The news in recent days—or has it been weeks or months?—has come like relentless blows.
So much bad news. There are the repeated natural disasters, of course, which are devastating beyond words. Then there are the manmade devastations: sexual assaults and the systems that enable them, national divisions over cloth and stone, and an ever-deepening pit of political expediency into which more and more people seem to sink.
However, there is good news even in this.
This unceasing news—exposing so many human failures—unveils cherished idols both inside and outside the church. What is exposed in this uncovering is ugly and horrible. But the revelation itself is a mercy.
Sometimes the pain of real life is so blinding we cannot see the truth it offers us. However, art can provide a sideways view of truths too hard to look at directly. In Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Revelation,” Ruby Turpin has to be hit in the head by a book in order to know the truth and be set free.
Mrs. Turpin is typical of the cultural Christians who inhabit O’Connor’s fiction. The story opens with Mrs. Turpin in the crowded waiting room of a doctor’s office—for the Catholic O’Connor, it has a certain resemblance to purgatory. While she waits, Mrs. Turpin’s quiet thoughts and mindless chatter reveal her to be proud and self-satisfied. She thinks she’s better than all the poor, lame, and sick in the room. The irony in this is that Mrs. Turpin is a hog farmer. When she tells this to a woman seated nearby, and the woman objects that hogs are “nasty stinking things,” Mrs. Turpin indignantly replies, “Our hogs are not dirty and they don’t stink.”
Mrs. Turpin doesn’t realize that such self-righteousness leads to hell.
Then, at the very moment Mrs. Turpin exclaims aloud, “Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!” for not making her black or white “trash” like those she sees around her, a young woman in the waiting room hurls a textbook at her, striking her violently. “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,” seethes the girl, whose name is, fittingly, Mary Grace. All of O’Connor’s stories feature a moment of sudden, unexpected (and often painful) grace. In “Revelation,” this is that moment.
Stunned, Mrs. Turpin returns home where she wrestles with the Lord, angry and confused. “What do you send me a message like that for?” she rails at God. “How am I saved and from hell too?”
The political, moral, and cultural climate in recent days has made many of us who are saved feel like we, too, are in hell.
The Hell of Terrible Truth
For some of us, this hell has been seeing the same Christian leaders who’ve said for years that character matters then turn around and prop up immoral leaders for political gain. For some of us, this hell has been hearing fellow believers express greater value for symbols than for the things those symbols represent. For some of us, hell has been experiencing abuse by the church and having that abuse hushed, supposedly for the sake of the church. For most of us, hell has simply been watching the reputation of Christ’s bride sullied and dirtied—by both her enemies and also her own.
Now, in a turn that only God or The New York Times could have orchestrated, we are watching a worldly institution go through a hell of its own as it caves in on itself. Hollywood—putative purveyor of liberal, feminist, and progressive principles—is being exposed, over and over in recent days, for enabling and covering up decades of abuse and exploitation, the extent of which promises to exceed that perpetrated by the Catholic Church.
Yet with each successive revelation, the parallels between the world and the contemporary American church are becoming uncomfortably clear.
One actress’s explanation for why she attended a Harvey Weinstein fundraiser while knowing of his serial abuse of women echoes similar reasoning by evangelicals in the last election: “I felt that going onstage under his aegis was a betrayal of my own values. But I wanted so desperately to support my candidate that I made a calculation.”
As countless actresses were fending off the real-life advances of a sexual predator, real-life viewers, including many in the church (I know because I’m one of them), were consuming the products of that corrupt empire, indicting all who did so: “Fantasies that the public eagerly watched onscreen, the women recounted, sometimes masked the dark experiences of those performing in them.”
Even something as horrific as child rape is supported and enabled by Hollywood players if the perpetrator displays sufficient power, prestige, and good works.
The Grace of Terrible Truth
Although it’s tempting for beleaguered believers to take glee in the exposure of hypocrisy outside the church—to find solace in the idea that at least we’re not as bad as that—we ought instead to take these revelations as O’Connor suggests: as a book to the head.
It’s difficult to see our own compromises, even more so our idolatries: putting more faith in political power, social traditions, personal and institutional reputation, and even personal pleasure than in God; or placing more value in such things than in those who bear God’s image.
At the end of “Revelation,” after she’s wrestled with God and shaken her fist at him for allowing her to suffer injury and insult at the likes of the lunatic Mary Grace, Mrs. Turpin has a revelation—a vision, in fact. In this vision, she sees all the saints—including the poor, the white trash, and the blacks she has disdained all her life—marching into heaven. Behind all of them she spots herself and her husband, not first but last, yet joining joyfully in the chorus of saints “shouting hallelujah.” As a result of her painful humiliation, Ruby Turpin exchanges self-righteousness for true righteousness.
In an era when both sides delight in pointing out problems with the other, the news is reminding us, painfully, every day, that idolatry comes in many forms—and that they all boil down to self-righteousness.
But such painful revelations offer a moment of grace, if only we will receive it.