As my journey discussing America’s favorite novel comes to a close over the next few weeks, I thought it would be fitting to repost this “Friday’s Five Good Answers” (from April) featuring your questions for me about Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, and my book, The Mockingbird Parables. Thank you again for the wonderful questions! I hope you will enjoy my candid answers and that it will shed light on why I set out to write about the characters and themes in Lee’s beloved novel…
I spent some time this week compiling questions submitted to me by readers and have chosen five of the most commonly asked (and most poignant) to answer in this Friday’s edition of Five Good Answers. The irony of answering questions on my own website under the moniker “Five Good Answers” on April Fool’s Day is definitely not lost on me! I would rather title this week’s entry “Five Outstanding Questions”, because that is what I received from you (the readers) when I asked. Without further ceremonious or flowery phraseology, here are five adequate answers to your great questions!
Reader: To Kill a Mockingbird has been banned (along with books like Huck Finn because of their inclusion of racial slurs) from public school districts in many areas of the country. How do you handle those objections to Lee’s novel?
Me: I feel like I could write a chapter on this one. I was recently asked this by a book club of amazing teachers from Birmingham, Alabama. As an educator and an English teacher, I am generally against censorship on any level; especially when it comes to books. The truth is I don’t have a clear answer to that question. I grew up in a family of educators, primarily in the “north”; around our house and in our communities, we were taught people were just people (no matter their shape, size, or color). Maybe I was a little sheltered, but To Kill a Mockingbird was my first real experience with the kind of racial prejudice, language and attitudes that were pervasive in the south. This helped provide some context for the work of Dr. King and what I would learn about the Civil Rights Movement. I know the language and the attitudes toward race in the novel are ugly, but sometimes I worry that it might be dangerous if we ignore that it happened. In some ways, I think covering it up takes meaning away from what some amazing people have accomplished. I used a quote from Frederick Buechner in “The Parable of Tom Robinson” to articulate why I think we need to continue to read it: “There is a terror about the light because much of what we see in the light about ourselves and our world we would rather not see, would rather not have been seen.” I think it is equally as dangerous to pretend that racial prejudice and injustice no longer exist in America. We still have a long way to go.
Having said all of that, I also realize that I can’t adequately understand what it might feel like to be a person who has been on the other end of the power structure and has experienced some type of prejudice…and to have to reada bookwith thosewords in a classroom setting. While I disagree with banning any book, I can’t saywith any certainty thatmy perspective is “the correct one”. So, this is an issue I wrestle with constantly when discussing Lee’s novel.
Reader: Don’t you think it is presumptuous to attach themes of To Kill a Mockingbird to the Christian faith?
Me: I have taken great pains (out of respect to Harper Lee) tomake it clearthat The Mockingbird Parables does not speak for the author of TKaM; rather, communicates how the author’s story has impacted my life. However, I do believe Harper Lee had quite a bit to say about the Christian faith in her novel. She grew up in a southern church culture, according to one biographer, witnessing a world of hypocrisy and racism from southern Christians in Monroeville, Alabama; including an activist pastor who spoke out against segregation and was quickly replaced by the congregation. Maudie comments that some men are “so concerned about the next world that they have never learned to live in this one… and you can look down the street and see the results.” We visit the Maycomb Missionary Tea and observe how the ugliness of racism, deficiency of compassion, and absence of real transparency can turn religion into a mockery of Jesus’ teachings. Maudie comments on the harshness of religious folks that condemn her to hell for her lack of church attendance as they pass by her home on Sunday mornings. We see what it looks like for the Christian community to care for one another in a visit to the First Purchase Church. To pretend that Harper Lee was not criticizing expressions of the Christian faith in her culture would be ridiculous. We certainly have to acknowledge that Atticus’s actions are grounded in a deep faith. He tells Scout that he “couldn’t go to church and worship God” if he didn’t defend Tom Robinson.
Reader: What are some of your other favorite novels or writers?
Me: I have a long list of favorite writers. There are certain books that are special to me for specific reasons: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving is a beautiful novel. I love The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. The Testament by Elie Weisel is a deeply affecting novel; in fact, I am a huge fan of Elie Weisel and have read almost everything he has ever written. There is a beauty to his writing that is so profound and rich…it is hard to describe. I am left awestruck that someone who has experienced the depths of pain that he has experienced can articulate beauty in that way. I love Frederick Buechner and believe everyone should read Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. I think Brian McLaren once compared Buechner to Bob Dylan. That analogy fit well; he is a truly amazing writer. I really enjoy the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Tolkien created arich andepic world (in Middle Earth) that engages the imagination. I just finished Love Wins by Rob Bell and found it fascinating. Bell doesn’t really cover new ideas in the book, but he possesses the unique ability to frame conversations about the Gospel in fresh words and images that is uncanny. He is a gifted teacher.
Reader: You often ask people in your Five Good Answers interview their opinions of what is happening in the Christian faith. What do you think is the biggest challenge for the Christian church?
Me: I think for many years, the American church has focused on “The Great Commission” — as “The Great Escape” plan. We have spent a long time viewing faith as a matter of heaven and hell, worried about punching our ticket to the “sweet by and by” and not focusing enough on the truest measure of loving God: loving our neighbors. I think that is changing quickly though, in a good way. The challenge the church faces now is opening the door to questions — all kinds of questions. I believe that questions are the lifeblood of relationship, especially relationship with God. For years there has been a great divide between what our pastors learn in seminary and what they are willing to speak into their congregations. If you look at the Biblical narrative, the people closest to God were also the people asking the toughest questions. We need to embrace that moving forward. I also think it is time to let go of this idea that science somehow threatens our faith (but that is more of an article than an entire answer…I have written on that topic for Relevant, if you are interested you can check it out in the Articles, Op-Eds, and Interviews section of the website)!
Reader: Have you received any feedback from Harper Lee?
Me: No, I haven’t. I have read so much about her and I know she is a very private person. I would never want to invade her space. I think she shared a piece of her life with us in this beautiful novel and I love that she has voraciously avoided the limelight ever since. I think she is a pretty tough, feisty woman (a lot like her main character). Having said all of that, it would be a dream come true for me to sit across from her and just listen to her talk about her life, her writing, her friendship with Capote, and why she didn’t write another book. I would love to talk with her about her beautiful essay on love. I also think it would be cool to share with her the impact her writing has had on my life and the lives of the students who have read it in my classroom.
Check out the next few weeks of “Friday’s Five Good Answers” as I interview author’s Andrew Farley and Dr. Tripp York about thier forthcoming books followed by a conversation with the producer of the Dave Ramsey Show, Blake Thompson, about what it is like to work on one of the nation’s largest radio programs and some wonderful work he is doing to transform lives in Haiti.