My home state of Mississippi breeds storytellers like Washington DC breeds scoundrels. We lost a giant yesterday, Barry Hannah (1942 – 2010). I met him a few times, once when I lived next door to his son and Barry rang my door bell by mistake (our apartments were indistinguishable).
Hannah’s writing was cynically dark, a breathless, frenetic prose that acerbically depicted the hypocrisy of many parts of Southern culture, which he believed to be a microcosm on American society as a whole. In this way, he was one of Faulkner’s greatest heirs, an unblinking eye of scrutiny that scanned the horizon.
For those of us in Christian higher education, Hannah’s Geronimo Rex should be required reading, especially the second part.
It is a thinly disguised depiction of his days at Mississippi College, where I once had the great pleasure of serving as the chair of the English department and teaching creative writing myself to a new generation of Barry Hannah’s. Geronimo Rex is not for the faint of heart; it is distinctly profane in parts and immensely brutal toward many people whom I call dear friends. It possesses a worldview bereft of any hope of optimism. Someone has noted rather famously that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail; Hannah’s early work in particular makes the point that to young man with angst, everything looks like an offense. It is proof that ennui and irony are luxurious bedmates. My hunch is that what he thought was a window to the world was really just a mirror to his own heart at that time. Misery, as we know, loves company and finds it almost everywhere.
Hannah’s cynical descriptions of faith in the South, however, are reminders about what happens when we mistake cultural dominance with Gospel integrity. We are left with sour faces and sad hearts that fail to grieve over the material and spiritual poverty of our fellow persons. Cultural Christianity is pharisaical; it looks at the world and sees nothing but fools. As the infamous president of Hannah’s fictional university says, “They can send me fools to teach, and I will send them back educated fools; nobody can teach the fool out of them!” St. Paul’s warnings about the general foolishness of the Jews and the Greeks notwithstanding (1 Cor 1:17-31), such a view of our brothers and sisters is not the epitome of true religion, which finds open hands toward widows, orphans, and the oppressed (James 1:27). It is a religion that brings Hope to the hopeless, even as it brings true Wisdom to the foolish.
Hannah himself wrote of this hope in his under-read and underappreciated introduction to the Gospel According to Mark in the Pocket Canon KJV series (Grove Press 1999).
In a startlingly transparent reflection, he notes that Christ apparently found the disciples to be “too human—skeptical, cowardly, unimaginative, power seeking, weak” (ix). They are, then, men right out of Hannah’s own stories. They are, however, also men like Hannah himself: “The message of Mark is heartening to bad Christians such as myself, who doubt daily, in our comfort, and even doubt the earthly thing that has brought them the most joy—the writing of stories, in my case” (xii). He then says, “But it is hopeful to know that not only forgiveness but the power of the Savior’s friendship remain available to each unworthy one” (xiii).
Mutual friends tell me that Hannah returned to the faith of his childhood a few years ago, making peace with the Father Whose shadow had haunted him throughout much of his career. I pray that he has now found lasting peace indeed.