Orthodoxy and the Christ-Haunted Culture of the South

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One of my favorite priests in the Diocese of the South is Fr. Paul Yerger who serves Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Clinton, Mississippi. His gentle demeanor and kind words are what I have always associated with the South, though it is rarely witnessed today. I had a chance to visit with him this week at the Diocesan Assembly in Miami. Three years ago he was our keynote speaker at our assembly in Dallas. His talk has become a classic for me – both as a lover of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction, and of the South she loved so dearly. With his permission I reprint his copywrited article.

Address to the Twenty-sixth Annual Assembly of the Diocese of the South
Dallas, July 22, 2004
by Father Paul Yerger

I was asked to speak on evangelizing the South, but I don’t feel adequate to the assigned title. Archbishop Dmitri has planted in us the vision of an Orthodox South, and by his own life and work has shown us how to carry it out. That’s why so many of us sit here tonight.

I’d like to speak to a particular limited aspect of that vision. We have made much progress, but it seems to me we haven’t much engaged the culture of the South. Orthodox missionaries of the past lifted up to God what they could of the culture they found. We have many Southern converts who have attempted to leave their own culture behind and embrace some other one. What do we find in the culture of the South that is somehow seeking Orthodox Christianity?

Vladyko speaks positively of his Baptist upbringing – in some respects Southern Protestants laid a good foundation, and we reap where they labored. More than most places the South still cherishes basic Christian values: marriage, family, community. Many of our Southern converts were attracted to the stability of the Orthodox Church for this reason.

It’s deeper than that: go up in one of these gleaming glass towers in Dallas, realms of high technology and global enterprise. Look at the computer screens where these workers ply their trade. When one of them leaves his desk and the screen saver comes up, as likely as not it says, “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God…” or “For God so loved the world…” – or stuck around the edge of the screen may be a prayer or a Psalm verse. Scratch many an urban Southern technocrat, and not far under the skin are Bible stories and characters, memories of altar calls on hot summer nights, addictive hymn tunes, images of heaven and hell (especially the latter).

I’d like to introduce an old friend of mine, the writer Flannery O’Connor, who reposed in 1964. I did not know her in the flesh but have read her so long I call her a friend. She was a Georgia girl, a devout Roman Catholic whose short life included much physical suffering, who had a particular gift for capturing in words the spiritual warfare raging in many rural Southern souls. I recommend to you her two volumes of short stories and two short novels, as well as her letters and essays.

When asked once why the South had produced so many writers and artists, without hesitation she said, “Because we lost the War.” That’s part of who we are in the South. A culture, or a person, that has never lost doesn’t understand a big part of human experience. Here in Texas it’s the Alamo that’s remembered, not San Jacinto. Many things are somehow connected with this: a deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, an affinity for the underdog, for some an adulation of heroes and glory, whether in wars, athletics, or automobile races; and for some a yearning for a past that never was, another life that might have been. Unfortunately it’s easy for some Southern Orthodox just to substitute another lost empire, the Byzantine or the Russian, as the place to escape to instead of the Old South.

Flannery O’Connor described the South as “Christ haunted.” I want to tell you about one of her characters, O. E. Parker, in her last story, Parker’s Back.

Parker was fourteen when he saw a man in a fair, tattooed from head to foot. Except for his loins which were girded with a panther hide, the man’s skin was patterned in what seemed from Parker’s distance-he was near the back of the tent, standing on a bench-a single intricate design of brilliant color. The man, who was small and sturdy, moved about on the platform, flexing his muscles so that the arabesque of men and beasts and flowers on his skin appeared to have a subtle motion of its own. Parker was filled with emotion, lifted up as some people are when the flag passes. He was a boy whose mouth habitually hung open. He was heavy and earnest, as ordinary as a loaf of bread. When the show was over, he had remained standing on the bench, staring where the tattooed man had been, until the tent was almost empty.

Parker had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed. Even then it did not enter his head, but a peculiar unease settled in him. It was as if a blind boy had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.

He had his first tattoo some time after-the eagle perched on the cannon. It was done by a local artist. It hurt very little, just enough to make it appear to Parker to be worth doing. This was peculiar too for before he had thought that only what did not hurt was worth doing…

Shortly after this he quit school “because he could” and joined the Navy.

…Everywhere he went he picked up more tattoos.

He had stopped having lifeless ones like anchors and crossed rifles. He had a tiger and a panther on each shoulder, a cobra coiled about a torch on his chest, hawks on his thighs, Elizabeth II and Philip over where his stomach and liver were respectively. He did not care much what the subject was so long as it was colorful; on his abdomen he had a few obscenities but only because that seemed the proper place for them. Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month, then something about it that had attracted him would wear off. Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched. A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up. The front of Parker was almost completely covered but there were no tattoos on his back. He had no desire for one anywhere he could not readily see it himself. As the space on the front of him for tattoos decreased, his dissatisfaction grew and became general.

After one of his furloughs, he didn’t go back to the navy but remained away without official leave, drunk, in a rooming house in a city he did not know. His dissatisfaction, from being chronic and latent, had suddenly become acute and raged in him. It was as if the panther and the lion and the serpents and the eagles and the hawks had penetrated his skin and lived inside him in a raging warfare.

Eventually Parker married a woman named Sarah Ruth Cates. Her father was a Straight Gospel preacher, but he was away, “spreading it in Florida.” She was a plain severe thin girl who “was always sniffing up sin. She did not smoke or dip, drink whiskey, use bad language or paint her face, and God knew some paint would have improved it, Parker thought.” She was the only woman he had met who was not fascinated by his tattoos. She refused to look at them and called them “vanity of vanities.

“Parker could not understand why he stayed with her. He “did nothing much when he was home but listen to what the judgement seat of God would be like for him if he didn’t change his ways.”

…Dissatisfaction began to grow so great in Parker that there was no containing it outside of a tattoo. It had to be his back. There was no help for it. A dim half-formed inspiration began to work in his mind. He visualized having a tattoo put there that Sarah Ruth would not be able to resist-a religious subject. He thought of an open book with HOLY BIBLE tattooed under it and an actual verse printed on the page. This seemed just the thing for a while; then he began to hear her say, “Ain’t I already got a real Bible? What you think I want to read the same verse over and over for when I can read it all?” He needed something better even than the Bible! He thought about it so much that he began to lose sleep.

At this time Parker had an apocalyptic experience. Daydreaming, he drove a tractor into a tree and it burst into flames. Thrown to the ground, he looked up to see his own shoes, which he had somehow come out of, burning in the wreckage. Immediately as if fleeing something he drove furiously into the city and burst into the tattoo artist’s studio.

 …”Let me see the book you got with all the pictures of God in it,” Parker said breathlessly. “The religious one.”

. . .The artist went over to a cabinet at the back of the room and began to look over some art books. “Who are you interested in?” he said, “saints, angels, Christs or what?”

“God,” Parker said.

“Father, Son or Spirit?”

“Just God,” Parker said impatiently. “Christ. I don’t care. Just so it’s God.”

The artist returned with a book. He moved some papers off another table and put the book down on it and told Parker to sit down and see what he liked. “The up-to-date ones are in the back,” he said.

Parker sat down with the book and wet his thumb. He began to go through it, beginning at the back where the up-to-date pictures were. Some of them he recognized-The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but he kept turning rapidly backwards and the pictures became less and less reassuring. One showed a gaunt green dead face streaked with blood. One was yellow with sagging purple eyes. Parker’s heart began to beat faster and faster until it appeared to be roaring inside him like a great generator. He flipped the pages quickly, feeling that when he reached the one ordained, a sign would come. He continued to flip through until he had almost reached the front of the book. On one of the pages a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on, then stopped. His heart too appeared to cut off; there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK.

Parker returned to the picture-the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes. He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.

“You found what you want?” the artist asked.

Parker’s throat was too dry to speak. He got up and thrust the book at the artist, opened at the picture.

“That’ll cost you plenty,” the artist said. “You don’t want all those little blocks though, just the outline and some better features.”

“Just like it is,” Parker said, “just like it is or nothing.”

When he sees the tattoo with the aid of mirrors, Parker “turned white and moved away. The eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him – still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence. … The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes to be obeyed.”

He drove through the night to show his gift to his wife. “It seemed to him that all along that was what he wanted, to please her.” He arrived just before dawn to find himself locked out of his house. He knocked on the door.

“Who’s there?”

“Me,” Parker said, “O.E.”

… “I don’t know no O.E.”

When they first met, Sarah Ruth had extracted from him his real name, which he had previously revealed to no one.. . .

…”Who’s there?” the voice from inside said and there a quality about it now that seemed final. The knob rattled and the voice said peremptorily, “Who’s there, I ast you?”

Parker bent down and put his mouth near the stuffed keyhole. “Obadiah,” he whispered and all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.

“Obadiah Elihue!” he whispered.

The door opened and he stumbled in. Sarah Ruth loomed there, hands on her hips. . . .Trembling, Parker set about lighting the kerosene lamp.

“What’s the matter with you, wasting that kerosene this near daylight?” she demanded. “I ain’t got to look at you.

“A yellow glow enveloped them. Parker put the match down and began to unbutton his shirt.

“And you ain’t going to have none of me this near morning,” she said.”Shut your mouth, he said quietly. “Look at this and then I don’t want to hear no more out of you.” He removed the shirt and turned his back to her.

“Another picture,” Sarah Ruth growled. “I might have known you was off after putting some more trash on yourself.”

Parker’s knees went hollow under him. He wheeled around and cried, “Look at it! Don’t just say that! Look at it!”

“I done looked,” she said.

“Don’t you know who it is?” he cried in anguish.

“No, who is it?” Sarah Ruth said. “It ain’t anybody I know.”

“It’s him,” Parker said.

“Him who?”

“God!” Parker cried.

“God? God don’t look like that!”

“What do you know how he looks?” Parker moaned. “You ain’t seen him.”

“He don’t look,” Sarah Ruth said. “He’s a spirit. No man shall see his face.”

“Idolatry!” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolater in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it.

Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door.

She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree and her eyes hardened still more. There he was-who called himself Obadiah Elihue-leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.

Christ-haunted — Southern Christianity is split down the middle, head and heart divided asunder. There is head religion: some tincture of Calvin, all about law and judgement, righteousness and sin, the fearful grace of the sovereign God tamed by respectability. Then there is heart religion: Pentecost, revivals, Jesus and the Holy Ghost called forth on demand to save souls and soothe the heartaches of life. And there are redneck existentialists, too, who want nothing of either, like Hazel Motes in O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood, who preaches the Church Without Christ: it ain’t got no Jesus to die for you and make you feel guilty about it.

Such is O.E. Parker when we first meet him: he says he doesn’t see what there is to be saved from. But something attracts him to Sarah Ruth; he is hungry for something: to love something greater than himself, to partake of beauty and glory and mystery, like the tattooed man he saw at the fair. But when he tries in his own way to put on Christ, to give her his whole self, his whole body, his back that he could not see, he is rejected. The deepest longings of his heart find no place in her religion.

Orthodoxy is the only Church that puts it all together: the mind in the heart, the body and the spirit, the word and the image, grace and freedom, the good God who loves mankind. This is the “evangel”: the Good News for the South. Her deepest longings are met here. As Vladyko has taught us, all that is good and true in Southern Protestantism is here. Jesus and the Holy Ghost are here: the real Jesus confessed as Lord and God and Saviour, risen from the dead. We are steeped in the Bible and love to hear its cadences. We also know that deep sense of the irony and mystery of human life, that yearning for something lost. The writers of the Bible knew this yearning well: By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. This yearning is really a yearning for the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.

Let us not make of Orthodoxy another law to be obeyed, another head religion to feel proud of, another emotional trip, another escape to some other world. Let us proclaim it as the Good News that the people of the South and every land are hungry for.

Quotations from Parker’s Back in Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories, New York, Farrar, Strauss, 1993.

18 comments:

  1. The photo is my son a couple of years back approaching my parents trailer, which, alas is no longer home for them. It’s a very “Christ-haunted place” though if my son reads this article he must understand not to get any tatoos. They cause grave bodily damage from your father jumping on top of you (may an uncle as well).

  2. “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. This yearning is really a yearning for the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”

    Amen! Amen! Amen! Our throats are parched Lord. Give us a drop of saving water, the Life Giving Water!

    As for the tatoos…my daughter has three, not to mention a tongue piercing and belly button piercing. Frequently, the feelings of wanting to throw her to the ground and rip the latter two out and scour the other three off overwhelm me. I just hug her though and make sure she knows I love her.

    Sigh.

  3. In a word, this post was breath-taking.

    From one very self-conscious Southerner — thank you.

    “[The Southerner] felt that a religion which is intellectual only is no religion. His was a natural piety, expressing itself in uncritical belief and in the experience of conversion, not in an ambition to perfect a system, or to tidy up a world doomed to remain…deceptive, changeful, and evil. For him a moral science made up of postulates and deductions and taking no cognizance of the inscrutable designs of Providence and the ineluctable tragedies of private lives was no substitute.” — Richard M. Weaver (1943)

  4. It’s odd…I just read this story (Parker’s Back) while my wife was, epidural gratefully in place, in bed in the hospital room during the hours before our second daughter was born. Next to me was my Kentuckian mother-in-law, a wonderfully gracious woman who also happens to be a non-denominational, charismatic minister. I mentioned the place where Sarah chillingly declares that the image on her husband’s back “ain’t anybody [she knows]” and commented on how sad it was that someone could seem to be so dedicated to Christianity and the Bible, yet attack the very image of the invisible God. My mother-in-law–bless her heart–turned immediately and said, “Well, Idon’t believe that!” — referring, of course, to the idea that Christ doesn’t “look like that.”

    Yet…still…the fact that that is an image of Christ, and Christ is the image of God brings us to a moment I think the South doesn’t have in its consciousness, by and large: to see THIS is to see your God, period, full stop. Mystery solved…or at least, revealed.

  5. Chuck,

    You are now engaging in serious Southern scholarship, quoting Weaver, one of the noted “Souther Agrarian” writers. Making allowance for the era in which they wrote (the 30’s) their I’ll Take My Stand is about as interesting a comment on a South that has certainly changed, though not disappeared. Some parts of the work are prophetic.

    Of course, it’s rare to meet characters as O’Connoresque as O.E.Parker today, though they are there. Mostly I just notice bumper stickers that proclaim, “Jesus Got ‘er Done!”

  6. I hate to contradict you, but Holy Resurrection is actually in Clinton, MS—it abuts on Jackson, but is a separate incorporated entity. I graduated from Clinton High School, and attended Holy Resurrection less than I should have (long story).

    Your characterization of Fr. Paul is entirely correct, though.

  7. Thanks to this post, I read Parker’s Back this afternoon. Thank you, Father, for bringing it to my attention.

    It was not until my interaction with Orthodoxy that I heard the burning bush was a prototype of the Mother of God. I can’t help but think that O’Connor is calling forth this imagery through Parker’s incident with the burning tree — the very catalyst that sends him to get the Pontocrator tattooed on his back. It’s the bush which is not consumed by the flames, the womb that is not consumed by the Logos, that gives flesh to God. And it is this enfleshed God that Sarah Ruth does not know, despite the fact that she is ‘saved’.

    I’m not quite sure how Parker’s Back would have affected me had I not been Orthodox.

  8. One more thing:

    I go to a parish that has A LOT of people with tattoos. One of the parishioners is a tattoo artist (and a very gifted one at that!), and most of the work he does is basically Orthodox iconography (much like the Pontocrator on Parker’s back). His work is beautiful, and I cannot help but think it glorifies God. He is also responsible for bringing many people into the Church who otherwise wouldn’t be there.

  9. Oh, father, even though I’ve read this article before, I still cannot get over the imagery of a South “haunted” by Christ. Truer words…

    I am sometimes terribly frustrated when asked to describe why I am so attached to my Southron (sic) heritage. It can’t be put into words. Only stories do it justice.

    I had a dear yankee friend living in North Georgia near me several years ago. He was from the New England area but found himself and his family in the Deep South. We talked and talked about our different cultures and he was always curious why I was so attached to my roots. Then one day he called me after I ahd moved from there and told me he had been taking a special course at a local college on Southern literature. He simply said “Now, I understand.”

    Soon I shall be too far from my beloved South, but not (by God’s grace) forever.

    B

  10. Yes, yes, absolutely yes to all of the above. You can understand certain things about the South, but I am convinced that one can hardly grasp this “Christ-haunted” aspect of Southern religiosity without encountering O’Connor.

    “Parker’s Back” has always been one of my favorites. I might also suggest “Revelation,” and “The Displaced Person” for those wanting to delve further into O’Connor’s work.

    Also, the website for the Andalusia Foundation is http://www.andalusiafarm.org. Joining and becoming a Friend of Andalusia is a most worthwhile endevour.

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen and Fr. Paul.

  11. Marvellous post, Fr. Stephen!

    As a Northerner born and raised, I’ve come to an appreciation for these aspects of Southern culture rather late. And coincidentally enough, it’s happened since I became Orthodox in 1995. I, for one, never ‘got’ Flannery O’Connor until I was Orthodox, and I didn’t come back to her until after I had already re-read some of Dostoevsky (whom I didn’t really get either) as an Orthodox. There are lots of similarities between the two, at least idea-wise, as the great Southern scholar Marion Montgomery has pointed out. He, along with Ralph Wood, have written some excellent stuff on O’Connor.

    As Fr. Stephen says above, there is much to be gained from reading Weaver, the Agrarians (who preceded him by half a generation), and such Southern writers as O’Connor, Montgomery, Peter Taylor, and Wendell Berry.

  12. Taylor was a Southern writer, a younger friend and associate of the Agrarians (although I’m not sure if he would be considered an ‘Agrarian’ himself.) He won both a Pulitzer and a Pen/Faulkner award for fiction. His stories often deal with “small” moral choices that affect the characters in big ways. He’s a bit like a Southern William Maxwell in that way. I’d recommend “The Old Forest” or “The Collected Stories” as a starting point. I haven’t read the book for which he won the Pulitzer, “A Summons to Memphis,” yet.

  13. If you’re interested in seeing a very powerful contemporary movie that deals with some of the themes present in O’Connor’s writing, check out the Christian Bale film from a couple years back called THE MACHINIST. I’ve described it to other folks as “Flannery O’Connor meets Dostoevsky in urban America.” On the surface it seems somewhat Kafka-esque but underneath that, IMO, there hasn’t been a stronger film in ages dealing with sin, guilt, grace, etc. It also has a lot of very intriguing symbolism — light/dark, right/left, repetitions of time and place… Be advised though — the film earns its ‘R’ rating; there is violence, bad language, and some partial nudity.

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