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Flannery O'Connor and the theological classroom
October 12, 2011 - 9:59pm

Good conferences are like a good partnership—they get better with age. Or maybe it’s my age that allows me to engage more directly with the ideas around me. I felt this way last weekend when I assisted with interviewing several participants at a Flannery O’Connor conference for a documentary. Many of the interviewees, such as Bill Sessions, knew the great writer personally before her untimely death at thirty-nine from lupus. They understood how important her religious faith had been to her.

This conference was unusual, in part, because it focused on O’Connor’s moments of “Revelation and Convergence”—tracing the theological and philosophical links between O’Connor’s writing and her Catholic background. The conference speakers were enigmatic when they spoke of O’Connor. Many of them addressed how O’Connor’s work is overlooked in literary studies, particularly at the graduate level. Typically, undergrads will read “A Good Man is Hard to Find” or “Good Country People.” At the upper levels, though, O’Connor tends to get sidelined by (the mostly male) Southern “heavyweights”—William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren or Walker Percy. The religious side of O’Connor is certainly known by some scholars of American literature, but I was not familiar with her extensive personal and professional writings on theological issues.

I was aware, however, of the southern literary push towards Catholicism because my sister, Ginny, happens to be married to Ben Tate, the son of Agrarian poet, teacher and Catholic convert, Allen Tate. Allen was married to Caroline Gordon, an important reviewer and editor for O’Connor. Besides developing New Criticism and the field of southern literary studies, Tate and Gordon publicly converted to Catholicism as adults, around the time that they met O’Connor, and helped her edit her work. Southern writers such as O’Connor, Gordon and Tate came face to face in the 1940s and ‘50s with the great injustices of their day--racism, anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism. Many of these southern writers empathetically (and for other reasons) identified with Catholicism. The Tate’s commitments to Catholicism and to writers from the south were both reasons that O’Connor entrusted them with her early story drafts.

Besides wondering about family connections to O’Connor during the conference, I began to think about my own theological experiences growing up in the south. My sisters and I were raised Presbyterian—one of the Protestant denominations responsible for hostility against Catholics during the last century. While I was oblivious to this religious prejudice while growing up, I knew that I could trace my interests in discussing literary texts back to some of my church’s Presbyterian preachers, particularly Roland Perdue.

Pastor Perdue had left the great state of Texas when I met him in Jacksonville, Florida in the early 1980’s. He was large in size, possessed a dramatic voice, and was a fabulous storyteller. “Roland” as most friends describe him, conveyed the ethical dilemmas of the Bible in a way that reminded me of Charlton Heston parting the Red Seas in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The great insight that I had at the O’Connor conference was about how much of my own life has been shaped by the intersections of theology and literature, and by the talents of public speakers like Perdue. Even if I have not adhered to a particular faith in my adult life, I understand how the intersections between storytelling, social justice and dialogue have been crucial for me in defining my career path.

As the humanities and social sciences continue to come under fire because of a perceived “lack” of direct professional training or because of the competition from cheaper, online education, perhaps now is a good time for us to discuss how and why we teach ethical decision-making in the classroom? Or whether it is possible to teach how to write great literature via a computer screen?

What is it that happens when a student is face to face with a talented storyteller?


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