Violence, Grace, and Solidarity: Reading Flannery O’Connor on Good Friday

Jonathan Dyck

In order to arrive at the joy and affirmation of Easter Sunday, we encounter the suffering and despair of Good Friday. It’s not a pleasant thing to acknowledge, but grace and violence appear bound together at Easter.

Few writers are as astute at recognizing this relationship as Flannery O’Connor. Rather than a world of neutral surfaces, O’Connor’s fiction presents us with a world that is irreducibly “grotesque.” For her, the history of the South has made for an environment that is “hardly Christ-centered, [but] is most certainly Christ-haunted” (M&M 44). Her characters may not act like Christians, but theirs is a world which is divinely given, a world in which grace regularly emerges and disrupts. For this reason, O’Connor’s fiction adopts what she has called, “prophetic vision,” a way of seeing that paradoxically understands near things at a distance and far things up close. As she puts it, “The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque.”  This has everything to do with her view that art is incarnational. It is, in other words, ultimately about embodiment rather than abstraction, and its particular kind of embodiment is a deeply mysterious and troubling one. Continue reading

Advertisements

A Costly Confession

From Cheap Grace to Embodying Forgiveness in Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino

Jeffrey Metcalfe

Priest: Good afternoon Walt

Walt: I told you I’m not going to confession.

[…]

Priest: I’ve been thinking about our conversation about life and death. About what you said. About how you carry around all the horrible things you were forced to do, horrible things that won’t leave you. It seems it would do you good to unload some of that burden. Things done during war are terrible. Being ordered to kill. Killing to save yourself, killing to save others. You’re right. Those things I know nothing about. But I do know about forgiveness. And I’ve seen a lot of men who have confessed their sins, admitted their guilt, and left their burdens behind them. Stronger men than you. Men at war who were ordered to do appalling things and are now at peace.

Walt: Well I gotta hand it to you, Padre. You came here with your guns loaded this time.

Priest: Thank you.

Walt: And you’re right about one thing. About stronger men than me reaching their salvation. Well, halle-fucking-lujah. But you’re wrong about something else.

Priest: What’s that Mr. Kowalski?

Walt: The thing that haunts a man the most is what he isn’t ordered to do.[1]

It’s a well-worn scene. A patronizing priest, clothed in clericals, approaches a surely man and offers him some unasked for advice: he should make a confession. The prospect of the surely man (Walt) confessing to the priest is made even more absurd by the contrast in the two men’s appearances. The priest, under thirty, is equipped with a baby face that would assign wisdom to a toddler. Walt, face lined with a bitter old age, wears a grittiness only Clint Eastwood’s features can bear.

It takes only a few lines of dialogue before the audience understands the characterizing back stories of each. The priest, whose occasional insights are clouded by his vocational infancy, recently left the seminary. Walt, a veteran in the Korean War, never left the battlefield. The priest, believing he can exercise a kind of forgiveness that can relieve its recipient of the burden of guilt, continually offers the sacrament of confession. Walt, believing such forgiveness is not meaningful in relation to the crimes he has committed, continually rejects it.

The struggle for a meaningful forgiveness is at the heart of Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film, Gran Torino; a film that raises important questions for Christian practices of forgiveness: Who has the power to forgive? How is forgiveness given? What is the relation between the individual seeking forgiveness and the community? And what does all this have to do with the sacrament of confession? Continue reading

The Gunfighter and the Nation State Part II

“When The Legend Becomes Fact, Print The Legend”

Andre Forget

Westerns are origin stories. Myths about taming the frontier, they narrate the first encounters between colonists and indigenous peoples, the lawless feudal era of the cowboy and the cattle baron, and the arrival of law, order, and the state. A couple of weeks ago, I suggested that Shane shows how order is built on a mythic violence which sits uncomfortably between the feudal age and the age of the nation; it uses feudal means to undo the feudal order. This violence, however, is kept at arm’s length from the peaceful community that benefits from it. John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance takes up a lot of the same questions but ends on a significantly more cynical note. Continue reading

The Gunfighter and the Nation State Part I

“There’s No Living With A Killing”

Andre Forget

It’s a familiar image. The screen brightens to reveal a ruggedly picturesque landscape of rolling plains, high bluffs and twisting rivers; in the distance we can see a small speck that slowly grows larger until it is identified as a lone horseman riding towards us. The origin of the horseman is unimportant. He has appeared out of the landscape, and we already know that when the film closes we will see him disappear back into the landscape: he is elemental, barely human. Continue reading