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September 3rd, 2010
07:00 AM ET

The Mockingbird parables: Christian lessons in Harper Lee's classic

Editor's Note: Matt Litton, a writer and educator, is author of The Mockingbird Parables: Transforming Lives through the Power of Story.

By Matt Litton, Special to CNN

The social relevance of Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird and the subsequent film is profound. It has remained a beacon of hope for the marginalized, pointing the way toward our continued pursuit for equality.

The novel has been described simply as the story of one man’s stand for racial justice, but we cannot ignore the other valuable messages–including Christian ones-for today’s culture of distrust.

From Wall Street to Washington to Main Street, it seems our decisions are governed by what is financially, politically, and socially expedient. Oour faith is more of an afterthought than a guiding force.

The many lessons of Lee’s novel can lead us back to a restorative way of making choices by following these four principles:

1. Try understanding others. The theme is revealed in lawyer Atticus Finch’s memorable explanation to his daughter: "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."

The Christian faith originated with a God who moved into our neighborhood, who “climbed into human skin and walked around in it,” and who truly understands and connects with humanity.

Redemption actually began in a movement of God’s compassion. The practice of our faith should start with that same compassion, demanding that we cease to see people who act, believe, or behave differently than us as “others” and learn to view them as our neighbors.

2. Live in the here and now. Lee’s novel challenges us to remember that our faith should impact our actions today.

A heroine of the novel, Miss Maudie, remarks that she is thankful that the town has at least one man (in Finch) with the conviction to do the right thing. But she also laments that “there are some men who are so worried about the next world that they have never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the streets and see the results.”

The compassion our faith requires should influence how we care for each other in the here and now. Who can forget the scene in the novel when the good Reverend Sykes locks his church doors until the money Helen Robinson needs to feed her family is collected by his congregation? How many of our nation’s challenges might be solved if we endeavored to care for our neighbors in that way?

Maybe you are writing me off as an idealist… that points us directly to another crucial lesson:

3. Embrace and encourage idealism.  In the book, the children emerge from watching a heated court case where an African American man is being falsely convicted of a crime. A child named Dill is disturbed by the way the prosecutor demeans the defendant simply because of his skin color. Dill, like most children, possesses an idea of how the world should operate and is unable to process the racism, oppression, and sin as normal.

He comments to the narrator, Scout, that he will join the circus when he grows up. He would rather laugh at the adults than accept their bigotry. When Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew that they must “become like little children,” I wonder if he is referencing the innate sense of fairness that children own.

Maybe Jesus is telling them to recapture the idealism they have lost with adulthood. Don’t many of us grow older and just accept the injustice, the poverty, the hurting people, the oppression and sin around us as “the way it is”?” So did many of the adults in Maycomb, the fictional town where the book is set.

The novel reminds us that cynicism leads to complicity, that disillusionment leads to inaction. Maybe by becoming more like children, we can refuse to accept the status quo and take a closer look at our neighborhood, see the injustice, poverty, and sin for what it is and determine what it requires of us as people of faith.

4. Be guided by faith, not circumstances. Christians could also stand to remember the racism of the “good church going folks” of Maycomb, that the protagonist of the novel calls it a “disease,” and be wary that the same types of religious folks were actually responsible for the crucifixion of our Jesus.

Perhaps we should pause for a moment today to determine if we are allowing our decisions to be guided by status, wealth, or political gain. Maybe we should conduct our daily business guided solely by our beliefs, like the unassuming hero that places his family and his reputation on the line to take a very unpopular court case.

When his daughter asks why he is defending the innocent Tom Robinson, Atticus answers, “Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t defend that man.” To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us there is a spiritual approach to making decisions that can lead us to restoration on each street and in every house.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Litton.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Books • Christianity • Opinion

soundoff (203 Responses)
  1. Shanice

    Thank you very much for your insight on this novel. A lot of the comments I read are filled with hurt and pain caused by people who simply misinterpreted the bible and forced their views upon the authors of the comments. To all of those people who have been hurt by a christian, I want to take the time to say I'm sorry. I'm sorry that they have said all the negative things they said. I'm sorry that they falsely condemned you. I'm sorry that they killed thousands of people in the name of God, when all they were doing was self gratifying. But most importantly, I'm sorry that you never got the opportunity to experience Christ for yourself because of stupid people who gave you the wrong idea. Believe me when I say I AM truly, honestly and wholeheartedly sorry.

    November 14, 2010 at 6:03 pm |
  2. ctaya

    Moral codes from Christianity and the Christian God?

    Have ever heard of Law Code of Hammurabi.

    http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/detail_notice.jsp?CONTENT%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226487&CURRENT_LLV_NOTICE%3C%3Ecnt_id=10134198673226487&FOLDER%3C%3Efolder_id=9852723696500800&bmLocale=en

    September 10, 2010 at 11:04 pm |
  3. JohnQuest

    This is one of my favorites as well, only I don't think it is a shinning example of Christian Faith, Finch, was showing a secular idea of society not a Christian one. Christianity like all other religions doesn't have an issue with keeping people separated by race or ideology. The compassion displayed in the story was not from the Christian towns people, the Christian Judge, Prosecutor, or any other Christian. Seems to me that Finch is the exception to the Christians rule, not the rule.

    September 8, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  4. Mary

    It should be required reading in school.

    It is my all time favorite book - I read it once a year

    September 7, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  5. baruch

    This essay is one of the simplest expressions of what so many christians claim to be but are not. I am not a christian. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of my favorite books and movies. It is a relief to see someone glean these pithy essential principles from the story and present them in this context. I see mostly expressions of hate from "christians" in politics and in the media, so this is quite refreshing.

    September 5, 2010 at 3:55 pm |
  6. peggy

    I was born & raised
    In a small town in
    The south. I under-
    Stand the prejudice
    That can be passed down from generation
    To generation. I was fortunate to have had parents that raised my brothers & I without small town prejudice. I have read this book over 6 times during
    The course of my life & I never once
    Surmised after reading it
    that it was
    A Christian based
    Novel(&I attended Catholic School for 10 years ).This book is an extraordinarily well Written book,
    Viewed through the
    Eyes of children;
    The innocence they lost, the wisdom they gained & the deep love & respect they had & life lessons they learned from their father. Atticus Finch was an educated man who possessed a great deal of courage.
    He spent many years away from small town hate & prejudice getting an education.Are we sure he was a "Christian" man ? Not really. He was a highly respected man that could be counted on to do what was fair. The judge in the novel had an education but had no courage ! Atticus was a wonderful role model to his children & to the whole town,( many who didn't have the courage to do the' right' thing). I respect this authors right to reflect his Christian view point in regards to the novel. What I love the most a/b America is we CAN express what WE believe. What I've written are my thoughts on this VERY memorable book. Thank you for focusing it! Its one of the finest novels I've ever read.

    September 5, 2010 at 1:51 pm |
  7. AlexandraC

    I`m an atheist and to kill a mockingbird is one of my favorite books. I very much appreciate this article as well. I dont believe Jesus to be the son of God, but I do believe in the message of Jesus Christ. And that he stands as an exaple to us all. I think the book is critical of organized religion, opting for people to think for themselfs insted of the follow the crowd mentality that many religious groups are prone to.
    Someone posted that Atticus was the only flawed character because he was "perfect". I also find that to be true, but that is the point. He is christlike in this book. Something to strive for, which most people (including myself) find inspiring.

    September 5, 2010 at 4:14 am |
  8. Serita

    I like the article, it is so true. As Christians we need to be fair, and to try our best to do the right thing!

    September 5, 2010 at 1:27 am |
  9. Brian

    A nice but unrealistic and idealist story.. You can always right on what the world should be like, without considering what the world is. You can start over, you need to build from the ashes.

    September 4, 2010 at 10:10 pm |
  10. PeteH

    Christians think they own anything that represents the tenants of their mythology. Anytime one man sacrifices himself for others, they invoke the story of Jesus. Not surprising that they're trying to hijack classic American literature... What, one fictional book isn't enough for you guys?

    September 4, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
  11. Chucksel

    The great irony of "To Kill a Mockingbird" is that this fine novel contains only one really flawed character: Atticus Finch. The reason he's flawed is that he's flawless. Still, the belief in fairy tale characters will easily trump reality. Harper Lee was smart enough to know this and ran with it. We're grateful she did.

    September 4, 2010 at 4:38 am |
  12. Ghenghis Khan

    There we go...
    This is the idea. Go more with this, CNN...
    Finally. Reality.

    September 3, 2010 at 9:54 pm |
  13. Justina

    I thought the book was about pursuit of truth, not just equality – the great foundation of the Christian Western Civilization, like no other.

    September 3, 2010 at 9:03 pm |
  14. AGA

    There are many questions that come to mind when the name Jesus is mentioned. Some people say he was a prophet, others call him a god, while others say he was a very wise man. But whatever your idea is, one thing remains certain: he was not your ordinary man. So if there is something special about him, why all the confusion?

    Just who was Jesus anyway?

    His Origin

    Jesus lived about 2,000 years ago in ancient Palestine when the Roman Empire was at its zenith. He was not conceived in the usual way, but was implanted in the womb of a young woman named Mary. God simply commanded, “Be” and he was. In this sense, he was “a word” of God and a special sign for humanity. In fact, he was the last in a long line of religious guides sent to the Jews.

    Mary, The Blessed

    Mary was a righteous woman. Her mother dedicated her to God’s service even before she was born. As a child, she lived a life marked by health and righteousness, which others pointed to in admiration. She was raised by the wise Zechariah, who instilled in her, a beautiful sense of faith in God. When she had become a young woman, Mary sought to purify herself further before her Lord. Knowing that the hustle of life in the towns was distracting, she withdrew from her people to a sanctuary in the East. There she could meditate in seclusion and peace. Suddenly, on a day that seemed no different from the rest, an angel of God visited her, disguised in the likeness of a human. Afraid of so strange a sight, Mary prayed for protection, but the strange being reassured her and declared that he was a messenger from the Lord to announce the glad-tidings of a faultless son. Mary, astounded, asked how this was possible seeing that no man had ever touched her. But the angel replied, “Your Lord says, it is easy for Me …”. But when she felt the little child within her, she fled her sanctuary out of fear of what her family would do or say when they heard the news. Mary, however, was not to face hardship. When in her despair she cried out to God for oblivion, a voice soothed her and she found shade and a cool spring. Under a date-palm in the warmth of late summer, she made her dwelling and there bore the child unlike any other in human history.

    Shortly thereafter, Mary returned to her community carrying the child who was to be called Messiah, Jesus, and son of Mary. When her people saw her with the baby in her arms they couldn’t believe their eyes, let alone accept her word. They refused to believe when she told of an angel who came and told her she was chosen above all other women to carry this burden. They accused her of infidelity and implied that she had ruined the family name. Mary, being overwhelmed, simply motioned towards the child meekly.

    The Miracles

    Now the child was the product of a miracle and consequently, miraculous things began to happen. In defense of his mother and of the truth, the infant Jesus spoke saying, “I am a servant of God. He has given me Scripture and has made me a Prophet. He has blessed me wherever I may be and has made prayer and charity my duty as long as I live.” This put the detractors to rest.

    Throughout his youth, Jesus remained dutiful to his mother and developed quickly in intelligence, wisdom, and piety. He dumfounded the learned and was greatly admired by those around him who appreciated his talents. He claimed to be a sign of God and a Messenger to the Israelites.

    His people had strayed from the spirit of truth and placed their trust in legalism, thereby burying their sense of mercy beneath dusty scrolls and rituals. Finally, when he came of age, Jesus began to travel and preach throughout the land of Palestine about a return to the truth of the old revelations and a rejection of all that man had added. In his task he was supported by the spirit of truth, the angel Gabriel.

    The Gospel, His Message

    He taught that love and mercy overcome hate and anger and that only a true and sincere faith in the Creator and obedience to His will can bring a person salvation in this life as well as in the next. To reinforce his message, which was called “Injeel” (Good News), God granted him the performance of miracles. He healed the sick, uplifted the distressed and revived the dead. All these things he did with the permission of God, never taking credit for them himself.

    He led a simple and pious life. Soon he attracted an inner-circle of devoted followers who listened to his teachings with fervor and humility. These disciples, among them Peter, Barnabas, and John helped him carry the message of Divine Love to the people. They helped him in his mission.

    A Test Of Wills

    But no righteous man of God is without trial and tribulation. As the message of Jesus began to gain wider acceptance, a small clique of hypocrites and evil men began to plot against him. They were the priests and leaders of the Jews whose position and wealth depended upon their place as the sole interpreters of religion to the masses. They pursued him and his followers and eventually captured him. Though they abused him, he never renounced his faith in the one God. So in their anger they plotted to crucify him on a Roman cross. But Jesus slipped from their grip at the last moment, and all the while they thought they had succeeded. They were sure they had killed him but God answered Jesus’ prayer and saved him from their schemes. Confusion overtook the mob and they might have killed the man who betrayed Jesus instead. In any case, Jesus escaped from their grasp. Then God removed Jesus from this world into another dimension, to a place with Him, not to return until a later time.

    With their teacher gone, the devoted followers of Jesus tried to maintain the purity and simplicity of his teachings. But they were soon besieged and overtaken by a flood of Roman and Greek influences, which eventually so buried and distorted the message of Jesus that only a little of its truth now remains. Strange doctrines of Jesus being a man-god, of God dying, of saint worship and of God being made up of different parts came into vogue and were accepted by many of those who took the name “Christians” centuries after Jesus.

    Conclusion

    The only records that have come down to us concerning Jesus are some sketchy biographical material, poorly researched and compiled, which can in no way be representative of the full and accurate Message of Jesus, the Son of Mary. The time of the final and incorruptible Message was not yet at hand. It would be left to the last prophet of God, Muhammad (peace be upon him), to clarify the truth from man’s additions and deletions.

    Jesus taught the same eternal message that was taught by all the Messengers of God, from Adam, on through Noah, Abraham, Moses and ending with the mission of God’s last Guidepost to humanity, Muhammad (peace be on them all), whose coming was foretold by Jesus himself.

    Every nation and every people, from the Aztecs to the Greeks, have received a Prophet or a Messenger from God. Jesus was the last of a series of Messengers sent to the Israelites, but they consistently strayed from the path of surrender to God. Each of the many Messengers spoke a different language and followed varied customs. Yet the core faith taught by each was the same: surrender your imperfect and fickle will to the perfect will of the Power that is greater than you. You will then find the peace and freedom that only the Creator of all things can provide. Then you must do what is right and good to your fellow creatures. This way of life is called Islam (surrender to God and find peace).

    http://www.whyislam.org

    September 3, 2010 at 4:46 pm |
    • Tom

      Whoever wrote that tripe has no understanding of Christianity.

      September 3, 2010 at 4:59 pm |
    • AGA

      My friend, Islam is a follow-up of the teachings in Judaism and Christianity.

      September 3, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
    • Tom

      No, it's not.

      September 3, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
    • Selfish Gene

      Which is more likely: That the whole natural order is suspended or that a Jewish minx should tell a lie?

      David Hume

      September 9, 2010 at 9:44 am |
  15. MuDdLe

    @someoneelse

    You asked me to say it:

    Everything wasn't copied.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.