Flannery O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, was published in 1952. Wise Blood explores themes of religion, belief, and doubt. The protagonist, Hazel Motes, was raised deeply religious as the grandson of a traveling preacher. At the age of 12, he even hoped to one day become a preacher. He grew up struggling with doubts about his faith, however, and becomes an avowed atheist upon returning home from World War II.
Hazel is a complex character because he considers himself anti-religious, yet he constantly contemplates theological matters. This paradox is at the center of this novel. Hazel comes up with the idea for his own anti-God ministry when he meets Asa Hawks, a blind street preacher, and his daughter. Hazel’s Church Without Christ is an answer to the Hawks’ ministry—to preach a new church, “the church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.” Hazel develops an obsession with Asa, which is later revealed as stemming from Hazel’s desire to be saved.
Hazel’s unsure and often contradictory preaching is unsuccessful in drawing followers to his Church Without Christ. Relating to themes of the commodification of religion, Hazel’s is the only church in the story that does not seek a profit. By the end of the novel, Hazel reveals that he has been inflicting harm on himself, wearing barbed wire under his shirt. His Church Without Christ has not helped him heal the wounds of guilt and has not led to the redemption Hazel craved.