In Flannery O’Connor’s “Wise Blood,” Pastor Hazel Motes’ church is a church of moralistic, therapeutic deism. It is a Church without Christ because no savior is needed. Isn’t this what the majority of twenty-first century Christianity has become?
When rereading Flannery O’Connor’s Wise blood I am struck by the prophetic precision with which she portrays contemporary Protestantism through her story of the wild preacher Hazel Motes.
Back from the war, Hazel Motes (hereafter referred to as “Haze”) moves through the world in a haze with more than a splinter in his eye. He is a preacher in a church he founded himself, “The Church Without Christ.” He wants a Jesus who redeems no one with his blood because no one needs redemption. There is no fall because there is nothing to fall from. Hazel Motes wants a Jesus who is only human and no god in him. He wants peace and satisfaction: “I preach peace, I preach the Church Without Christ, the Church peaceful and content. What you need is something to take the place of Jesus.”
Isn’t this what the majority of twenty-first century Christianity has become? Moralistic, therapeutic deism is the other name for Arianism – the church of Hazel Motes – the church without Christ – a church without a savior because no savior is needed.
What is needed in the Hazel Motes church is a therapist, a moral teacher and a spiritual guide. Note that Hazel Motes, the modern preacher, wants Jesus, but not Christ. He doesn’t mind the mild moral teacher, the kind therapist, or the good-natured guru. These are fine, as they are non-threatening and bloodless. What Hazel Motes defies and denies is a bloodshed savior. He will not stand by the old rugged cross and sing, “In the cross of Christ I glory that towers over the wrecks of time.” He will not affirm with Paul, “We preach Christ and him crucified.”
Throughout O’Connor’s violent story, Hazel Motes is obsessed with the “rat-colored car” he just bought. Despite being a fifty-dollar mess that keeps breaking down, Hazel Motes is confident it’s a great car that will take it anywhere. He preaches standing on the hood and the car creeps through the story as a beautiful symbol of the materialistic ideology that underlies moralistic, therapeutic deism. The material world is all there is and all you need, and so Haze mutters at the heart of the story, “No one with a good car needs to be justified.” The Hazel Motes of prosperous suburban America might as well claim the adequacy of their homes, their assets, their insurance policies, and their retirement plans, and this materialism underlies the smug, therapeutic, moralistic deism of American Christianity in the suburbs.
Hazel’s sole disciple, Hoover Shoats (aka Onnie Jay Holy), understands the theology behind Hazel’s Church of Christ Without Christ and explains why people can rely on it. First, there is nothing strange about it. “You don’t have to believe anything you don’t understand and don’t approve of.” Second, “It’s based on the Bible. Yes sir! It is based on your own personal interpretation of the Bible. Friends, you can sit at home and interrupt your own Bible, however you feel in your heart that it must be interrupted. Correct. Just as Jesus would have done.” Onnie Jay’s last reason is that “This church is up to date! When you are in this church you can know that there is nothing or nobody for you, nobody knows nothing that you do not know, all the cards are on the table and that is a fack.”
Later, Haze faithfully preaches another of the tenets of the modern church: scientism. “He said it wasn’t right to believe something you couldn’t see or hold in your hands or test with your teeth.” Then his theology expands to relativism: “I preach that there are all kinds of truth, your truth and someone else’s, but behind them there is only one truth and that is that there is no truth.”
O’Connor’s story descends into a hellscape of madness and murder, revealing the end point of a church without Christ and without the cross. Stupid young Enoch Emery turns into Gonga the Gorilla, and Hazel Motes uses the rat-colored car to run over the fraudulent preacher who impersonated him. In the end, a police officer pushes the car over a chasm and Hazel’s world collapses. Finally, like modern man, locked in his own self-imposed blindness, Hazel Motes sits on his landlady’s porch, staring into the void. But woven into the final chapter, O’Connor has her antihero embark on a pathetic pilgrimage of penance – as if prophesying that the modern man’s spell of despair and disbelief must end not with a bang, but with a wail.
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