Walker Percy


by Phil Johnson

Walker Percy died today I hear. Oh no. Maybe it’s not true. If it is, no more of his great novels, no more of his interesting, penetrating, life-helping essays or whimsical writings. I wonder if he has written something not yet published. That would be great.

Walker Percy was a Christian and he was a great American writer. We mourn his passing and express our sympathies to his family and friends.

According to Christian thinking, we have not lost Walker Percy from our eternal lives. He remains available for our blessing in two ways. Most immediately, we have his books. Therefore, his ability to engage our consciousness remains. That’s how I have known him anyway. I never met Walker Percy, though I think of him and speak of him with familiarity by virtue of the eternal dimension of his life which is expressed in his writing while he was incarnate.

Dr. Percy’s books, like other conversations that engage one personally, are from, or of, the eternal aspect of human life. Conversations like these are eternal, but not because the time will never come when Percy’s books, for example, can no longer be found on earth. His books may last a long time, but they are still temporary. The eternal aspect of his writing, of which consciousness is an element, is not a matter of quantity, longevity, or the like. Though a deep mystery, the eternal aspect is the heart of life.

Without an historical, bodily life, Walker Percy would have no eternal life and we would not be able to share in it. But, thank God, he did, and we can.

The second way Percy remains available to us in eternal life lies in the Christian hope of joining him in heaven. This is even more mysterious than the first way but, like the first, it has a definitely known starting point or source—death. Though we are not to tempt death nor try to control it, its blessing is vital to eternal life, both here and now and in heaven.

Without death, we would have a quantity of time, but we would have no independence from it. Time would control, the eternal and divine would not. It is evident that incarnate life and subsequent death is necessary for eternal life.

This is a pragmatic matter of more importance than we usually realize, and our freedom is dependent upon it. Without death, a slave or an indentured servant, for example, is doomed to servitude forever. Because of death, whatever powers or people have the day, they do not have it permanently. Because principalities and powers are not permanent, because they cannot reach beyond death, and because they are subject to death themselves, a person is ultimately free of them. Being ultimately beyond their control means, also, to be ultimately beyond their help for eternal life.

Both Walker Percy and Garrison Keillor have described how death functions in giving freedom and new life and have provided us with examples.

Keillor tells the story of a farmer who dozed off while tilling manure into a field. He fell off backwards, landed between the moving tractor (with the open throttle set) and the trailing steel discs, grabbed the tow bar to protect himself from the discs, and hung on until he could hold on no longer. Just as he was about to lose his grip, the tractor ran into a tree and stopped.

“After an experience like that,” Keillor commented, “you would feel the sort of liberty that you read about in the Epistles when a person has died and been reborn.” (“Door Interview - Garrison Keillor,” The Wittenburg Door, Issue unknown, pp. 19, 20).

In a “thought experiment” (Lost In The Cosmos, pp. 78-81) Percy suggests that suicide is the only cure for depression—a cure taken by his father. After setting out the alternatives, he writes:

Now notice that as soon as suicide is taken as a serious alternative, a curious thing happens. To be or not to be becomes a true choice, where before you were stuck with to be. Your only choice was how to be least painfully, either by counseling, narcotizing, boozing, groupizing, womanizing, man-hopping, or changing your sexual preference...

Now, in the light of this alternative, consider the other alternative. You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the door to the cell is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.

Walker Percy’s death is a great loss—especially to his friends and loved ones. It is also an occasion for thanksgiving to God and to Walker Percy for what he has given us.

Writings of Walker Percy


The Moviegoer, 1962
The Last Gentleman, 1966
Love in the Ruins, 1971
Lancelot, 1977
The Second Coming, 1980
The Thanatos Syndrome, 1987


The Message in the Bottle, (collected essays) 1975
Lost in the Cosmos, 1983

A Few Secondary Source Books:

Walker Percy: An American Search, Robert Coles, 1978
Conversations With Walker Percy, Eds., Lawson and Kramer, 1985
Walker Percy: Art and Ethics, Ed., Jae Tharpe, 1980