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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. Tim

    I would like to add shame on CNN for having a "belief blog" and having no section devoted to science. Yeah the occasional news worthy scientific article pops up, but hell, a whole section devoted to rationalizing irrational beliefs? C'mon!!

    September 3, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
    • PeteH

      I know, Tim! It's embarrassing! Makes me want to find a new news outlet...

      September 4, 2010 at 12:29 pm |
  2. streetcar01

    Matt Litton needs to heed number 1 above a little more..."Try understanding others." ie put yourself in anther's shoes. When he states that the above are christian messages, he is implying to me that Christian's own these. They are not available to the rest of us. It comes across as quite arrogant. And he is not the only Christian doing this. I see this all the time. I wonder if it is just a christian way of saying "we adhere to these" values. Anyway, it comes across quite bad.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
  3. Sybaris

    Once again myopia and ignorance raise their ugly heads.

    Christianity does NOT corner the market on morality, values, ethics, etc.. If the Christian posit was true then any non-christian region would be in chaos. Obviously that is not the case. Those same standards are repeated in many religions all over the world. Regardless, religion is not a pre-requisite to be moral and it isn't zapped into your head by a holy invisible sky man. The codes we live by evolved as a byproduct from the success of the group which was in place long before the Bible was invented. YHWH was late and Moses was a stone cutter.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
  4. Angelo

    Absolutely agree! Thanks for this refreshing article. I love this book and movie and it has always been in tune with the wisdom of God's Word. Thanks again.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:36 pm |
  5. C

    To Kill a Mockinbird is an incredible book, with more than one great message – none of which, however, does Christianity have any right to co-opt. No religion has any claim of ownership on morality – none created it. You don't have to be Chritsian to be moral, or moral to be a Christian. Jesus maybe said some things encouraging living a moral life, but he can't claim to have developed and created that morality. The other problem I have with a Christian (or any other religion) claim of ownership over morality is that, religion has historically been one of the most convenient and insidious vehicles that permits and even endorses certain behavior that the outside universe would easily recognize as immoral... i.e. child abuse immunity for clergy, bigotry toward gays, lesbians and racial hatred, subjugation of women, etc. Can't fully remember the quote, but it's something along the lines of – "There are good people that do good things, and evil people that do evil things, but only with religion can you find good people doing evil things."

    September 3, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  6. Henry Miller

    Once again, a Christian trying to claim credit for Christianity for ordinary human behaviour. If Christianity didn't exist, would people never have thought to "try to understand others?" In pre-Christian times, did people never think to "live in the here and now?" Are there no Buddhists who "embrace and encourage idealism?"

    That kind of hypocrisy, like the assertion that all things that are good are owed to that religion, is one of the annoying things about religions–which completely ignore, of course, the darker sides like the sometimes lethal intolerance and prejudice exhibited by the religious.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  7. Carol

    Would have to agree that morality is and should always be a human value and not labeled as the charge of any one religion. All religions are essentially the same at their core (even Islam) and bring order in societies. When you think about it Jesus was not a Christian.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:32 pm |
  8. Coach P

    Great article!!! It correctly points out that Christianity is meant to be LIVED - not just studied, simply discussed or otherwise reduced to concepts.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  9. Steve Brooks

    A few swing votes by a council in the 4th century and your beliefs would entirely different.

    Xtianity, islam and other religions are hand-me-down mythology and superstition, nothing more.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
  10. Ananda

    These lessons can also be said of all the world's major religions. Christianity is not unique.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  11. KeithC

    Good points, but, one hopes you would be more specific with your Christian audience, as they're not known for understanding nuance. Consider that they're the same audience loudly demonizing peaceful, law-abiding American citizens for wanting to expand a building they've been using as a community center and place of worship for over two years, yet who get upset when a city refuses to allow the staging of a Nativity scene on public land. Hypocrisy is another theme of the novel, as evidenced by the value placed on the guilty, sleazy, lying white man's testimony versus the innocent, honorable black man's, all due to skin color. It's a lesson that your Christian audience might want to ponder as it continues to perpetuate McCarthian tactics upon innocent, law-abiding citizens who’ve done nothing to earn your audience’s disdain.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
  12. AlisonJane

    I'm sorry Matt. But you picked my favorite book, so you have this coming.

    The first three of your "principles" do not have to have anything to do with faith or God. They are simply methods of living that will make your life and the lives of others more comfortable. With or without God, man would have figured that out. It is simple arrogance that assumes those characteristics wouldn't have developed without Christianity, not to mention a statement that completely disregards literature that has been in existence LOOONG before the Bible. "Redemption actually began in a movement of God’s compassion." What absolute absurdity.

    As for your last principle, "Be guided by faith, not circumstances". This is just complete ignorance. If we used your Bible and faith as a way to live our lives we would be stoning workers on Sunday. We should be extremely cognizant of how our experiences have molded our lives, our past, and inevitably our future. We should then used those experiences/circumstances to make educated and well thought out decisions.

    As for my favorite book, I feel you are grasping at straws. Your literary support is weak at best. You wrote a short article based off of two quotes and two scenes (which you could have taken from the movie)... Did you even read the book before you wrote this article Matt? Or did you just "google" it and watch clips of it on Youtube?

    Christianity is NOT Harper Lee's motivation for writing this story. When Scout asks Atticus why he is defending Tom Robinson he says, "[f]or a number of reasons.The main one is, if I didn't I couldn't hold up my head in town, I couldn't represent this county in the legislature, I couldn't even tell Jem not to do something again". It isn't God's judgment that Atticus is concerned about, it's his OWN judgment. Your "quote" is from the movie and was added not by Harper Lee, but by a screen writer.

    I'm completely disgusted that you would try to take a novel of such social importance and attempt to turn it into a new testament. In fact, I'm very interested to see what Harper Lee would make of it.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
  13. Steve Brooks

    There is nothing original about xtianity; everything was copied from other beliefs (Mythras, Zoroastrianism etc) and were prevalent beliefs of the time and in the region.

    Xtianity was fabricated using those old copied fairy tales about god-men, miracles, virgin birth, resurrection and sky pixies by ancient tribesmen who did not have the luxury of all the scientific discoveries we have available to us now.

    These are the same people who claimed the earth was flat and god poured rain in through the dome cover. Those are the myths xtianity is based on. Hares do not chew cud, pi is not 3; everything about the genesis fable of creation is exactly the opposite of what science has discovered since.

    Morals do not, and never have, come from religion and certainly not from xtianity. Places with high religiosity and popular denial of evolution have the highest crime rates. This is statistically proven worldwide as well across as the US bible belt.

    Anyone who claims xtianity provides morals has not read the bible; they're merely parroting what they've heard and being the zombies they were indoctrinated to be.

    Xtianity is the biggest hoax ever perpetrated upon mankind; Darwin shattered your glass houses long before you were ever born yet you continue to spew the same old tired lies from the bible that were debunked centuries ago.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
    • Henry Miller

      Well said, sir!

      September 3, 2010 at 2:37 pm |
    • Cindy

      You are so filled with hate you can't even type out the full name. God bless you anyway!

      September 3, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
    • Buster Bloodvessel

      Aw, you hurt cindy's feelings, and she called you a hater. Then she sicced her god on you. I bet you feel really bad now!

      September 3, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
    • Deb

      Actually "x" is the abbreviated form of "Christ." Therefor, "xianity" is a perfectly acceptable spelling of Christianity. I just love irony.

      September 3, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
    • Rudy

      You call the original comment hateful when in reality it's the truth. You're playing what's commonly referred to as the "Poor Persecuted Christian" card.

      The bibble clearly states that god firmly fixed the earth on foundations.
      According to the Bible, the sun revolves around the earth.
      The book of Matthew alone has over 150 contradictions.
      According to Genesis, god creates light and separates light from darkness, day from night, on the first day. Yet in 1:14-19 it states he made the light producing objects (sun and stars produce light in the sky) on the fourth day.
      The list can go on and on and on...

      The bible does not stand up to the least scrutiny whatsoever, has no supporting evidence yet Christians routinely criticise science and scientific method and claim a free pass to make up anything they wish to interpret including the stunningly preposterous claim to an afterlife in heaven while condemning non-believers to an eternity in gods torture chamber.

      Why do Christians get off on burning and torturing people for eternity simply because the person doubts the veracity of biblical claims? What a sadistic lot. According to Christianity, non-believers will burn forever regardless of their behavior otherwise while Christians are destined for their (imaginary & delusional) heaven because they have faith.

      Christians don't seem to realize the irony in clinging to ancient superstitious beliefs that were made up to answer questions they had no valid answer to, insisting their religion is "the true word", revising history, hating and revising science to suit their desires, lying about it all, suggesting the government should be based on christian values and hijacking morality as if Christianity and morality had a correlation. There is in fact no correlation between Christianity and good behavior, quite the contrary in fact.

      September 3, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
  14. Eric of Reseda

    Jeez, I hate to be the cynic, but since American Christians allowed the political Right to dictate their beliefs – whether it be that all Liberals are godless Socialists, or that Obama is a Muslim, or that environmentalism is a Leftist conspiracy – Christians in this country have become a hateful group. Remember, it was Christians showing up at town hall meetings with sidearms and assault rifles, and it wasn't just a few whackos. Modern Christianity in America follows ANYTHING by the teachings of Christ. Evangelicals get together by the thousands and TALK a good game, and get caught up in the crowd dynamic, and everyone is screaming, "Praise Jesus". Afterward, they go back to be nothing more than a Right Wing voting block. I mean, how does a Christian justify pollution and wiping out entire species?!? By supporting the Christian Right, which is simply a political wolf in sheep's clothes.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
  15. jules

    Why is this called belief? and why is it in a NEWS paper where hopefully only fact based content should be? After trudging through this I am amazed that you want this to be about equality when the Bible is anything but, and I am not talking rascism I am talking female righs! A woman was responsible for evil, a woman betrayed sonso, a woman should follow her husband... blah blah blah
    We are both atheists, I just believe in 1 less GOD than you do, when you realise why you dismiss all other GODS then you will know why I dismiss yours!

    September 3, 2010 at 2:22 pm |
  16. Tim

    " Maybe we should conduct our daily business guided solely by our beliefs"

    Right, please rethink this. I would hate to live in your blissfully ignorant world (and unfortunately, i do). Consider the millions who have died at the hands of someone acting solely on their beliefs.

    To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books of all times, and I'm glad to see that you extrapolated these lessons from it. Why, however, are you ascribing the Christian religion to these values? None of them are intrinsically Christian and they all pre-date Christianity. How are these values any different from the views philosophers had espoused centuries before? This article could have been a 10 out of 10, but the assumption that these are Christian beliefs and/or are for Christians is laughable. Couldn't it have just been titled "lessons to learn from Mockingbird"? You know, something everybody could learn from?

    I know Christians can be good people and that their religion provides them with a moral backbone (would they have no morals if it weren't for religion?), but how is doing good for God (to get into heaven) good at all?

    Either way, the greatest human folly is to act solely on beliefs. I still can't believe you suggested that.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:21 pm |
  17. kd

    The lessons are universal. No single religion can lay claim to them. They apply to humanity, even the vast numbers who claim no religion.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:18 pm |
  18. Rich

    THere is nothing religious in this book. This is just "do onto others as they would do on to you." Where is there anything about the supernatural and his superhero son swooping down to save the day. Or silly beliefs in apples and snakes and burning bushes and voices in your head to kill your son....

    September 3, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
    • mmrogers16

      No, chiz! C.S. Lewis gave you your gift and all of the supernatural junk in the Chronicles of Narnia. Just take that and run with it and leave TKAM to the public at large.

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

      "do onto others as they would do on to you."

      First of all, the Golden Rule is "Do unto others as YOU WOULD HAVE THEM do unto you." Not as they do.

      Secondly, where do you think this particular rule came from? Oh, right THE BIBLE. Several variations exist in other religions. But don't make the mistake of thinking that people would have come up with this rule without religion. They don't.

      September 3, 2010 at 2:46 pm |
    • Bill

      @Cindy: Actually, Greek Philosophers were debating morality and how best to treat their fellow human being for hundreds of years before Christianity appeared. So really, these values and the golden rule can be more attributed to agnostic humanists, deists, and proclaimed atheists long before Christianity appeared. It doesn't make the message any less valuable to atheists and the religious-minded however. Regardless of "who said it first", it needs to continue to be said.

      September 3, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
  19. Pat

    Thank you so much for the article. We need to be challenged about the disconnect between what we say we believe and what we do. And for those who point out that this ethic is not strictly Christian, I agree. It appears in every major religion in some form or other, but it is good for "Christians" to be reminded that their behavior is what will be judged, not the fervor of their beliefs. Many devout practicioners of a particular religion have done terrible deeds in their God's name, but invoking God's name does not make a dispicable act holy. An act is holy only if it meets the standards set by God, intention or feelings be damned (quite literally). You can be sincerly wrong in your behavior – regardless of your professed beliefs, but if you truly possess those beliefs, your behavior will never permit you to harm anyone, discriminate against anyone or tolorate the behavior when you see it. If more of us stood up for what was right, it would be a less lonely experience, but standing alone for what is right is necessary even when it is lonely – which is what "To Kill a Mockingbird" was all about.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:16 pm |
  20. Jane

    Once again, Mr. LItton MISQUOTED Atticus. And the novel is NOT about Christianity. I teach this novel.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
    • Kris

      Jane – I am not disputing that you are a fine teacher, however, in Harper Lee's words herself she expressed that "surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that TKMB spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in ethic...."

      September 3, 2010 at 4:15 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.