Fiction, Grace, and Flannery O’Connor

A writer is like a god. He creates a universe. He populates it with characters. Good writing feels like a new creation that operates under the same laws as our own. It feels like the characters have free will. Everything that happens feels like it could happen. After creating the universe and the characters, the writer lets things play out.

Of course, not all writers work this way; perhaps characters are incrementally realized with each choice they make. But the sum of their choices expresses a consistency that reflects back on the writer’s initial vision. Consistency of character is an unbreakable law. A writer will never violate her characters by letting one act in a way that is out-of-character, just as God will never force us to do anything against our will.

Flannery O’Connor creates ugly, flawed characters. Then she tries to save them by sending them moments of grace. But she rarely uses angels or even mystical experience. She uses the most mundane of channels: other ugly, flawed characters. Unsurprisingly, the grace often gets mangled as it travels through the giver. Maybe it’s never received. Or it’s received but mutilated and, therefore, rejected. One can hope, at least, that the transmission had some positive effect on the transmitter (cf. Wise Blood), though it is always meant for more.

Maybe God’s grace is not reaching people because we reject it when it comes to us. Or we bring ourselves to accept it—reluctantly with a sort of self-important magnanimity—but we perceive it as an end in itself, intended for ourselves. What if this grace is actually something we are responsible for transmitting to others? What if God depends on us to pass it along as His intended way of reaching those people?

We often struggle to understand why something in our lives has occurred. We think we’re the tragic heroes of our own stories. But each of us is also a character in someone else’s story. Maybe the unexplainable event in our lives is not really about us. Maybe it’s about the people who can receive grace through it. We often think of ourselves as perfect little angels in a universe designed just for us. But more often I think we’re ugly, flawed characters in someone else’s story… that grace can nevertheless work through.