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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. joe

    Christians and their fiction novel and their imaginary friends.. try to turn everything into something that only pertains to them this is nothing new. If people would gain real knowledge instead of false hoods from a book. that has no basis the world would be better off.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  2. Wiliam K.

    I am not a religious person either, but I don't think it's entirely fair to criticize Mr. Litton's piece simply because morality doesn't begin or end with Christianity and Christian principles. I understand him to mean that the novel's moral compass arises from Christianity, but rather than the book echoes many lessons, also found in Christian teaching, that all people would do well to pay attention to. He is also willing to explore the novel's criticism of religious people (seen in the quoted remarks from Miss Maudie and the allusion to the church-locking incident, as well as the racism of the church-going people).

    The article is unfortunately titled but I suppose the editors did that.

    With all respect to 'rod,' I don't think you can make the case that this is a conservative article–did you even read it?:

    "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."

    September 3, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
  3. scott griesbach

    Embrace and encourage idealism?........what if that idealism is being a racist or hawkishly towards war or self guided virtues & morals that discriminate. i think we need to embrace and encourage compassion

    September 3, 2010 at 2:11 pm |
    • Bill

      Why is it one or the other – why can't it be both? You would argue that we shouldn't embrace idealism because some ideals or evil or destructive? With that logic we shouldn't embrace science because sometime science brings us things like nuclear bombs.

      Embracing idealism allows us to improve the human experience – fighting for ideals time and again has advanced humanity, while occasionally setting it back a bit. Science, religion, philosophy, the arts, government... all have benefited from idealism.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
    • B Nakka

      If it doesn't fit their understanding they won't take it as important. Your response was good, but since it is intelligent and no name calling he/she probably doesn't have a defense against it. Now your comment will be ignored like you never said anything.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
    • scott griesbach

      bill your spot on that was what i was trying to get across with the form of the "?"

      September 3, 2010 at 6:33 pm |
  4. CMA

    So any story that deals with equality and doing the right thing is immediately assumed as Christian? Okay lets turn the coin around. Any story about burning people at the stake for differing beliefs, deporting an entire religious group based upon the percevied persecution of a make believe idol, and pedophillia/molestation should be Christian too.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
    • joe

      your comment makes the most sense here

      September 3, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
    • B Nakka

      Have you heard the saying "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder". The lessons you take from everyday will always have your own twist on them. This is an opinion piece and the author who happens to have an extensive knowledge of the book thinks so. He never said that his view was ultimate. People tend to see conflict in everything in life. I wonder if they are ever happy?

      September 3, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
  5. Hilary Cathcart

    The values in To Kill a Mockingbird are NOT Christian values. They are moral values that are displayed in ALL religions, yes, including Islam...

    September 3, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
    • FauxNews

      Islam is not a religion; it's a women repressing, death cult.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:33 pm |
    • AlisonJane

      @ FauxNews – And Christianity reduced the wife of Jesus to a whore, and blamed all woman for the sin of man. No ONE religion gets to claim dominance on the oppression of women.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
  6. Stranger

    TKAM was nothing but an anti-white morality play. To hell with it.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
  7. B Nakka

    I have a question to all the people who claim they lost faith in Christianity or thing they are bigots and all the other things. They claim that because they see christians (so called who caused them to hate the religion as a whole).

    If you see someone who calls themselves christian eating shyt would you say that said person is doing that because he/she is christian. Your answer would be probably suggesting that no this person is retarded and so he is eating shyt. Now why does common sense come into play only when there is a bizarre happening.

    if something is not bizarre why do you assume a belief would cause a person to act a certain way. If you see someone with a bigoted view utter some excuse as the reason for the bigotry why do you attribute his feelings to his beliefs. Would it be too hard to understand that the views of a person are his own and in no way were they first influenced by his beliefs. Why is it hard for everyone to fathom that a person creates his view first and then uses any medium to further them. In that sense christianity is not to blame, it should be the individual.

    The author is appealing to the public that christianity does have some important lessons for humanity. Whether you choose to follow them because they are christian or you follow them because you think is right – the end outcome is the same. It just brings about harmony if people are less judgemental and with more compassion.

    Don't blame christianity as a whole because a few people rip it to their advantage. If someone say jump off a cliff you have a brain to decide is it safe or insane to do that. I guess only the weak get preyed by power hungry people. Only the weak get influenced by so called christian leaders who are not leaders at all.

    Morality is all the christianity preached or should preach, if you expect religion to do more than that then people are just silly.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
    • Charles

      "if something is not bizarre why do you assume a belief would cause a person to act a certain way. If you see someone with a bigoted view utter some excuse as the reason for the bigotry why do you attribute his feelings to his beliefs."
      Because the vast majority of the time the person is using their belief as the core reason for their feelings.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
    • B Nakka

      If someone is using it as the reason for his actions then why is it not just an excuse. Why don't courts allow someone who commited murder to claim his beliefs as the reason for his act and issue punishment to the belief, why do they punish the individual instead.

      If muslims say islam is the reason they hijacked a plane, then it is the radical person who is to blame but if the same happens with any other religion, it is the religion to blame.

      How do you feel about hypocrisy?

      September 3, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  8. joe

    another brainwashed christian tryin to turn everything into a brainwashing lession

    September 3, 2010 at 2:08 pm |
    • B Nakka

      Ignore the best of anything by using that as an excuse. I don't think you are intelligent or you are one of those people who think since you are educated you are better than everyone. He was talking about things that could make the world a better place but you happen to think its brainwashing.

      Wonder who truly is brainwashed here.

      HINT: "YOU"

      September 3, 2010 at 2:11 pm |
  9. No Gods.

    And like faith in a god that doesnt exist, this movie is a story that never truly happened. So you want to tie a belief in something that isnt real to a story that never happened...there is your faith. Nicely done.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
    • B Nakka

      So now you will only see movies and take points from it if it were a true story? Dahmer was about a true story and a true monster I guess you could take a lot of important things about a life from that movie.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
    • susan

      you say this never happened. The actually characters are indeed fictitious. however, Harper Lee was raised in a small southern town, she was the daughter of a lawyer and her father did defend a black man accused of rape. Please know the facts before you post.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
  10. rod

    nice to see a conservative article on what most consider a liberal organization. thanks!

    September 3, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
    • Hilary Cathcart

      Since when is christianity conservative? Since when is CNN liberal?

      September 3, 2010 at 2:10 pm |
    • Bill

      Really? Because family values is purely a conservative issue, and nothing liberals would understand?

      Until you, and your like, understand that family values, religion, morality, etc are not the exclusive domain of Republicans, conservatives, Christians, or ANY OTHER GROUP – there will continue to be US against THEM.

      We "liberals" understand this – probably because we are liberal. It's possible you could use a dose of liberalism as well...

      September 3, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
  11. mama panda

    It's been many, many years since I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" and saw the movie. I've forgotten many of the details, but I know Harper Lee's work is one of the things that helped shape my world view. I think I'll go read it again.

    September 3, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
  12. TB

    Without Christianity, there is no moral high ground, where would we base our morals on?? It then simply becomes a variable, where people decide what is moral, and we all know how that turns out...

    September 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
    • Erik...

      You really think Christianity developed morals and values? Christianity? A religion that is 2000 years old. Nothing else before that can be studied by any 18 year old in a Western Civ course?? Why can't people that are Christian simply say 'My faith is where I get my values' instead of arrogantly expressing that we would have ZERO values without their faith. It's absurd.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
    • Roger

      Without Christianity there would be no moral high ground? That's ridiculous and crazy! How about using Common Sense or the Golden Rule to determine morals? Simple with out all the hypocrisy of religion.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:14 pm |
    • mmrogers16

      True dat, TB. I, myself, am a non-Christian. And sometimes when I come across a person laying in the road, hurt and suffering, without being able to say to myself "What would Jesus do?" I really just don't know whether I should help them or step on them and keep going. It sure would be easier with a set of rules.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
  13. joejoejoe123

    To the point made about the racism of the "good church going folks", i couldnt help but think about mrs palin (defending the use of the N word) and mr beck (calling the first black president a racist). They are the same folks who wont allow a mosque in NYC or rural Tennessee, yet they call themselves constitutionalist and think they speak on behalf of GOD. No wonder steven hawkings is having second thoughts. I have wittnessed racism by very loud christians even in my own family and can attest to the fact that it very prevalent today. Shame on us all. good article. great book

    September 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
  14. rebecca

    Lovely article, now I need to reread the book...it has been awhile!

    September 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm |
  15. Truth Man

    Also Harper Lee uses the "n" word 22 times in the book, twice more than Laura Schlesinger.

    September 3, 2010 at 1:54 pm |
  16. someoneelse

    Christianity is COMPLETELY based off of other religions and political ideals of the time. Seriously, look at Roman and Greek religions and tell me everything wasn't copied. Anyway, the point is everything Christianity 'stands' for can be found without it, is not the sole owner of it, and didn't even create it. There is no such thing as a good Christian, only a good person.

    September 3, 2010 at 1:54 pm |
    • joejoejoe123

      shhhh those are fight words down south

      September 3, 2010 at 1:58 pm |
    • Roger

      I COMPLETELY AGREE. I am an Atheist and I was asked recently by a "Christian" that: Since I don't believe in God or the Bible, where do I get my Moral Code? My answer was simple: "Common Sense and/or The Golden Rule". What else is there?

      September 3, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
    • MrHAnson

      Hitler tried to apply common sense when he exterminated millions of jews to create a perfect race of blond haired blue eyed humans. Common sense would be to get rid of the weak and sick to ease our burdens. Stalin thought he was using common sense when he sent millions to labor camps to out-produce each other for the "glory" of comrade Stalin. Common sense would be to take the life of the unborn just because they are an inconvenience.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
    • Henry Miller

      Set a torch to your strawmen all you like, MrHAnson, but it has little to do with the discussion at hand.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
  17. Nockatoma

    You forgot the whole novel shows how a father raises his children. I guess it's how a person can interpret the important points of a novel, or how they look at such a thing. To me, the parts that stood out were how the boy Jeb could not recall the last time his father hit him, even if he ever did. How neither child as so much saw their father without a suit on, and were shocked when he loosened his tie in the courtroom. How their father never yelled, or raised his voice. "How he treats us outside the house is the same as he does inside."

    How the father teaches his son about true courage, by making him read to the dying old neighbor as she kicked her morphine addiction. How he never bragged. How he talked to his children as adults, and would stop whatever legalese he was talking about to answer any and all questions. How he read to his children. How he was always up before them, etc. etc.

    Either the writer of this article was missing a lot, or he focused too much on the story that Harper Lee herself said was tacked on as a social commentary.

    September 3, 2010 at 1:53 pm |
    • TammyB

      You are absolutely correct! This novel has so many wonderful points, and is rich with the story! I made all my children read it when they were younger, just because I think it's one of those kinds of books that could actually teach one the right way to treat people, whether they be your friends, family or a stranger.

      September 3, 2010 at 3:04 pm |
    • Kyle

      In writing a short article/blog, the author had to choose a limited topic. Below are the chapters in the book (so you can see there is much more to Litton's thoughts than what you read here). And just a reminder to all . . . this is a book by a Christian, so not everyone is going to agree with his opinions, and that's cool.

      1. To Kill a Mockingbird and the Power of Parables
      2. The Parable of Boo Radley: Discovering Our Divine Mysterious Neighbor
      3. The Parable of House Fires and Church Collections: Our Responsibility to Care for the Neighborhood
      4. The Parable of Scout Finch: The Role of Women in Faith
      5. The Parable of Miss Maudie’s Azaleas: Our Responsibility to Care for Creation
      6. The Parable of Atticus Finch: The Model of Christian Courage
      7. The Parable of the Missionary Tea: Our Responsibility to the Global Neighborhood
      Begins at Home
      8. The Parable of the Great Depression: The Christian Ethic of Financial Responsibility
      9. The Parable of Tom Robinson: How Compassion Can Overcome Our Differences
      10. The Parable of Raising Jem and Scout Finch: Parenting for Compassion
      11. The Parable of the Last Word: Communicating to Build Community

      September 3, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
  18. Jasmin

    Wonderful

    September 3, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
  19. CC

    Maybe Jesus is telling them to recapture the idealism they have lost with adulthood? I mean, really?!? How did a dead man get involved in this?

    September 3, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
  20. DaveL

    Perhaps I will be labeled a cynic, but I don't think any of Matt's points are exclusively Christian. I think they could apply to most any faith. In fact, if you change the word "faith" to "belief" in the fourth point, they are items to live by regardless of religion.
    Perhaps that is why the story is so moving.

    September 3, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
    • Lisa

      agreed!!

      September 3, 2010 at 2:38 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.