As many writers know, discussing religion with a literary narrative can be a very difficult thing to do. This is the case for many reasons, including the fact that spiritual beliefs are one of many topics that make a lot of people anxious or uncomfortable. Nevertheless, religion is so deeply embedded into the fabric of our cultural and social lives that continually avoiding it is pretty much impossible. Moreover, intellectual exchanges about spiritual subjects can be enlightening or relieving for many people. And that is why it can be advantageous for writers to make religious discourse integral to their works.
While there are many writers who have discussed religion in an eye-opening and intriguing way, Flannery O’Connor has a particularly effective way of doing this very thing. In her important short story “A Good Many Is Hard To Find” for example, O’Connor uses the dialogue between her central character and a felon to unveil the complexity of their religious values. In this case, the grandmother is a very flawed individual who yet clings to the gospel of Jesus as an integral aspect of her life. When she and her family find their car breaking down while on a trip, they are left at the mercy of the Misfit and other criminals who take pleasure in killing people. Once she realizes that her life may be at stake, the grandmother tries to reason with the Misfit in an attempt to prevent herself from being murdered. As the plot thickens, she urges the felon to turn to God in prayer so he will cease with his criminal behavior. Their exchange unfolds thus:
“If you would pray,” the old lady said, “Jesus would help you.”
“That’s right,” The Misfit said.
“Well then, why don’t you pray?” she asked trembling with delight suddenly.
“I don’t want no hep,” he said. “I’m doing all right by myself.”
Here, the reader can discern that the grandmother urges the Misfit to pray in order to avoid her own demise at his hands. This becomes plain when one considers how she begins “trembling with delight” when the Misfit agrees with her assertion that Jesus will help those who pray to Him. By agreeing with the grandmother, the Misfit seems to assert that she is correct and that he will indeed turn to Jesus for assistance with his sinful behavior. Yet the grandmother’s hopes are dashed when the Misfit asserts that he does not want Jesus to help him. This admission is sufficient proof that he is not going to have a salvific encounter with Christ that results in the cessation of his criminal behavior. In essence then, the grandmother’s life is still at stake because the Misfit is unwilling to turn to God.
When one considers the religious exchange that happens between the grandmother and the Misfit, the efficacy of the dialogue becomes plain. Here, O’Connor demonstrates the human proclivity to use religion in order to get one’s way. In this case, this transpires when the grandmother urges the Misfit to pray so he will turn away from evil and choose not to murder her and the rest of her family. In addition to unveiling how people use religion for their own benefit, O’Connor also demonstrates the fact that some humans are not interested in drawing nigh to God for help or to have a personal relationship with Him. This becomes plain when the reader learns that the Misfit does not want Jesus’s help.
Upon consideration of how O’Connor displays the way religion affects how people think and act, the efficacy of the religious discourse she includes in the short story becomes plain. In essence, she offers readers a broad representation of human experiences and does not discuss spirituality in a manner that is designed to condemn an individual or promote a parochial view of faith systems. While O’Connor’s representation of religion is very effective, the characters she constructs and the ideologies they hold are only two of innumerable frameworks a writer could invoke to create a narrative that includes discourse about spiritual modes of being and knowing. Moreover, readers will likely be interested in textual representations that included references to a subject that is integral to the social and cultural aspects of our lives. And that is why writers can and should pursue the creation of narratives that make religious discourse integral to plot development and character construction. Good luck!
Jocelyn Crawley is a 28-year-old college student currently pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree in preparation to become a pastor. She holds B.A. degrees in English and Religious Studies. Her work has appeared in Jerry Jazz Musician, Nailpolish Stories, Visceral Uterus, Dead Beats, Four and Twenty, and Haggard and Halloo. Other stories are forthcoming in Faces of Feminism, The Idiom, Thrice Fiction and Calliope.
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