How Harper Lee’s Characters Saved Me from a “Bible Belt” Faith

Three lessons “To Kill a Mockingbird” taught me about the Christian faith.

“It began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out . . . ” Even now, in my forties, I can still remember as an adolescent being huddled in the back seat of the family station wagon with my brother and sister, listening intently to my mother reading Harper Lee’s words under the soft drone of tires, the sun burning down on the windshield mural of red clay, bright chrome bumpers, and green exit signs of the big American highways careening by our side windows.

I come from a family of educators and grew up reading To Kill a Mockingbird. But, I also grew up in a part of the evangelical church tradition. Plenty has been written about the morals and ethics of Lee’s great novel — in fact the British Librarian Association once said that it was the one book everyone should read before they die . . . and yes, they ranked it ahead of the Bible.

As a person who loves the church, it wasn’t until later in my life that I began to realize how much Lee really had to say about people like me . . . and how much I began to notice that her stories had protected me from some of the ugly parts of a “Bible Belt” faith, many of which I wrote about in my book The Mockingbird Parables, a collection of lessons I learned from each of the her characters. Her words have added context along many other important highways of my life and, especially, my faith journey.

“My faith wasn’t some great escape to otherworldly bliss”

With the release of Harper Lee’s highly anticipated “first draft” about Maycomb and its residents, and reports of a much different, even “racist,” portrayal of Atticus Finch make my heart heavy, I still couldn’t help but wonder if we religious folks could stand to hear a bit more from Lee’s imagination. Maybe as much as we probably did when her first novel was published in the 1960s?

I will continue to embrace the Atticus Finch of my childhood: the character of Lee’s final draft of To Kill a Mockingbird who became a model of courage and decency to people of different faiths, backgrounds, and nationalities.

While the publication of Go Set a Watchman has authors everywhere burning old drafts and hitting the delete key each time they update a manuscript, I am still willing to give this draft a chance, because I believe in the power of a good story to change people. And because, of all the wonderful lessons I learned from Lee’s intentional novel, it was her understanding of faith that has had the greatest impact on my life and helped me navigate true north in a religious culture that often gets things a little mixed up.

Lee’s Mockingbird characters reminded me that my faith wasn’t some great escape to otherworldly bliss, but a call to bring peace, love, and wholeness to my own neighborhood.

Lee’s character Mrs. Maudie delivers a great line to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, “There are some kind of men . . . ” she explains, “who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”

So many times, I have heard messages from church pulpits that reduce the power of the good news of Jesus to a system of delivery, one that will carry us to the ‘sweet by and by.’ We church folks have managed to relegate Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” to the periphery of our faith practice.

One might speculate that we have condensed the Good News to the weight and size of a train ticket; our primary goal is to have the conductor punch the card as we piously sit back to watch our broken and hurting neighborhoods pass by outside the window.

But in doing so, we have ignored the truth found in the command of love from John in chapter 3, verse 16 (‘For God so loved the world . . .’). We have forgotten that our primary call is to bring some healing to the world — the whole world.

As C. S. Lewis writes so brilliantly in The Weight of Glory, “It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor.”

“We follow a God who moved into the neighborhood”

Lee’s commentary has always been a reminder to me that I am to focus on making my neighborhood a better place. When Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God, he is speaking about the here and now — that Kingdom of peace, love, and wholeness being manifested on your very street

To believe in Jesus is to live a life grounded in compassion. The true practice of faith is synonymous with understanding what the world looks from other people’s point of view.

Harper Lee’s first novel affirms that it is not propaganda, religious dogma, political power, or economic reform that is the catalyst for change — it is compassion. Atticus Finch tells his daughter early in the story that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

For people of faith like me, the quality of seeing the world from another’s perspective, the core of true compassion, is something it seems we have been prone to forget. Those of us from evangelical Christian traditions should know better, because we follow a God who moved into the neighborhood and did exactly what Atticus Finch tells Scout — after all, we believe that he walked around in “human skin” for a while.

In other words: we aren’t considered “the other” by our God because of race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, or even race.

The heart of the Gospel of Jesus, God’s very act to redeem the world, is a movement of true compassion. We believe that God experienced life from our point of view. We all need to remember, maybe in today’s climate more than ever, that without compassion, without a true connection to the other, nothing we do religiously, politically, or economically can really make the world a better place.

It should be apparent to us today that healing can’t happen until we stand on our neighbors front porch as Scout did at the end of Lee’s first novel To Kill a Mockingbird and see the neighborhood, the street, and even the world from another’s perspective.

Lee’s story has always reminded me that this type of compassion is the only solution to seeing people from different walks of life as our neighbors — and the truth is that realization is the only place where “change” ceases to be a buzzword and becomes authentic transformation in the world around us.

True faith means loving our neighbor . . . even when we disagree with him.

“There is an unholy cost to being ‘right'”

Much of the rhetoric that comes from the faith community lately has to do with convincing the world that we are “right.” It seems the folks with the loudest, the last, the most persuasive voice, and the claim that they have a corner on the truth are the ones who are lauded as the winners. We are more concerned with being correct than we are with being connected to each other.

In the past few years, there has been so much division within churches about a host of issues — and even more disconcerting a proclivity to place our doctrines ahead of love for our very neighbors. But Lee’s characters always point back to the truth that there is an unholy cost to being “right.”

The truth about our faith is that our relationships are more important than winning the day with our version of the truth. And that living out our faith like Atticus Finch did, with a commitment to loving the people he didn’t see eye-to-eye with, is actually pretty tough. That’s right, I said tough. His actions reflect strength, sturdiness, and a ruggedness that scoffs at the shallow practices of twenty-first century “truth-telling.”

In my youth, I could never have recognized the strength in the way the original Atticus handled the most reprehensible of disagreements. Remember how he walked away from a racist and hostile man who threatened him and spit in his face. What kind of man does that? The answer, of course, is a man much more grounded in his faith than anyone I know; a man who had the resolve and compassion to understand that he might be saving Bob Ewell’s children another beating at home by simply taking his threats.

We could stand to remember Atticus as a man who never won a criminal case. I’ve always thought that if I were in trouble I would’ve much rather hired the loud-mouthed, wealthy, successful lawyer with a high profile and his own talk radio show!

But, Atticus wasn’t concerned about being a winner or with being right . . . he took on the case he was certain to lose because in his words, “I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t defend that man.” It wasn’t an easy choice, but it was the faithful one.

“I wonder if we would even notice Atticus Finch if he had a pulpit”

In our “look at me” culture, our definitions of success linger around the men who openly work to have the last and loudest word — sometimes the ones who wield their interpretation of the Bible, as Lee’s character would describe, like “a bottle of whiskey.”

In today’s climate, it seems we are far more concerned with being right than we are with our greatest call — to love our neighbor. I wonder if we would even notice Atticus Finch if he had a pulpit, a blog, a talk show, or a Twitter feed. Yet, Atticus was a truth-teller whose opinion was always tempered with the understanding of how important it was to stay connected to his own community.

Atticus knew that losing the connection to his neighbors would mean losing any positive influence he might have over their lives. He also understood that somewhere underneath whatever ugliness we all attach ourselves too, we all have the ability to change.

Lee’s writing has always grounded me in remembering that loving my neighbors, both those outside of my circle who hold differing opinions and those inside my own faith community whose opinions I find irritating, ultimately means to recognize that God calls me unequivocally to love them as my neighbor.

Each Sunday that I practice that holy sacrament of breaking the bread and having wine, it is the truest reminder that we are all connected. That despite our rhetoric we believe in a Gospel message that clearly tells us there is no “us and them.” We are truly all in this together, and there is a God who is working to bring wholeness — not just to a select few, but to the whole world. Even to my dear church friends and me.

Or as Atticus would say to his daughter, “No matter how bad things get, always remember that these people are our neighbors.”

Image courtesy of Bear.

Matt Litton
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