Instruments of Grace

Flannery O’Connor & the Pantocrator

Flannery O’Connor had more than a passing interest in the icon of Christ Pantocrator that looks down from the central dome of Orthodox churches, signifying that he and no other is the Ruler of all things. She made it the basis of her celebrated self-portrait, albeit in complex fashion. And in “Parker’s Back” she put it to powerful fictional use. This is not only her last finished story before her death at age 39 in 1964 but one of her funniest as well.

Obadiah Elihue Parker has covered his body with tattoos of sexual power and predation: “a tiger and a panther on each shoulder, a cobra coiled about a torch on his chest.” Thus does he fashion himself as a tattooed conqueror of women: “He had never yet met a woman who was not attracted to them.” Not, that is, until he meets Bible-quoting, image-despising Sarah Ruth, a fundamentalist who has nothing but contempt for them: “It’s a heap of vanity,” she snorts, “Vanity of vanities.” And when Parker seeks to demonstrate that he is no sort of a Christian by flinging forth a string of curses, she silences him by whacking him mercilessly with a broom.


Ralph C. Wood was, until his retirement, University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His books include The Comedy of Redemption (University of Notre Dame Press), Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South (Eerdmans), and Chesterton: The Nightmare Goodness of God (Baylor University Press).

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