dark blue graphic with intertwined blue and yellow partial circles on the left and text that says: Reimagining the Good Life with Amy Julia Becker. In the middle of the graphic is a a photo Jessica Hooten Wilson, a white woman wearing a pink shirt. She is sitting at a desk in front of full book shelves. On the far right is a photo of Amy Julia, a white woman who is wearing a blue shirt and smiling at the camera with her arms crossed in front of her

S7 E11 | Flannery O’Connor and the Prophetic Imagination with Jessica Hooten Wilson


Why would a Christian author immerse her stories in darkness? Why would she use violent imagery that directly relates to Christianity, race, class, disability, and illness? And how can this darkness guide us toward the importance of love in the flesh, of personal connection and vulnerability? In this conversation, Dr. Jessica Hooten Wilson, author of Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage? A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress, and Amy Julia Becker explore:

  • Flannery O’Connor’s unique perspective on faith and darkness
  • The portrayal of disability in O’Connor’s stories
  • Love in the abstract versus love in the flesh
  • Challenges of publishing an unfinished manuscript
  • How the prophetic imagination in O’Connor’s work confronts the dominant culture’s illusions about the good life

EVENT: Festival of Faith & Writing

Guest Bio:

Jessica Hooten Wilson (PhD, Baylor University) is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair of Great Books at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. She is the author or editor of eight books, including Flannery O’Connor’s Why Do the Heathen Rage? A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Work in Progress, Reading for the Love of God, The Scandal of Holiness (winner of a Christianity Today 2023 Award of Merit), and Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky (winner of a 2018 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award). Wilson speaks around the world on topics as varied as Russian novelists, Catholic thinkers, and Christian ways of reading.
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Let’s Reimagine the Good Life together through the lens of disability, faith, and culture.

Note: This transcript is autogenerated using speech recognition software and does contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Amy Julia (5s):
Love in the abstract is not the same as love in the flesh, race, class, disability, illness, the disruptive grace of God. Flannery O’Connor was a writer who incorporated all of these topics and pushed readers to uncomfortable places so that we might end up with a better understanding of ourselves, of God, and of what it looks like to live in love. I’m Amy Julia Becker, and this is Reimagining, the Good Life A podcast about challenging the assumptions about what makes life good, proclaiming the inherent belovedness of every human being, and envisioning a world of belonging. Today I’m talking with Jessica Hooten Wilson about her latest book, which takes a look at an unfinished manuscript of f Flannery O’Connor.

Amy Julia (52s):
Jessica is the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair of Great Books at Pepperdine University. She co-hosts a podcast called The Scandal of Reading, pursuing Holy Wisdom with Christ and Pop Culture. She’s the author or editor of numerous books, including Flannery O’Connor’s. Why Do the Heathen Rage A Behind The Scenes Look at a Work in Progress? She speaks around the world on topics as varied as Russian novelists, Catholic thinkers, and Christian ways of reading. So this is a rich conversation with someone who has a great depth of knowledge. And yes, it is a conversation about literature and faith, but it is also a conversation about the imagination and disability and the Good life, So, I think no matter where you’re coming from, whether you’re someone who has read Flannery O’Connor before or never even heard of her, I think you’ll enjoy this conversation.

Amy Julia (1m 43s):
And If, you are someone who is interested in both the literature and theology aspect of this conversation. In particular, I wanna mention here that I will be speaking at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan in April. We will link to all the details for that conference in the show notes. But I’ll say here, it’s an amazing array of speakers. I am so excited just to go and be able to sit in the audience and be a listener to all of these amazing speakers. I’m also incredibly honored because I will have a chance to speak first alongside Dr. Hillary Yancy, the author of Forgiving God, and then in a solo session called Magnified Humanity, why Disability in Literature Matters.

Amy Julia (2m 26s):
and I will be talking about Flanary O’Connor specifically in that session. Okay, now to my conversation with Jessica Hooten Wilson, I’m here today with Jessica Hooten Wilson, the Fletcher Jones Endowed Chair of Great Books. It’s a big title at Pepperdine University. She’s also the author of eight books. And we are here today about to talk about the most recent one, which is called Flannery O’Connor’s. Why do the Heathen Rage A Behind, the Scenes Look at a Work in Progress? And we’re gonna get to learn all about what that title means in just a minute. But first, I just wanna say thank you Jessica, so much for joining

Jessica (3m 4s):
Us. Yes, thank you for the invitation. I’m excited to have this, this conversation today.

Amy Julia (3m 9s):
Well, thanks. So there may be many listeners who do not know anything at all about Flannery O’Connor, So I. Thought we would start just by asking, can you give us the broad strokes of her story and tell us a little bit about why you are interested in, in this, you know, unpublished final work of hers?

Jessica (3m 28s):
Sure. So Flannery O’Connor is, I would say America’s greatest Christian writer that we’ve had. So she’s someone that Americans recognize as worthy of being in their canon of great literature. She’s often taught in high schools and in, you know, first year courses at colleges, whether those institutions are sectarian or religious, because she was a genius when it came to her literary art. And in the last 50 years since she died, so she died in 1964. So, and in that short amount of time we’ve also come to, to realize how much theology was informing her work when she was alive.

Jessica (4m 8s):
A lot of people just found her a grotesque writer, kind of like Truman Capote or Carson Mc Kohler’s. They found her a southern writer like Walker Percy. And then we’ve kind of reconsidered her theologically, and she’s become kind of a, has a cult following in Christian circles because of what she shows us about the Christian life and about faith. And, and that’s the angle that I had first approached her. So when I was 15 and I was introduced to her work, I was studying writing at Rhodes College in their gifted and talented program for high school students. and I was struggling with this desire to write about darkness and the things that I was experiencing that seemed gritty and sorrowful, angsty, you know, teenager stuff.

Jessica (4m 53s):
and I was like So I was struggling for how to do that, looking into the darkness. But also coming from a Christian background that was really strong where my parents said, you know, we live in the resurrected life. We live in the redeemed life. Why are we staring into the darkness? And a professor there gave me a f Flannery O’Connor story, the life you save, maybe your own, and said like, write like this. Here’s someone who looks into the darkness and knows how to write with a redeemed perspective. And it was, it was magical for me. It was an opening up of worlds and new ways of understanding my own faith and investigating literary art in this direction. So for Flannery, I just started, started imitating her, reading everything that she had ever written, her letters, her essays, copying her short stories.

Jessica (5m 35s):
and I have spent the last almost 30 years of my life dedicated to understanding her work better.

Amy Julia (5m 43s):
Hmm, that’s really cool. And you, I, you mentioned a little bit of this in the book, and I thought, gosh, you were a much more enlightened 15-year-old than I was because I was also 15 when I encountered Flannery O’Connor. and I

Jessica (5m 56s):
Hated her story.

Amy Julia (5m 58s):
I hated them because I was in a different setting. I was in a boarding school in Connecticut, very secular place. and I was encountering this Christianity as a person who had been raised in the church and had a personal faith. and I felt like she was painting Christianity in a very bad light because people are getting murdered. And there is this use of the grotesque and I just was like completely turned off by it. So could you talk a little bit about like Sure. Why this Christian writer would go into the darkness? Yeah. Would use violent inter imagery that is very directly related to a religion that at least we might say is about, you know, peace and love and hope

Jessica (6m 37s):
And joy. Yeah. So, I, let me dig into the theology of her in a second. But let me say, coming from Connecticut versus someone from the South, even that will affect your reading of f flattery. So I grew up with that accent. My parents are from Warner Robins, Georgia. So her world was not freakish or grotesque to me. It was very relatable. Yeah. So I was not an enlightened 15-year-old. I was just raised with people who talked like that and who thought like that. Yeah. And so it was just, it was not a stretch for me to get into her cosmos. That was my cosmos. But then when it comes to the theology and why it was so gripping, I love the way Flannery herself explains it. She, she quotes this writer Windham Lewis, and she says, you know, he writes about rot in the hill, not because he loves rot, but because he loves the hill.

Jessica (7m 23s):
And that was what I saw at play in her work. It was an ability to understand the things that I was going through, as, you know, a teenager thinking about life and what is it for and why are we still living? I mean, just kind of the real dark angsty questions that I think all of us face. And she does point a gun to your head and say, why are you living? Like, what is life for? Is it for meanness? Is it for pleasure? Or is there something else that it could be about? And how much do you actually believe that she made those questions visceral for me? She made them embodied for me. She made them come away in, in a sense where I wasn’t just looking at the veneer anymore of my faith.

Jessica (8m 6s):
I was able to dig down under my faith, and it, it had substance and I could keep digging. And for a teenager being raised in a tradition that was almost like a Hallmark movie with Christ painted on top of it, that was freeing Yeah. For me.

Amy Julia (8m 20s):
Yeah. That’s really cool. Well, And I will say So I hated her. And then I must have, I don’t know, maybe it was a freshman college English class being returned to her. and I became really intrigued by what she was doing and there, and, and continued to just read and read and read. And then later on when I was in seminary, so this would’ve been in my late twenties, I guess I returned to her work because by that point, our daughter, penny had been born and had Down Syndrome. And So I started to be really interested in disability in general, and disability in literature, which there, I, I’m not sure I know of anyone other than Flannery O’Connor, who so consistently has characters with disability, all sorts of types.

Amy Julia (9m 6s):
Interesting, right? Like, she has characters who are Blind, she has characters who are walking with a limp. She has characters who are intellectually disabled. Like there’s a lot of disability in her work. In fact, there’s a place where you write about, just like, there’s almost, it, it becomes almost formulaic to expect a character with disability. I’m not finding the quotation right now, but I in her work. and I would love to talk a little bit about that, that use of disability. Like why is it central for her? Why do we see characters so often, again, who are prominent and almost like, you can’t look away. I mean, that’s true of many of her characters disabled or not, but yeah.

Amy Julia (9m 47s):
What, what do you think the role of disability is in her work?

Jessica (9m 51s):
I think first of all, it’s personal. So she’s dying of lupus from the point she’s 25. Her father died of lupus when he was young. So she’s facing her own mortality in her regular sickness. Like it’s a, it’s a gradual sickness. She knows it won’t go away. It won’t be cured. I think a lot of times when we think in terms of disease or suffering or difficulty where we push people to look to the other side, right? Like, once we fix this problem, we’ll get to the other side of it. And that’s where the Good stuff is. And she knows the, the end of her sickness is death. There is no getting to the other side of it. And so she writes from that personal place of what is suffering.

Jessica (10m 33s):
If it’s every single day, and it is part of my reality, it’s, it’s not something I get through or have to fix or get beyond. And so when she writes of characters, she’s writing about them in the face of that messed up paradigm, really like this, this way of viewing reality that’s not accurate to reality. It’s, it’s a, it’s a lie, it’s a deception. And Flannery is very good about wiping away those illusions and, and telling the truth about things. So I think first is the, the personal where she’s telling the truth and I think the other, she’s using it symbolically or sacramentally. And, and this, this happens a lot in I think, bible stories as well. It happens in pagan literature that you write about these realities of people with blindness, for example.

Jessica (11m 16s):
And you dig into what does blindness mean? So you look at the tyres and Oedipus recs, or, you know, you look at the Blind prophets, you know, in in the scriptures you look at characters with blindness. What does it represent? What does it mean? And kind of putting this enchanted view on it in which it has sacramental significance. And Flannery does that too. So it has a literal and personal import to her, but it also can have a theological or sacramental resonance to it as well.

Amy Julia (11m 46s):
Yeah. So almost like the, I mean, again, not to, I don’t wanna be too reductionistic about it, but the, one of the things I’ve said about disability before is that it’s like a magnifying glass on our humanity. So it’s not at the, and that, and I feel like that can be true with some of the work she’s doing. I I know there’s a quotation where she says something about like, for the heart of hearing you shout Yes. And for the people you know who can’t see you right. In very large print or what, you know, just that and that sense of, I’m trying to, to call attention, I think essentially to the human condition and If, you can’t see that in your own life because it’s a life of social conformity and respectability.

Amy Julia (12m 28s):
Yeah. Well, maybe depicting someone who actually can’t conform or doesn’t have that socially conferred respectability for whatever reason, disability perhaps being one of them, maybe that will allow readers to, to find themselves there. Right. And wonder, yeah. Wonder what, what might happen in their own lives if they confront those limits, that darkness, that human condition.

Jessica (12m 53s):
Yeah. I think there’s a way of talking about characters in Flannery’s world in which, you know, she shows someone with missing a leg or missing an arm, and she’s just showing the reality that all of us usually can hide. Right? All of us lack. Yeah. All of us are missing things. All of us are needing each other, but most of us can either dismiss our needs, hide our needs, you know, not need anything, act like we don’t need anything. And so in her work, yeah, it’s just exposed. She brings forth these characters who can’t hide that they need something or that they lack something. And she makes us then reconsider what are, in what ways am I holga, in what ways am I too missing something and needing something that Holga makes me reconsider in my own life.

Amy Julia (13m 39s):
Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Well, thank you just for giving us some backstory on her writing and I know, there’s so much more we could say about that. but I would love to move towards this book that you’ve recently written. and I’d love for you to just explain like, what is this book? Yeah. And how did you go about the work that you did on it?

Jessica (13m 60s):
So I love talking about Planet Rio Connor with you right now, because that’s the only reason I worked on this book. You know, I remember when I was first writing on Flannery, so my first book is on Flannery giving the Devil his due. And before I had published it, Flannery O’Connor scholars were saying things like, everything’s been done on Flannery. Like, there’s nothing left to do. Which is, is is silly If. you think of Flannery in terms of Shakespeare, which I do, I feel like there’s this endless wealth of things to say about Flannery and ways of rediscovering her and getting to know her work. So when I found out from one of her biographers that there was this unpublished manuscript, it was just this further piece of evidence, like there’s more to discover.

Jessica (14m 42s):
Yeah. You know, and, and So I, I investigated this third novel that she was working on. She did not finish it. It is not a finished novel. So nobody has really wanted to even put the pieces of it out there or put the pieces together because it’s not done. And it’s, it’s a presumptuous activity. It really is. And I knew that, I knew that going into it. And I also knew there was no story there. The story is just about to begin. And so the question became, you know, and the estate is the one that had originally encouraged me to do this. Billy Sessions had stepped in and said, let’s try this. So, you know, So, I had, I had a desire to do it, I had encouragement to do it. The question was, why in in what ways do readers need to see this?

Jessica (15m 24s):
And, and we can dig into more what I, what I found in her, her unfinished materials. But it’s different. It’s not as formulaic as you mentioned that some of her, her stories end up being and she’s trying something new. and I think it was really helpful for people to see that Flannery was not a finished person. She was still on her journey too. She was a Wayfair, like every single one of us. And her journey ended in 1939. And so it’s easy for us to look back and reduce her just to the version of herself that was 39 years old, oh, sorry, died 9 60, 64. But when you’re 39, like you’re not complete. You’re not complete when you’re 80, you know, we’re all Wayfairs and So I. I just loved showing that to people and and putting that out there for people.

Amy Julia (16m 7s):
For people. Yeah. So, I, just to, again, for people who haven’t read the book, you’ve taken pieces, not all of the unfinished manuscript, but pieces of it. And then also, so you’ve given us that and given us your kind of commentary on it as well as just a lot of context, both in terms of like her own social situation where she’s growing up in Georgia, her relationship with her mother, her, you know, experience of lupus, but also the context of the late fifties and early sixties in the South with someone who has theological commitments that are not the same as her lived Yes. Experience. Yes. And that, that conflict really coming out and the struggle to write this novel.

Amy Julia (16m 52s):
So I’m curious, you know, she’s writing as a white woman with, you know, privilege, not all sorts of privilege in the south, in the fifties and sixties, and I felt like your, I don’t know, your book made her come alive to me, and I’ve done a lot of reading about her because you were willing to both critique her and be generous towards her and, and that seems well deserved. Yeah. Like this is, this is a quotation that you write. We neither shrug our shoulders at past writers’ defects nor discard writers because of their cultural assumptions. Like, let’s actually hang in here with this woman and, and with her writing and see what it might Yeah.

Amy Julia (17m 34s):
Might have to teach us. So can you just talk a little bit about the issue of race, because it shows up in this book, I think, in a different way than in some of her other writing, like that there is a sense of movement in her own awareness and wrestling.

Jessica (17m 49s):
Yeah. Could you just talk about that a little bit? Yeah. So the premise of the novel that she was starting with, and so this is 1960, is when I think that she started it. That’s, scholars differ on that. We can’t, we can’t carbonate the paper, so who knows. But we think it was like 1960, she started this work. So try to put you, I try to put people back into that time and space and buses have been integrated. Martin Luther King Jr. Is on the television regularly. Robert Kennedy’s on the television, she is trying, and she has a television for the first time in her life. Right. Which also makes a difference. And so she is engaging in some of these questions that is broadening her world in a way that her segregated reality had, had not had to deal with If.

Jessica (18m 31s):
you think about it, her, her teachers and professors were those who fought in the Civil War. Like we have to, we kind of have to think about that. Right. And that, that’s hard for us to imagine. But if you’re taught history by someone who fought in the Civil War, you have a different view of the south. Well, fought for the Confederacy. Right. For the Confederacy in the Civil War, just to be clear. Yes, exactly. And, and so she’s living in this segregated world in which this is what she is raised with, and yet her theological commitments are not in line with segregation and with not allowing blacks to have civil rights. And so she’s trying to work this out for herself. And so she starts writing a character who’s similar to her. His name is Walter, but he also draws on kind of like saints from the past in his identity, Walter Hilton, who writes letters and is becomes a mystic.

Jessica (19m 19s):
And so we, we can kind of see the trajectory of the character that he begins like Flannery, but could have been meant or had a destiny that was beyond him, beyond Flannery. And this character starts writing letters to people that really he’s condescending towards that he, he disagrees with their worldview and he tests out their worldview by writing them letters. It’s, it’s kind of like a, a Facebook or Twitter troll who just jumps on the internet to test people’s assumptions and beliefs. And that’s what Walter’s doing. But one of his interlocutors ends up being a civil rights activist in New York named Una Gibbs. And as the two of them start corresponding, she starts talking about how much she loves him, and she loves all people.

Jessica (20m 0s):
And so he tries to test that by becoming black in the male. And he pretends to be black. So he actually exploits somebody in the story named Roosevelt, who’s a black field hand who works on his parents’ farm. And Walter takes this man’s identity and, and tries to have this facade, this caricature of Roosevelt through the mail by which he’s pretending to be Roosevelt. And a lot of people, of course, we read this in 2024 and think like that’s a horrid thing to do. Yeah, it is. It’s not just, it’s not just funny. It can have serious ramifications, but she’s also writing about it. In a time when people were doing that, one of the bestselling books was Black like Me, where James Howard Griffin literally put on blackface and went and lived in the south like a black man and put on a false identity to try to feel what it feels like to be a black man.

Jessica (20m 51s):
He thinks by putting on blackface, he can do that. Yeah. So what what O’Connor’s doing is testing and wrestling with these things about what is the right way to understand what is being portrayed to her as other all the time. How can she understand these perspectives? How can she get into this conversation? How could she reach out to someone and understand interracial fellowship, like she just has no, she has no awareness of what that would look like. So this story was a way of, I think, testing that for her that she, she never finishes.

Amy Julia (21m 27s):
I just was struck by her humility in identifying with these characters because that sense of the somewhat self-important intellectual who doesn’t do anything, who doesn’t work, who doesn’t contribute in that way and who’s stuck in her head or his head as Walter is portrayed, and who might be even doing these, you know, somewhat reprehensible things in terms of representing himself as someone who he’s not, and he is only willing Yeah. To talk to people through the mail, but not to actually have real human relationships.

Amy Julia (22m 10s):
I just appreciated her humility in a new way in terms of how you wrote about her relationship to her characters. Really.

Jessica (22m 19s):
Yeah. You know, DSKY says that you draw all of the characters from yourself when you’re a writer. Yeah. So when you read The Brothers Kara Motov, the worst character in that book is Theodore, who is a buffoon and shares the same name with the author And I. Think Flannery has a tendency to do that. She had a tendency not just to write in such a way that held up a mirror for her characters, but was regularly holding up a mirror to herself. She was trying to reflect as well on the things that she was struggling with and that she was trying to understand. I mean, she, she says in prayers when she’s up at Iowa, she’s praying like, Lord, I wanna be nothing but your typewriter and I think the way that she just allows herself to be a tool in that sense for, for what God was doing and the story he’s telling through her is what, what gave her the ability to write so well even beyond her own limits.

Jessica (23m 11s):

Amy Julia (23m 12s):
Well, I would love to talk a little bit about some of the themes that come up in this, you know, only unfinished and partial work. One of them is this contrast between love in the abstract and love in the flesh. Yes. And I’m thinking about Walter’s attitude towards Una, who is this activist in the North too, is, you know, very well-meaning Una and her mother, and then Yes. That own the conflict that perhaps Flannery is, is working out within herself. So could you just, you know, tell a little bit about those aspects of the novel and what you think she’s doing with the conversation and examples around love in the abstract and in the flesh.

Jessica (23m 58s):
Yeah. Thank you so much for asking that. I haven’t actually been able to discuss too much about the material itself, because everyone wants to know like, how did it get here? Yeah. And, and you know, the, the process of putting it out and So I, but I love what’s actually there. So you have these characters who are writing letters to each other. Can they really know each other from a distance without being able to be in the flesh together? And I’m teaching brothers Kara Mossoff for, so forgive me that it’s like coming up all the time right now, In this conversation. That’s great. But it’s very similar because in the brothers Kara Mossoff, you have these characters like Yvonne Car Mossoff who loves in the abstract. And Madame Lucaf, she’s a lady of little faith who loves in dreams.

Jessica (24m 41s):
She, and she has an imaginary life of love where she dreams of loving the poor. And then the more holy characters keep reminding those characters, you have to love person to person. You have to love people face to face. Like that’s where it gets challenging. And one of the characters who almost commits murder does so because he realizes the difficulty of face-to-face. He sees his father’s face with its gross. He says, syrupy smile and large Adam’s apple and protruding roman nose. And it’s the details that get in the way of love. Yeah. Because it’s easy to love the faceless, it’s easy to love those who don’t ask anything of you, who don’t have their own smells and their own gestures and their own idiosyncrasies.

Jessica (25m 28s):
But the difficulty of loving person to person face-to-face, touch to touch Hmm. Becomes much, much harder. And So I think Flannery does this. I mean, she’s, she’s an inheritor of Edgar Allen Poe, the telltale heart. Yeah. You know, the old man whose eye, you know, the murderer can’t stand. So he kills the man because of this one feature on this man that drives him crazy, drives him insane. And this, I So I think this novel would’ve done such a good job about, in, in a sense, taking the race issue into a larger context of just like, what does it mean to love your neighbor, period? Yeah. Right. If with skin color, with gender, with, as you mentioned, disabilities, with each of us having our own in fleshiness that keeps us from loving each other well.

Jessica (26m 17s):
And, and how that’s really what love should look like. That’s when it’s real active. Love is when you’re loving one another, not just through the male.

Amy Julia (26m 26s):
Well, and you write about also how there, I mean there’s this really arresting chapter between Una and her mother. And that might have been my, I don’t know, the one that, the part of the book that was the most compelling to me, the part of the novel that was the most compelling to me. Because Una is someone who says, you know, she doesn’t believe in God and her mother is, is very sick. And so at, at this point, at some point Una decides, you know what I should do? I should kill my mother. And she sees it as an act of love towards her mother, and then she will kill herself. And that I, and you quote Flannery writing about how when we disassociate love from Jesus and his sacrificial love for us on the cross, what happens is this complete distortion of what it means to love one another.

Amy Julia (27m 18s):
It leads to the gas chamber or to, you know, a euthanasia to a daughter who decides the best thing for her mom would be for her to kill her. So could you just like spell that out a little bit? What is it Yeah. About disassociating love from an incarnation reality that she thinks leads us to this place of horror.

Jessica (27m 40s):
Yeah. Oh, it’s so great. It, yeah. That’s one of my favorite lines from Flannery. And actually Flannery said, you cannot understand her work without understanding that particular line. So she, she says all of her work can be understood through the introduction to a Memoir of Maryanne, that essay that’s quoted there. Wow. and I remember the first time that she made that claim that, that you had to read her work in a, in concert with that line. And suddenly it just changed the way I viewed everything because the source of tenderness is the cross. So anybody who says, let’s follow the way of Jesus. Like, you win when you follow Jesus. Okay. You win if winning means you’re willing to be sacrificed and humiliated.

Amy Julia (28m 22s):

Jessica (28m 23s):
Right. We talk a lot about the death. People say that they’re willing to die, but they’re not really willing to be humiliated. They’re not willing to be that level of vulnerability where someone else can make fun of you. Someone else can think you’re doing something that you’re not, because you want to defend yourself. Right. And you wanna call 10,000 angels down. I mean, and people don’t hold back if they have 10,000 angels at their disposal, whatever that looks like. Yeah. They don’t know how to follow love to the point of that cross. Yeah. To the point of that humiliation and vulnerability. And Flannery says that actually is what love is. So when you look at this mother daughter, this girl has been taught that to be vulnerable is to be weak.

Jessica (29m 5s):
And here is her mother in the ultimate place of vulnerability. And she doesn’t wanna watch her mother go through it. ’cause she was taught that that’s weakness. And the the greatest act she could show of love to her mother is to put her out of her misery of being weak Yeah. And being vulnerable and to still reclaim and, and hold power. And again, Flannery is not writing in a vacuum. Like there were stories at this point in time, just like there are now about exaltation of euthanasia and If. you have that narrative that’s informing your imagination and you exalt murder and suicide as higher goods, then sacrifice and suffering and vulnerability.

Jessica (29m 45s):
You can justify what what Uno wants to do to her mother. Right. And, and I think that moment is really convicting. We haven’t seen anything like that in Flannery before. And she’s being very Prophetic even though she doesn’t get to finish this scene, she’s, she’s prophesying the world that we currently live in, in, in 2024.

Amy Julia (30m 4s):
Right, right. I I did find it really, I mean, I’ve, I’ve returned to that line of hers and that thought of hers often thinking both about some of the current debates around euthanasia and around particularly prenatal testing and abortion in terms of the idea of, you know, what we even call mercy killing or, you know, kind of eliminating a life before it is even with us. And doing that in the name of love and compassion. And these are obviously really complex issues and I don’t mean to oversimplify them. And yet I also think that her insistence that we actually go there and that if we don’t connect this to, as you said, a God who is willing to enter this world and love us in this way, then we, yeah.

Amy Julia (30m 57s):
We end up in a place like we are right now with around lots of these issues. So thank you for spelling that out. I have another thing I wanna ask you just to kind of Sure. You know, give us a little insight into, so there’s a lot of imagery in this book, and throughout Flannery O’Connor’s work around eyesight and blindness and the way we see, and towards the end of the book, you write about icons as well and the ways that Flannery O’Connor even uses characters as icons. Could you explain that? Like, just explain what you mean by an icon and how, how she does that and how that shows up in her work.

Jessica (31m 34s):
So I, I hesitated to use a mirror analogy earlier, because when we think in terms of mirrors and something holding up a mirror to us, we’re actually limited even when we look into the mirror because we can only see through our own eyes. Hmm. Whereas what Flannery is always trying to do is get someone else to view us because we need a second perspective. We need a perspective outside of ourselves to start seeing ourselves better. Hmm. And we want that to actually be higher. So if Flannery talks about, in one of her essays, she wants to get her her characters to the point of conversion in which they see that the truth is higher than themselves and they judge themselves by that truth and not the other way around.

Jessica (32m 18s):
Yeah. So an icon has the possibility of showing you the truth about yourself in a way that you don’t normally see because it’s reading you and seeing you with a greater vision than your limited subjective vision can usually see yourself through, if that makes sense. Jean Luke, Jean-Luc Marion talks about this in God without being, he compares the mirror and the icon that the mirror is just gonna reflect. It’s like tot logical. Whereas the icon, it’s, it’s the eyes of Christ reading you, seeing, you judging what you are. It’s the truth, seeing you and judging you, and you’re judging yourself by the truth through that iconic gaze.

Jessica (32m 58s):
So that’s what I see f flannery’s work doing well the most often is giving us that view in which the icon reads us that we’re read in a sense by flannery’s literature, rather than standing over flannery’s literature and reading it.

Amy Julia (33m 15s):
I, yeah, I really appreciated that. And the way that, again, it kind of makes some sense of her characters and particularly the emphasis on whether it’s bulging eyes or, you know, again, going in and out of blindness, being Blind, and yet being able to see there’s, there’s lots around all of that. and I think that’s really helpful and really, again, kind of countercultural both in her time and ours, to think that we actually need a perspective on ourselves that we can’t have by ourselves. Like that, that there’s a, again, kind of a humility and a need to recognize the reality of a transcendent divine presence.

Amy Julia (34m 1s):
Right. Not just of our own, our own material world and being, well, I, I do have, I have a final question I wanna ask you in a minute. I’m not quite there yet Okay. About the imagination. But before then, I mean, I really am still a little bit baffled by the fact that you were the first person to have done this and I, like, I, I, I just remember what I, when I first saw that this was coming out, I was like, wait, what? There’s an unfinished novel that like no one has thought like was worth seeing and working on. And I can see the challenge, like, and you write about that, the challenge of these disparate pieces and unfinished chapters and, you know, not knowing where she’s gonna go with it.

Amy Julia (34m 43s):
And yet I still find the writing compelling, the ideas compelling. It’s really interesting in terms of who she was becoming as a writer and a thinker and a Christian and all of those things. So can you speak a little bit to like, why has no one done this before and how, and what was the process for you of deciding how to put this book together?

Jessica (35m 7s):
Well, a lot of it has to do with practicalities. People want a finished story, they want a finished product, and this isn’t one, and it’s not even close. Right. It, it barely gets going. It doesn’t really even, it’s just like the beginning If, you had to draw a diagram of novels. This is before you even get to the catalyst of action. The begins the, the rising of action of events and it goes to a climax. You have zero things kind of moving this novel forward. So I can understand why a lot of people wouldn’t have put it out there. And, and in fact, a lot of publishers, like, I’m thankful that I’ve been at Brazos the last two books, and that they had the courage to put this out there. And there were some other publishers that said yes too. But like for the most part, there was a lot of nos.

Jessica (35m 47s):
There were a lot of people that couldn’t see the profit in it practically. And, and so they didn’t want to put an unfinished workout there without profit. So really you would see this ending up in the archives or ending up in a university publication, so nobody got to see it ever. So yeah, this way of telling the story, I could finish the story without having to finish the novel, if that makes sense. I was able to try figure out what is the story here in which the novel plays a central role, but because the novel itself isn’t finished, I had to make the story about me and the reader too. We had to become part of it, which meant I also had to consider readers outside of the readers that Flannery would’ve considered.

Jessica (36m 29s):
And one of the things that’s really missing from this book is the fact that she wrote for white readers and, and some of her greatest literary critics have been black readers like Alice Walker or Tony Morrison. And so how do I write a full story about me as a literary critic, Flannery as a artist, and then write also with these other readers in mind. And so, thankfully Steve Prince became an artist who was willing to engage with Flannery’s work and add another layer to the reading where he too is reading her and, and showing us how to read her. And as an example, in a sense of what I’m hoping to do with this work, which is to make it something that is, is starting the conversation is opening up beyond Flannery and showing, you know, one of the greatest gifts Flannery gives us is that she teaches us how to read and she teaches us how to have conversations about these big ideas.

Jessica (37m 21s):
And so this book was, was doing that, but I think a lot of people couldn’t see that story and how that could work.

Amy Julia (37m 27s):
Mm. I really appreciate that. And I was surprised at, I guess again, I felt like you’re right, the story is more about her as, as much as it is about any of these characters. But then there’s also, and towards the end you say, you know, sure, maybe she didn’t finish this novel because she was dying. Like that’s a very, you know, com you know, reasonable thing to assume. Or maybe she didn’t finish it because she was still wrestling like she was still didn’t know how to do what she was trying to do. And obviously her own life being cut short did not help with that. But I just appreciated even the acknowledgement that there was a tension like that she and I loved that she was trying to do something new, that she was trying to represent both Christianity and race differently than she had before.

Jessica (38m 21s):
Right. Yeah, I think so. And If, you look at some of our, our best writers and the longevity of their career. I mean, I think of CS Lewis as like a great example. And at some point, I’m gonna write about this, I just haven’t had time, but when I look at CS Lewis, he, he writes about women so poorly in that hideous strength, but then 20 something years later, he writes about them again until we have faces. And it’s beautiful and it’s completely different. I mean, his portrayal of women is no longer misogynist. Right. And he, he moves over the course of his life. Well, he dies in 64 at, at how, how old was he? 66. Yeah. And he was born 1898, I think.

Jessica (39m 2s):
Like, so if he, if Flannery got to live to be 66, like what would’ve changed in 20 years when it comes to her view on African Americans? I just feel like she could have written something so different than she had before. and I, I love getting to see that she really was headed that direction. She was a, there’s an ascent happening I think that we all dream, dream about and we all long for ourselves and we got to, to see that at work in her.

Amy Julia (39m 26s):
Hmm. I love that. Well, as I, you know, mentioned to you when we were talking before, this podcast is named Reimagining the Good Life, and towards the end of this book you referenced Walter Brueggeman, who is an Old Testament scholar. And he wrote a really influential book, you know, decades ago called The Prophetic Imagination. So I’m gonna quote you talking about him. So you Right. Okay. The dominant culture is characterized by fast-paced responses, consumerism, utilitarianism, dehumanizing, transactional relationships with people and the earth. It is a royal consciousness in which people live for their individual desires and material success. The Prophetic imagination offers an alternative vision of the world, one rooted in an experience of suffering, loss and exile, but with a hope of healing, reconciliation and home.

Amy Julia (40m 17s):
O’Connor writes from this prophetic Imagination and against the royal consciousness in her Fiction So I just wanted to kind of land with that tension or contrast, but maybe I should say in mind between the royal consciousness and the Prophetic Imagination. And maybe reflect a little bit on how O’Connor’s Fiction has shaped your imagination. Or how you want, you think she wants her stories to shape our Imagination. What is the Prophetic imagination in her work and how is it confronting the royal consciousness?

Jessica (40m 53s):
So good. Yeah. Thank you for that. The, this is to me, this is the reason I keep returning to Flannery. ’cause she does this so well. Yeah. She wrote a talk, I don’t know what year it would’ve been, 19 52, 55 called Who Speaks For America Today. She’s responding to a Life magazine article. It’s in mystery and manners. And she, she starts with that. And in this life article, somebody is lamenting that novelist, you know, we have all this wealth. America has all this power, and yet novelists are writing about the tragedy of the human condition. And so this person is like, why aren’t we writing happy novels about paradise that we live in in the 1950s?

Jessica (41m 35s):
And Flannery answers that question. She says, well, who speaks for America today? The reason it’s not the novelist is because it’s the advertisers. We have fallen into this ideal of America and American society, which is the royal consciousness that I’m talking about. Yeah. In which we are made to be happy. And happiness means wearing a smile while you vacuum. Even If you dreamed of having a PhD as a mom. You know, this royal consciousness tells you to want things you don’t necessarily want while trying to sell things to you while trying to get you to consume and consume and consume. I mean, if I, if I ask my students right now, you know, the reason they’re in my classes, so many of them can easily say, I want a degree to make money, to get a house, to have satisfaction.

Jessica (42m 18s):
To have pleasure. Yeah. That’s the goal. And and we don’t question it. We don’t think about it because we’re sold this goal in this vision of the Good life Everywhere we turn. And it, it’s been the same since the 1950s. What does the Good life look like? And Flannery is going against that. She’s like, that’s fine, that’s fine. If, you wanna say that? That’s the Good life. What does it look like for the poor Southerner? What does it look like for Bishop in the violent buried away? What, what does that, how does that appeal to him? Yeah. Who is it not thinking of? Who is it not considering? If we only have a certain way of living that is about attainment and consumption, what happens to all of us if we are dying, if we are sick, if we don’t have money, you know, what is the value of our life?

Jessica (43m 11s):
Right? Yeah. If we don’t have those things. Right. And so in that sense, Flannery is showing that life is not about what you bring to the table. Your utilitarian value to the rest of your, your society, your life is worth something because you are meant to be loved and to enjoy God. And those are just higher ends than who speaks for America today.

Amy Julia (43m 36s):
Hmm. Well, I think we should leave it there because that’s a beautiful summary of Flannery’s work and of also just what, what I, I think there’s so many of us are actually longing for, right? I mean, if Flannery O’Connor was starting to be in an over advertised culture in the 1950s Yes. Like, oh my gosh, it’s all we are right now. Yeah. And yet there is this, I think, holy longing that many people are experiencing and we don’t necessarily know what to do with it. But confronting the, the ways in which the royal consciousness does not get us what we want and to ask whether there’s something more, certainly seems like a really worthy endeavor.

Amy Julia (44m 22s):
So thank you for helping us kind of head in that direction.

Jessica (44m 26s):
Yes. Well, thank you for hosting these kinds of conversation because that’s definitely contributing to,

Amy Julia (44m 31s):
To the Good and to the hope. Hmm. Well my pleasure. Thanks as always for listening to this episode of Reimagining the Good Life. Please take a second to rate or review it, share it with others, or to reach out to me. I’d love to hear from you. My email is Amy Julia Becker [email protected]. I wanna thank Jake Hanson for editing this podcast. Thank Amber Beery, my social media coordinator. She does everything behind the Scenes to make sure this gets to you in this form. And, I’m so grateful for her. I hope this conversation helps you to challenge assumptions, proclaim the belovedness of every human being and envision a world of belonging.

Amy Julia (45m 15s):
Let’s Reimagine the Good life together.

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