beating god with a broom
Updated: Apr 28
In his 1919 paper, "Some Magical Applications of Brooms in Japan," folklorist W.L. Hildburgh wrote:
“ In many parts of the world there exist beliefs as to the supernatural powers inherent in the broom, for man, in his contests with the personified unseen, has often, and in many ways, made use of the broom, either as a weapon of defence (or, less frequently, one of offence) or as an instrument of control” (emphasis mine).
The broom is a weapon in Flannery O’Connor’s short story "Parker’s Back." The main character’s wife, Sarah Ruth, a severe, judgmental, birdlike woman, uses a broom to sweep what she considers idolatry from her life. As it happened, her husband, Parker (or O.E: Obadiah Elihue), personified that idolatry. In the final scene of the story, we read:
“Idolatry!” Sarah Ruth screamed. “Idolatry! Inflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolator in this house!” and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it. Parker was too stunned to resist. He sat there and let her beat him until she had nearly knocked him senseless, and large welts had formed on the face of the tattooed Christ. Then he staggered up and made for the door. She stamped the broom two or three times on the floor and went to the window and shook it out to get the taint of him off it. Still gripping it, she looked toward the pecan tree, and her eyes hardened still more. There he was--who called himself Obadiah Elihue--leaning against the tree, crying like a baby” (emphasis mine).
What are we to make of this? Why did Sarah Ruth beat Parker’s back, and why did he let her? Why does she suppose that having bludgeoned Parker with a broom, there is now “taint” on it that she must shake off?
Sarah Ruth was a severe, unattractive religious zealot, and Parker knew it: “She did not smoke or dip, drink whiskey, use bad language or paint her face,” the text tells us. She had a knack for “sniffing out” sin in others, particularly her husband, who could do no right in her eyes.
She and Parker met by chance when his truck broke down on the highway near her home. Her first words to him were a rebuke for his cursing. Later, when they were married, and Parker had fibbed about his boss being a young, attractive lady and not an old one, Sarah Ruth’s concern was not that her husband might be cheating on her but instead that he might be sinning.
The two had so little in common that Parker wondered why he and his wife ever married. She was “dull,” refusing even to wear makeup on her face, while the entire front of his body beamed with colorful tattoos. He considered his tattoos beautiful while Sarah Ruth called them vain. When she first saw one on Parker’s arm, she responded: “‘All that there...is no better than what a fool Indian would do. It’s a heap of vanity.’ She seemed to have found the word she wanted. ‘Vanity of vanities,’ she said.” Was it that she wanted to save him? Did she secretly like his tattoos but didn’t want to admit it? Possibly. But either way, Parker’s confusion turned him inward, for "It was himself he could not understand.”
The odd thing is, the reader (or at least this reader) does understand him. Parker is a man searching for personal identity and natural beauty in the world. As a boy of 14, he considered himself unremarkable, plain, heavy, and earnest, "as ordinary as a loaf of bread.” He “had never before felt the least motion of wonder in himself. Until he saw the man at the fair, it did not enter his head that there was anything out of the ordinary about the fact that he existed.”
The man at the fair stirred up wonder in Parker's soul. Every inch of his body shined with bright, colorful ink. Because he was naked except for a loincloth, Parker could see the man's body art like a tapestry stretched across a wall. Parker's encounter with the tattooed man left a lasting impression as if Parker had experienced a theophany. For many moments after the man had vacated the stage and the crowd had dispersed, Parker stood as if in worship: reverently, silently, mouth agape. The theophanic figure he had just encountered left him stunned, even disoriented, “like a blind boy [that] had been turned so gently in a different direction that he did not know his destination had been changed.”
From that point on, Parker’s obsession with body art drove him. Singularly motivated to paint beauty onto his plain body, he inked it every chance he got. By age 16, he had quit school and was working exclusively to pay for more tattoos. Soon after, he joined the military, which enabled Parker to tattoo himself at various ports-of-call.
To Parker, the impulse to ink his skin was a spiritual one, even though he was unaware of this. It was as if he had become a living icon, a means of seeing, interpreting, and encountering the Truth of things, people, and the world--a liturgical tool, as it were. All Parker knew was that his drive to tattoo his body provided only temporary relief to his itch in need of scratching:
“Parker would be satisfied with each tattoo about a month, then something about it that had attracted him would wear off. Whenever a decent-sized mirror was available, he would get in front of it and study his overall look. The effect was not of one intricate arabesque of colors but of something haphazard and botched. A huge dissatisfaction would come over him and he would go off and find another tattooist and have another space filled up.”
The story's surprising turning point occurred when Parker, having grown tired of being unable to please a wife whose judgment was incessant and whose religion was lifeless, decided to add a picture of Jesus to his back. The entire front of his body was covered in ink. The only untouched area was on his back. Up to that point, Parker's back had remained a blank canvas, an unmarked tableau. That was about to change. He was about to become like the biblical figure Joseph who wore a glorious variegated coat on his back.
The tattoo Parker chose was intricate and took the tattoo artist two sessions and many hours over two days to complete. The image of Jesus in the tattoo was not friendly or appealing. Parker flipped past pictures of Laughing Jesus and Shepherd Jesus in the tattoo artist’s book. When he came to “the haloed head of a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes,” it called to him: “He sat there trembling; his heart began slowly to beat again as if it were being brought to life by a subtle power.” Parker tattooed his back with an icon of Jesus meant to stir the soul and quicken the conscience. Put another way, Parker’s back had become an altar to God.
Before revealing the new tattoo to his wife, Parker had high hopes. Finally! Indeed even she, the Pharisee of Pharisees, could not take umbrage with God Himself. Surely he would finally be able to please her with this icon of grace. After all, didn’t she always say that his soul needed saving?
But Sarah Ruth’s reaction stunned Parker, for she did not recognize Jesus when she saw him with her own eyes:
“Don’t you know who it is?” he cried in anguish.
“No, who is it?” Sarah Ruth said. “It ain’t anybody I know.”
“It’s him,” Parker said.
“God!” Parker cried.
Sarah Ruth not only failed to recognize the Incarnate God when she saw Him but also misunderstood her husband’s desire to stamp God in his skin and wear God on his body. Instead, what she saw was heresy to condemn and vanity to beat back:
“‘Idolatry!’ Sarah Ruth screamed. ‘Idolatry! Enflaming yourself with idols under every green tree! I can put up with lies and vanity but I don’t want no idolator in this house!’ and she grabbed up the broom and began to thrash him across the shoulders with it.”
Parker reacted with stunned motionlessness. He sat motionless, allowing his wife to beat Jesus out of him, to flog the face of Jesus on his back into red welts. He could not believe that Sarah Ruth, so seemingly righteous, so seemingly godly, so incessantly legalistic, had failed to recognize the physical Incarnation of the God she claimed to worship.
Having endured Sarah Ruth's beat down, Parker rose and staggered out to the yard, where he threw himself down under a tree--that ancient symbol of sacrifice, pain, and death. All he could do was weep. Meanwhile, his wife, cocksure of her spiritual uprightness and convinced of her husband’s idolatry, stamped on the floor three times with the broom as she looked out the window disgustedly at Parker. She then shook the broom to remove his “taint” from it, as if she were Jesus clearing the Temple of money-grubbing hustlers, idolaters defiling the House of God.
In the story's last sentence, we learn Parker’s Christian name. His friends call him O.E., short for Obadiah Elihue, “Serving Yahweh; My God is He.” Does this mean salvation found Parker? Does this mean God brought grace to his household? Would his wife, ironically named "noblewoman, princess (Sarah) and "vision of beauty" (Ruth), continue to play the role of accusing Lucifer? Would she for once submit herself to God? We never find out. The story ends. But one thing is sure; we understand Parker’s quest for identity, his drive to find the incarnational holy through the beauty of iconography. Even if he does not, we comprehend Parker’s obsessive need to wear God like a coat of many colors. We understand Parker’s back.