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O’Connor, Faith, and the Parable of the Essex

I’ve sinned and I am so confused. And I am a wicked child. I’m am devil’s son. I walk a crooked mile. I wish I could be you. If I could’ve kept on the straight and narrow.
Wicked Child by Radiohead

Over my brief sabbatical I had the opportunity to read several books, one of which was Flannery O’Connor’s Collected Works. I’d previously read several stories from it (e.g., Revelation, A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Life You Save May Be Your Own), but thought my break would grant me the chance to continue reading one of America’s most distinctive and distinguished authors. O’Connor, a devout Catholic from Georgia, wrote during the 1950-60’s in a style described as Southern Gothic. Think Cormac McCarthy meets Marilynne Robinson. There’s going to be some beautiful prose, amazing philosophical/theological content, and someone’s probably going to die (in a shocking way). Interesting to say the least.

I chose to read O’Connor’s first novel (1952), Wise Blood, about a spiritually disgruntled young man named Hazel Motes (“Haze”) on a mission to preach people away from thinking Christ must redeem them from their sins. His is an anti-gospel message proclaiming Jesus isn’t true, sin isn’t real, and, consequently, one’s felt need for redemption is illusory. Indeed, Haze views all the guilt of his past iniquities as simply a figment of his past religious upbringing, believing now he’s matured and evolved beyond those imaginary ideas and primitive hopes for salvation in Jesus. Haze believes his justification (if one even needs one) is his own success.

Haze’s confidence in his plan to save himself by himself is symbolized by the trust he places in his car, which is an old, broken-down Essex only costing $45. In young Mr. Motes’ estimation, the vehicle represents his self-salvation and freedom from the need for a Savior in Christ. As he confidently claims, “Nobody with a good car needs to be justified.”[ref]O’Connor, Collected Works, Library of America, 64.[/ref] The Essex is not only symbolic of his newfound “faith” but becomes the locus for its propagation. It is his pulpit whereby he stands upon the hood preaching his anti-gospel to all who will hear, often rebuking the Christian faith saying “it was not right to believe anything you couldn’t see or hold in your hands or test with your teeth.”[ref]Ibid, 116.[/ref] Throughout the novel, however, the Essex continually gives Haze problems. Sometimes it won’t start. It often sputters and coughs when it does drive. It even quits on him periodically. Nevertheless, for all its obvious problems, Haze believes his car, like his anti-redemption message, is unassailable.

The comical irony of Essex as Vehicle for Haze’s Quest to Rid the World of Their Need for a Savior comes to a head when Motes takes his car to a filling station for a tune up. A young attendant, after giving the Essex the once-over, delivers bad news telling Haze “there was a leak in the gas tank and two in the radiator and that the rear tire would probably last twenty miles if he went slow.”[ref]Ibid, 117.[/ref] Motes corrects the young boy saying, “Listen, this car is just beginning its life. A lightening bolt couldn’t stop it!”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] Here is a mechanic who “sees things as they are,” his job depends upon what he can hold and touch – core tenets of Haze’s anti-religion – yet Haze, instead of complimenting the young boy on living by values Motes desires to share with the world, refuses to believe himself when it comes to his car. For Motes, his car represents his pulpit, his mission, his message. The gospel of being your own savior cannot fail!

Haze confidently flies down the road in his Essex but notices he is passing the same scenery again and again. O’Connor notes, “He had known all along that there was no more country but he didn’t know that there was not another city.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] Could it be that he is ultimately going nowhere? His next encounter confirms the answer. Soon a patrolman stops Haze and discovers the driver of the Essex doesn’t have a driver’s license. The officer asks a recalcitrant Mr. Motes to drive to an embankment with a 30-foot drop. After Haze exits the car, the patrolman pushes the vehicle over the edge. The Essex, being in obviously such poor condition, literally falls apart upon impact. The patrolman concludes with dark humor, “Them that don’t have a car, don’t need a license.”[ref]Ibid, 118.[/ref]

It’s this moment of clarity where Haze realizes the failure of his quest – that the road to self-justification without the work of Jesus is a fool’s errand. Both his Essex and the “you-don’t-need-a-savior” faith it represents are destroyed. Both lie in ruins not because of what Haze couldn’t see, but what he refused to see. The reality was that both Haze’s car and his soul were in deep need of repair. None of us can escape the truth of Romans 1:18-20,

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

No inspirational kind of self-talk or flat-out denial can erase the truth that sinners must be justified before a Holy God. Romans says it’s too clear to us, in us no matter how much we, like Hazel Motes, “suppress the truth.” We have a sin problem that must be taken care of and why, when the patrolman asks a very silent Haze, “Was you going anywhere?” Motes, realizing he can’t suppress that truth anymore, merely replies a defeated, “No.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] O’Connor wants us to realize that any plan for salvation that rests upon us (to any degree) is, like the Essex, incapable of getting us where we need to go. Our sin causes our lives to choke, sputter, and break down from achieving the self-justification we so desperately desire. To believe we can do it is to be blinded like Haze where it will only be a matter of time until we’re proven wrong.[ref] Hebrews 9:27, “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”[/ref]

For O’Connor, there isn’t another way to deal with our sins but through the shed blood of Christ. His life, freely given, in our place. The Cross becomes the confession of those who want to be justified before God. As Romans 3:23-25 says,

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

This good news of grace in Christ feels scandalous to many because we want something to do with our own salvation. We’re offended by the fact that spiritually we appear so impotent in resolving our problem. But we are. Everyone walks the crooked mile. That’s why the grace God gives us in Jesus has been, is, and always will be our only hope. Anything else is just an old, broken-down Essex.

Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

2 thoughts on “O’Connor, Faith, and the Parable of the Essex”

  1. A professor in college turned me on to Flannery O’Connor, and I read all of her short stories and taught them to my high school students whenever I got the chance. However, I have never read one of her novels. I am planning to change that soon! Thanks for the great post.

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