Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Exodus 3) transports me to the south Georgia pecan country of the 1950s, where we find a scene brilliantly described by Flannery O’Connor. O.E. Parker, AWOL from the Army, was baling hay on an old broken-down tractor when his mind began to wander; he started thinking about what kind of tattoo he would get on his back, which was the only un-tattooed place left on his body. In the midst of his distraction, he drove the tractor straight into an enormous tree standing in the middle of the field. As he was thrown from the tractor, he yelled out a loud GOD ABOVE! before hitting the ground. The tractor burst into flame, and he saw his shoes, which he had come out of in the crash, being consumed by the fire. The hot breath of the burning tree on his face gave him an epiphany; he knew that his life was somehow going to be forever changed from the encounter. He immediately set out for the tattoo parlor, where he asked the artist for the book with “pictures of God” in it. He flipped through until he found the picture he was looking for, a Byzantine Christ with piercing eyes. He was eager to get the tattoo and take it home to show his abusive and fundamentalist wife. You think she’ll like it and lay off you a while? the artist asked O.E. She can’t hep herself, Parker answered. She can’t say she don’t like the looks of God.
Much has been written on the theological underpinnings of Flannery O’Connor’s writing, and articles on this story are no exception. The obvious Moses motif runs throughout, especially in this burning bush scene. The encounter with the fire of sacred presence is palpable; it is enough to knock your socks off and make you realize that the very ground is holy. It is transforming, and sets you on a course to see the face of God, or at least the glow of that face. It sets you on a course to have the way of God printed on tablets of stone, or the eyes of God imprinted on your very body. But while many people have written about the ways biblical sources have influenced Flannery O’Connor, it is more interesting to me to see how reading Flannery O’Connor can influence our understanding of scripture. Her characters are so human, so flawed, so broken; in her words, they are grotesque, and it is in these groteque characters that grace breaks through and the presence of God resides. Our culture, filled as it is with trendy tattooed youth, may find it difficult to remember just how taboo and un-trendy tattoos were a generation ago when Flannery O’Connor wrote. A man with tattoos covering his body was the ultimate freak show. Getting to know O.E. Parker, and then reading the Exodus story through the lens of his character, fleshes out the character of Moses in a deep and enriching way. Moses was a man who went AWOL and fled his country, who had trouble at home with his wife (wives), who felt inadequate to the tasks laid on him, who was prone to wax hot with anger. In short, he was probably a lot more like O.E. Parker than he was Charleton Heston. The idea of a broken and failed man finding himself touching holy ground, hearing voices coming out of the fires of sacred presence, is central to one of the core concepts of salvation history – that God works through the weakest and most flawed figures to foster faith and covenant love. Flannery O’Connor knew this concept well, and her stories are among the best demonstrations of this theology.
If O.E. Parker helps us understand the figure of Moses encountering God, he also helps us understand the consequences of such an encounter. Just as Moses experienced the rejection and bitter complaints of his community after he came down from the mountain with God’s glory glowing from his face, O.E. didn’t get the reception he hoped for, neither from his friends at the pool hall who made fun of him and threw him out, nor from his wife when he went home and showed her the Byzantine Christ on his back. Look at it! he implored her. I done looked, she replied. Don’t you know who it is? he asked. It ain’t nobody I know, she answered. God! he said. God? God don’t look like that! She started screaming Idolatry! and proceeded to thrash him across the back with her broom. Parker, too stunned to resist, found himself knocked senseless, and large welts formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. This is the hard truth of the gospel, the bad news of the good news, that whenever one touches the holy, and is deeply imprinted with the presence of the sacred, neither the realm of raucous culture nor the realm of rigid Christianity is likely to receive it well. In fact, as Christ himself promised and experienced, both the fun-lovers and the fundamentalists are liable to knock you senseless and leave you weeping like a baby as you lean against the pecan tree.
How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.