A friend recently started reading about Flannery O'Connor, and she asked me for a recommendation. She is a Christian, at least in terms of belief, and so, being a bit perverse, I recommended Wise Blood. Honestly, with O'Connor, it's a toss-up in terms of which of her two novels to recommend to the uninitiated: Wise Blood or The Violent Bear it Away.
O'Connor was a savant in the area of the grotesque (the literary form, not just gross), so Christians who read her without proper orientation or explanation are often lost as to how to categorize her writing. O'Connor was unapologetically Catholic, but being from early 20th century Georgia meant she encountered the worst of Southern Christianity in its postbellum varieties.
For students, I have assigned O'Connor's brilliant and timeless short story A Good Man is Hard to Find since I started teaching English, even in high school. She's a darkly witty, insightful writer whose imminent death from lupus only added to the biting nature of her wisdom. In an American evangelical Christianity eaten up with therapeutic notions of God's preference for their own happiness, O'Connor is a much-needed tonic that adds a requisite bitterness and somber tone to an otherwise Pollyanna evangelical soteriology: God likes me and wants me to be happy, here and in Heaven.
If you haven't read Wise Blood, just know that it's one of the most bizarrely dark comic novels of all time, and it's not comedy in the Classical sense of the term. The comedy is hard to spot if you're too close to the narrative of salvation, and I'm sure what I'm about to write would be widely contested by Catholic and Protestant fans of O'Connor, but the whole narrative is based on an assumption I find to be fairly common for practitioners of theistic faiths.
O'Connor's protagonist, and I use the term loosely, Hazel Motes, ultimately tries in vain to redeem himself. The plot is an extension of the idea that those of us who have given up on theism will find alternate roads to redemption since the quest for redemption is hard-wired into the human condition. It's a more sophisticated version of the "god-shaped hole" trope, but it's not really sophisticated. The position asserts a preference that is related to enculturation and indoctrination, not a state that actually exists outside of a particular tribe.
Having grown up in church, I was taught that we all yearn for salvation, but that particular yearning is often hard to identify outside of a community that makes clear the point of our dissatisfaction. In other words, the human tendency to be dissatisfied or bored with the familiar is defined as a desire for salvation, even if the person lacks the proper vocabulary to explain her angst. Post-salvation, angst is explained as an inability to understand who I am "in Christ," or as a struggle with the spirit/flesh dichotomy. Honestly, there are a dozen different explanations, but all fail to take into account the simplest explanation: we are easily dissatisfied, with no metaphysical reason. The human condition is imperfect, so angst and ennui are part of it, as are joy and hate and love and lust.
This assumption that we all crave redemption is actually inculcated from the very earliest age in church circles. This is a particularly Christian idea since other theistic faiths don't posit some state of fallenness from which God must save us. More than a few sects of Christianity, including the Orthodox, depart from this Catholic/Protestant doctrine, too, by the way. Basically, we who grew up in church were taught that we desire salvation, and then we're taught that outside of church, any unfulfilled longing we have will be a result of not embracing salvation that is only available through Jesus.
Imagine teaching young people that they are fine just like they are, but that they need to work on certain character deficincies like selfishness, vanity, gluttony, cruelty, etc. They don't have a metaphysical problem that can only be solved by the most dubious of actions (God dies to propitiate God); rather, they have character issues that are solved by working hard on being better people. Those young people would not have a "god-shaped hole." They would have an understanding that virtue must be practiced, and that the angst or ennui or dissatisfaction they feel is part of being human, and those are best combatted with friendship, purpose, discipline, and a realistic sensibility of what it is to be human.
The need for salvation is taught; it's not a default condition that all humans recognize. The inability of faith communities to recognize how language shapes our experience of reality is frustrating, and the tendency to accept communicated traditions without deconstructing those traditions has led to no small amount of human suffering. O'Connor's novel worked for Christian audiences because the pathos generated by Hazel Motes as he suffered for his own redemption was a metaphorical reinforcement of a preferred dogma. It worked for outsiders because the grotesque managed to reveal the absurdity of believing dogmas that had no shred of proof in the world, especially in a world so reflexively crude, violent, cruel, and stupid. O'Connor got that part very right; she lived in the South, after all. Believe in salvation if you must, but let's not pretend it's yet made the world a better place.