A Subversive Gospel

Flannery O'Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth

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Michael Mears Bruner
Studies in Theology and the Arts
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , October
     2017.
     260 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830850662.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Michael Bruner’s new perspective on the theological dimensions of Flannery O’Connor’s writing is a welcome addition to the under-appreciated field of religion and literature that, since its origins among the faculty at the University of Chicago in the 1960s, has become something akin to cultural studies. This change opened up theological discourse to faith traditions other than Christianity and expanded the kinds of literature appropriate for theological scrutiny. But along the way, competence in each field of theological and literary studies waned in favor of broader cultural arguments authors were tracing. Bruner, however, has no weakness in either theological training or literary analysis. His mind is curious and expansive in both fields. As did his academic forbearers, he brings considerable knowledge of both fields to his study but tempers his apologetics to follow a path set forth in the Bhagavad Gita as neither attached to the one nor alienated from the other. He looks at both theology and literature with “an equal eye,” as the Bhagavad Gita recommends, just like his subject, Flannery O’Connor tried to do in her writings. In the process he gives us a fresh look at O’Connor’s work, but from a more traditional point of view that also provides a suggestive model for disciplined scholarship in religion and literature in our current moment.

The method Bruner applies derives from both his personal academic biography and the technique applied by O’Connor; it is analogic, traced to the medieval writings that Bruner first dedicated himself to studying as a graduate student and that occupied many hours of O’Connor’s reading life. In other words, Bruner makes both existential and intellectual the move that O’Connor made in her attempts to create a modern literature that evoked the established theological principles of her Catholicism. Moreover, Bruner brings an additional perspective grounded in another context, that of a screenwriter, an experience he describes in engaging detail in his introduction. On several occasions at conferences devoted to the work of O’Connor, I was witness to the benefits of having this experience in entertainment writing. Bruner is as compelling, vivid, and passionate in communicating his ideas in person as he is in his writing. He is not afraid to step around standards of conventional academic discourse in performance and in writing. He understands what “plays,” and his text in some respects mimics a screenplay inasmuch as his book functions as a manual for how to stage an analysis of O’Connor. It is peppered throughout with researched digressions on specific topics that support his analysis (he calls them by the seldom-used term, “excursuses”) that appear as deeper content in a textbook might appear—boxed and highlighted. Also appearing throughout are bulleted lists, charts, and diagrams, features that are uncommon in an academic study. The result is part first-person reflection on his encounter with the writer, part textbook survey of her work, and part theological and literary analysis in a standard academic mode of intellectual reflection.

While this approach provides an abundance of good ideas and astute analysis—and some very practical information for those teaching or writing about O’Connor—it also sometimes leaves the reader confused. Maybe that is Bruner’s point. But having been an editor of academic monographs, I wondered on more than one occasion why the “extra” material was included in an over-abundance of footnotes and excursuses. The cumulative effect can be that the writer is “showing off” years of research efforts—including his own expertise in the work of Baron Friedrich von Hugel who provides the critical link between the author, O’Connor, and the medieval theology that both subject and author appreciate as a place to initiate an analysis of O’Connor’s fiction. Or perhaps the author is hoping to appeal to multiple audiences: literate trade readers, academics, clergy, or students. In the process he gives something for everyone but perhaps not enough for each. This confusion aside, however, one could read Bruner as himself enacting the advice he quotes from O’Connor: “There may never be anything new to say but there is always a new way to say it” (4).

Bruner’s new way of saying it is more than formal. His arguments rest on the premise that O’Connor was not accidentally or even gently challenging theological and literary norms but that her entire project—literary and theological—can be described as subversive: “By subverting conventional notions of beauty, goodness, and truth, O’Connor is not extolling their opposites—ugliness, evil, and dissemblance.” Rather, Bruner suggests, “by creative implications through her fiction,” that our “conventional categories be baptized…to include their divine extensions, so that what is beautiful is also sometimes terrible and what is true is also sometimes foolish, and what is good is also sometimes violent. Seen in this way, the conventional notions of the transcendentals are not wrong so much as they simply do not exhaust the category” (8). Bruner calls this analogic approach to the relationship between theology and literature in O’Connor a “crucifix hermeneutic” that reorients our gaze so that we challenge our own ideas of the good, the true, and the beautiful in order to see the workings of divine mystery (8). In other words, the analogic approach offers both method and content—a way to recognize what we missed and to understand more fully the transcendentals that break through—in our lives and in her storytelling.

Finally, Bruner practices his own version of subversion when he extends, in a final reflection, his ideas not about how we think about theology but how we practice theology. In considering the dimensions of worship and how they relate to O’Connor’s analogic writing, he suggests that her work “might be incorporated into a liturgical celebration of the Eucharist” (240). In so doing Bruner circles back to his first premise that O’Connor’s work insists we take to it a crucifix hermeneutic, one that, like worship, realigns our ordinary time and positions us to see the beauty and truth in the subversive interruptions of life as we know them here in the mortal realm.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kimberly Rae Connor is Professor of Ethics in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Mears Bruner is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Azusa Pacific University. Born and raised in the Philippines as the son of missionaries, he is currently a resident scholar at the Huntington Library, an ordained minister in the PC(USA), and a recent recipient of a Lilly Endowment in theology and the arts.

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