James’s Blog: Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

James’s Blog:  Writers Wot Have Influenced Me – Part 5 of 4

Flannery O’Connor

“She had never given much thought to the devil for she felt that religion was essentially for those people who didn’t have the brains to avoid evil without it. For people like herself, for people of gumption, it was a social occasion providing the opportunity to sing; but if she had ever given it much thought, she would have considered the devil the head of it and God the hanger-on. With the coming of these displaced people, she was obliged to give new thought to a good many things.”

The Displaced Person, Flannery O’Connor

I won’t be surprised if many of you are asking, “Who is Flannery O’Connor, and is that his real name?” Well, she was an American author. She died of Lupus in 1964, aged a mere 39, yet is regarded as one of the most influential writers to ever come out of the American South.

Her stories are invariably set in that particular region of the United States, and she was quite willing to tackle sensitive themes in an insensitive time – notably racism.  However, what was quite noticeable to me about her writing was that she clearly had a deep understanding of human nature.  As grotesque as some of her characters are, they are not only believable, but also relatable.  That’s some achievement.

The thing about her that I’ve found particularly inspiring is this: Many of her stories contain explicit Christian themes, written about subtly but powerfully. She wrote about a world that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, is ‘charged with the grandeur of God’. She writes about grace and redemption and the fact that, in her own words, “grace changes us and the change is painful.”

I think it’s clear from her writing that she was dissatisfied with the particular brand of fundamentalist Protestantism she encountered in the Deep South, obviously seeing too little of the grace of Christ and too much godless moralism, perhaps epitomised in stories like The River and The Displaced Person (which, whether she meant it or not, is almost a parable of the gospel itself).  That is to be expected, as she was a devout Roman Catholic, which no doubt put her in a minority amongst the people she grew up with.

I’ve been making my way through her Complete Stories, and although the first few are a bit of a slog, everything from Enoch and the Gorilla onwards has been, so far, fantastic.

I suppose that I admire her refusal to be bullied, neither by her heritage nor by that culture of Western fiction which is much happier when God is either non-existent or the villain of the piece. She is, I think, more proof that the world actually finds something irresistible about the gospel, and will happily sit and listen to someone who communicates it with skill.  She is one of those writers whose work both inspires me and makes me feel inadequate.  She was dead by my age, so I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

James’s Blog: What if it’s Already Happened?

James’s Blog:  What if it’s Already Happened?

Easter is a topsy-turvey time.  Everything is back-to-front.  Suffering brings salvation, death brings life; the established order of things is turned on its head.  Yet we spend so much of our time and energy trying to make things work in a world where we believe that death is stronger than life and that despair is greater than hope.

How much of our well-being do we invest in worry?  How often does the thing that we fear never actually happen?  What about the times when we worry about something we think has happened, only to find out that it didn’t happen after all.  How tiring it is to live in a world where God is a footnote rather than the title.

In the last chapter of Luke we read about two of Jesus’ followers.  They’re taking a long stroll, discussing the events of the past few days and the rumours of resurrection.  Suddenly, they’re joined by a stranger.  He’s not really a stranger, but they don’t recognise him because they hadn’t quite joined the topsy-turvey revolution yet.  They tell this stranger their story of disappointment.  “Jesus has been crucified,” they say, “but we had hoped that he would be one to redeem Israel.”

The two travellers were living under the burden of false disappointment.  They thought that their hope was an illusion, when it turned out that it was reality – a reality that was  standing right in front of them.

This is the way to live back-to-front in our world, the way to get some of the Easter thinking into our heads.  Instead of worrying about things that might never happen, start thinking about all the things that you hope for, and ask yourself if maybe some of them have already happened.

 

James’s Blog: Creed.

James’s Blog:  Creed.

I believe in God the Father, the creator of the world and everything in it.

I believe that He has guided His people over the years, with many miraculous signs.

I believe that He parted the Red Sea, provided manna from heaven and led Israel as pillars of smoke and fire.

I believe in Jesus Christ, the God with us.

I believe that through His life and death, God has worked salvation for all humanity.

I believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and so delivered the ultimate “Take that!” to the forces of evil.

I believe that death is defeated, and life is eternal.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the God in us.

I believe these things, because they are easy to believe from a distance.

But I don’t believe that He is that committed to using me to bring His kingdom on earth.

I don’t believe that He has much interest in my day-to-day life,

or that He even has much to say,

and if He did, He certainly wouldn’t do it through that person.

I don’t believe that God will part my Red Sea, nor do I expect Him to provide manna, or to lead me.

I don’t believe, in the grand scheme of things, that it matters much what I do.

And I don’t believe that He really means what He says.

Amen.

James’s Blog: The World Waits with Baited Breath.

James’s Blog:  The World Waits with Baited Breath.

It’s easy to hold the Church up as a good argument for atheism. Our shame is not that we have been exceptionally bad, but rather that we haven’t been exceptionally good. But you can’t shake off the Holy Spirit that easily. Even after two thousand years, the World still expects us to keep Jesus’ promises. After all, you can’t be disappointed with something unless you’d hoped that it would be better, right? The problem is not that Christianity is bad, but rather that we have made a bad job of Christianity. I believe that even the most die-hard atheist still expects the followers of Jesus to be different to the rest of society; to be good where others are not.

Dennis Prager, a Jewish-American conservative commentator, believes that, regardless of what people think of religion, there remains in our culture an expectation that faith should make a difference to behaviour. He tries to prove this by asking people to picture something particular.

Imagine that late one night you are walking down an alley in a major city. The dim street lights illuminate your car at the other end of the alleyway. Suddenly, a group of boisterous young men turn the corner and start walking down the alley towards you.

Once the listener has this scene in his mind, Prager asks this question: Would you feel safer if you knew that those young men had just come from a Bible study?

Prager says that he has never had anyone answer “No.”

So, that’s the good news. People are just waiting for you to prove them right. Even now they still assume that you will be different. The best thing to do is to live in such a way that our children, our children’s children and our children’s children’s children will benefit from the same expectation.

James’s Blog: What’s Important to God?

James’s Blog:  What’s Important to God?

There was this one time when I was asked to visit a friend of mine who was in hospital. Let me clarify what I mean by ‘in hospital’. He was actually in the hospital’s locked ward. He’d had a psychotic episode and been sectioned. So I went to visit him, and I sat with him in the secure unit. I was out of my depth, which is where I spend a lot of my time.  He asked me to read to him, from the Psalms. So that’s what I did. That’s all I did. For half an hour I just sat and read from the Psalms while he wept beside me. Then I went home to my family. Read more

James’s Blog: Getting their Attention.

James’s Blog:  Getting their Attention.

An actor and a preacher were discussing their work.

What I don’t understand,” said the preacher, “is why my congregation will come to one of your performances and sit for hours, engaged and alert the whole time, while I can hardly get them to stay awake during one of my twenty minute sermons.”

Maybe,” said the actor, “it’s because I present fiction as though it were the truth, and you present the truth as though it were fiction.” Read more

James’s Blog: The Road to Hell.

James’s Blog:  The Road to Hell.

I saw a man throwing a child at the sun.

“Why are you doing that?” I said.

“I’m helping him. He told me that he was cold,” the man said.

I looked at the bruised child on the floor.

“I think he needs to go to the hospital,” I said.

“Sure,” said the man, lifting the child above his head once more.  “Which direction is the hospital?”