Poorly written novels—no matter how pious and edifying the behavior of the characters—are not good in themselves and are therefore not really edifying. Now a statement like this creates problems. An individual may be highly edified by a sorry novel because he doesn’t know any better. We have plenty of examples in this world of poor things being used for good purposes. God can make any indifferent thing, as well as evil itself, an instrument for good; but I submit that to do this is the business of God and not of any human being. (O’Connor, 174)
In context, in this essay from Mystery and Manners, O’Connor is talking about Catholic writers and what they choose to write about and how they choose to portray reality. She makes the point that portraying real people accurately may mean writing about behavior that is non-edifying. She then questions how some well-meaning Catholic writers may write unbelievable stories for a given agenda, and thus try to reflect God with untruth. She then makes the statement above.
There are a lot of ideas that could be unpacked from that. She alludes to standards of literature and what makes a good novel in her statement about a person ‘not knowing any better’ than to like a sorry novel. There are concepts of conveying truth in fiction and of being believable that writers and literature types talk about. The idea I want to focus on has to do with grace.
Having gone to a Christian liberal arts college, I’ve been a part of lots of discussions about Christians and the quality of our work, whether art, writing, or even jobs. I like these questions and think they are good ones to ask. I think quality does matter, not just intent. However, just because a Christian (or Catholic, or whatever) produces poor art doesn’t mean God can’t use it, or that He won’t use it.
I used to listen exclusively to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), otherwise known as music primarily produced for a Christian audience. Oh, I know, lots talk about using it for evangelistic purposes, but it’s Christians who primarily buy and listen to it. In the years I listened to it, The quality of the songs (as I don’t believe in separating lyric from music, they both make up a whole) has improved over time, but the songs were never considered as good as a whole compared to the mainstream music industry. I heard a number of Christians speak disdainfully about the quality of the CCM over the years. Still, I’ve seen God use it to his glory.
I’ve had times where I wasn’t particularly focused on God but He used my petty efforts to positively affect people’s lives for Him . I’ve seen prayerful efforts fall flat. Maybe they were to His glory to and I was too upset to see it or be affected by His grace. Sometimes we are just too expectant of the result based on our efforts. Sometimes we are too judgmental of others based on what we think of the quality or content of their work.
Having the word Jesus in a song doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, but we should be equally humble about our masterpieces and how we view trite work, because God’s grace extends to us all, and He will use whatever He chooses to glorify Himself. Standards of quality are useful to have, and I think lovingly challenging one another towards excellence is also important, but part of the wonder of God is that He is God, and we are not, and so our standards and our formulas aren’t much in light of eternity.
I need to remember that God’s grace is at work around me and in me, and God will work through all of our efforts, and then I need to extend that grace. I’m thankful to Flannery O’Connor for the reminder.