Flannery O’Connor’s “Onnie Jay Holy” and her critique of “Hucksterism” (American “Consumer-Christianity”)

Onnie Jay Holy

In Flannery O’Connor’s novel “Wise Blood,” Preacher Onnie Jay Holy sees Hazel Motes engaged in his atheistic “preaching” and seeking to squeeze some financial gain from what could be a ripe situation starts preaching that Hazel is the prophet of the new “Holy Church of Christ without Christ.” Of course Hazel is quite disturbed at this seemingly friendly “hostile takeover.”

The cultural criticism of O’Connor exhibits her genius here, as the Rev. Holy without reservation greedily uses the atheistic “preaching” of Hazel Motes by only slightly modifying the name of the “church” by adding a few words that are ironically self-defeating: Hazel Motes “Church Without Christ” becomes Rev. Holy’s “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” It is also genius that the first name is also Onnie Jay’s name, “Holy” and that this “church of Christ” is “without Christ” but that contradiction doesn’t matter. Also, it is ironic that the atheist Hazel motes is the only one with enough sense to detect the logical fallacies of Onnie Jay Holy’s revisionist “Christianity.” All of these points reveal that the “huckster” Onnie Jay Holy cares nothing for truth, preaches sheer nonsense, and is only in it for the almighty dollar.

Onnie Jay Holy preached a classic three-point sermon for his “church.” In each point Flannery O’Connor’s critiques a different aspect of degenerated American “Christianity.” Onnie Jay Holy’s first point is that his religion is fully American, “nothing foreign.”  :

“Now I just want to give you folks a few reasons why you can trust this church,” he said. “In the first place, friends, you can rely on it that it’s nothing foreign connected with it. You don’t have to believe nothing you don’t understand and approve of. If you don’t understand it, it ain’t true, and that’s all there is to it. No jokers in the deck, friends.”

In degenerated American Christianity, everything is “domesticated,” made easy for consumption.  Nothing is “foreign” that would be offensive to our human sensibility, and there are no surprises from hidden “jokers in the deck” that could disturb our “understanding” of God and his ways.

The second  point of Rev. Holy is that it is based in our own “personal interpitation.” Everything in his religion is based on, congenial to, and able to be conformed to each individual’s desires.

“Now, friends,” Onnie Jay said, “I want to tell you a second reason why you can absolutely trust this church – it’s based on the Bible. Yes sir! It’s based on your own personal interpitation of the Bible friends. You can sit at home and interpit your own Bible however you feel in your heart it ought to be interpited. That’s right,” he said, “just the way Jesus would have done it. Gee, I wisht I had my gittarr here,” he complained.

Another stroke of genius is O’Connor’s inclusion of Rev. Holy’s statement concerning his “gittarr,” showing the use of marketing and packaging for the success of his new “church.” Flannery O’Connor certainly understood how a consumeristic model provided a success formula for the creation of the “mega-church” in America, and she perceived this in the 1950’s!

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The third point of the sermon is that the “Church” was contemporary.

“That ought to be enough reasons, friends,” Onnie Jay Holy said, “but I’m going to tell you one more just to show you I can. This church is up-to-date! When your in this church you can know that there’s nothing or nobody ahead of you, nobody knows nothing you don’t know, all the cards are on the table, friends, and that’s a fack!”

C.S. Lewis though that most modern people suffer from what he called “chronological snobbery,” which is mainly based on the modern myth of inevitable progress. Anything thought to contain “tradition” is automatically suspect, to such intelligent and “progressive” moderns. Again O’Connor’s genius uses an irony in this belief, namely that “there’s nothing or nobody ahead of you.”  She reveals another self-defeater since if there is “nothing or nobody ahead” there can be no real progress. A “contemporary” church designed on the precept of “chronological snobbery” is always destined to ultimate irrelevance and practical nihilism.

Flannery O’Connor was certainly critiquing what in her day was called religious “hucksterism.” But she was also critiquing the modernism in liberal Christianity and the degenerated cultural Christianity that was developing. She saw liberal Christianity as mainly compromised by modern myths and therefore without defense against the individualistic consumer Christianity that was developing within America’s secularistic liberal capitalistic democracy.

Following is an excerpt from the 1979 movie version of Wise Blood by John Huston.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2014. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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