Christianity & the Grotesque

Posted by Jared Byas on February 12, 2016 in interviews Jared Byas 2 Comments

Nancy Picby Jared Byas

Meet Nancy Hightower. I met Nancy, a writer with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Denver, several years ago now. She was leaving her position at a college in Colorado to write and teach in NYC. I was very interested in her take on creativity, Christianity, and her interest in the art and literary genre of “the grotesque.” Her book of poems around Old Testament narratives, The Acolyte, was published in 2015. Here is an interview we recently exchanged:

You have taught college courses on the grotesque. I grew up in a Christian culture where that would have been off-limits for Christians. How does that area of study integrate or affect your faith?

The “grotesque” as an adjective gets thrown around a lot to describe something bizarre, gross, or even obscene. I teach the grotesque within the theoretical framework partially established by Flannery O’Connor and Geoffrey Galt Harpham, who describe the grotesque as a unique kind of distortion that reveals new paradigms to us. I take that theory a step further and argue the grotesque is meant to destroy the line between us and the Other, any one we have deemed as less than us (whether they are Republican, Democrat, the people that shop at Walmart who are so often held up to mocking, etc.). So for me, the grotesque falls in line with the greatest commandment to love others as ourselves; it is the aesthetic which plays on the boundary we’ve constructed around that “other.”

Your book of poems, The Acolyte, is a take on various biblical stories. But you’ve also written a lot of fiction. As an artist, how does your Christianity inform your art?

I grew up in the evangelical South, and my family worked for three televangelists, so my relationship with Christianity is complicated, to say the least. I was also taught to memorize the scriptures that reinforced God’s judgement and terror (and trust me, there are some doozies in there). Quite a bit of my fiction might resemble Flannery O’Connor’s in that I’m struggling with the hypocrisy of the church, as well as my own hypocrisy, while trying to move forward on a spiritual journey.

I believe that faith, like art, is guided as much by doubt as it is by belief. I don’t consider myself a Christian writer (whatever that may mean). I’m a writer who also happens to be a Christian. In writing The Acolyte, I was influenced as much by Denise Levertov’s Candles in Babylon as I was Ann Sexton’s Transformations.

Are many of your colleagues religious? If not, how do you navigate those relationships in the academy?

I am an academic and a writer, so most of my colleagues do not identify as Christian (and in this election-driven climate, where the term Christian is often associated with a particular political agenda, even I am loathe to use that label). I find myself drawn towards conversations around social justice, and am encouraged at how that discourse is bringing people of all beliefs to work together.

Why did you write The Acolyte? What was happening in your life when you wrote it? Some might say you are “reading into” the biblical stories in your poems. How might you respond?

I was in a lot of physical pain when I began reading and annotating the narratives in the Old Testament. Maybe it was feeling so broken that allowed me to see the sorrow in the stories of Leah (who wanted so badly for Jacob to love her, or Moses who almost made it to the Promised Land, and then was denied entry—after 40 years of wandering in the desert).

Sunday school lessons often left out the women (I have yet to hear a sermon on Tamar), and rarely talked about the characters as actually human, as having the range of emotions that we have today—anger, fear, panic, feeling like freaks, and at times, acting like freaks. Reading the Old Testament reminded me very much of what Flannery O’Connor does in her fiction: God loves the freak.


Nancy has published short fiction and poetry in journals such as storySouth, Sundog Lit, Gargoyle, and Word Riot. Her novel, Elementarí Rising (2013), received a starred review in Library Journal and her collection of poems, The Acolyte (2015), was published in 2015. Currently, she reviews science fiction and fantasy for The Washington Post and teaches at Hunter College.


  • A very fascinating topic.

    I have wondered if many Christians do simplistic mappings between their conceptions of the grotesque, and sin and evil.

    In the artificial entertainment world of America professional wrestling, the good guy is “the face” (short for “baby face”). He’s scripted to be heroic, so the fans know to cheer for him. He is attractive, puts on a happy face, follows the rules, and smiles to the audience.

    The opposition of “the face” is “the heel.” He is scripted to “gain heat” (boos) from the audience.

    It all makes for superficially interesting scripted drama. You know, the kind that a middle school-aged boy might enjoy.

    I have found that many Christians map their modernly dualistic conceptions of good and evil to be based upon little more than who and what is superficially presented as “the face” or “the heel” in any sort of work of art or human engagement. Among many American Christians, the works of CS Lewis are saintly while the works of JK Rowling are to be damned. If a film presents a hero with more depth of complexity and conflict than the ethos of a Norman Rockwell, a Thomas Kincaid, or a Kirk Cameron might, the Plugged In review will have issues. In this twisted Biblical worldview, it’s more a matter of whether or not “the face” is presented and affirmed than the complexities of evil being addressed through a struggle that can be almost as complex.

    The culture of “the face” of Christianity is offered in many churches. And also, go into a “Christian bookstore;” there likely won’t be a Flannery O’Connor anywhere to be found. Instead, “the face” takes the form of cherry-picked inspirational quotes that are “Biblical,” overlaid on “safe for the whole family” pre-meme “art.” These are the bookshelves where the works of Dr Enns get sold. I wonder, what do they even do with that?

    Sometimes, I have wondered how all of this relates to the doctrine of the Incarnation and Christian soteriology and eschatology. I think many don’t really believe that “God so loved the *grotesque* or *evil* world, that he gave his only son for it.” I think many don’t really believe that’s the way to pattern their life, in supporting a grand redemption.

    I think many–instead of having an Incarnational view of God within them, one striving to renew a creation groaning–want a Jesus that helps them bypass the superficially grotesque and therefore viscerally disgusting.

    I think in most Christianity, the stance toward the wrong of the world is to flee from it and not to intrinsically love it. Certainly, “Biblical principles” can be dug up to support this; it’s not just a problem of “interpretation.”

    We’re now two thousand years in and it’s time to step back and ask if this really works. Personally, I don’t think so.

    There’s much good to be found in the person of Jesus, but frankly Pentecost’s promise has failed.

    Sometimes “the face” needs thrown down to earth. Perhaps we would benefit from having no beauty or majesty to attract others, nothing in appearance to desire.

    There is an unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.

    In the rarest of Christian theologies, it’s not only that God loves the freak. It’s that he is and becomes the freak and would redeem the whole world through it.

  • God loves the freaks! Wow isn’t that the truth!? artists are scary people because they have to tell the truth in order for their art to be real and thus they’re often marginalized and hated in my humble opinion. yeah, some of the most hideously fascinating & grotesque stories are in the Old Testament! but you know what I find really hideously grotesque is the privileged white elitist academics who, so casually, ‘otherize’ peeps who shop at Walmart cuz I shop there all the time! I have to cuz I’m an artist & poor but I’m not a poor artist. *iiii]:-}

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