Here are various translations of Matthew 11:12:
King James: And from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by force.
The New International Version: From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence,[a] and violent people have been raiding it.
Douay-Rheims: And from the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.
The Douay-Rheims is the edition O’Connor owned, and it’s that translation that inspired her title. (I had hoped to find some amazing hidden meaning behind her use of Douay-Rheims. Instead, it’s probably just a case of, “That’s the Bible that was in her house at the time.” I’m like this with books in translation: I like my War & Peace translated by Constance Garnett, thankyouverymuch.)
All three translations agree on the opening. But it’s what happens to the kingdom of heaven where we see the difference: “take it by force,” “raiding it,” or “bear it away.” Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the two other translations say, though: Flannery O’Connor was inspired by the Douay-Rheims translation. For her, the violent bear it away.
Whether you agree with Flannery O’Connor’s worldview or not: in the universe of The Violent Bear it Away, Bishop gets a happy ending. He’s baptized. I love every one one of you who bristles and recoils and wants to run from a philosophy that treats drowning as a sacred right. Flannery O’Connor is not the writer for you.
In the world of the novel, Rayber represents Evil. He’s not the rapist; he’s not the voice of the Devil. But he’s Evil because he wants to interfere with the divine work of the prophet. (And in the world of the novel, the Tarwaters are prophets.) Secular humanism that seeks to replace God’s hands with… well, whatever is in Rayber’s hands: that’s not going to work. That Bishop has Down’s syndrome is a blessing in the world of this book because he can’t be corrupted by the teacher. He’s a perfect vessel for baptising.
It’s easy to mistake O’Connor as simply a Southern Gothic writer, with her cast of grotesques. And I think that might be how she was able to hobnob with so many intellectuals. As the Marquise de Merteuil says (paraphrased) in Les Liaisons dangereuses: Most intellectuals are intensely stupid. They missed O’Connor’s message: that the works of God are mysterious and violent and even if it costs your life, it’s the absolute smallest price one can pay for redemption and salvation and revelation. It’s rare to reach the end of any piece by O’Connor and not have the main character dead, murdered, maimed, or utterly transformed in the most painful of ways. Faith for O’Connor is an absolute, totalizing force. One has it or one doesn’t, and the transition from one state of belief to another often comes as a violent shock to the person experiencing it.
The point was made in the discussion that Flannery O’Connor was a terrific writer, but a poor communicator. I’ve given that a lot of thought in the days that have gone by and I’m not sure I entirely agree. A mistake we might make in reading is assuming that this must all be metaphor; but there’s little metaphoric about the novel: The Tarwaters are prophets. God exists and is a violent force to be reckoned with. She communicates that all the way through. She wants us to know that the Tarwaters are connected to God. But, if you are repulsed by the novel, it’s more than likely because you can’t identify with a world in which prophets exist. (This is not a bad thing or a good thing; it’s just a Thing.)
Knowing what O’Connor is saying isn’t the same as approving. And you can get to the end of the novel, and you can think all of your thoughts and come to a discussion and think some new thoughts and still fight with the book afterwards. She’s saying uncomfortable, noxious things for a lot of readers. But O’Connor’s method of salvation isn’t love in the way we think of it — images of Jesus hugging children and hymns about caring — it’s an older, darker kind of love. It’s the kind of love God demanded from Abraham when he told Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.
If you can bear to read through the novel again — and many of you probably can’t — read it as if every thing is true and has happened. That’s not going to make the novel easier to read. It’s going to make it harder to handle. But you’ll be reading the novel the way O’Connor intended. She is not interested in ambiguity. She’s not playing a game with the reader where it might be this or it might be that. She rarely hides behind metaphor. We bring that ourselves, I think.
And, for something COMPLETELY different, I’ll end with this poem by A.A. Milne:
Said to her Nan:
“Please will you tell me how God began?
Somebody must have made Him. So
Who could it be, ‘cos I want to know?”
And Nurse said, “Well!”
And Ann said, “Well?
I know you know, and I wish you’d tell.”
And Nurse took pins from her mouth, and said,
“Now then, darling, it’s time for bed.”
Had a wonderful plan:
She would run round the world till she found a man
Who knew exactly how God began.
She got up early, she dressed, and ran
Trying to find an Important Man.
She ran to London and knocked at the door
Of the Lord High Doodleum’s coach-and-four.
“Please, sir (if there’s anyone in),
However-and-ever did God begin?”
But out of the window, large and red,
Came the Lord High Coachman’s face instead.
And the Lord High Coachman laughed and said:
“Well, what put that in your quaint little head?”
Elizabeth Ann went home again
And took from the ottoman Jennifer Jane.
“Jenniferjane,” said Elizabeth Ann,
“Tell me at once how God began.”
And Jane, who didn’t much care for speaking,
Replied in her usual way by squeaking.
What did it mean? Well, to be quite candid,
I don’t know, but Elizabeth Ann did.
Elizabeth Ann said softly, “Oh!
Thank you Jennifer. Now I know.”