Famous authors are often invited to elite dinner parties in New York City, a setting in which the rich Georgia drawl of Flannery O’Connor stood out like a dish of cheese grits next to the caviar.

At one such event, O’Connor ended up talking to author Mary McCarthy, who opined that her childhood Catholicism had faded, but she still appreciated the Eucharist as a religious symbol. The reply of the fervently Catholic O’Connor became one of the most famous one-liners in a life packed with them.

“Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it,” replied O’Connor, as reported in a volume of her letters. “That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me.”

The fact that this literary legend now graces a U.S. postage stamp ”“ more than 50 years after her death ”“ is a testimony both to the greatness of O’Connor and to the fact that her radical, even shocking, vision of life has always been impossible to pigeonhole, said scholar Ralph C. Wood of Baylor University.

In particular, O’Connor refused to bow to man-made idols — including the U.S. government and the civil religion many attach to it, said Wood, speaking at a National Philatelic Exhibition rite in McLean, Virginia, marking the release of the author’s commemorative stamp. She refused to make her faith private and polite.

“We honor Flannery O’Connor today because she resisted such idolatry,” he said. “She set her loves in order by giving her first and final loyalty, not to the nation-state, but to the incarnate and living God. … She became the most important Christian author this nation has yet produced … by becoming a radically Catholic writer.

“This meant that she was critical of her country, therefore, because she loved it. She also loved and criticized her native South in much the same way. Precisely because she discerned the transcendent virtues of her region could she lament its temporal evils.”

O’Connor also lanced the soft underbelly of church culture in her short stories. For Wood, the author’s description of the smug Mrs. May in “Greenleaf” was crucial: “She thought the word, Jesus, should be kept inside the church building like other words inside the bedroom. She was a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.”

The new stamp, which costs 93 cents, has raised some eyebrows because it shows a young, glamorous O’Connor, smiling and wearing pearls. She is not wearing her trademark cat’s-eye glasses. As a New York Times essay noted, “What’s Betty Crocker doing on Flannery’s stamp?”

Wood said it’s interesting to ponder a different question: How did O’Connor receive this salute from America’s cultural powers that be in the first place? Surely the desire to honor a female writer was pivotal.

“If that is the question you are asking you can hardly get around Flannery O’Connor. Who outranks her? She is a giant in American culture,” said Wood, author of “Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South.”

“It’s safe to say this was not an attempt to honor all that O’Connor stood for. The American cultural elites have never known what to do with her faith. … People keep trying to tame this lady, to make her nice. But you cannot make her nice because she wasn’t nice. You cannot defang her.”

But if the convictions in her stories unnerved some secularists, the bizarre and violent plot twists left many conservative believers shaking their heads, as well. In his lecture marking the stamp’s release, Wood noted that her work is full of grotesque characters who walk with “a divinely inflicted limp” caused by their wrestling matches with real sins and with God. These flawed believers “both believe and behave strangely.”

O’Connor heard all these muttering voices.

“When asked why her fiction, like that of so many other Southern writers, is rife with freaks, O’Connor famously replied that Southerners ”˜are still able to recognize one,’” said Wood. “They take the measure of themselves and others by the biblical plumb line that exposes all deviations from the true Vertical.”

— Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

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