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Flannery O’Connor clearly has a soft spot for her Southern religious freaks. She sees in their insanity the germ of genuine belief, and recognizes in them an antidote to the bland, uniform indoctrination into a culture where materialistic atheism is the assumed worldview.

In her short stories, and culminating in The Violent Bear It Away—her final novel—Flannery O’Connor sets up characters who, in their clashes, portray two incompatible versions and visions of reality. They might be termed the sensible and the supernatural.

The sensible characters accept the utilitarian values of the world. They see only the material realm and refuse to acknowledge the supernatural. They are full of common sense and practical wisdom, and have no time for the wild, unpredictable, violent, and unstable. In contrast, O’Connor presents the supernatural characters as a cast of grotesque, religious fanatics, and her genius compels us to sympathize more with the freaks and fanatics than the sensible and normal.

In The Violent Bear It Away, the schoolteacher Rayber has rejected the extreme religion of his uncle, the fanatical prophet, and he makes it his mission to rescue his nephew Francis Marion Tarwater from the worldview into which their uncle has brainwashed the boy. Tarwater, who is a sullen fourteen-year-old, becomes an O’Connor anti-hero, on a par with fellow adolescent prophet Hazel Motes from Wise Blood. Both don “fierce hats,” which they wear as their emblem of rebellion against the sensible world.

What are we to make of these wild, backwoods prophets? It is simple. They are O’Connor’s unique contributions to the gallery of literary Christ figures. How so? In The Violent Bear It Away, young Tarwater’s forenames are “Francis Marion,” and he spits on the practical Rayber’s attempts to nickname him “Frank” or “Frankie.” Saint Francis is, of course, the archetypal alter-christus, while “Marion” is a derivative of Mary.

Does such a devoutly Catholic writer as O’Connor truly believe a fanatical Protestant fundamentalist prophet/preacher can be a Christ figure? Any writer who creates a Christ-figure can only  portray one aspect of the Son of God. Any other attempt would be too blatant a re-telling of the Gospel and would be impossible, for the Lord Jesus is too complex a character to summarize. One writer, for example, may mirror Christ the innocent “holy fool” as Dostoevsky does with Prince Myshkin. Another may reflect Christ the suffering victim, Jesus the noble teacher, Jesus the exorcist, or Jesus the healer. O’Connor gives us a reminder of Jesus the prophet—the one who turns over the tables, shatters all expectations, and turns the ordinary world upside down.

Hazel Motes’ fanaticism is bonded to a self-styled religion, The Church of Christ Without Christ, which reflects the heresies of modern American, do-it-yourself, Protestant churches. In The Violent Bear it Away, Hazel Motes’ secular philosophy is more realistically portrayed by the lean, sincere schoolteacher, Rayber.

O’Connor is intent on subverting the predictable and practical view of Rayber and all who would merely seek to make the world a better place through the anodyne humanistic solutions of better education, better housing, a better library, or a better diet. Such people are materialists at heart, for they block all the wild visions of the prophets—preferring the blockheaded solutions, always choosing the mundane over the metaphysical and the practical over the prophetic. These are the men who reduce complex human problems to statistics: men who would shoot down a flight of angels with a fusillade of facts.

O’Connor clearly has a soft spot for her Southern religious freaks. She sees in their insanity the germ of genuine belief, and recognizes in them an antidote to the bland, uniform indoctrination into a culture where materialistic atheism is the assumed worldview. She is for Moses, struck down by God’s presence at the burning bush, Elijah being carried to heaven in chariots of fire, and St. Francis stripping naked in the town square before preaching to the birds and kissing the lepers.

Through Hazel Motes and Francis Tarwater, she also eviscerates not only the modern materialistic philosophies of the world, but also the practical preachers of a commodious Gospel, who substitute moralistic, therapeutic Deism for the radical message of the genuine Christian gospel. She has Motes turn this false religion into his own fanaticism. More effectively, Tarwater is set up as a foil to the false religion, this time portrayed by Rayber.

The gospel that Tarwater espouses is one driven by the one who baptizes with fire, not with water. It is an unrelenting message of the Divine Son of God who takes human flesh of a virgin, is crucified, dead and buried, and risen again to ascend to the right hand of the Father. This is a fully robust, supernatural religion dripping in blood, carried in courage, and affirmed through the witness of the martyrs. This historic Christian faith has no more time for the anemic gospel of good works and self-improvement than the fierce Tarwater has for the schoolteacher Rayber and his dull plans for Tarwater’s rehabilitation.

Tarwater’s harsh rejection of Rayber’s shallow reduction of the faith to moralism and rehabilitation is perhaps what is needed in today’s religious climate—some seventy years after O’Connor’s death. Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism is the religion of Rayber, and for my part, I spit on it  with the same holy hatred of Francis Marion Tarwater. When I am faced with it—and it is the predominant form of Christianity in America today—I want to clamp my rebel hat on my head, sneer at the do-gooder Raybers of the world, and call this false religion what it really is.

Wherever and whenever it has appeared—in every shape and form in every culture and among every people down through history—religion has always been the interaction of humanity with the transcendent. Religion is about our contact with the supernatural. That’s what religion IS—and Rayber’s Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism is therefore not a false religion; it is, rather, not a religion at all.

This counterfeit Christianity is no more than rules for respectability and ideas for self-improvement with a veneer of sentimental spirituality, and it is the same odious counterfeit that Christ came to destroy, and I say Let the Violent Bear it Away.

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