I wrote this article for the CNN faith blog about To Kill a Mockingbird and what it has to teach us about faith: http://bit.ly/hojmHy . The response was great, although much of the commentary was agitation that I would tie To Kill a Mockingbird and morality to Christianity (or any faith tradition, for that matter). 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. In order to make my point today, I am going to break tradition and tell you what I believe Harper Lee was really trying tosay about faith in her novel. I am going to do something I have never done…try to speak for Harper Lee.
Harper Lee 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. Lee has much to say about the Christian faith in her book. 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.
Atticus Finch provides us with the counterpart to her criticism. In Atticus, we see Harper Lee’s ideal model of the Christian life. Many readers and fans of To Kill a Mockingbird will disagree with me on this point. In examining Atticus, though, I believe we find a man who is deeply guided by his faith, deeply connected to his community and deeply grieved by injustice. The major conflict in the novel is the Tom Robinson court case. When his daughter asks him why he is defending Tom Robinson while the whole town is set against it, Atticus responds, “I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t defend that man.” In this direct and simple statement, I believe Harper Lee sets Atticus apart as a man guided by his Christian principals; a man who plays the foil to the religious folks of the town of which she is so critical. Yes, Atticus is a flawed hero in some ways, but whenever I consider what Harper Lee’s real message might have been about Christianity…I have to begin with her protagonist who was led to action by his faith. It begs the question this morning: how much of what you do is truly guided by your relationship with God? Think about it for a while. Consider the words and ideas that present themselves as you try to finish this statement in your own life. Take Atticus’s proclamation and fill in the blank: “I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t ______________.”