The Shocking Concrete Abstract Universal

Flannery O’Connor meant to shock us by her storylines and imagery:

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.

When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock – to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.

Anyone who has read The Violent Bear It Away or Everything That Rises Must Converge would have to agree that O’Connor had the ability to shout and startle.

On a more philosophical note, she reflected on the imbalance between abstract and concrete knowledge of her day in her essay: ‘The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,’ p 858–9, Collected Works:

It takes a story of mythic dimensions; one which belongs to everybody; one in which everybody is able to recognize the hand of God and imagine its descent upon himself.

In the Protestant South the Scriptures fill this role. The ancient Hebrew genius for making the absolute concrete has conditioned the Southerner’s way of looking at things…

Our response to life is different if we have been taught only the definition of faith than if we have trembled with Abraham as he held the knife over Isaac.

I’d say it was God’s genius for making the absolute concrete; but who’s quibbling. To paraphrase O’Connor, the point is that the abstract is transformed into the concrete thereby making the universal accessible. That’s what God has done throughout the Scriptures. To illustrate, I cite two examples.

The intricate description of the ephod and breastpiece of judgement belonging to the High Priest’s garments culminates in Exodus, chapter 28, verses 29 and 30:

So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord. And in the breastpiece of judgment you shall put the Urim and the Thummim, and they shall be on Aaron’s heart, when he goes in before the Lord. Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel on his heart before the Lord regularly. English Standard Version

If we have ears to hear it, all the concrete details of these garments portray the concern Aaron was to have for the people of Israel as he regularly bore their judgement on his heart while he brought them in remembrance before the Lord. We later learn, in the Letter to the Hebrews, that Aaron and his line are a shadow of the reality residing in the Lord Jesus Christ’s intercession for His own before the Father.

Another example of the abstract being made concrete is the bread and wine of communion. First, the Lord Jesus shocks the religious rulers of His day (and us, if we’re honest):

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” John 6:51-54 (ESV)

Then in the Upper Room, the Lord inaugurates the commemoration of His death and resurrection:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” Mark 14:22-25 (ESV)

Finally, Paul explains its significance

For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 (ESV)

Which brings us full circle back to John, chapter 6:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” John 6:35 (ESV)

Even the Prophet Isaiah said as much:

“Come, everyone who thirsts,

    come to the waters;

and he who has no money,

    come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

    without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,

    and delight yourselves in rich food.

Incline your ear, and come to me;

    hear, that your soul may live;

and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,

    my steadfast, sure love for David.

Isaiah 55:1-3 (ESV)

Indeed, come and eat.

High Priest's Garments

The High Priest Aaron, Illustration from Brockhaus and Efron Jewish Encyclopedia (1906—1913), Public Domain in the United States

Resistance Isn’t Futile

The author of the book to the Hebrews, in chapter 12, verses 4-6 says:

In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,

    nor be weary when reproved by him.

For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,

    and chastises every son whom he receives.”

Hebrews 12:4-6 English Standard Version (ESV)

Do you say, as I do sometimes: “Why should I struggle against doing my own will and instead do His will?” Or do we see ourselves as better than this One?

And he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place, he said to them, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

And he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”

And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

And when he rose from prayer, he came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow, and he said to them, “Why are you sleeping? Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

Luke 22:39-46 (ESV)

Some manuscripts leave out the verses in the third paragraph.

So, with regard to the verse:

And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.

what does John Calvin comment?

Certainly those who imagine that the Son of God was exempt from human passions do not truly and sincerely acknowledge him to be a man…

…When Christ was distressed by grief and fear, he did not rise against God, but continued to be regulated by the true rule of moderation. We need not wonder that, since he was innocent and pure from every stain, the affections which flowed from him were pure and stainless… Christ, amidst fear and sadness, was weak without any taint of sin…

…He [Christ] had no horror at death…simply as a passage out of the world, but because he had before his eyes the dreadful tribunal of God, and the Judge himself armed with inconceivable vengeance; and because our sins, the load of which was laid upon him, pressed him down with their enormous weight. There is no reason to wonder, therefore, if the dreadful abyss of destruction tormented him grievously with fear and anguish.

…And, therefore, though he suffered death, yet since its pains were loosed—as Peter tells us, (Acts 2:24)—and he was victorious in the conflict, the Apostle justly says, that he was heard on account of his fear [Hebrews 5:7]. Here ignorant people rise up and exclaim, that it would have been unworthy of Christ to be afraid of being swallowed up by death.

But I should wish them to answer this question, What kind of fear do they suppose it to have been which drew from Christ drops of blood? (Luke 22:44). For that mortal sweat could only have proceeded from fearful and unusual horror. If any person, in the present day, were to sweat blood, and in such a quantity that the drops should fall to the ground, it would be reckoned an astonishing miracle…

If it be objected, that the fear which I am describing arises from unbelief, the answer is easy. When Christ was struck with horror at the divine curse, the feeling of the flesh affected him in such a manner, that faith still remained firm and unshaken. For such was the purity of his nature, that he felt, without being wounded by them, those temptations which pierce us with their stings.

And yet those persons, by representing him not to have felt temptations, foolishly imagine that he was victorious without fighting. And, indeed, we have no right to suppose that he used any hypocrisy, when he complained of a mortal sadness in his soul; nor do the Evangelists speak falsely, when they say that he was exceedingly sorrowful, and that he trembled.

In the face of deep fear and anguish, Christ prayed earnestly that His Father’s will be done and He opened the way of salvation to all who will be saved. No matter what anyone says, resistance is not futile.

Borg transmission from the movie Star Trek VIII First Contact – English version