If we need a reason to read another book about Flannery O'Connor, Ralph C. Wood, University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University, provides it. Having approached O'Connor's work from both literary and theological perspectives in his 1988 work, The Comedy of Redemption, Wood undertakes a sweeping analysis of the contemporary world in Flannery O'Connor and the Christ-Haunted South. In opposition to the humanist effort to reform the world through what Wood disparagingly calls "correct causes," he argues that O'Connor's angular and well-informed religious thinking led her to seek the source of social as well as moral ills in universal human sinfulness and unbelief. The book's primary contribution to O'Connor scholarship lies in Wood's masterful ability to demonstrate her resonances with Protestant theologians like Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebhur without diluting her distinctively Catholic doctrinal differences, especially her deeply ingrained sacrementalism.
The stridency of Wood's critique of the contemporary scene will not appeal to all readers. He depicts in almost apocalyptic terms the "new dark age" of Western Civilization, rooted in Enlightenment scientific materialism and compounded in America by the radical individualism of the nineteenth century. The result is, as Wood describes it, a civil religion that reduces morality to a matter of private opinion, and that has produced, in the name of tolerance, a phenomenon he calls "Christian atheism." Contending that "the church, altogether as much as the secular world, requires the awakening jolt of O'Connor's fiction," he examines difficult cultural and social issues through the lens of her work.
Wood portrays O'Connor's tough-minded, anti-sentimental Catholicism as congenial to the "Bible belt" fundamentalism of her native Georgia to which she was forced by illness to return in her twenties. He argues that she offers the "Christ-haunted" eccentrics that populate her work "as a corrective to the smugness of Catholic ecclesialism and the blandness of Protestant liberalism" (33). O'Connor herself claimed that the Catholic novelist in the South "will feel a good deal more kinship with backwoods prophets and shouting fundamentalists than he will with those politer elements for whom the supernatural is an embarrassment . . . ." (CW, 859). Two elements in particular attracted her, according to Wood, an "unembarrassed supernaturalism" and an unapologetic fidelity to scripture.
The first five chapters of the book are devoted to salient issues associated with the South as a region: fundamentalism, the burden of history, slavery, racism, manners, and the culture of preaching. The last three chapters broaden the discussion to address the human condition and contemporary culture, particularly the attraction of what he calls "demonic nihilism" and the universal call to conversion. Wood typically devotes a good portion of each chapter to establishing the historical, philosophical, and theological context of the question. He examines O'Connor's book reviews and unpublished letters as well as her better-known essays and collected letters to draw careful connections and distinctions between her perspective and those of others he engages in the dialogue. Each chapter concludes with a literary analysis of one or two works chosen for their relevance to the topic at hand. For example, his chapter on nihilism establishes O'Connor's view on what Wood describes as the "massive vacancy of soul" that accounts for modern atrocities, and then succinctly situates the questions by examining Nietrzsche, Heidegger and Barth.. The chapter concludes with a fresh analysis of Hulga Hopewell (Good Country People), the curdled Heideggerian in need of revelation.
Wood does not flinch from recording the "ugly racial sentiments" revealed in O'Connor's private letters to Maryat Lee. Instead, he uses her "racial sinfulness" as he calls it, to demonstrate that she struggled against her regional predisposition in order to achieve the willed commitment to civil rights she believed to be commanded by Christian faith. This struggle in a way replicates the complex phenomenon of the South, a region that bears, according to Wood, "the greatest historical guilt of any American region, [but] offers the nation its largest religious hope." Seeing O'Connor's prophetic strength in her insistence on human fallenness, he invokes her astringent, hard-earned, dogma-centered vision as a guide for confronting the vexing moral dilemmas posed by the scientific, economic, political, and ecclesial attitudes of today.
Finally, Wood captures not only O'Connor's satiric eye for sinfulness, but also as her ability to embody images of profound hopefulness in her works—a blend that Wood sees as the South's unique contribution to an imperiled American culture. With Barth and Neibhur, O'Connor shared the ultimately comic view of Christian belief as a testimony to "undeserved mercy rather than much-deserved wrath."
Exemplifying the faith-based research called for by George Marsden in his 1997 work, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, Wood writes from an avowedly confessional perspective as a Baptist in the South, uniting his grounding in philosophy and theology with his nuanced understanding of O'Connor in a critique of contemporary American culture. The book is written in vivid prose ("saccharine piety produces dry-rot minds," "soft-core pity," "religion as a post-mortem insurance policy") that brings to life the vital contest of ideas he describes. Not everyone will agree with his premises, however, and Wood's jeremiad-like conclusion would benefit from tempering. It will be of interest to students of American intellectual and social history as well as O'Connor scholars.