Christ and the Uncanny

When Jesus taught that we must eat his flesh and drink his blood many of his disciples walked with him no more. Many of his teachings and actions were strange and unsettling. In a word, uncanny. Rudolf Otto similarly described the Holy as a numinous mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Something radically other. Flannery O’Connor evoked dramatic responses to the uncanny in her fiction through narratives of shocking violence. As much as it unsettles and disturbs, the uncanny also has remarkable power to provoke new ways of thinking and conversion.

Image from the PBS documentary “Flannery” (2021) by Kathleen Judge.

There are a lot of reasons people rejected Jesus. People disagreed with his teachings, his claim to divine sonship. They worried he would upset the religious and social order. But one of the reasons for rejecting him that I find especially interesting is that some of his teachings were just strange. And disturbingly so. I think the best example of this is in John chapter 6. 

“’I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.’ The Jews therefore quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘Most assuredly, 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 eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.’ These things He said in the synagogue as He taught in Capernaum. Therefore many of His disciples, when they heard this, said, ‘This is a hard saying; who can understand it?’ When Jesus knew in Himself that His disciples complained about this, He said to them, ‘Does this offend you? What then if you should see the Son of Man ascend where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.’ For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were who did not believe, and who would betray Him. And He said, ‘Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father.’ From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more.” (John 6:51-66)

This is one of Jesus’ teachings that I’d put in the category of the uncanny. The uncanny is something that is strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way. Part of the problem was that Jesus was making great claims about himself:

“The Jews then complained about Him, because He said, ‘I am the bread which came down from heaven.’ And they said, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How is it then that He says, ‘I have come down from heaven’?’” (John 6:41-42)

Who does this man think he is? That was a common criticism. But it was the other part that made even his disciples start to turn away. ‘How can this Man give us His flesh to eat?’ And Jesus doubled down: ‘Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life’. What a strange saying! They called it a ‘hard saying’, difficult to understand. I find this particular rejection fascinating because it’s not like Jesus hadn’t demanded difficult things before or taught things that were difficult to understand. He taught in parables and had required disciples to leave their families for his sake. But it was in this case especially that ‘many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more’.

There are other examples of the uncanny: strange and disturbing things in Jesus’ ministry. A couple that come to mind are Jesus casting the legion of demons into the herd of swine where the people ‘asked Him to depart from them, for they were seized with great fear.’ (Luke 8:37) Also when Jesus cursed a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14). In all these cases it’s possible to give a rational explanation but the rational aspects are not immediately apparent and they certainly weren’t apparent to the people experiencing them in the moment. These episodes seemed quite strange and unsettling.

The uncanny side of Jesus reminds me of the ideas of two religious writers: Rudolf Otto and Flannery O’Connor. I think these two have a lot in common actually. Both are fascinated by the uncanny.

Rudolf Otto lays out his theory in his book The Idea of the Holy. Otto explains the holy as a ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans’: a great mystery that both fascinates and terrifies. Another term for it is the ‘numinous’, something mysterious or awe-inspiring. One way I like to think about this is that the holy is radically other.

This is one primary meaning of the Hebrew קָדוֹשׁ (qadosh) in the Hebrew Bible. The Lord God stands separate and apart. This radical otherness is a useful way to understand the often alien-sounding Holiness Code of the Torah. There’s a strangeness to God that Israel is made to remember through ritual.

In the apocalyptic visions of both the Old and New Testaments we see prophets confronting the strangeness and otherness of God as they struggle to describe their uncanny visions. For example in Ezekiel:

“Now as I looked at the living creatures, behold, a wheel was on the earth beside each living creature with its four faces. The appearance of the wheels and their workings was like the color of beryl, and all four had the same likeness. The appearance of their workings was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel. When they moved, they went toward any one of four directions; they did not turn aside when they went. As for their rims, they were so high they were awesome; and their rims were full of eyes, all around the four of them. When the living creatures went, the wheels went beside them; and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up. Wherever the spirit wanted to go, they went, because there the spirit went; and the wheels were lifted together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels. When those went, these went; when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up together with them, for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” (Ezekiel 1:15-21)

What a fascinating and strange vision! My response to this is that it is intentionally and quite effectively mind-bending. Whatever Ezekiel experienced it was something very different and it should challenge our assumptions about the way things are and expand our imagination of what is possible.

And this same divine otherness carries over into the New Testament. A crucial feature of Christian theology, one that’s easy to forget, is that Jesus is the same God as in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is the same God who the Israelites had to approach so carefully in their holiness code. And even though Jesus reveals God in bodily form in a more accessible way. With the veil taken away, as Paul says (2 Corinthians 3:12-18), sometimes some of that otherness and strangeness still comes through in ways that upset and disturb his disciples.

In my opinion Flannery O’Connor captures this uncanny otherness of God perfectly in her fiction. Her ‘gospel’, so to speak, is well stated in the title to her second novel, The Violent Bear It Away, which is taken from Matthew 11:12 – ‘From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.’ For O’Connor acts of God and of the Holy Ghost are shocking, dramatic, and overpowering. She provokes this response in her fiction through violence. Reading an O’Connor story can be quite emotionally taxing. In fact, my wife recently read “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” and it gave her nightmares. Literally. These stories are meant to be impactful, revelatory, and theophanous.

The O’Connor story that I think best demonstrates her use of the strange and uncanny is ‘A Temple of the Holy Ghost’. This story is classic O’Connor and I really encourage everyone to read it. It’s hilarious and has her classic clash between social classes and between urban and rural. For present purposes I’ll just focus on one part of the story. In the story the main character, a young girl, goes to a county fair with her older cousins. Her cousins attend a ‘freak show’ that she’s not allowed to go to, but that her cousins tell her about afterwards.

“It had been a freak with a particular name but they couldn’t remember the name. The tent where it was had been divided into two parts by a black curtain, one side for men and one for women. The freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women, but everyone could hear. The stage ran all the way across the front. The girls heard the freak say to the men, ‘I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.’ The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal and neither high nor low, just flat. ‘God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.’ Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over onto the women’s side and said the same thing.”

“The child felt every muscle strained as if she were hearing the answer to a riddle that was more puzzling than the riddle itself. ‘You mean it had two heads?’ she said.”

“’No,’ Susan said, ‘it was a man and woman both. It pulled up its dress and showed us. It had on a blue dress.’”

“The child wanted to ask how it could be a man and woman both without two heads but she did not. She wanted to get back into her own bed and think it out and she began to climb down off the footboard…”

“She lay in bed trying to picture the tent with the freak walking from side to side but she was too sleepy to figure it out. She was better able to see the faces of the country people watching, the men more solemn than they were in church, and the women stern and polite, with painted-looking eyes, standing as if they were waiting for the first note of the piano to begin the hymn. She could hear the freak saying, ‘God made me thisaway and I don’t dispute hit,’ and the people saying, ‘Amen. Amen.’”

“’God done this to me and I praise Him.’”

“’Amen. Amen.’”

“’He could strike you thisaway.’”

“’Amen. Amen.’”

“’But he has not.’”

“’Amen.’”

“’Raise yourself up. A temple of the Holy Ghost. You! You are God’s temple,

don’t you know? Don’t you know? God’s Spirit has a dwelling in you, don’t you know?’

‘Amen. Amen.’”

“’If anybody desecrates the temple of God, God will bring him to ruin and if you laugh, He may strike you thisaway. A temple of God is a holy thing. Amen. Amen.’”

“’I am a temple of the Holy Ghost.’”

“’Amen.’”

“The people began to slap their hands without making a loud noise and with a

regular beat between the Amens, more and more softly, as if they knew there was a child near, half asleep…”

Notice how O’Connor portrays this spectacle as a kind of reverent religious experience. “The men more solemn than they were in church, and the women stern and polite.” The carnival atmosphere is transmuted into something holy. Later, when the girl attends the Catholic Mass, the process is reversed and the holy is transmuted into the carnival. Or at least the two are merged to highlight their similarities.

“The chapel smelled of incense. It was light green and gold, a series of springing arches that ended with the one over the altar where the priest was kneeling in front of the monstrance, bowed low. A small boy in a surplice was standing behind him, swinging the censer. The child knelt down between her mother and the nun and they were well into the ‘Tantum Ergo’ before her ugly thoughts stopped and she began to realize that she was in the presence of God. Hep me not to be so mean, she began mechanically. Hep me not to give her so much sass. Hep me not to talk like I do. Her mind began to get quiet and then empty but when the priest raised the monstrance with the Host shining ivory-colored in the center of it, she was thinking of the tent at the fair that had the freak in it. The freak was saying, ‘I don’t dispute hit. This is the way He wanted me to be.’”

In both settings – at the fair and at Mass – spectators are witnesses to something strange and uncanny. And at the Mass we see enacted the very thing that Jesus said that so disturbed his disciples: the preparation of his flesh and blood, to be consumed by the faithful. In both settings the usual categories and boundaries that we use to understand the world break down. Categories and boundaries like male and female, bread and flesh, wine and blood, God and human. It’s not that these categories and boundaries aren’t real. But with these uncanny incidents  we’re forced to see things in a new and jarring way that shakes us up. This is what the Holy Ghost does in O’Connor’s theology.

Sometimes revelation from God is shocking and strange. For some, Jesus was too strange. “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” But others among his disciples persisted.

“Then Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you also want to go away?’ But Simon Peter answered Him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’” (John 6:67-69)

It’s interesting that in other passages of scripture Jesus says that this understanding – that he was the Christ, the Son of the living God – did not come from flesh and blood but rather from the Father (Matthew 16:17). What Peter and the Apostle came to know and testify was not something that was continuous with normal experience and expectations. It was discontinuous and came from outside the normal frame of events.

I suspect that this may be the value of the strange and uncanny features of the religion. There are things that break up the normal flow of things and force us to stop and think more carefully and to think in fundamentally new ways. That seems to me like the only way something like a real conversion could ever be possible. We’re usually carried along a habitual stream from one moment to the next with each action following predictably from our prior actions, according to our ingrained behavior. How then would conversion even be possible? Something has got to interrupt the flow, knock us into a different plane, and get us to see things differently. And what better way to do this than something truly unpredictable, strange, and uncanny? Some will recoil at the revelation and say, “This is a hard saying; who can understand it?” But others will convert and say, “We have come to believe.” There is real transformative value and opportunity in Christ’s uncanny teachings. So when we see them we should pay attention.

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