You Can’t “Program” Salvation

In Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, the grace of God is shown to operate in shocking and disturbing ways.  For Flannery, the door to salvation opens the moment our own selfish walls are cracked (usually violently), allowing God’s grace to rush in – along with horror and remorse, which are aspects of Awe and of the Fear of God.  Indeed, horror and remorse can quite literally be the closet we come on this earth to experiencing God’s love.

For instance, in her story “The Comforts of Home”, at the climax of the action, the protagonist Thomas aims a gun at “the slut”, a disturbed and enticing young woman who has invaded the carefully controlled and circumscribed arena of his home, where he lives alone with his mother.  For Thomas, “the comforts of home” are the greatest good.  He has a “program”, which is to eliminate from his young life anything spontaneous, anything unpredictable, anything that his own narrow and selfish ego can not control.

Thomas fired.  The blast was like a sound meant to bring an end to evil in the world.  Thomas heard it as a sound that would shatter the laughter of sluts until all shrieks were stilled and nothing was left to disturb the peace of perfect order.

But you can’t “bring an end to evil in the world”, and certainly not with the barrel of a gun, and indeed not with any “program”.  Thomas learns that as soon as he fires the pistol … but I won’t ruin the ending of the story for you.  Nor can you force upon your life “the peace of perfect order” – for such a peace is never a man-made thing.

The reason we can’t defeat evil with a mere program or find true peace with a mere programmatic approach to salvation is that God is not the dead idol crafted by our own hands that we typically make Him out to be.

And this has a lot to do with the messed up world of Catholic Dating.  But I’ll explain that in a minute.


In O’Connor’s story “The Lame shall Enter First”, the protagonist, Sheppard, is a social worker, and an atheist.  He believes that evil can be eliminated through reason.  His faith is in telescopes, microscopes, evolution and the program.  For him, the program is an institutionalized form of love, a kind of heartless charity that selflessly seeks to build a paradise of “perfect order” by means of caring for those who are suffering with a kind of condescending concern, the genuine but rather thin concern of a social worker.

As part of this program, Sheppard allows a troubled teenage juvenile delinquent to move in with him and his ten-year-old son (his son is someone Sheppard entirely neglects).  But this delinquent, for all his troubles, is the closest we come to a Christ figure in the story.  Ironically, Sheppard (who doesn’t believe in Jesus) sees himself as a kind of Jesus, a kind of benign selfless deity, when in reality he is supremely selfish in his devotion to the program, which is meant ultimately to serve his own narrow ends, though he can’t see that until the very end of the tale.

In an early confrontation between Sheppard’s son, who defends his father, and the troubled teen, who’s recently moved in, the reader, at least, begins to perceive this, and we see it through the perceptive eyes of Johnson, the delinquent.

“He’s good,” [the son] mumbled.  “He helps people.”

“Good!” Johnson said savagely.  He thrust his head forward.  “Listen here,” he hissed, “I don’t care if he’s good or not.  He ain’t right!

In many ways, that’s what I’ve been saying about the Devout Christian community in these series of posts.   They’re good but they ain’t right – meaning, among other things, right in the head.

Michael Lichens comments on Facebook …

I grew up as an Evangelical when “I Kissed Dating Good-Bye” was added to the canon. I still remember being turned down for a coffee date because, in the woman’s own words, she wasn’t sure if I was the one God wanted her to marry. My reaction was something like, “Dude, I just want to get coffee and maybe see a Chris Farley movie.”

The result: many of the guys in my youth group days remain unmarried or got divorced and many more are quite jaded. Courtship was promised as a panacea but it ended up not correcting the problems of secular culture while adding some new and fun problems of its own. The only thing it seemed to do was placate paranoid parents for a few years. 

I also went to a small Catholic college where the vast majority of the kids were homeschooled and found that this stupid Evangelical fad had been adopted in some Catholic homes wherein girls would even tell potential men that they needed to call their dad before a drink could be consumed with the young lady. Just bloody weird.

“Just bloody weird” means (in Flannery O’Connor short story speak) “they’re good but they ain’t right.

Why is this?  Why is it that devout Catholics or devout Protestants, who are certainly serious about their faith, end up missing the mark so badly in their contrived efforts to be good?  Why do they end up being sort of good, but never quite right?  Why, just a few weeks ago on this very blog, did I choose the primary advice I was giving to my newly Catholic friend Dave Treadway, a devout former evangelical I was sponsoring into full communion with the Church, to be this …

The Spirit of Unreality is the greatest threat to devout Catholics these days – the temptation to make God and His Church into a kind of idol, something that we can control and make use of for our own narrow ends. 


It’s because we trust more in our program than we do in the grace of God.  The grace of God is disturbing and unpredictable.  It’s alive and shocking.  It calls us out of our comfort zones and sometimes makes our precious little plans fall entirely to pieces.

This is not to say that God operates without His own program.  But his program is a living and awesome thing.  God does not challenge evil by shooting at it with a gun, in order to “shatter the laughter of sluts until all shrieks” are stilled.  When God loves, it’s a love that goes far deeper than that of an atheist social worker, who believes that a disembodied charity can lead to a man-made New Jerusalem on earth.

After all, there are limits to the carefully controlled and programmed or programmatic love that the social worker shows his client / son, as we learn in a scene where the teen confronts his Sheppard, the boy (Johnson) lying in bed, his face turned against the wall in anguish …

“You make out like you got all this confidence in me!” a sudden outraged voice cried, “and you ain’t got any!  You don’t trust me no more now than you did then!”  The voice, disembodied, seemed to come more surely from the depths of Johnson than when his face was visible.  It was a cry of reproach, edged slightly with contempt.

“I do have confidence in you,” Sheppard said intensely.  “I have every confidence in you.  I believe in you and I trust you completely.”

… but he doesn’t.  And in many ways he shouldn’t, at least in the context of the story’s plot.  But the point here is that his love isn’t really real – there’s an Unreality there.  It doesn’t go as deep as it should.

And, symbolically, when Johnson confronts Sheppard, it’s Jesus confronting us sinners.

We protest, we devout Christians – we protest loudly – that we do indeed trust Our Lord and His disturbing presence among us.  But, when we get right down to it, do we really?

In one of her essays, Flannery hit the nail on the head, when she described us as closet Manicheans who are convinced that grace cannot penetrate fallen nature (“The old heresy of secular vs. sacred,” as Reilly Washburn identifies it).  Some of my readers objected to that assessment, but if we really believed that grace could operate in nature, we would believe that even something as ordinary and simple as coffee and a Chris Farley movie did not have to be guarded against with a kind of spiritual prophylactic; we would not think that Eros was Satanic or that (as Christopher West suggests) a couple should only marry once they can “love” without feeling sexually attracted to one another.

If we trusted God and believed that His grace could operate in and redeem nature – in fact if we could open our eyes and see that it was doing so all the time all around us – then we could also trust that coffee and a movie and other ordinary things could open up to us gifts of life and God’s surprises that we ourselves need not program, orchestrate or stage manage the life out of.

“Do not quench the Spirit,” Paul tells us (1 Thes. 5:19).

But we do that all the time, we devout Christians.

Perhaps it’s because we think that sin is the center of the story, when that’s not the case at all.

But more on that later …

Kevin O'Brien
Kevin O'Brien is the founder and artistic director of the Theater of the Word Incorporated, which tours the world evangelizing through drama. He and his actors appear on several EWTN television programs, with video clips featured on O'Brien's website, Kevin teaches many online classes for Homeschool Connections and writes a regular column for the St. Austin Review. His autobiography, A Bad Actor's Guide to the Meaning of Life, will be published soon by ACS Press.

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