Tag: Flannery O’Connor

The Scourge of Sentimentalism

Sentimentality is emotion for emotion’s sake. And that’s bad. Good art, a good story or book or song or movie will offer an experience that engages us as a whole person. When Christians are sentimental we are compromising the Gospel.

Nothing is innocent because of the Fall, and our return to innocence comes at a significant cost. Christian author Flannery O’Connor says that Christian sentimentality is a result of separating Nature and Grace, and when we do this, Grace is degraded to pious cliché, and Nature becomes either sentimental or obscene.

We can avoid sentimentalism and pious cliché by seeing the physical world everywhere infused with the transcendent and the so-called spiritual things as grounded in the stuff of life.

But it’s so hard to do this in our culture—we’ve been brought up with the separation.


The Perpetual Victim: Flannery O’Connor’s “Greenleaf”

Free-Photos / Pixabay

Everybody whines and complains on occasion.  It can be how we process disappointment.  Some, for one reason or another, whine and complain all the time.  This can be a defense mechanism; “If life is going to suck anyway, I might as well anticipate the disappointment.”

In “Greenleaf,” Flannery O’Connor describes the perpetual victim and provides the antidote to this poisonous view of oneself.

The Perpetual Victim

Mrs. May, protagonist of “Greenleaf,” declares, “I’m the victim.  I’ve always been the victim.”

Mrs. may owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and hers alone. She declares to her city friends,

“Everything is against you, the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.”

No wonder she considers herself a victim, if she thinks weather and soil are her antagonists.  She is blind to the fact that without weather and dirt, there is no farm—these things aren’t adversaries; they are gifts.   And so is the help against which she rails—the help is Mr. Greenleaf.

The narrator tells us that Mrs. May “had set herself up in the dairy business after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad.”  Mr. Greenleaf‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm.  Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is as successful as it is.

This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator tells the story from Mrs. May’s perspective and is, therefore, not to be trusted.  For instance, when the narrator reports a field had come up in clover instead of rye “because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill,” we are receiving Mrs. May’s interpretation of reality.  Mr. Greenleaf likely ignored her instructions because he knew better.

Mrs. May frequently speaks of how hard she works.  She believes she “had been working continuously for fifteen years” and that “before any kind of judgement seat, she would be able to say: I’ve worked, I have not wallowed.”  Interestingly, she doesn’t do a stitch of actual work through the whole course of the narrative.  Conversely, Mr. Greenleaf is always occupied with farming tasks.

Everything Mrs. May has, comes to her through the created world and her good fortune at the arrival of Mr. Greenleaf.  But she doesn’t see any of it.  She places a high value on her own, relatively insignificant, efforts and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she has received.

Mrs. May’s Faith

Two quotes will suffice to give us the state of Mrs. May’s faith:

“She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

“She thought the word Jesus should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom.”


Mrs. May seeks no relationship with God and her rejection of Grace is shown through various symbols.

A stray bull has arrived on her place.  In the opening scene, he is compared to a Greek God, complete with a wreath upon his head.  He stands beneath her window like a bovine Romeo.  Not only is this an allusion to Shakespeare’s play, it is also a reference to Zeus who, in the form of a bull, rapes Europa.  When the wreath “slipped down to the base of his horns . . .  it looked like a menacing prickly crown.”  The bull has become a symbol of Christ.  Mrs. May’s view of this transcendent visitor is far more terrestrial–“an uncouth country suitor.”  As a symbol of Jesus, the bull is persistent in his pursuit of Mrs. May.  She consistently tries to get rid of him.

Another symbol in the story is the sun.  Among these is the “black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky.”  The sun, a symbol of providential grace, is blocked off from Mrs. May’s property.  In one of her dreams, “the sun [was] trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.”  Her dreams reflect her stance toward God and his gifts.

The symbolism of the bull and the sun as two figures of the Trinity some together in description of Mrs. May’s view out her window.

The sun, moving over the black and white grazing cows, was just a little brighter than the rest of the sky. Looking down, she saw a darker shape that might have been its shadow cast at an angle, moving among them.

The “shadow” is the bull, a manifestation of the sun on this side of the impenetrable trees.  Mrs. May lives in rejection of God and all his gifts.  She believes herself to be self-sufficient and autonomous.

Lillies of the Field

The Greenleafs, on the other hand, absorb grace in all its forms. The name is suggestive of their familial attitude toward grace, for green leaves soak up the sun and flourish. When Mrs. May takes a trip out to the farm belonging to Mr. Greenleaf’s twin boys, the “the sun was beating down directly” onto the roof of their house. Their milking parlor “was filled with sunlight” and “the metal stanchions gleamed ferociously.” By contrast, from Mrs. May’s window the sun was “just a little brighter than the rest of the sky.”

It is not accident that both Mrs. May and Mr. Greenleaf each have two sons.  In this way O’Connor can compare the generational affect on rejection and acceptance of Grace.  The May boys are as unhappy and resentful as their mother.  The Greenleaf boys are flourishing.

It is because they are flourishing that Mrs. May resents the Greenleaf’s. She means it as criticism when she says, “They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she had struggled to put into the land.” Here we see that she takes credit for God’s gifts, and she derides the Greenleaf’s for living out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:28,

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.

Once, Mrs. May flippantly says, “I thank God for that.” Mr. Greenleaf sincerely responds, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.” He lives out the Biblical injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18).

Victimhood and Gratitude

Mrs. May was so ungrateful for her undeserved blessings that she poisoned herself and her two sons. She created a false reality where Mr. Greenleaf was a parasite feeding off of her family.

O’Connor’s point with Mrs. May is to show that a denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude and resentment.  Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to this failing. Ironically, while lecturing Mr. Greenleaf on the supposed ingratitude of his sons, she says, “Some people learn gratitude too late . . . and some never learn it at all.”  She doesn’t know that she’s speaking only of herself.

The cure for Mrs. May’s form of perpetual victimhood is gratitude.  Unfortunately for her, Mrs. May’s ingratitude and victimhood is terminal.  She never receives the cure, although in the moments before her death, she does see what she’s been missing her entire life.

She continued to stare straight ahead but the entire scene in front of her had changed—the tree line was a dark wound in a world that was nothing but sky—and she had the look of a person whose sight has been suddenly restored but who finds the light unbearable.

As she dies in the unbreakable embrace of the bull’s horns, she sees the insignificance of the tree-barrier that separated her kingdom from God’s.

Is that cross around your neck, just pious cliché?


cegoh / Pixabay

Flannery O’Connor says that the separation of grace and nature does a disservice to both (Mystery and Manners).  Emptied of the spiritual, nature becomes either sentimental or obscene.  This was the topic of my last post: Precious Moments and Pornography.  This post is about how the spiritual, emptied of nature becomes nothing more than pious cliché.

It didn’t take long to think of a great example for this one.  What “spiritual” thing has been emptied of almost everything physical?

The Cross. The central symbol of the Christian faith.

I’m thinking of cross earrings and cross necklaces so many of the faithful sport.  Have we gotten to the point where the jewelry and tattoos only suggest devotion?

I saw a young man in full “gangsta” attire sporting a bejeweled rosary.  I suppose it’s possible he was a Catholic, but it’s just as likely that the cross he wears today will mean the same thing as the adorned dog tags he will wear tomorrow.  I will also wonder if he’s really a veteran.

When purchasing a cross to wear as a pendant, charm or earring, do people actually care about the particular origin of the design, or do they just buy the one that strikes their fancy?  There are many varieties of crosses: Cathedral, Orthodox, Celtic, Greek, Russian, Byzantine, Latin, Maltese, Jerusalem, Huguenot and many more.  I have an ancestor that was a Huguenot so I could wear that one with some legitimacy.  Is it good enough to be a Christian to legitimately wear any cross?

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Do you think of your cross jewelry a Roman torture and execution device, or is it a way to suggest devotion, while also adorning your neck? #FlanneryO’Connor #piouscliche” quote=”Do you think of your cross jewelry a Roman torture and execution device, or is it a way to suggest devotion, while also adorning your neck? “]

Bring the natural back into the spiritual

How do we rectify this?  If O’Connor is right, the spiritual must, once again, be filled with the physical.  We need to be reintroduced to the physical dimensions of the crucifixion.  A lot of people have written on this and many Good Friday sermons have been preached on it.  If you have not ever heard of the tortures of crucifixion read A Physician’s View of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

The Cross, emptied of its physicality becomes a pious cliché.  I suppose it’s fine to put a cross around your neck, but it ought to be scandalous. Isn’t it scandalous for the Son of the Most High God to be shamed, tortured and executed on this device?

The heart of the Gospel is in the answer to the question, “Why would those who love him wear a symbol of this obscenity?”


How are Precious Moments like pornography?

Realistic Moments by Rachel Held EvansI love these Realistic Moments by Rachel Held Evans.

These cartoons function a lot like the short stories of Flannery O’Connor—they too are a little disturbing, and funny.  And. like many of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, these cartoons expose a tendency for Christians to fall into sentimentality.  We like to prune Bible stories back a little so that they can provoke the right emotion.

The drowning of the entire human population of the world, save six, is often reduced to pairs of cute animals walking side-by-side into the arc.   The excruciating story of Joseph becomes a story of victorious faith.  Ehud’s assassination of Eglon is rarely told because there is not an acceptable emotion to which reduce it.

In the book Mystery and Manners, O’Connor suggests the reason for this sort of sentimentality is that Christians conceptually separate nature and grace—or to use different terms, we separate the physical from the spiritual.  This is the central tenet of Modern secularism, by which  Western Christianity has been so influenced.  When we separate the two, O’Connor says that Grace is degraded to pious cliche and Nature becomes either sentimental or obscene.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Sentimentalism is the result of separating Nature and Grace.  When we separate the two, Grace is degraded to pious cliche and Nature becomes either sentimental or obscene. Christians prefer sentimentality over obscenity. #FlanneryO’Connor #Sentimentalism” quote=”Sentimentalism is the result of separating Nature and Grace.  When we separate the two, Grace is degraded to pious cliche and Nature becomes either sentimental or obscene. Christians prefer sentimentality over obscenity.”]

Not So Precious Moments

Precious Moments paraphernalia as an example of sentimentality.  These figurines occupy the shelves and mantels in many Christian homes.  As such, they are examples of degraded Grace.  And even if we don’t display it in our homes, the sentimentality that they signify is part of our mental adornment.

Precious Moments figurines are nothing if not a sentimental celebration of innocence.  I saw an ad for the Precious Moments Nativity Scene in a magazine.  It comes with the figures of all the traditional observers of the Incarnation—including a shepherd and two sheep.

I have raised sheep and the cute little ceramic balls of white, ceramic fluff bear as little resemblance to my lambs as I do to the figurine shepherd.  Don’t get me wrong, a natural lamb is quite adorable, but you don’t just get the adorable.  If you touch a sheep, you will smell like lanolin, a smelly oil that permeates the wool.  The stink sticks to you and it won’t come off with soap and water.  Although I am sure lanolin is very handy for the sheep, it’s not a scent that works very well in civil society.  Further, life on the farm is not conducive to a white animal, nor is the natural consequences of all the grass and feed they consume–they are dirty.  Now don’t get me wrong, I very much enjoyed being a shepherd, even with the selenium shots, hoof-trimming, shearing, prolapses, and bottle feeding.  The point is, there was more to a lamb than cuteness and cuddliness.

The Precious Moment sheep are a sentimental distortion of actual sheep where everything is stripped away except innocence. In all sorts of human representations, Precious Moments give us pictures of ourselves as innocent as well.

In my own Precious Moments collection, I have David and Jonathan figurines.  They present innocent friendship, and nothing else.  A far cry from the real characters of David and Jonathan.  These two are as innocent as we are.

O’Connor correctly points out, we lost our innocence in the Fall, and “our return to it is through the Redemption which was brought about by Christ’s death and by our slow participation in it.”  The Precious Moment figurines offer simple innocence, or simply offers innocence–but this denies it’s cost, and innocence comes at a great cost–the death of the Son of God.

Precious Moments and Pornography

According to O’Connor, pornography, too, is essentially sentimental–it reduces sexuality to the erotic.  Just as the Precious Moments isolates innocence, pornography separates the erotic from sex “and its hard purpose,” by which I think she means, conception and birth and childrearing, likely followed by a life full of the joys and hardships of parenting.

Oscar Wilde said that a sentimentalist “is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Precious Moments are like pornography in that they have the same source–the radical separation between the natural and the supernatural.  They are both sentimental expressions–they attempt to achieve the emotion without the cost.

Just to be clear, O’Connor would not have claimed the two or morally equivalent.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”Precious Moments are like pornography in that they have the same source–they are both sentimental.  They attempt to achieve the emotion without the cost. #FlanneryO’Connor #Sentimentalism” quote=”Precious Moments are like pornography in that they have the same source–they are both sentimental.  They attempt to achieve the emotion without the cost.”]

How do we avoid the loss of meaning that results from this sentimentalizing?  We need to live out of the understanding that all objects and actions are spiritual.  O’Connor was insistent that our sense of the supernatural ought to be grounded in concrete observable reality.  Those of us who believe that there is a spiritual reality need to take the next step and see the physical world as infused with the transcendent.  Without the separation, the erotic is not obscene but a gift from our creator.  Without this separation, the lamb is both one of the cutest things that have walked on the planet, and also one of the smelliest.  And as they get a little older, one of the stupidest.

There’s a reason why the Bible refers to God’s people as sheep–somehow we are both adorable and smelly and stupid.

My next post is about the reverse problem.  Read Is that cross around your neck just pious cliche?

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