This is an except from something I wrote a few years ago. Below it is a Spotify link to the song “Chicago.”
It’s possible to encounter O’Connnor’s stories (you never really just read them) without explicitly discerning her deep, abiding belief in literary art as Christian vocation or her mission to show, as she said, “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” Clear about these motives in her essays and letters, she’s almost never so obvious in her fiction. Perhaps because she uses the evangelical cosmologies of her neighbors as Tolkienesque proxies for her own traditional Catholic systems it’s easy to infer a sort of distance between O’Connor’s art and faith where she in fact saw none. In the same way, it’s possible to listen to Stevens’ biggest hit, “Chicago,” without immediately sensing the plaintive Christian hymn at its core, but “Casimir Pulaski Day,” “Oh God Where Are You Now?,” “The Lord God Bird,” “To Be Alone With You,””God’ll Ne’er Let You Down”… well, these and others comprise a body of work that, like O’Connor’s, raises and answers questions about what makes art “Christian.” Like O’Connor, Stevens operates outside of expectation: his confessional work is among his best, but you’d never call him a Christian artist the way, say, Amy Grant is a Christian artist.
It’s mostly an Illinois thing, but there’s also an important Lehigh Valley connection. I wrote about this a few years ago, but because I love Sufjan Stevens and hate injustice, I’ll tell you about it again:
Pulaski was a Polish noble and general who helped the American colonies win their independence from Great Britain by training and leading American soldiers throughout the Revolution. Pulaski died from wounds sustained during the Siege of Savannah, and is remembered today as a proto-typical Polish-American hero in many Polish-American communities. Though his holiday is mostly celebrated in Illinois, two years ago I discovered a connection between the Duke and the Lehigh Valley’s very own Bethlehem, PA.
I was walking around the grounds of the old Moravian settlements in Bethlehem and come upon this grave in the historic Moravian Cemetery:
A few yards away, I found this historical marker, explaining Duke Pulaski’s role in defending the early settlement and the fact that women from the Moravian community created the war banner he carried into Savannah, an even later llionized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in Hymn of the Moravian Nuns of Bethlehem at the Consecration of Pulaski’s Banner.
Reconciling the image of pacifist Moravians sewing banners meant for war is one thing. But Cornelia’s grave made me hot with rage and then it made me weep.
When I got home, I wrote the piece below. You need to know that Bethlehem, PA, was founded by pacifist Moravians (who were fleeing religious persecution) in 1741 and christened for its namesake on Christmas Eve.
1755 RECEIVED INTO THE CHURCH
What scandal, these Moravians, these Peace Church nuns and friars rending martial banners? Duke Pulaski, their protector, marches to Savannah, is recalled in Illinois among the Polish and in the frontier psalter for his sword. How ancient, their Count’s mission, in its context on the Lehigh, infant, pre-incarnate by their Christmas City’s namesake — Bethlehem, Palestine?
Cornelia, theirs in life, (the Horsfields’), not her own or God’s, sewn in Pennsylvania with the city’s founding mythos. December 24, 17whatever. Theirs in death, the Horsfields, these Peace Church nuns and friars.
Sudden fiction is another term for flash fiction, but the two aren’t simply synonymous, at least not to my ear. Don’t read too much into the title of this post. I’m not making some argument that the Gospel of Mark ought to be thought of as fiction or non-fiction by modern definitions. I’m talking about effect. Where does the writer mean to take us, and why? How do we know?
The Gospel of Mark is short, but it’s also very sudden. Replete with “immediatelys,” the narrative is constantly moving. Like a good short story, it feels meant to be read in one sitting.
I’ve just finished a sudden read in this manner. My sudden thoughts follow.
In Mark, Jesus is concerned with telling anyone who will hear that the kingdom of God is at hand, the kingdom of God is here, and that this news is good.
Often, his message gains traction through healing and exorcisms (these may or may not be the same). He is clearly opposed to entrenched religious systems and values, but not to the teachings of Israel’s prophets. His je ne sais quoi has precisely to do with his vision of God and God’s kingdom in the context of Rome’s empire, Herod’s puppet vassal, the Sanhedrin’s religious hegemony, the temple-merchants’ guild and the common-place fiefdom of first-century mores, beliefs, and expectations often beguiling his disciples or other parts of the general public. Often, those outside his immediate circle understand him best. He is arrested, tried, and crucified quickly. He even dies quickly. His tomb is found empty, and his followers are instructed by a heavenly presence to meet him, the Risen, in Galilee. No big deal. Biggest deal ever.
We shouldn’t be surprised.
Write about your strongest memory of heart-pounding belly-twisting nervousness: what caused the adrenaline? Was it justified? How did you respond?
The prompt (not the awesome title reference) came today from WordPress. Butterflies like bullets. You know what that’s about. That song came out in 1995, which is probably exactly when my own strongest moment of heart-pounding, belly-twiting nervousness happened. To make another reference, it was almost certainly about a girl.
And now I need to watch this, and so do you:
A few years ago I was on an obsessive workout regimen and dropped a million pounds. Nirvana Unplugged was my cardio jam. I wonder what that was about.
They didn’t just swagger and sneer at the abyss. Between 1994 and 1998, they swaggered — sneered — it back to hell. Supplanting nirvana as a concept and a band, they called themselves Oasis, after all.