“Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to weren’t never there, and where you are ain’t no good unless you can get away from it.” Hazel Motes, Wise Blood

I nearly drove into a ditch as I was driving around the industrial areas of the small NT town of Katherine yesterday morning looking for tyres for a mate out bush. I was listening to ABC Radio National’s AM when a piece came on about the ‘new atheist’ movement and their godless church-without-a-church. What the …?

Unsurprisingly the two godless souls behind this first-world foolishness are comedians.

As the ABC’s Caroline Winter reported:

“The Sunday Assembly has been called the atheist church, but we prefer to think of it as all the best bits of church but with no religion and awesome songs,” British comedian Sanderson Jones said. “Our motto is “live better, help often and wonder more”, and our mission is to help everyone live this one life as fully as possible.” Mr Jones and fellow comedian Pippa Evans created and held their first Sunday Assembly in London in January.

Whatever that means. It seems to me that Mr Jones and Ms Evans would benefit from a read of the American novelist Flannery O’Connor’s first novel Wise Blood, first published in 1952.

O’Connor’s brutal exploration of the southern Protestant peasantry at their most freakish is centred on her lead character Hazel Motes, who returns to his home country from a world war wounded inside and stunned by what he has seen. The war crushed the virulent religion that coursed through Motes’ veins transfused by his preacher grandfather – a man with ‘Jesus in him like a stinger’.
Now Motes, as V.S. Pritchett explains in the foreword of my well-thumbed and re-read 1980 Faber & Faber edition of Wise Blood, finds that his:

… innate religiosity has turned into anti-religion and when he gets back to Tennessee he silently tears up the tracts that are pushed into his hands and has only one thought – to found his own anti-church, the Church Without Christ.

In Hazel’s own words:

I’m member and preacher to that church where the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way. Ask me about that church and I’ll tell you it’s the church that the blood of Jesus don’t foul with redemption … Jesus was a liar.

In 1979 John Huston adapted O’Connor’s novel for the screen as one of the ‘small art films’ he enjoyed making in between the blockbusters for which he is better known.

I first saw the film at the behest of (no surprise here) Nick Cave in London sometime in the blurry days of the early eighties and it has stuck with me like a deeply rooted splinter since. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve re-read Wise Blood and O’Connor’s other books, particularly her collections of short stories. In Huston’s film Brad Dourif plays a chillingly convincing Hazel Motes and Harry Dean Stanton … he just does what Harry always does and is truly frightening as the failed (and unblind) blind street preacher Asa Hawks.

In an essay that provides useful background for the uninitiated, Jamie S. Rich over at Criterion Confessions says that Huston’s film:

 … is presented with the blackest of tongues pressed firmly into the darkest of cheeks. While Hazel treats his mission with deadly seriousness, Huston does anything but.

One of the main things that the director, along with screenwriters Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald, draws from O’Connor is that much of modern religion is a side show. The better your pitch, the more freakish your display, the more likely you are to get an audience. Hence, Hawks having blinded himself with quick lime to prove his belief

You can see a few clips of Wise Blood on YouTube here (the only DVD I’ve been able to find is subject to the silly regional restrictions). It is available on ITunes from the US store only.

And what of the modern anti-Christians?

For mine they smell rather too much of either a conventional church or a particularly silly cult for the first-world worried rich and well-fed not a long way away from the Hillsong happy-clappers and their ilk.

As Sanderson Jones told The Guardian in September:

I don’t there’s anything that’s inherently elite about people getting together to sing songs and think about themselves and improve their community. But we can’t wait to see people doing it in all manner of different places in all manner of different ways, that appeal to all manner of different people.

I’ve not been in a church – except for funerals and to look at the pretty pictures – for many a long year. I don’t deny or diminish anyone their belief, whether in a God personal, universal or absent.

But if I had to choose between singing some songs and having a cuppa and cake or attending a church where “the blind don’t see and the lame don’t walk and what’s dead stays that way” then I’ll take O’Connor’s bleak vision any day.

Sounds like a lot more fun.