Flannery O’Connor redefined both the literary landscape of the American South and the image of the 20th-century Christian novelist. Strangely, however, few scholars have attempted to peel back the layers of her work to consider the extent to which the Bible itself played a role in shaping O’Connor’s imaginative fiction. In The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor: Examining the Role of the Bible in Flannery O’Connor’s Fiction, Jordan Cofer sets out to do just that, arguing that upon close examination, O’Connor’s novels and short stories bear unmistakable signs of influence from biblical narrative.
Chapter 1 serves as the introduction for the book, laying the groundwork for Cofer’s contention that biblical allusion and intertextuality pervade O’Connor’s oeuvre. O’Connor’s dependence upon scriptural tradition, says Cofer, exists in three primary forms: the recapitulation of famous biblical narratives, the introduction of characters who serve as backwoods prophets, and ironic reversals like those found in the parables of Jesus. In chapter 2, Cofer zeroes in on O’Connor’s debut novel, Wise Blood, as an exemplar containing all three of the characteristics outlined in chapter 1. According to Cofer, the narrative of O’Connor’s protagonist and Christian malgré lui, Hazel Motes, closely resembles the story of the Apostle Paul found in the Book of Acts. As the founder of the “Church of Christ without Christ,” Motes, with his black preacher’s hat and dilapidated car, serves as O’Connor’s archetypical backwoods prophet, even though he initially sets out specifically to undermine the Christian worldview so prominent in the American Deep South. Finally, ironic reversals abound throughout Wise Blood, most notably in Motes’s journey from being a prophet with “unseeing sight” to becoming a literal “blind seer.”
Chapter 3 analyzes two of O’Connor’s short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Judgment Day,” which according to Cofer exemplify O’Connor’s method of biblical recapitulation. “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” says Cofer, is a grotesque retelling of Jesus’s conversation with the so-called “Rich Young Ruler” of Mark 10:17-22, while “Judgment Day” relies heavily upon Paul’s theology of the resurrection of the body in 1 Cor. 15, a passage that O’Connor herself had marked in her personal Bible. In chapter 4, Cofer focuses on O’Connor’s backwoods prophets in “A Circle in the Fire,” “The Lame Shall Enter First,” and her second and final novel, The Violent Bear It Away. The final chapter illuminates O’Connor’s use of ironic reversals in “Parker’s Back,” “Revelation,” and “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” In the first story, O’Connor’s tattooed protagonist—who, according to Cofer, represents a modern-day Moses—inscribes a Byzantine image of Christ on his very flesh, while his fundamentalist wife looks on disapprovingly. In “Revelation,” a well-to-do white southerner experiences a vision in which she finds herself at the back of the line of saints marching to heaven, while those members of social classes she previously looked down upon with disdain are positioned near the front. And in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” one of O’Connor’s more deeply Catholic stories, an intersex sideshow attraction is recast as a priest through whom the Holy Spirit is mediated.
The Gospel According to Flannery O’Connor is a profound, well-written work with a remarkable thesis, and Cofer’s insight into O’Connor’s knowledge and use of scripture is incredibly lucid. The book would have benefitted greatly from a concluding chapter, or even a few paragraphs of closure to tie everything together. Without it, the reader comes to a screeching halt at the end of the final chapter and is left with the impression that Cofer’s book was more a collection of related essays than a single work with an argument that builds to a comprehensive conclusion. This minor issue aside, however, Cofer’s methodology offers a wealth of possibilities for creative interdisciplinary pedagogy. Cofer is a literary scholar drawing heavily on biblical scholarship to argue his thesis; might this approach work the other way around? Could Cofer’s method be useful in promoting literary study among biblical scholars? How might O’Connor’s fiction be employed in the classroom to better illustrate biblical themes? Her short story “Revelation,” for instance, may potentially be used to teach Jesus’s trademark reversals in the Synoptic Gospels, or particular thematic elements from John’s Apocalypse. How might O’Connor’s ham-fisted and defiant backwoods prophets help illuminate the character of biblical prophets like Jeremiah, Joel, Amos, and Jonah? The creative possibilities for further application of Cofer’s work in the biblical studies classroom are indeed promising.
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[Note: The final, definitive version of this review will be published in a forthcoming issue of Review & Expositor by SAGE Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © Joshua Paul Smith]