Friday, January 31, 2014

Flannery's Super Bowl Pick

Yes, folks, it’s that time of year again.  Time for Flannery O’Connor’s Super Bowl pick.  As in the past, the factors she considers in determining this year's winner have little to do with what actually happens on the field.  In Sunday's contest the Seattle Seahawks battle the Denver Broncos.   Just looking at the teams’ mascots, Flannery is tempted to go with the Seahawks.  A seahawk is, after all, a bird and we know how Flannery adores her feathered friends.  But she is also drawn to the Broncos.  The horse mascot no doubt recalls summers on Uncle Bernard’s farm (then known as Sorrel Farm) riding horseback with her cousins.  And while she is best known for the peafowl that roamed the property, all the time Flannery and her mother were living at Andalusia they also had horses.  Another factor in Denver's favor is their star quarterback, Peyton Manning.  True, he didn’t play at Georgia, but as a Tennessee Volunteer, Manning was a standout in the SEC and Flannery is nothing if not an SEC girl (see the above photo).  While Manning may not have played at Georgia, corner back Champ Bailey and running back Knowshon Moreno did.  Surely, this an important consideration.  Add to that the Broncos’offensive prowess Flannery can identify with since she is a writer whose fiction offends many.  Remember the disturbance Wise Blood caused when it was released?  Even today, she is banned in some public and parochial schools.  Lest you think this is all going Denver’s way, Flannery is quick to note that Seattle is known for more than its grunge culture.  Take their world famous coffee.  Flannery loves coffee, especially mixed with Coca-Cola - her favorite beverage.  Seattle also has a fairly large Scandinavian population and we know how she feels about Danish men (if you don’t know what I’m referring to check out Brad Gooch’s Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor p. 229ff).  Not sure, though, what she would think about this blogger whose ancestry is also Danish.   So as not to leave any stone unturned, Flannery checked out Andalusia’s data base and discovered that she has twice as many friends in Seattle as Denver.  When you add to that the many friends she has in the rest of the Pacific Northwest, Flannery’s choice would seem to be a no-brainer.  Nevertheless, she is taking Denver by a field goal 24-21.
- Mark

Friday, January 24, 2014

An Astonishing Claim

I was recently noodling around the internet searching for material for this blog when I came across this video that aired on PBS's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly Nov. 20, 2009.  In it, Ralph Wood makes the rather astonishing claim that Flannery O'Connor is "the only great Christian writer this country has produced."  He goes on to list some of the writers one might plausibly consider to be Christian - Emerson,Thoreau, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Emily Dickinson, Frost, Stevens - and then asserts that not one of them is Christian, at least not "orthodoxly Christian."  My immediate reaction was, this can't be.  Surely there are others.  However, the more I thought about it I had to concede that Wood was right.  Who else beside Flannery O'Connor can be considered a great Christian writer?  Walker Percy?  John Updike?  Perhaps, but as good as they are they're not in the same league as Flannery.  What about T.S. Eliot?  Now there's a contender, though I would maintain that even though he was born in this country he lived most of his life in England and is more British than some of their own writers.  As provocative as Wood's interview is, it begs the question, what is it that makes an author a "Christian writer"?  For that matter what is is that makes an author a Catholic writer?  Katherine Anne Porter, Andrew Greeley, and Margaret Mitchell were Catholics.  But can their writing be considered Catholic?  In response to a comment on last week's blog asking me to define my terms, I said that a Catholic writer was one who viewed reality sacramentally and that this outlook is reflected in his or her writing regardless of whether that person is formally connected to the institutional church.  My friend Fr. James Behrens at the monastery said that this definition needed more specificity.  So what is it makes a writer a Catholic writer?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.
- Mark

Friday, January 17, 2014

Postmodern Whispers

A month ago I wrote about an article that appeared in First Things by Dana Gioia titled "The Catholic Writer Today," in which the author bemoans the scarcity of good, contemporary Catholic writers.  Gioia contrasts this to the scene a half century ago when writers such as Flannery O'Connor, Graham Greene, and Evelyn Waugh were all the rage.  Gioia's article continues to create quite a stir.  In the latest issue of Image, editor Gregory Wolfe weighs in with a far more sanguine appraisal of Catholic writing in the 21st century.  In his essay, "The Catholic Writer, Then and Now," Wolfe asserts that "the loss of a Catholic presence in mainstream literary culture is not because we are suffering from a dearth of gifted Catholic writers, but because ideological blinders have prevented religious and secular people alike from perceiving and engaging the work that's out there."  And there is a lot of engaging work being done.  The list of current writers Wolfe cites - Alice McDermott, Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff, and Louise Erdrich - stacks up well with the list of mid-century authors Gioia names.  Why then aren't these artists getting the same recognition as their forbears?  Well, for one, the cultural context has changed.  Influenced as they were by "the grand gestures of modernism and sensitive to the aggressive early twentieth century attacks on religion," Catholic writers of the 1950s were inclined to "shout." As Flannery O'Connor put it in her essay "The Fiction Writer and his Country," "“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock -- to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures."  And so O'Connor did, but as modernism has given way to postmodernism, the Catholic writer of today is more apt to whisper than shout.  The "master narratives" of the midcentury have given way to the more "intimate, domestic tales"of writers like Alice McDermott.  There is another reason Wolfe believes these writers are not being heard.  To see what it is, check out his essay.  And while you're at the website, consider subscribing to Image.  For my money, there's not a better journal out there on religion and the arts.
- Mark

Friday, January 10, 2014

Top Ten Title

The honors keep pouring in for Flannery O'Connor's A Prayer Journal.  Religious News Service recently named it one of the ten most "intriguing books about religion" for 2013.  Its right up there  with such notable titles as My Bright Abyss by Christan Wiman, N.T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God, and Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Raza Aslan.  That's pretty distinguished company.  While academia remains somewhat reserved about these youthful writings, the secular press has greeted the slender volume enthusiastically.  Ordinary readers are drawn to O'Connor's intimacy, open-heartedness, and vulnerability (a side of her personality one rarely sees in her later writings) as she pours out her soul to God.  Some have dismissed the writing as naive, but considering the fact that Flannery was in her early 20s when she was keeping the journal, I find it to be as sophisticated as it is compelling.  And I'm not the only one.  Though the book came out last November, we've already gone through two cases in our gift shop and are awaiting delivery of a third.  The publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, is having a hard time keeping up with demand, too.  The book is already in its third printing.
- Mark

Friday, January 3, 2014

Looking Ahead

As the new year gets off to an icy start here at Andalusia, it doesn't take a fortune teller to see that there are many exciting changes and events in store for 2014.  This year marks the 50th anniversary of Flannery O'Connor's death and in commemoration of that event the next international conference on Flannery O'Connor will be held at All Hallows College in Dublin, Ireland July 24-26.  For more information on the conference click  here.  Closer to home, Georgia College will be hosting a National Endowment for the Humanities sponsored seminar, Reconsidering Flannery O'Connor, July 2-29.  Presenters include Robert Brinkmeyer, Gary Ciuba, Doreen Fowler, Brad Gooch, Christina Bieber Lake, and Virginia Wray.  For more information please contact Marshall Bruce Gentry (478-445-6928) or  You can also go to their website for more details. We are all looking forward to the January 26 gala at the Piedmont Driving Club in Atlanta to celebrate the publication of Flannery O'Connor's A Prayer Journal.  Special thanks to Andalusia Board member, Helen Collins, for all her hard work in organizing this event.  It should be quite an evening.  The following Sunday our much anticipated February Lecture series gets underway with a reading from poet David Huddle.  As with all events at Andalusia, this lecture is free and open to the public.  Perhaps the biggest event happening this year occurs next Monday when our new Executive Director, Elizabeth Wylie, assumes her post. I am pleased to report that Elizabeth got out of Boston before yesterday's blizzard and is now in Milledgeville getting settled into her new home.  I know you will all join me in welcoming her to Andalusia and wishing her all the best.
- Mark