testimonies from a wide array of historical and contemporary figures along with hard data and heartbreaking stories. No segment of American society escapes her stinging indictment: blacks and whites; conservatives and liberals; rich, poor, and middle class; champions of the Civil Rights Movement; and modern political figures, all the way up to Barack Obama (the book was published in 2010). This is an important book that deserves serious consideration by decision makers at almost every level of government, and especially those who are in any way connected to the criminal justice system.

Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman, Jr.

To some degree, Forman’s book takes up where The New Jim Crow leaves off. Understanding mass incarceration of black people at the hands of a legal system that is dominated by white people is not too difficult, but the situation gets cloudy when it happens in cities across the country that are largely governed by black people. In Forman’s experience as a public defender, Washington D.C. is a model city for the disturbing phenomenon. Using personal accounts from his own case files and extensive research into the historical developments that bred the “war on drugs” and “war on crime,” Forman carefully examines why the arc of the moral universe is longer than Martin Luther King, Jr. may have imagined, and it doesn’t seem to be bending very much toward justice for people of color.

Critics will argue that, first and foremost, breaking the law is not justified simply because we don’t like the laws and that black people cannot expect a pass just because they find themselves in difficult circumstances that often leave them with few options other than criminal activity. They will likely argue that Forman is proving the point that race is not a factor at all, especially since black people are arrested and convicted by black officers and judges. However, Forman digs deeper than the surface appearances to uncover complicated and nuanced systemic issues that lead to discrimination and inequality on our streets, in our courts, and in our prisons.

I had the opportunity to sit next to Professor Forman at a luncheon when he was honored with a Lillian E. Smith Book Award in 2018 for his work. His own life story is fascinating; his methods of teaching law are innovative and inspiring; and his passion for justice is akin to a minister’s drive to lead his congregation. He even sounds slightly like a preacher when he talks about the topic of this book. Readers will have to judge if he presents a convincing argument, but I don’t believe anyone can doubt his conviction.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson

This is such a compelling story from the man who leads up the organization that most recently brought us the Legacy Museum and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice (the lynching memorial, as many are calling it) in Montgomery, Alabama. I was particularly drawn to Stevenson’s reflections near the end of the book in the chapter titled “Broken.” He observes how our society has legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we surrender to the harsh instinct to crush those among us who are most visibly injured by circumstances that are in many cases beyond their control. Stevenson explains that we are all broken, but we are not defined solely by the mistakes we have made.

“I am more than broken. In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.”

Robert E. Lee and Me: A Southerner’s Reckoning with the Myth of the Lost Cause by Ty Seidule

Ty Seidule has written a book that immediately and unequivocally transformed him into a heretic in the eyes of many Americans, especially those in the South. It takes amazing courage for a southerner who is also a decorated officer of the U.S. Army and a retired history professor at West Point to openly and very publicly admit that Robert E. Lee committed treason and should be viewed as a traitor to his country. And that’s exactly what Ty Seidule has done. I applaud his bravery and the extensive research he has completed to make that claim. This is a damn fine book, not because it covers new ground or reveals any real hidden truths, but because it says what has needed to be heard and understood for a very long time by someone in a position of authority who deserves respect and serious consideration.

Seidule has heard every excuse in the book for why the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, for why the Confederacy didn’t really lose the war, and for why Robert E. Lee was such an honorable man. For the first 20+ years of his life, he believed the excuses too. He probably doesn’t give quite enough credit to his wife for finally helping him escape the vortex of Confederate mythology. She forced him to question what it means to be a “Christian Southern Gentleman,” something he had aspired to from childhood through his graduation from Washington and Lee University, an institution that has been responsible more than any other place for perpetuating the cult of Robert E. Lee. His definitions of Christianity and gentleman have drastically changed through the years, and his perception of the South is much clearer than it was when he was a young man.

This book should be required reading in just about every college and university in the South, and even in many other parts of the country where the Civil War is still romanticized beyond recognition for what it truly was: a rebellious uprising against the United States of America. Seidule spends a lot of time talking about the impact of the novel and movie “Gone With the Wind,” which is appropriate; however, I wish he had given some attention to the earlier movie, “Birth of a Nation,” especially in his discussions of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the most striking arguments he makes concerns the inaccurate terminology that has been used for generations to describe the Civil War, including the ridiculous names for the conflict itself, from “the recent unpleasantness” to “the war of northern aggression.”

He also makes a convincing point about how using the term “Union” is an inappropriate way to describe the U.S. Armed Forces while they fought against the Confederacy, as if the Union were some entity separate from the United States. That distinction brings us back to the problem with Robert E. Lee, who abandoned his commission as an officer of the U.S. Army and chose to side with a rebellious confederacy of states – a domestic enemy against whom Lee had sworn to protect his country. In the end, Lee was more loyal to the State of Virginia and the other southern states than he was to the United States, and that makes him a traitor. And it’s about time southerners and the rest of the nation came to terms with that stinging but absolutely honest indictment.

A Surprising Concurrence of Events

Perci Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller are two mathematicians who published a study in 1989 exploring the science behind coincidence, which they defined as “a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection.” They observed how coincidences “can alter the course of our lives; where we work and at what, whom we live with, and other basic features of daily existence . . . .” Lately, I have been contemplating the surprising concurrence of events that has led me to where I am now in 2020, at the age of 60, and approaching what I hope will be the final third of my life.

I have happily admitted on many occasions that I am the luckiest man I have ever met. Usually, I am referring to the good fortune of being married to my amazing wife, whom I adore and cherish. I also know that a series of key events and decisions over the last 55 years has determined the path I have taken in my career, and I couldn’t have predicted at an early age how rewarding this journey would be. Of course, there are plenty of people who have had similar experiences and have advanced so much further in their professions than I ever will. I also know that the success I have enjoyed is not completely due to my knowledge, talent, and skills – not by a long shot. Again, I am a lucky guy.

I can almost see my vocational journey as a hiking trail, with switchbacks and long winding stretches, ups and downs, a few chance encounters, forks in the path, even a few rocky sections, all of which have led me to this place. How much is serendipity and how much is deliberate, I can’t say with any certainty. Perhaps the trailhead took the form of a set of The World Book encyclopedia our family purchased in the early 1960s, when I was a young child. I can’t remember how old I was when I started thumbing through the pages to look at the photographs and illustrations, but it was definitely before I started school. The World Book gave me an early appreciation for books and reading, for independent learning, and even for order – the set was arranged alphabetically, as were the articles within each bound volume.

The first marker on the trail was likely my assignment as a library assistant in elementary school. I have no recollection why either my teacher or our school librarian selected me for this responsibility, but I vividly remember removing cards from the pockets of books checked out by my classmates, using a stamp to imprint the due date on the card and the slip in the book, and filing the card in an oblong wooden box (likely with the librarian’s help). At an early age, I was granted opportunities to fall in love with books and reading, which I did. Like many adolescent boys of my generation, I became an enthusiastic fan of science fiction books by writers who defined the genre for the 20th century, such as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Clifford D. Simak.

My love of libraries mirrored my love for reading at an early age, and I visited them as often as I could. I must have had a natural appreciation for language, and the classes in high school where I performed best were in English. I was fortunate to have three outstanding English teachers from 7th through 12th grade. I attended a small high school, and I had each of these teachers for two years. They made grammar interesting for me, and they helped me appreciate the power of the written word. Under their instruction, I discovered the difference between writing that only entertains and that which enlightens, enriches, and provokes the reader.

I also had a true fascination for the natural sciences, probably nurtured by hours of emersion in The World Book. When I started at the local community college, I had big dreams of someday working in the field of medical technology. I knew hardly anything about it. I thought working in a hospital would equate to lots of money and prestige, but I knew I wasn’t ambitious enough to slug through medical school to become a doctor. Turns out I wasn’t even ambitious enough to pass college chemistry – it looked too much like algebra, which to this day baffles me.

With encouragement from advisors and after a careful look at the curriculum requirements, I decided an Associate’s Degree in Journalism would be my best hope of staying in school. This switchback in the trail also prompted me to start writing for the college newspaper, and one of my assignments was to report on a lecture being presented by a woman who had recently edited a collection of letters by a Georgia author. I was painfully immature and had virtually no appreciation for academic scholarship. My first draft of the article reflected my stupidity and shallowness, which my journalism professor was quick to point out to me. I had no idea what an important contribution the visiting scholar, Sally Fitzgerald, had made to the world of American literature nor how her work would impact my own world in the years ahead.

After graduating from the community college, my trail took me on an uphill stretch to a state college located about 45 minutes from my hometown. By then I had decided that a degree in English was a logical choice, although I was clueless about how I was going to find a career after graduating. I can’t imagine how concerned my parents must have been. However, I was becoming more serious about academics and was confident that I was a good writer – foolish boy. A few seasoned students in the English department had warned me about one professor, a woman with a reputation for pounding the ignorance right out of you. I signed up for one of her classes my second term there, having at least enough self-awareness that I needed discipline and a challenge. The first paper she returned to me looked as if she had slit an artery and bled out on the page. Clearly, I wasn’t such a gifted writer after all.

Meeting this professor was one of those life-changing chance encounters. I was not aware when I first arrived at this institution that its most famous graduate was Flannery O’Connor. I also did not know that the library was the steward of her most valuable personal and professional archive. My fellow English majors had informed me that the demanding professor was also the O’Connor scholar on campus and that she taught a course concentrating on the author’s work. She was the editor of the Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, a journal published by the college and the longest running scholarly publication devoted to a female writer in the country. Perhaps as an act of academic penance and atonement, I signed up for the O’Connor course for the summer session, which meant covering the author’s two novels, two collections of short stories, a volume of essays, and the letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald (the scholar I encountered just two years earlier), all in four weeks.

I had no memory of reading O’Connor in high school and didn’t know what to expect. In this class, I quickly realized her fiction was dark, perhaps even demented to my naïve way of thinking. The Catholicism was lost on this Southern Baptist lad, at least in the beginning, but I immediately recognized the backwoods Protestants that populated her stories. They could have been my relatives. The stories were violent and filled with strange and twisted characters – no happy endings, no riding off into the sunset. People sometimes came to gruesome ends. And yet, it was laugh-out-loud funny to me. The best part of all? It was literature. I was unequivocally hooked. This course truly stretched me, and I was proud to get a B when it was over. I requested to change advisors, wanting to be under this professor’s guidance for the remainder of my undergraduate tenure. I could not have known at that time the central role she and her O’Connor course were to play in my professional journey.

I took history courses as electives in the humanities for my major, enough to earn a minor in the field. Knowing I really didn’t want to teach high school English, I decided to stay on at the college and work toward an M.A. in history. I was a much more serious student now, and my grade point average reflected it. On-campus jobs opened up for me too, like working at a small education museum and archive. This college gave M.A. students an option to earn their degrees by either writing a thesis or by taking additional course work. Maybe I wanted to prove to myself, my professors, and my parents who had sacrificed so much to send me to school that I could write something worthy of a graduate degree, even from a small state college. So, I climbed that steep slope by writing about the desegregation of the county school system where my college was located, using a collection of oral history interviews I conducted with local educators, both white and black.

My graduate school adviser and the supervisor of my thesis was a member of the local public library board. Upon my graduation, he was kind enough to get my foot in the door with the library’s director, who was planning to hire a cataloger. After working a year at the public library, the director encouraged me and another employee to apply for library school at Emory University. It was a two-hour drive from where we lived, but our boss was generous and supportive enough to allow us to work four days a week and commute to Atlanta two days a week over the next two years to earn what the university called a Master of Librarianship. I will always be grateful to her for this opportunity, which launched my professional career. I eventually became the assistant director of the library, and after 12 years I was appointed the director when my boss left the position. I have written another post about some of the more memorable and bizarre experiences during my time working at the public library.

I stayed connected with the O’Connor scholar on campus and worked with her on several projects, the most ambitious being the Flannery O’Connor symposium in 1994. This four-day conference featured celebrated scholars, writers, visual artists, and performers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Louise Erdrich, Barry Moser, Polly Holliday, Leo Kottke, and once again, Sally Fitzgerald. People from the community who knew me at all were aware that Flannery O’Connor was my favorite writer, including the lawyer for the literary estate of the author, whose wife also happened to work with me as our children’s librarian. In a blog post from 2015, I wrote about another life-altering event – the day this lawyer walked into my office with a proposal for me to work for the executors of the estate to establish the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation. I accepted the offer. This fork in the path allowed me to use my English and history degrees, my library training, and my administrative experience to help preserve and promote the legacy of a great American writer — what a privilege.

My mentor at the state college eventually retired, but she joined the board of directors of the O’Connor foundation, along with the man who followed her in the position. Both people have influenced and enhanced my life in ways I could never express, and I am forever in their debt. One of the grant-funded projects I initiated as the director of the foundation was a book publication, co-edited by the new O’Connor scholar. At Home with Flannery O’Connor is a collection of oral histories of people who knew the author during the time she lived at her family’s farm home, the headquarters for the foundation that we also operated as a historic house museum. Fortunately, I was familiar with oral history as a research tool from my master’s thesis work.

Flannery O’Connor lived at Andalusia for 13 years, which is exactly how long I remained there as the foundation’s director. In 2017, the property was transferred to O’Connor’s alma mater; however, by that time I had moved on to another job because my wife took a vice-president position at a small private college in northeast Georgia. Earlier that year, the president of this college had accepted a gift of property just north of the campus owned by a foundation of relatives and close friends of another Georgia writer named Lillian Smith. The organization was operating the Lillian E. Smith Center as an artist retreat and a literary landmark while also sponsoring programs for students and community members. The college president wanted to continue these activities and expand the center as an educational facility for his students, faculty, and staff. He had no one to manage the center, and I was as close to a perfect fit for the job as he was going to find.

We stayed at our respective jobs with this college for five years. I am still amazed at how much of what I had learned during the previous 30 years prepared me for this position: from property management to programming, from cataloging to curating, from historic research to historic restoration and preservation. I was even able to resurrect some of my early work experience serving as the college archivist for the president and working with the dean of libraries. I have written posts about Lillian Smith and her encounter with Flannery O’Connor – so many surprising connections and convergences that have touched my life.

In 2018, other opportunities took us away from my home state to Missouri. Through a friend of a friend, I met the dean of libraries at a state college in southwest Missouri where we live now. I find myself once again in a place where I can tap into several decades of professional experience to work on meaningful and rewarding projects, and it all just fell in my lap. I am a special projects coordinator working for the dean. I arrange author visits, public readings, and lectures. I also help install exhibits in the library. I conduct interviews for the library’s growing oral history collection. I am moderating a virtual book club for the alumni of the institution. Contrary to popular opinion, librarians do not just sit around a read all day. I always dreamed of a job where I could get paid to read. How lucky am I that part of my responsibilities are to read for a book club? Even better, I am learning new skills involved with editing videos that the library publishes through its YouTube channel, including the oral history interviews.

My father had several common refrains that contribute to the good memories I have about him. For the most part, he was a man of unquestioning faith, instilled and confirmed by a long life of Southern Baptist doctrine. When he recognized a surprising concurrence of events, he rarely wrote it off as coincidence, especially if the events had serious implications. Instead, he would declare, “As far as I’m concerned, the Lord arranges these things.” With pseudo sophistication and agnostic arrogance, many times I just shook my head and said, “I guess so, Dad,” not really agreeing with his assessment of how the universe works. In retrospect, given how my career path has carried me through the years to such wonderful destinations, maybe I need to hold out the possibility that Dad was right.

Toward a Better Understanding of Our Species: A Reading List

Over the last few years, I have been on a binge reading books about the human species — everything from how we got here to where we might be going. These studies have explored topics such as evolutionary biology, immunology, sociology, psychology, futurology, and perhaps a few other ologies I can’t identify. Mostly, these books have been enlightening, informative, and even entertaining at times. I decided to share some of my favorites here.

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye (audio version)

It takes a special talent to translate complicated scientific principles to lay readers like me. One of my favorite scientists who excelled at it was Carl Sagan, so it was no surprise to learn that Bill Nye was a student of Sagan. I have read and listened to many books through the years exploring the topic of evolution, and this is certainly one of the most accessible. The inspiration for this book comes from a debate the author had back in 2014 with Ken Ham, founder of the Young Earth creationists. He spends some time in the first part of the book presenting the major points he and Ham made in the debate, and he refers to the event on several occasions in subsequent chapters. In reality, the debate is just a launching point. Nye’s discussions mostly focus on science, leaving creationism in the dust.

Bringing to the table his skills as an entertainer, a television personality, and a fine writer, Bill Nye presents a fine overview of evolution — not just human evolution, but evolution of life on this planet and even speculation on how life may have evolved and may still be evolving elsewhere in the universe. Hearing him read his own book makes the narrative even more compelling, and his quirky sense of humor keeps it from getting dry or boring. Bill Nye is still making science fun! Highly recommended for readers who like popular science and aren’t looking for too much detail or depth.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel H. Lieberman

Lieberman takes a different approach to evolution and human origins than what I have seen thus far in most books. Using human evolutionary principles to explain the development of environmentally and socially induced medical problems turns out to be astounding, and for the most part, convincing. The author uses the latest fossil evidence to provide a chronicle of the development of modern humans, tracing our origins back to the earliest hominids and even more archaic common ancestors. Perhaps this discussion gets a bit too deep in the weeds for the ultimate purpose of the book, but I have always been interested in the topic and didn’t mind the extensive review. Readers who are short on time can probably skip the first section on human origins and still benefit from the rest of the book.

Lieberman uses terms like “mismatch” and “de-evolution” to explain how human culture, especially in affluent parts of the world, has facilitated ailments or diseases that are partially if not completely avoidable. As humans moved away from being hunters/gatherers to farmers and eventually industrialists, we developed some rather bad habits of excess and self-indulgence that our bodies have not evolved to handle very well. Instead of addressing the root causes of the problems, we have used our well-developed brains to create methods of treating the symptoms with varying degrees of success.

It seems to me that Lieberman’s observations are indisputable when he writes about unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles resulting in illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Toward the end of the book he employs more speculation about issues such as overcrowded wisdom teeth, foot problems, and myopia, but even so these chapters are thought-provoking and carefully explored. Lastly, Lieberman is another good writer and joins the league of scientists who can make complex subjects accessible for lay people. Well done.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

If there were one word to best describe Sapolsky’s book in my mind, it would have to be “thorough.” Okay, “long” would work too, but that would make me sound like a simpleton. Truthfully, there were times during this book that I felt like one. Sapolsky spends a good portion of his book explaining how the various systems of the human body work in concert to shape our behavior: the brain, hormones, sensory organs, nerves, etc. For the lay reader, the detailed descriptions of the brain’s components alone, with their complicated functions and not-so-familiar names, are challenging enough. Then again, we are warned by the subtitle that this is a book of biology. Sapolsky provides more neuroscience than most of us probably need in order to accept his conclusions about how the body, right down to the molecular level, functions with our environment, circumstances, and experiences to make us behave or misbehave. Honestly, at times it gets a bit laborious.

The author’s amount of documentation is staggering. He addresses a host of other scientists and social scientists whose research in human behavior parallels his own, and I think his treatment of them is respectful and fair, even though he may disagree with their findings. He is also never short on evidence and examples to substantiate his own findings, sometimes to a fault. He has a tendency to repeat historical events to support his claims, such as the World War I Christmas truce of 1914 between British and German soldiers or the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968 during the Vietnam War.

Getting to the heart of this book is difficult without resorting to cliché and oversimplification. By the time I finished, I had decided that human behavior is complicated and that there are far too many internal and external factors involved to come up with a unified theory on why we do what we do. Evolution, genes, DNA, secretions, and synapses all play their part, but they are no more essential in our actions than upbringing, peer pressure, education, traditions, and a whole host of outside influences. Our behavior is shaped as much by what happened to our hominid ancestors thousands of years ago as it is by what happened to us an hour before we committed some act of compassion or cruelty. On a grand scale, our behavior as a species is somewhat predictable. On an individual level, not so much.

This is a book worth reading, even though it will occupy many hours of your time. Aside from the science and psychology, it’s entertaining. Sapolsky is quite funny, blending in pop culture references, occasional profanity, and good old clever wit. He has a talent for breaking down intricate scientific principles with common, everyday illustrations to which almost anyone can relate. For those who have a serious interest in this area of study, Behave is worth the time. I predict it will be an important addition to the scholarship for years to come.

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents

It is clear from early on in his book that Lents has a side motive in this study, which is to dispel the myth of intelligent design in biology, specifically human biology. The paraphrased common refrain throughout the book is “if you were an engineer tasked with designing the human body, this is not the most efficient means by which to achieve the goal.” One of the most interesting parts of the book to me is the assortment of problems humans have as a result of not yet fully evolving to upright, bi-pedal locomotion. Many of our joints and bones are subject to easier injury. Our sinuses try to defy gravity by draining upward instead of downward. And then there is the deadliest problem of all — women trying to give birth to infants with big heads through a narrow pelvis.

Although the author focuses on human “errors,” he also mentions when other species do or do not share our evolutionary challenges. Readers are given detailed explanations of issues associated with vision, swallowing and breathing through the same tube, diet, vitamin production, reproduction, immunity, and even cognition and social interaction. He will perhaps lose a few readers toward the end of the book when he explores the prospect of immortality, which delves a bit deeply into the speculative.

As other scientists have observed (like Lieberman above), Lents argues that modern technology and especially modern medical advances have made, and will continue to make, evolutionary adaptations unnecessary, thus altering the “survival of the fittest” model of passing on genes from one generation to the next. I suspect the jury is still out on whether or not that modification will be beneficial to our species in the long run.

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper

I have read other books about people with extraordinary abilities (memory, strength, musical talent, etc.), but Hooper covers a range of amazing traits and characteristics, some of which are not so mysterious but nevertheless admirable. He includes individuals who have faced incredible injury, disability, and other challenges with remarkable grace and joy. He even explores what it means to be happy. I found the chapter on sleep and dreams the most fascinating of all. It’s an uplifting exploration of humanity and the potential of our species.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Speaking of sleep, here’s a book that received considerable attention in the media. Perhaps a more accurate title would be Why We Must Sleep. Adding “dreams” in the subtitle is almost a ruse to attract more readers, but we can give Walker a break here – he does include a discussion on dreams, but it is not even close to being the main attraction. Nor should it be. This book explores the necessity of sleep while explaining in detail its different phases and their importance. The author freely admits in the opening pages that he loves sleep, and he has obviously devoted his career to the study of it, not just in humans, but many species.

The overwhelming conclusion is that sleep is not an option nor a luxury. It is absolutely essential to survival. Perhaps most of us could have guessed that, but Walker presents us with an ocean of data to prove it and drive the point home convincingly. There are some fascinating stories in this book about sleep research that most of us have never dreamed of (sorry), and again, not just on humans.

The major takeaway from the book is simple. In order to remain healthy and happy, people need to be consistently getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night (9 hours wouldn’t hurt, but don’t go far beyond that threshold). Walker argues, not always convincingly but most of the time, that sleep deprivation can harm us in almost every way we can fathom — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I expected him at any moment to write, “You know that ingrown toenail that’s been bothering you for the last few weeks?”

Anybody who cares anything at all about general health and how to improve it should read this book. Of course, anyone interested in sleep has to read it. I can’t imagine a more thorough study of the subject for a popular audience. Fair warning: Walker is a scientist and a purist. He is laying out the facts to the best of his knowledge, which is extensive. There is no sensible approach or moderation, no wiggle room. If you want the very best sleep, and by extension the best health, you have to give up everything that hinders sleep, including alcohol, caffeine, jobs that interfere with sleep schedules, late-night activities, etc. And don’t even think about sleeping pills! Therapy is the ONLY answer to sleeping disorders. This level of slumber austerity is going to be rejected by most people, but at least we can be better aware of how important sleep is to our well-being and do our best to get a little, or a lot, more shut eye.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari 

I know this book gets dinged by reviewers for some outrageous claims, unsubstantiated conclusions, and superficial treatment of 100,000 years worth of history. Much of the criticism is warranted. For instance, one of Harari’s recurring suppositions is that humans from the past, although they lived in more hostile environments, were no less “happy” than people in modern civilization. This revelation shouldn’t come as a surprise if we consider that humans can only truly appreciate the living conditions of the present, not the future. Most of us are content with our world as it is because it is all we know.

Still, Harari is a good writer with some thought-provoking theories. He charts the process of how our modern species won the evolutionary competition to become the dominant primate and eventually reshape the global environment. At times he pushes the iconoclastic approach a bit too far in order to ramp up the buzz factor, and thus more readers. Based on the sales, his strategy worked. Academic historians are not going to be pleased, and critical readers of history will probably be disappointed. Popular audiences have enjoyed it immensely, and that’s fine. Most readers will take away a few fascinating nuggets from this ambitious survey of human history.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari 

Harari waits until the very end of his book to tell readers that the previous 450 pages of forecasting are not really a prophesy, only an exploration of possibilities. Some of the ideas will sound ridiculous, but many of them are certainly plausible. The discussion of a hybrid creature combining human and machine that could possibly surpass homo sapiens to become the dominant species is not so far fetched. Interestingly, Harari spends an unusual amount of time near the beginning of the book writing about religion and its impact on human evolution and modern society, which may explain the title. It’s almost as if this could be two different books. The only place that the book became tiresome for me was the final chapter on data. If I had to classify it, I would describe Homo Deus as speculative nonfiction. I think his previous book, Sapiens, is more important. If we don’t take it too seriously, Homo Deus is a fun and intriguing read.

A View of Flannery O’Connor’s Woods

(Based on a lecture presented at “Reason, Fiction and Faith: An International Flannery O’Connor Conference,” at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, Italy, April 20-22, 2009)

American author Flannery O’Connor completed the short story “A View of the Woods” in September 1956, three years after the major electrical utility company in Georgia finished construction of a dam on the Oconee River, which winds it way south through Baldwin County, Georgia, and cuts a path just east of downtown Milledgeville. There are interesting similarities between the circumstances in O’Connor’s short story and the developments that were taking place in the Milledgeville area where O’Connor was living when she wrote it. To some degree, O’Connor’s story envisions the rapid commercial and residential development that would eventually threaten the landscape of Andalusia, the family farm operated as a dairy in the 1950s by O’Connor’s mother, Regina Cline O’Connor.

Flannery O’Connor moved back to Milledgeville in 1951 from Connecticut, where she had been living with Robert and Sally Fitzgerald since September 1949. Andalusia is located directly on the north-south highway passing through Milledgeville, which was officially designated U.S. Highway 441 in December 1948. The dam on the nearby Oconee River created Lake Sinclair, covering over fifty square miles with approximately six hundred miles of shoreline in three different counties. Within a short time, residential development began to claim sections of the lake’s shoreline as families started investing in weekend cabins at first, followed by increasingly lavish permanent homes. Greater interest in lake recreation brought the construction of marinas, boat ramps, fishing supply stores, camping facilities, and parks. Highway 441 was the major artery connecting the town of Milledgeville with the growing lake community and points farther north with larger highways leading to the state’s capital, Atlanta.

Lake Sinclair
Lake Sinclair

Government officials and a good portion of the electorate across the rural American countryside in the 1950s and 60s were ravenous to “catch up” with the big cities and attract jobs, build infrastructure, and provide new and improved services to their communities. Milledgeville was no exception, and the creation of Lake Sinclair paved the way. Textile manufacturing plants began to move in during the late 1940s when construction of the dam was underway; the first drive-in theater opened in 1950; the local telephone company was purchased by an outside conglomerate to expand service in 1957, the year that “A View of the Woods” was published. In that same year, Milledgeville experienced its first modern expansion of the city limits, moving the northern boundary just a mile from the driveway to Andalusia.

Beginning in the first paragraph of O’Connor’s story, the reader is presented with circumstances that mirror Milledgeville’s mid-twentieth-century progress. After explaining the family dynamics that will ultimately drive the story to its shocking conclusion, the narrator provides details of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Fortune’s windfall. The power company’s dam floods much of the countryside, providing Mr. Fortune with lakefront property. He knows there will soon be commercial development, creating even greater demand for his land.

Mr. Fortune’s idea of improvement includes paved highways filled with new-model automobiles and flanked by supermarkets, gas stations, motels, and a drive-in theater. His vision is inspired by the success of a nearby entrepreneur identified as Tilman, whose very name invokes an inherent conflict in the story between plowing the land and manning the till or the cash box. Tilman’s eclectic country store is complete with a barbeque pit and is reminiscent of many establishments that populated rural highways in the United States sixty years ago, and in some areas, still exist today. In her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor included a similar roadside establishment called The Tower, where Red Sammy Butts sold his famous barbeque in a combination gas station and dance hall.

In her typical fashion, O’Connor offers marvelous and visually descriptive language to profile her characters and to punctuate their traits. Tilman’s evil nature is clearly identified with an appearance that invokes mythological satanic images. Mr. Fortune’s deal with Tilman to sell the lawn that provides his daughter’s family with a view of the woods is an obvious reference to Faust’s pact with the devil from the classic German legend, an observation made in early critical works on O’Connor by Frederick Asals and other scholars. Like a demon being promptly transported back to hell after shaking Mr. Fortune’s hand on the transaction, Tilman slouches back under the counter.

O’Connor presents Mr. Fortune as an ambitious landowner, driven by pride and domination, whose hunger for progress and personal acclaim blinds him to the pure beauty of the natural world. Mr. Fortune’s canvas of the future is painted with deception, revenge, and even violence. The story pairs reckless commercial progress with greed and avarice, contrasting the irresponsible destruction of natural resources to the stewardship of preserving the rural landscape. In describing the disintegration of a cow pasture into a red-clay pit by the heavy machinery in the beginning of the story, O’Connor uses the words “disembodied,” “nausea,” and “revulsion,” analogous of an assault by a deadly disease or virus. Later in the narrative, Mr. Fortune envisions the woods and trees being drenched in blood from the wounded, barely visible sun setting behind them, the mysterious sacramental image that O’Connor repeated many times in her fiction.

The critical literature provides an abundance of commentary on the personification of landscape and the role of nature in O’Connor’s fiction, from Carter Martin to Christine Flanagan. We recognize that Mr. Fortune’s lack of apprehension is manifested in his inability to appreciate the mysteries of creation that literally surround him. The woods in this story provide a backdrop for a small sanctuary, “the lawn,” where the Pitts children can play in safety, a respite from the otherwise contentious and even threatening environment that is ever present. In a letter to Elizabeth Hester dated December 28, 1956, O’Connor made the analogy conclusively when she compared the woods to Christ. They seem to walk on water and are surrounded by light. O’Connor associates the forest with purity.

Mr. Fortune’s obsession with obliterating the pastoral setting and beginning construction of his commercial empire is a rejection of purity and an abuse of innocence, an evil intention that is also reflected in his disintegrating relationship with his granddaughter, Mary Fortune. He considers the child his protégé, or even a prized possession; however, his ambition goes too far when he announces his plans to destroy the lawn. As the tension grows to hostility between Mr. Fortune and the child, she calls him the “Whore of Babylon,” and indeed he has become a prostitute by selling off the family property. After all, he is “pure Fortune.” When the child becomes an obstruction to his strategic plans, his fixation turns to rage and results in the horrible murder of his granddaughter.  The old man’s damnation is sealed.

To translate O’Connor’s theme in this short story as a summary condemnation on all commercial development would be a careless overstatement. Mr. Fortune’s daughter and son-in-law are by no means portrayed as altruistic or even humane. At the same time, the old man’s intentional conversion of land and trees to pavement and buildings, with total disregard to the desires of his family, characterizes him as irresponsible, if not evil. His hasty decisions and actions are illustrative of many mid-twentieth century landowners in America who sold property that had been in their families for several generations, placing their birthrights in the hands of developers who were delighted to build and pave over the woods and fields.

Many Americans, including elected officials, are starting to understand that unrestricted and mostly unregulated urban expansion has led to the destruction of the natural landscape that characterized rural America: the lawn where we play, where we graze our calves, and where we look at the woods from the porch, in Mary Fortune’s words. It is only in recent years that government agencies have started to encourage landowners to preserve their holdings, even providing tax incentives to keep land undeveloped.

Flannery O’Connor’s uncle, Dr. Bernard Cline, purchased the Andalusia property in the early 1930s and later acquired more land adjacent to the farm, which remained undeveloped for many years as a haven for wildlife. Such was not the case for so much of the land adjacent to Dr. Cline’s property. Perhaps it wasn’t O’Connor’s intention, but her story ends up being a prediction of the disappearance of the countryside that once surrounded Andalusia. Her forecast came true to some degree, with the eventual expansion of Highway 441 that carved away two acres of the east boundary of the family farm. The encroaching commercial development that followed was inevitable, including the Milledgeville Mall, which was constructed a mile south of Andalusia only eight years after O’Connor’s death. The next two decades would see the proliferation of fast-food and franchise restaurants, retailers, motels, convenience stores, car dealerships, nightclubs, and the king of capitalism, Walmart. The concentration of this rapid growth was located within a two-mile radius of Andalusia.

The Woods of Andalusia
The Woods of Andalusia

While opinions vary widely on what constitutes good stewardship of the land and protection of the environment, Andalusia’s caretakers have been able to take advantage of urban encroachment while still providing a view of the woods for the many visitors who have made their way to the property since it opened to the public in 2003. Although Milledgeville is in a very rural area of the state, Andalusia’s location on a U.S. highway brings travelers right to the driveway. Most American tourists reach their destinations in automobiles, and when they arrive, most of them expect accommodation and comfort. Abundant businesses within one mile of Andalusia’s entrance are more than capable of meeting the basic needs of travelers, including fuel, food, lodging, and entertainment. However, the farm structures of Andalusia are positioned a few hundred yards from the highway with a buffer of trees on all sides. This limited isolation allows visitors to make their way up the driveway to the main house, where their imagination can easily transport them back in time to 1964, as if Flannery O’Connor had just departed Andalusia for the last time.

Certainly, Andalusia is off the beaten path, and O’Connor’s readers who truly desire to experience the countryside that inspired some of her best fiction must leave the city and the interstate highways. The rewards for making that departure are certainly worth the effort. The current owner of Andalusia is Georgia College, the liberal arts institution in Milledgeville descended from O’Connor’s alma mater, Georgia State College for Women. I am hopeful and encouraged that the College is committed to preserving the view of the woods at this internationally significant landmark, a proper memorial to such a gifted writer.

Andalusia pond and main house
Andalusia pond and main house

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.