In 1957, Southern Gothic Flannery O’Connor penned an essay defending her rather dark depictions of life in the American South. O’Connor’s grotesque and graphic depictions of the deficiencies of human nature had won her fame in her genre, much to the ire of her critics. They accused her of reveling in the darker reaches of human nature and inquired as to whether she could write stories dwelling on the prosperity and strength of her native land. Her response was a firm no.
“The Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eyes for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable,” she replied. “Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live.”
Christian Writing in a Fallen World
Christian literature has always had a peculiar relationship with the depraved. Scripture commands us to dwell upon those things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, virtuous, praiseworthy, and of good report. Yet life itself presents us with many things that simply do not fall into this category. The world is filled with false, impure, unjust, vicious, and contemptible behavior, and these themes inevitably find their way into acclaimed Christian works of literature.
But what is pure and lovely about the axe murder at the beginning of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment? What is just and praiseworthy in the graphic depictions of child abuse and torture in his The Brothers Karamazov? These works of literature contain the most degraded aspects of human behavior, and yet they are lauded as great books of the Western canon.
Perhaps the world’s standard of acceptability has simply been eroding our Biblical sensibilities. Perhaps the command to dwell on the pure, lovely, virtuous, and praiseworthy requires us to shun these examples of depravity and focus instead on happy tales of life as it should be (or, at least, as we think it should be). Scripture itself, however, is full of some pretty repulsive human behavior. Take the story of Lot and his daughters, for example. Or the rape of Dinah. Or the slaughter of the Hebrews at the command of Pharaoh. Surely there is nothing lovely about those stories, is there?
“All Scripture is God-breathed,” the Apostle Paul says, “and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.” Does usefulness counterbalance the command for purity? Perhaps our passage in Philippians ought to be interpreted as “whatsoever things are purely, whatsoever things are lovely…think on these things – unless a departure from them is more edifying on the whole.”
That works, but only if you’re prepared to concede that significant passages in Scripture are unlovely and impure, even if they are ultimately worth slogging through. I’m not willing to make that leap, and I think there is a more satisfying interpretation.
As Ms. O’Connor said, redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it. Before there can be an ascent of the soul, there must first be a descent. It is why, as my friend Colin Cutler is fond of pointing out, every epic requires a descent into the underworld. We ourselves are somewhere between the Via Dolorosa’s first cobbles and the harrowing of hell.
I’ve been fascinated with the concept of the alchemical process for some time now. The alchemists, you may recall, were in pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone – a legendary stone capable of transmuting base elements into gold. That process of transmutation, however, required breaking down those elements to their most fundamental parts and putting them back together again. The process doesn’t sound pleasant for the elements. Transmutation hurts, but it is, in its own sense, lovely.
The power of stories, however dark and seemingly hopeless, is that they reflect one true story, a grand narrative being woven through the ages, with its climax on Good Friday and resolution on Easter Sunday. Whatever darkness there may be, there is always opportunity for redemption. So when we encounter the nether reaches of human nature, such as in those two great works by Dostoevsky, we can see those themes through the lens of redemption. We see, in the best authors, the hand of God always extended to lost sinners, in an act of grace that promises to break them down and rebuild them into something better.
Posted by Nick Barden
Picture: Raskolnikov and Marmeladov by Klodt Michail Petrovich (1874).