I want to conclude my discussion of Wise Blood and the new atheists by sharing a theme from O'Connor's great novel that struck me as I read The Loser Letters. (By the way, "figuring out" Wise Blood is a cottage industry for literary critics and English profs the world over, so take my amateurish views on the themes of her novel with a at least a grain of salt).
While other characters in Wise Blood search for a prophet (that will bring in some money) or a "new Jesus" (that will suit their needs), Hazel Motes steadfastly seeks only to get rid of Jesus. He wants no new Jesus, no new prophets, no other church but one without Jesus. He preaches the "Church without Christ," eventually coming around to the idea that even blasphemy isn't acceptable, for there would have to be something true to blaspheme. He simply desires to get rid of Jesus. As O'Connor said in an introduction to the novel on its tenth anniversary, "Hazel's integrity lies in his not being able to get rid of the wild ragged figure who moves from tree to tree in the back of his mind."
I am not sure that I completely understand the reason that Haze desires so badly to be rid of Christ and to stand unredeemed, but I think much of it lies in his knowledge of his own inadequacy and sin. He knows he is fully unclean. In a telling exchange, another character points out to him that both of them are "just pure filthy down to the guts," but she likes being that way and Hazel doesn't. She says to him, "I like being that way, and I can teach you how to like it. Don't you want to learn how to like it?" "Yeah," Haze says, "I want to." But he never does learn to like it. Perhaps if he gets rid of Jesus-- perhaps if he is not redeemed-- he will be able to stand being "filthy right down to the guts."
This isn't even the tip of the Wise Blood iceberg, but it's a small theme that got me thinking as I read Mary Eberstadt's fictional atheist conversion story in The Loser Letters: she "converts" to atheism because it's the only way she can justify the horrible thing she has done. If she is redeemed, if there is a Jesus, then she has sinned deeply. Where there is no God, there is no sin. But in the end, like Haze Motes, she can't be rid of her redemption.
Among the new atheist writers, Richard Dawkins strikes me as the materialist priest, preaching that evolutionary science is "the new Jesus" who demands our (blind) faith and devotion. But I see Hitchens as slightly different.
In her essay "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," O'Connor says:
I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner who isn't convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.
Motes was very much Christ-haunted in this way, and I wonder whether Hitchens, at least, may be too.
So we come full circle: reading O'Connor and Eberstadt last week, and having made my way through much of Hitchens's God is Not Great last year, I began to wonder whether Hitch might be writing as one "very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God."
He writes with such insight and care on other subjects, yet is compelled to resort to tired arguments (religions are often violent, religious people do bad things in the name of God, miracles are fake, etc.), careless accusations, and broad-brush claims when he tries to prove the over-the-top untenable proposition that "religion poisons everything" (the subtitle of God is Not Great).
I imagine that Hitchens clearly sees that something is wrong with the world, that he is not right. That we are not right. But where there is a God, conviction is great. If He is not there, we need not worry. For the unredeemed, wouldn't it just be better if He went away? Yet he lurks. And calls to us. It strikes me that as Hitch preaches the church without God, he may have a wild, ragged man, running from tree to tree in the back of his mind, motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he's not sure of his footing.
O'Connor called Wise Blood "a novel about a Christian malgre lui"-- a "Christian in spite of himself." I imagine that Hitchens is not, but I pray that he will be someday.
For more on this topic:
A fun DVD to watch and discuss is Collision: Is Christianity Good for the World? A Debate between Christopher Hitchens and Douglas Wilson
Listen to the interesting Interview with David Bentley Hart on the new atheism
Visit The Loser Letters website