The Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) knew a thing or two about freaks, fakers, and fools. Her stories are filled with false prophets claiming to know the truth with a capital T and what comes of our encounters with them. Such fakers claim to know God and bring salvation to the spiritually needy. (Of course, salvation only ever comes with a hefty dollar fee.)
O’Connor’s 1952 novel, Wise Blood, features many fakers. One of them is Asa Hawks, a blind preacher who turns out not to be blind at all. Hawks spends his time preaching the Gospel as he sees it (no pun intended), all the while knowing that he is a con artist. Hawks doesn’t have any redeeming qualities because he’s willingly perpetuating fraudulent spirituality, and treating salvation as some kind of brand to be sold for a good price.
Hazel Motes, on the other hand, is not necessarily a fraud or a false prophet. He’s troubled by Hawks and is generally dissatisfied with the world. He’s an odd creature, as are most of O’Connor’s characters. Haze is convinced there is a better way to live than what Jesus offers, and resolves to start “The Church Without Christ.”
Understandably, Haze can’t stand the hypocrisy he sees every day. But his approach to curing it needs to be refined or altogether changed. Haze’s dissatisfaction with the culture and religion (the two are inseparable in O’Connor’s South) goes beyond occasional annoyances with the people. He doesn’t like Jesus personally. Speaking to a woman on the train, Haze asks “Do you think I believe in Jesus? . . . Well, I wouldn’t even if He existed. Even if He was on this train.”
For most of the novel, we witness this interplay between Hazel Motes and “the world,” as one after another absurdly comical event happens. Hazel Motes and Asa Hawks are both disordered, but the difference is that Asa is an immoral fraud, while Hazel is authentically seeking.
Being witness to authenticity and inauthenticity is part of the human condition. There will always be “false prophets” in some form or other. Today, religion is no longer part of the popular culture. God is deemed invisible or a mere “accidental tourist,” occasionally observing the sheer madness and stupidity of human beings.
Our false prophets are the fakers, frauds, and fools in media who prey on people’s need for trust, peace, and knowledge. Occasionally, they are guilty of accidental journalism but rarely do we get anything other than spin. The fearmongering comes from pundits and writers on both the Left and Right. An apocalypse is observed almost daily, yet somehow the world recovers—at least long enough for another destruction to occur.
This is not to say that all is well or that Americans have no cause for concern. But there’s something strange about political predictions that rarely have anything to do with political analysis but instead are obsessed with weird, conspiratorial, and gnostic statements. False religion and false theology abound, with plenty to satisfy everyone’s “spiritual” needs.
Yet what’s lacking is substance. People we may trust for information and a metaphysical steadiness often disappoint—and not only in cases of flawed human beings authentically seeking a better life, but occasionally in situations where someone has branded himself, and feeds on the sensationalism, preying on people’s fears and primitive emotionalism.
There are consumers of media who are perfectly fine with only listening to positions that satisfy their already established views, which can range from aligning somewhere on the Left-Right political divide to seeking out far out, even gnostic, conspiracies. Such people will be caught in a loop of political meme-ism. A meme can be funny, even true, but its nature is such that it must be replaced by another meme. It does not effect any change. Many pundits, media personalities, and writers are the physical embodiments of memes.
Most people, however, yearn for authenticity and even a glimmer of hope. At this point, given all of the negativity and hatred that makes up our culture, many Americans are open to accepting the reality of our situation in life. They are not living in la-la land. Culturally, things are chaotic. But any human being who only sees darkness is bound to get used to it until one day, the memory of light is forever extinguished. It’s important to have and retain faith and hope. It’s easier said than done but any authentic and real spirituality requires agility and discipline.
In the preface to the second edition of Wise Blood, O’Connor offered some interpretations of what the book is really about. She was (and remains) often misunderstood, and many readers didn’t know what to make of her stories. For her, Hazel Motes does have integrity, even if it’s strange, off-putting, and possibly destructive.
“Does one’s integrity ever lie in what he is not able to do?” asks O’Connor. “I think that it usually does, for free will does not mean one will, but many wills conflicting in one man. Freedom cannot be conceived simply. It is a mystery and one which a novel, even a comic novel, can only be asked to deepen.”
In this sense, Hazel Motes is anything but fraud. He is a person of hardened heart and ridiculous stubbornness, trying to find a way out of chaos. As we sift through our own chaos, it’s important to know the difference between a person who is trying to live authentically and a person who is a fully willing fraud, peddling in lies that masquerade as truth. And who knows? Maybe even a faker and a fraud could be inspired and illuminated to find an authentic way of being.