Flannery O'Connor was an unapologetic, unreconstructed Southerner of staunchly Catholic and profoundly conservative orientation who wrote unsparingly dark, bleak, and violent stories. This disconcerted many readers, who couldn't understand why an author who believed in God and adhered to Christian precepts would so often dwell on such disagreeable subject matter.
Miss O'Connor gave reply in a 1957 essay titled "The Fiction Writer and His Country." It was precisely secular modernity's deadening effect on the individual conscience, she asserted, that necessitated her thematic emphasis on the sordid, the depraved, and the grotesque; people needed to be shocked, shaken up, and reminded of what was important. "To the hard of hearing you shout," she wrote, "and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling pictures."
O'Connor died in 1964, before the sexual revolution kicked into high gear, before the legalization of abortion, or the promotion of adolescent sexuality in public schools, or the enforced sanctification of buggery by an ascendant legal and academic elite openly hostile to traditional morality; before the preference to retain one's European-derived heritage and identity was rendered as "hate" for one's fellow man, before mass immigration and multiculturalism and the promulgation of totalitarian hate-speech laws, before the relentless shaming of whiteness, maleness, and "heterosexism" became an obligatory ritual on college campuses across the Western world.
From a conservative's perspective, things have certainly gotten worse since O'Connor's time, yet Christian social conservatives have, if anything, grown into even bigger ninnies. Witness a site like Plugged-In Online, a kind of encyclopedic collection of reviews of recent movies, TV shows, and music albums -- all of which are critiqued from an ostensibly Christian perspective. I say "ostensibly" not because I doubt the sincere religious convictions of the site's writers, but because their collective aesthetic notions leave much to be desired. Indeed, their habitual tendency is to equate sanitization with sanctification and G-rated-ness with holiness.
Peruse Plugged In's movie review pages, and you'll soon find yourself immersed in a virtual galaxy of hectoring, scolding platitudes repeated ad nasuseum. When a character in a film makes a bad choice, the incident is usually filed under the heading of "Objectionable Material." And when there is sex, violence, or profanity -- whatever the context, no matter how the viewer is meant to think about the behavior depicted -- the Plugged Inn-ers are automatically "out" on it, without deliberation or discussion.
Thus, to use a Biblical metaphor, is the wheat commonly thrown out with the chaff. Smutty, exploitative, irresponsible, and immoral junk gets lustily condemned, of course, but so does fare that, while irreverent and "adult," is actually in many ways sympathetic to traditionalism, or at the very least gives the ever-looming Zeitgeist a good, square kick in the crotch. Comedies like Juno and Knocked Up, both of which contain a scandalously pro-life message, are dismissed out of hand due to their nonstop racy and vulgar dialogue. The 40-Year Old Virgin, which, if you pay attention, actually promotes abstinence before marriage, also gets greeted with prissy exhalations of exasperation and contempt for its raucous and ribald content. Fight Club, a profound meditation on the spiritual emasculation of the modern male in a world bereft of belief or hope, is simplistically condemned for promoting violent nihilism. And on it goes...
No one would ever claim that the representative sample of movies discussed above were "family-friendly." Still, a conservative critic with even a scrap of subtlety of mind and aesthetic discernment can see that, even if they fall short in certain crucial ways, there is, indeed, much to appreciate in these films. But the good, churchgoin', God-fearin' Plugged-In folks seem almost willfully clueless to such a possibility, smarmily set as they are on maintaining their lofty perch of sanctimonious disapproval.
But even more irritating than the proclivity to reflexively dismiss and sniff at every non-Veggie Tales movie ever made, is the way the Plugged-In-style critic tends to react when challenged.
"After all (one says to him), what about the acknowledged literary greats?
Aren't Shakespeare's plays full of violence, mayhem, and sexual innuendo? Isn't Dante's vision of Hell just a bit gory and gnarly? What about all of those shocking stories from the Bible itself? Adam and Eve are naked without shame, Cain murders Abel, Lot has sex with his daughters during a drunken cave orgy, Onan spills his seed on the ground, David commits adultery with Beersheba and sends Uriah to his death, and the Isrealities wipe out just about everyone in sight over and over again... and all of that's just in the Old Testament! Yet the Bible is a holy book -- THE holy book. If it, Dante, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer, Milton, Poe, Joyce, O'Connor, and all the other faithful recorders of human vice, folly, perversity and corruption throughout the ages are allowed to tread in such waters, then why do you immediately look upon movies of recent years with suspicion and consternation if they deal with challenging material?"
To this, the self-satisfied Christian critic of the Plugged-In variety smiles blandly. "You're comparing Shakespeare to Pulp Fiction? I'm sorry... that just doesn't work!" While declaiming any qualitative equivalency between the Bard and Tarantino, you reply, why can't this question be asked? To this, he scoffs at first, taking the answer to be self-evident, but when you persist, he stammers that Shakespeare and everyone else who wrote a long time ago always wrote with a moral framework in mind, while contemporary writers are in almost all cases just scurrilous schlock-meisters whose only agenda is to mock all things decent. Suggest that your interlocutor is painting with the broadest of brushes and, moreover, speaking from pure ignorance, and you'll again be favored with a patronizing smirk, much like Dana Carvey's "Church Lady" character once fixed upon his guest before snarkily observing, "Well... we have our little opinions, don't we?"
Take another tack: Point out that content doesn't necessarily determine form, that even an NC-17 rated movie like Abel Ferrara's The Bad Lieutenant can be a quite moving story of faith and redemption. You may get a grudging semi-acknowledgement, followed by a hurried recapitulation of ad priori asethetic notions, which he wills to cancel out any prior ground previously ceded: "I suppose it may be argued that the message is a positive one," he'll aver, "but... when the way of relating this message is so incredibly negative it really doesn't matter what the flimmaker intended..." Again, the only way art can be legitimately Christian is if it's squeaky-clean, antiseptic, devoid of blemish or grit.
The only way to be profound, it seems, is to be boring.
There are, of course, certain exceptions to this rule, the most prominent being Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ. With this film, the Plugged-Inner and all of his ilk suddenly discovered that it's permissible to shake up the audience, O'Connor-style, through the brazen, unflinching depiction of nonstop, horrifying cruelty and torture, provided the story concerns the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus.
Self-important Spielbergian historical gorefests like Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan are likewise exempt from the In-Plugged scribblers' knee-jerk condemnations, due, I suppose, to their shameless pushing of buttons that send jolts into the heart of they typical American evangelical believer: 1) the conviction of the inherent goodness of the American military and the greatness of the cause of the "good war" that was WWII, and 2) the lurid depiction of persecution of Jews under Hitler, giving rise to the modern state of Israel, which (again, in the evangelical mind) can do no wrong.
But the exceptions, as always, prove the rule, and the rule, in turn, underlines an undeniable problem among “red-state” Americans today. Cultural leftists control Hollywood and most outlets of the entertainment media, at least in part due to the fact that leftists in general, at this point in history, simply see more value in the fine arts, while right-leaning Americans' tastes typically run more towards the philistine sentimentalism of country-western songs, grocery-store romance novels, and Fox News/talk radio inspired displays of drippy, mawkish patriotism.
But we shouldn't be fooled that everyone who thinks or votes along leftist lines maintains rigidly ideological standards to an obnoxious and humorless extreme. In fact, there is clearly quite a bit of dissent among the ranks of the Lefty cultural elite, as evidenced by the not infrequent, spasmodic outbursts of brazen political incorrectness indulged in by "hip" comedians like Sarah Silverman, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle and others, and lapped up voraciously by their predominantly "blue-state" audiences.
It would be a grave mistake to ghettoize radical traditionalism, or to expect only the worst from our opponents at all times, just as it would be small-minded and shortsighted to maintain that art must be "safe," bland, and shorn of edges. Life is very difficult, and art should be true to life. If the cultural transformation we struggle to achieve is worthwhile, then it demands more than lip service or crass propaganda in its support.
In the coming years of struggle, hopefully more true cultural conservatives, be they of Christian affiliation or not, will plug out of the "Plugged In" mentality, and will begin to entertain more independent and adventuresome aesthetic principles. Whatever your faith, it's not a sin to be provocative; indeed, extreme times call for extreme art. To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling pictures.