A Critique of American Christianism
by Matt Bianco
I’ve been reading a lot of works by and about the great Southern author, Flannery O’Connor, as you can tell by another recent post of mine. I recently had a chance to read and contemplate one of her short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
That this story is a critique of the conflation of being American and being Christian should be recognizable, but O’Connor’s subtlety may be just enough for some readers to miss it. Many Americans tend to identify as people who believe in God, maybe even in Christ, just by virtue of the cultural milieu of their day. Americans believe in God, I am an American, therefore I believe God. You can even hear an Aristotelian syllogism in that.
This kind of American Christianism, however, is not incarnated in the life of these Americans. This Christianism is something you assent to, mentally, but it doesn’t affect the way you think or act. Jesus is a word that is used only in the church building–unless you’re angry–and your faith is something you do on Sundays or maybe even just with your heart.
I should warn you that what follows is an overview of O’Connor’s story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” that contains spoilers. If you are familiar with O’Connor’s stories at all, though, you know that spoilers don’t ruin them and that this should only make you want to read it all the more.
The grandmother in O’Connor’s story is the embodiment of this kind of American Christian. The story takes place on a drive from Georgia to Florida with the grandmother, her son Bailey, his wife, and their three children. O’Connor gives lots of subtle hints that she wants you to think of the story as very American. The Misfit, a murderer, has escaped from the “Federal Pen,” grandmother is wearing a “blue straw sailor hat” with “white violets” and “purple violet”–a kind of red, white, and blue. She chastens the grandchildren for not being “more respectful of their native states.” O’Connor describes “blue granite,” “red clay,” and “silver-white sunlight.” They stop at a diner advertised as “Red Sammy’s” who was a “veteran.” Grandmother gets into a conversation with Sammy, where they lament how hard it is to find a good man anymore, and they blame it on “Europe.” As they continue their drive, on hills they see “blue tops of trees” and in valleys they see “a red depression.”
Their behavior is exactly what you’d expect from American Christians not incarnating their Christianity. The children are rude and disrespectful, but no one seems to notice. Sammy yells at his wife, in front of the family, to get them their food. Grandmother sees a naked little black boy standing in the doorway of a shack, and rather than notice his poverty, she calls him a “cute little pickaninny” who is a picture that she’d like to paint. The grandmother lies and connives to get her way and thinks nothing of it.
As they are driving along, they get into a car accident because grandmother’s cat, which she snuck into the car, escapes and scares Bailey, the driver. After the accident, the Misfit happens upon them. His partners take Bailey, the wife, and the three children into the woods to dispose of them. The Misfit stays in a conversation with grandmother. Grandmother tries to persuade the Misfit to let her live. She begins by trying to tell him he’s a good person, with good blood not common blood. “You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” she asks.
She tells him “you could be honest too if you’d only try.” Then she encourages him to just pray. It seems that if being a good person doesn’t persuade you to let others live, and if trying hard to be honest doesn’t persuade you to let others live, then you might have to resort to prayer. When he complains of injustice, she’s willing to concede he might have been put in prison by mistake. He, on the other hand, recognizes the tomfoolery of the prison doctor who attributes his crimes to Freudian hatred for his father.
When this line of argumentation fails her, she resorts back to telling him he’s a good person with good blood who wouldn’t shoot a lady. Pray, “I’ll give you all the money I’ve got!” she says. Then the Misfit explains that Jesus is the one who messed this all up by raising people from the dead. If Jesus actually did raise people from the dead, “then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him.” But if He didn’t, “then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can–by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him.”
At this, grandmother–in one last attempt to save her life–jettisons her faith. If Christianity can’t save her, she doesn’t need it. She tells him, “Maybe He didn’t raise the dead.” The Misfit continues lamenting his own life and leans in close as he speaks to her. When she sees his face up close and twisted, she says, “Why you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children!” She touches him, and frightened, he springs back and shoots her in the chest three times. She dies, with her legs crossed like a child and her face smiling up at the cloudless sky.
Grandmother, so quick to abandon her American Christianism when it can’t help her, ends up seeing her sinfulness in the tormented face of the Misfit. She identifies with sin and with him, even reaching out to make physical contact with him. She dies, with child-like faith, smiling at the heavens.
American Christianism created an intolerable world where neighbors didn’t love one another and no one did “throw away everything and follow Him.” It created followers who would forgo Christ if it made their own lives better, and grandmother tried to. But identifying with sin led to abandoning American Christianism and embracing the child-like faith of true Christianity.
* Matt Bianco is a PCA elder, the homeschooling father of three children, a result of his marriage to his altogether lovely high school sweetheart, Patty.