Flannery O’Conner wrote one amazing story after another in her short career and life. But her last is easily one of her best. In the short story, “Parker’s Back,” we meet Obadiah Elihue Parker a not too bright tattooed covered man. He is unhappily married to Sarah Ruth. Sarah Ruth is ugly and mean and Parker is not sure why they are together. She is miserably religious and judgmental and sees her marriage to O.E. Parker as her chance to save him. Eventually Sarah Ruth becomes pregnant and Parker becomes even more miserable in his life and marriage. Parker decides that the only way to please his wife is to get a religious tattoo on his back. When Parker goes to the tattoo shop he looks through a book of images of Jesus. He finds The Good Shepherd, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend, but Parker keeps turning pages until he stumbles on and chooses the Byzantine icon of Jesus Christ. This is simply one of the most enduring images ever in fiction. Though I am finding it difficult to resist reviewing or recounting “Parker’s Back” in greater detail I will stop here and commend not only “Parker’s Back” but all of O’Conner’s short stories to you.
What struck me in this story is that Parker, himself an icon of God, gets an icon of God tattooed to his body. It is redundant. Let’s briefly consider what it means that man is an icon of God.
The scriptures say that we were all created in the image (in Greek, icon) and likeness of God. Given what we know of ourselves and others, it was not very long before we stop reflecting this image of God and got the boot from the Garden of Eden. And it was not just Adam and Eve but you and I who have damaged this image and likeness creation. We retain the image of God – we can say that the image is a “given.” It is the stamp on us as humans, a stamp that we cannot undo. The image is a given but because of sin this image is marred. It doesn’t operate the way it was intended. We are no longer like Him. This can be seen in that we do not do the things we should do but rather we do the very things we do not want to do. But Jesus Christ, who is Himself the express Icon of the Father, has come to us in love to restore in us the image of God. Christ came to give us this tremendous revelation that God so loved us as to give us the possibility of becoming truly sons of God. This is the great truth that if we could embrace we would find joy and purpose. As the image of God we are created and now restored, according to the scriptures, through the cross, to reflect God to everyone and every created thing.
According to Orthodox theology, to bear the image of God is to be like Christ, the uncreated Image of God, and to share in all of the spiritual attributes of divinity. It is, in the words of the holy fathers, to become by divine grace all that God Himself is by nature. If God is a free, spiritual, personal Being, so human beings, male and female, are to be the same. If God is so powerful and creative, having dominion over all creation, so human creatures, made in His image and according to His likeness, are also to exercise dominion in the world. If God exercises dominion and authority not by tyranny and oppression, but by loving kindness and service, so are His creatures to do likewise. If God Himself is love, mercy, compassion and care in all things, so must His creatures, made to be like Him, also be the same. And finally, if God lives forever in eternal life, never dying, but always existing in perfectly joyful and harmonious beauty and happiness with all of creation, so too are human beings made for everlasting life in joyful and harmonious communion with God and the whole of creation. – Fr. Tom Hopko from “Orthodox Faith: Volume 1”
Daily Readings in the Orthodox Church for Thursday, August 13, 2009 2 Corinthians 1:1-7 and Matthew 21:43-46