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.”

The Summer of 1984 in England

My first airplane trip ever was to England for a six-week Study Abroad program during the summer of 1984. I was a graduate student majoring in history at a small public liberal arts college in central Georgia. My concentration was civil rights in the South, but I was also a fan of British literature and history. I had read Dickens, Trollope, Austen, Woolf, and many other major British writers while I completed a BA in English. I was fortunate enough to receive two different scholarships offered by my college, along with generous assistance from my parents, to cover the cost of the program sponsored by a university in Atlanta.

Not only was this my first flight, it was also my first time leaving the South. Up to this time I had ventured no farther north than Washington, D.C. and no farther west than Alabama. Flying was an alien form of transportation for my family. My father had flown one time in his life as a young man to Pennsylvania, but that was it. He loved the idea of traveling, and our family took road-trip vacations every summer to places in Florida, Tennessee, and the Carolinas. My parents had respectable jobs but not the kind of professional careers that afforded the luxury of air travel in the 1960s and 1970s. As far as I know, my mother died in her early eighties without ever boarding a plane, which is ironic considering that she worked at a huge Air Force base surrounded by aircraft. I will always be grateful for the sacrifice my parents made for me to travel overseas.

British Museum
British Museum

The program I was enrolled in allowed me to pick up several credit hours that would be applied toward my degree. Our class numbered about twenty students, and we were led by two professors teaching in Georgia. We were not officially affiliated with an institution in London where we were based for the six weeks. Our classes were informal and held in the dining area of the Haddon Hall Hotel we occupied on Bedford Place, a block from Russell Square and just around the corner from the British Museum. Haddon Hall was more like a hostel than a hotel by American standards. I had not lived in dorms as a student, so it was a bit of an adjustment to share a bathroom and showers with a large number of strangers of both sexes occupying a floor of the hotel.

Most of our curriculum involved field trips to museums and historic landmarks, and we were required to write papers based on what we learned on our tours of these places. As a class we visited the London Tower and saw the Crown Jewels. We also visited the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery, Westminster Abbey, Windsor Castle, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and other famous sites. The typical routine for the course was to meet with our professors for a lecture about the places we would visit, and then we would have follow-up discussions before writing down our thoughts and reflections.

Another major component of the program was the theatre — we attended numerous stage productions in some of the most famous houses in the city. We saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats” in the round at the New London Theatre (now the Gillian Lynne Theatre) when it was only four years old. We saw award-winning actors like Claudette Colbert and Rex Harrison in “Aren’t We All” and Peter O’Toole in “Pygmalion.” These were the first professional plays I had ever seen, and I was mesmerized. Our professors did a fine job of planning and coordinating all our activities, providing the class with meaningful exposure to British culture and history.

Queen Elizabeth II - Trooping the Colour
Queen Elizabeth II – Trooping the Colour

One of the most valuable features of the program was the free time we had to explore on our own. I was able to wander around London’s parks, avenues, markets, and squares for hours at a time, watching people interact with one another. I returned to museums the class had visited to spend more time in wings and galleries that interested me most. I also took advantage of opportunities that were not included in the class syllabus, like historic and literary walking tours, attending Mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I stood just a few yards from Queen Elizabeth II as she rode by on horseback celebrating her birthday as part of the Trooping the Colour ceremony. I made day and weekend trips to Stratford-upon-Avon, Wales, and St. Albans. I took a hovercraft across the channel to spend the day on the west coast of France in Calais and Boulogne. I spent a fabulous day at Wimbledon during the Grand Slam tennis tournament and had the chance to watch athletes like Chris Evert compete on the grass courts while I savored mouthfuls of strawberries and cream.

At Wimbledon - July, 1984
At Wimbledon – July, 1984
Postcard of Piccadilly Circus
Postcard of Piccadilly Circus

Spending six weeks in London gave me some idea of what it would be like to live in the capital and the most populous city in England. I spent my free time in much the same way the locals do by enjoying the green-spaces, hanging out at Piccadilly Circus, shopping occasionally, strolling along the Thames, attending outdoor events, and traveling around the city in the Tube. Of all my immersion experiences in London, the evenings I spent at a neighborhood pub called The Plough were the ones that I remember most fondly. Pub food was undeniably the best of any I tried in England, and the meals I had at The Plough were authentic and delicious. More importantly, I was introduced for the first time there to hard cider, a perfect alternative to beer for people like me who have never “acquired a taste” for liquid barley, yeast, and hops. It would be several years before hard cider made its way to the shelves of stores in America, but once it did, the beverage became quite popular. I am never without bottles of cider in our refrigerator and find it on tap frequently now in bars everywhere.

There was an old professor from the University College London who must have spent every evening in The Plough. I don’t recall his name or even his face after all these years, but we developed a friendship, and I enjoyed hearing his stories about students, about being British, and about living in London. He was a serious music lover and was obviously proud of his LP collection, which he treated with all the care of an antiquities conservationist. As he put it, “Once played on a ruby, ALWAYS played on a ruby.” I frequented the pub more and more often, and he would recognize me when I walked in the door. With a bombastic voice in a heavy British accent, he would exclaim from across the room, “Come over here, you damn Colonial!”

The Plough
The Plough

My time in England as a graduate student was transforming and gave new meaning to the history and literature I had studied. It altered my thinking about so many aspects of life and what it means to be both an American and a human being. All of the students were required to keep a personal journal to record thoughts and feelings about our varied experiences. I still have mine, along with some memorabilia from those six weeks. Over the years, I have pulled out the journal several times and relived so many moments that will be with me as long as memory allows.

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.

Pledging Allegiance

I started pledging allegiance to the flag when I was a small child in elementary school, a ritual that I never questioned and that was just as much a part of the daily routine as lunch, recess, and reading from a primer about the riveting adventures of Dick, Jane, and Spot. I can vaguely remember that there were one or two students who were exempt from “saying the pledge,” and we were told that their religion forbade them from participating. At the time, I couldn’t begin to fathom the meaning behind such a religious restriction, having no exposure to any faith traditions outside rural Southern Baptist churches. You can’t get more patriotic than Southern Baptists. I don’t recall reciting the pledge in class when I attended a white-flight, church-sponsored private high school, which strikes me now as most ironic. Maybe we did and I was just too preoccupied with friends, girls, and turbulent hormones to give it any thought at all. Even as young children we could all rattle off the run-on sentence with no regard whatsoever to its intent of inspiring devotion to the homeland. When Francis Bellamy penned the original pledge in 1892, it was generic enough to be adopted by any republic with a flag, not just the United States, and it had no mention of God even though its author was a minister. The pledge was given official recognition by Congress in 1942. The divine creator was inserted in 1954 by a request of President Eisenhower and an act of Congress in reaction to atheism associated with the spread of Communism.

The United States didn’t have an official patriotic song until 1931 when Congress passed a law formally designating “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem. Fast forward almost a century and now we find ourselves in a national debate over the proper respect for this song and that waving banner it praises. Of all places, the most high-profile test of true patriotism in this country apparently takes place just before kick-off at televised football games in the National Football League. The suggestion is that respect for a song and respect for the United States are of equal importance. I cannot quite agree with that premise. Should American citizens respect the National Anthem? Perhaps, but I don’t necessarily consider such respect to be a qualification of patriotism. Should they respect the flag? Well, they should be encouraged to respect the flag, although pledging allegiance to it should never be required by law.  Furthermore, I don’t think demonstrations of allegiance to the National Anthem or the American flag should be a requirement of employment either, even for athletes, but that isn’t my decision to make.  Disrespect of the flag is a right protected by our constitutional government and demonstrates the price of democracy and free speech. Without this protection, waving a flag that represents the Confederacy — a failed attempt to disband the government of the United States — would be an illegal act. The mere display of a Confederate flag is a blatant disrespect of the Republic, but we permit it. In certain parts of the country, flying the Confederate flag is encouraged, even by elected officials who have sworn allegiance to the Constitution over and over again. Somehow, this paradox wreaks of hypocrisy to me.

Do we show respect for the country by habitually standing for a song while giving little or no thought to its lyrics? Is there any evidence that daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag by children later produced within their adult hearts and minds some measure of undying loyalty to their country, upstanding moral character, or compliance to the law? I wonder how many people in the stadium seats could actually write the lyrics of the first verse of the National Anthem (much less the other long-forgotten stanzas). I wonder how many Americans think about the fact that this country was not “the land of the free” for over a million people in bondage at the time the song was written. I wonder how many times before April 19, 1995 Timothy McVeigh stood for the National Anthem and pledged his allegiance to the flag.

Before anyone can honestly be expected to honor the flag, he or she needs to be able to respect the Republic for which it stands. In truth, we all know that recent developments around this issue aren’t really about a 19th-century song or a piece of red, white, and blue cloth. They are just symbols of a collective dream that cannot come true for too many of our citizens who don’t have the privilege afforded those of European descent. Perhaps, some day, when America truly is a unified Republic that is “indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL,” everyone will be proud to pledge allegiance to the flag that waves over a land of free and brave patriots.