March 29, 2012

The Ultimate Heresy: The Heartless God in "Parker's Back"

By Stephen Sparrow

"Parker's Back" was the last story Flannery O'Connor wrote. Caroline Gordon Tate recalled visiting O'Connor in hospital shortly before she died, and tells how O'Connor said she wasn't supposed to be working but then smiled and pulled from under her pillow a notebook in which she said she was putting the finishing touches to something. What she was touching up was "Parker's Back." I think it is easily her most profound short story, dealing as it does in a unique way with heresy3: the ultimate heresy if you like; viz. the idea that spirit and matter are separate and opposite manifestations of good and evil, and that Man is unable to approach God and God is unwilling to draw near to Man.

Such a heresy makes a mockery of the idea of a merciful Creator--i.e. that God is our Father and we are His children. It is a repudiation of Divine Providence, which if there is no such thing, makes a complete farce of the Incarnation (God entering His own creation). This world would then resemble nothing more than some bizarre experiment where the Creator watches and records the actions of free people the way science students observe laboratory rats in a maze.

"Parker's Back" centres on the marriage of O.E. Parker and Sarah Ruth Cates. O.E. (real name Obadiah Elihue Parker) cannot understand what made him marry Sarah Ruth, although he ruefully concedes that he could never have got her any other way. She must have been a challenge for him, but then we are left to mull over what attracted Sarah Ruth to O.E.. They both appear to have come from similar social backgrounds--i.e. short on education and money--but there the similarities stop. Sarah Ruth is a puritanical Christian who knows the bible backwards, and she's always quoting from it and warning O.E. of how poorly Judgement Day will go for him if he doesn't mend his ways, especially his penchant for blasphemy. Sarah Ruth is also a girl who, in the manner of most Old Testament women, expected some day to become somebody's wife, and in spite of O.E.'s naturally crude nature, for her there was a certain amount of attraction in that his name initials stood for two Old Testament characters. O.E. on the other hand professes to be irreligious and in addition has an unbridled sexual appetite, which he explains by muttering (to the reader) that Sarah Ruth was the first wife he had ever had, but by no means was she his first woman. Whenever he's away from Sarah Ruth he manifests pseudo toughness by ridiculing religion; trying to mask his insecurity with macho talk, and nowhere is this more noticeable than when he enters the poolroom and meets up with some old acquaintances straight after having the face of the Byzantine Christ tattooed on his back. O.E. like so many O'Connor characters is doggedly determined to resist God.

That Sarah Ruth is an unconscious Manichean4 heretic is never in doubt, and when it came to her marriage with O.E. she refused to go through with the ceremony in a church. "They were married in the County Ordinary's office because Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous." Near the end of the story, when O.E. returned home after a two-day absence and with the Byzantine Christ covering his back, she yelled at him, "He [God] don't look. He's a spirit. No man shall see his face." And she kicked him out of the house screaming, "idolatry! I don't want no idolater in this house."

The tattooed Christ with its "all demanding eyes" is like a shrine complete with crucifix erected next to their little embankment house. For Sarah Ruth, so long as her marriage survives, there can be no escape now from awareness that Jesus Christ is both God and Man; and for O.E. there is the realisation that there is a God who must not be resisted. Everything Sarah Ruth feared about traditional and orthodox Christianity has come to haunt her, and O.E., despite the scorn for religion he expressed both to the Tattooist and the men in the Poolroom, has unwittingly stumbled and fallen over the very thing he didn't want to know.

Up until the day O.E. returned with the tattoo, Sarah Ruth has lived a life governed by biblical quotations. They're like the timber supports used in underground coalmines to prevent cave ins, but in this case they are supporting not a mine tunnel roof but a fear filled mind. Sarah Ruth has embedded in herself the off-putting and dismal prospect of a policeman God; a vengeful God. Banished from her mind is the God of the Gospels. Gone is the Good Shepherd, the Crazy Vineyard Owner, or the Prodigal Father who cannot resist loving the wayward son after his U turn. You have to wonder whether in Sarah Ruth's spiritual economy even thoughts about God would be idolatrous.

As for O.E., all his life he's been a dissatisfied man; he's been on a journey seeking perfection and trying to express that perfection with his tattoos. From the age of fourteen when he first saw the tattooed man at the fair, he was on a collision course with God. After that, everywhere he went he was confronted with the things of God--spiritual signposts of beauty, order, and harmony--all different and all in opposition to his own life so far. His collision course with God is symbolized by the collision between the tractor and the tree. Everything comes rapidly to a head after that. The burning tree, the burning tractor, and his burning shoes all signal the end for O.E.'s and Sarah Ruth's heresies. In the space of forty-eight hours, things will never be the same again. At the story's end both O.E. and Sarah Ruth are like two knots that slip together on the same string. The tattooed Christ is a revelation that in some mysterious way initiates the entry of God's grace into both their lives, if only they will accept it.

Sarah Ruth's faith had been grounded in the words of Scripture alone without any support from Tradition, which is in complete contrast to the oral tradition. Up until the 16th Century, Christianity had relied on the spoken word for both its spread and its practice; after all, Jesus Christ never wrote anything down, and neither did he instruct others to do so. These days the oral tradition of the past with its duty to dialogue and instruction has given way to the information culture, which with its discovery mindset has always tried to break with Tradition, but after two thousand years the words of Christ (as He promised in Mt 24:35) are still there, lighting up the way from the pages of the New Testament. In Catholic practice, images and imagery are part and parcel of Tradition. Crucifixes, pictures of the Sacred Heart and various saints, etc. are reminders of the mercy, the generosity and the humanity of God, and are no more to be feared or worshipped than pictures of family ancestors. Sacred Scripture allied with Tradition plays a vital role in illuminating Christian Doctrine, and certainly in the home of devoutly Catholic Flannery O'Connor, sacred images were not hidden away but were instead prominently and proudly displayed.

"Parker's Back" is dominated by images and imagery: the tractor crash; the scene in the tattooist's studio when O.E., with rapidly beating heart, is searching through the religious book for a design; the scene in the poolroom when O.E.'s shirt gets pulled up and a deadly silence follows before somebody exclaims, "Christ." What else could be said? And, at the end, the scene between O.E. and Sarah Ruth, and her violent reaction to the tattooed Christ on O.E.'s back. Those images dominate in the same way that Gospel narratives produce an effect on the mind; parables that leave lasting images. As Osbert Sitwell5 wrote, "the word itself, of which our works of art are fashioned, is the first art form, older than the roughest shaping of clay or stone. A word is the carving and colouring of thought, and gives to it permanence." If Sarah Ruth had understood her bible correctly, how could she have possibly misread Chapter 1 of St John's Gospel? "In the beginning was the word... The word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory." The orthodox mind boggles as to what she must have thought those words meant, but that is the effect heresy has on the mind.

When teased right out, fundamentalist style Christianity not infrequently morphs into just another theory of progress aimed at the elimination of evil and suffering, and in the process of morphing, it forgets that the essential element of Christianity is that without sinners, Christianity cannot exist. Conversely, without Christianity, people like Sarah Ruth Cates have little to complain about, since there could be no such thing as sin. It was God who was nailed to the cross on Calvary, not an idea or a theory, and in her typically pithy style, O’Connor pronounced evil as not simply a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.6 But the Ultimate Heresy cannot coexist with that fact. Always busy cutting down human imperfection (the raw material of perfection), its abstract thinking style blurs the faculty to foresee that ultimately Christ Himself must be done away with, causing O’Connor to warn that its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labour camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.7 Even the most cursory study of history shows how right Flannery O’Connor is.

So what can the reader learn from "Parker’s Back" ? I suspect that it’s this. That if our perception of God is one of aloofness, heartlessness or of a Being lacking in trust; is it any wonder that we are left with no recourse except to express ourselves in rage to a world that is nothing more than a meaningless and pitiless absurdity? Without faith in a personal loving God who actively participates in our lives through divine providence, we are like small children who thinking themselves unloved angrily hurl their toys from the cot.


1 Exodus 3: 2-3

2 Ecclesiastes 1:2

3 Heresy is simply taking out of context some aspect of a larger thing and claiming that it contains and explains more than the original thing it was subtracted from. In other words heresy is all about oversimplification. It is if you like, throwing the baby out with the bath water. As early as the fifth Century, the Bishop of Hippo (St Augustine) warned his listeners not to forget that, "all heresy does begin in being too holy." In other words heresy stems from a holiness that has become unbalanced. Authentic holiness is all about 'wholeness', which in turn is about balance. So it follows that heresies, if allowed to persist, can throw sensible things off balance. In the period between the establishment of Christianity in Europe and the 16th Century Protestant Reformation; Church and State were united in a strong bond. Hence the Catholic Church's traditional intolerance toward heresies, because of the threat they posed to the stability and the survival of the State and the moral chaos they can usher in.

4 Manichaeism: Manichean Heresy. Named after Mani, a religious teacher from Persia (c. 216-276 AD). Mani taught that Human life is a struggle between the divine light (God) and the evil darkness of material existence. Our destiny is to overcome material existence, and reunite with God. On Modern Manicheans, Father James Schall S.J. writes: The temptation to blame physical things for our problems is almost irresistible in the modern world. Or to put it another way, we are so reluctant to blame ourselves for anything that is wrong in us or in the world, we have such spiritual cowardice, that we are almost incapable of attributing anything to ourselves, even that we have a self to which we can attribute anything in the first place. And we hesitate to blame someone else for fear of violating his "rights", rights that allow us to become anything we "choose" to be. That leaves us with things to blame. We become Manicheans (who claimed that matter--this world--was evil) simply by adhering to the prevailing mores.

5 Sitwell, Sir Osbert, 1892 - 1969: English Novelist, Poet and Essayist and older brother to Poet Dame Edith Sitwell and writer Sacheverell Sitwell. The quote comes from vol. 4 of Sitwell's Autobiography, "Laughter In The Next Room."

6 Extract from Flannery O'Connor's lecture entitled "The Catholic Novelist In The Protestant South" published in Mystery and Manners: Noonday Press.

7 Extract from "Introduction To A Memoir of Mary Ann" by Flannery O'Connor: published in Mystery and Manners: Noonday Press