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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. Megan

    I suppose we all know what we're getting into when we read an article titled "Christian Lessons in Harper Lee's classic," and freedom of speech and opinion is and should always be supported – but good lord, people. Arguing back and forth about whether its Christian, whether its common sense, problems with the Muslim religion, calling each other idiots – relax.

    It is a decently thought out article describing one man's interpretation of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Decently argued and researched.

    You can infer that the characters are written with some Christian models in mind based on their environment and the discussions each character has – particularly Atticus Finch's comment on defending Tom: “Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t defend that man." So the author does have a basis for his Christian commentary.

    It does not mean that a person who isn't a Christian cannot have a moral guide. The author did not say that. He is merely attaching a Christian interpretation to the lessons provided in the story. He calls it "a guiding force," not "THE guiding force." I'm not even Christian and I can still read this article without throwing a hissy fit.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:44 pm |
    • christina

      Well said!

      April 12, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  2. Kris

    To any nay sayer of this article and TKMB's correlation to Christianity, why dont you read Harper Lee's interview in 1966? She specifically notes that it is "Christian in its ethic". Is it so hard to believe that Christianity was so prevalent in this country at one time? Is it such a bitter pill to swallow that some people hold to a foundation that is entirely faith based? Christ reigns. Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:43 pm |
    • Mark

      Kris – It wasn't an interview, it was a letter. A letter in response to the Hanover School Board's proposal to ban the book as "Immoral Literature"...supposedly because the "Christian Ethic" in the book wasn't being practiced by the christians in the book.

      September 3, 2010 at 4:22 pm |
    • Kris

      @Mark
      You are correct, a "letter" to the editor. But I think we interpret the words in her "letter" differently, Mark. I appreciate your correction on the "letter" vs "article" though.

      September 3, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
    • Selfish Gene

      What was morality before christianity was invented? Did the Greeks murder everything, rape everyone, steal from their neighbor? or did they invent democracy and higher learning?
      Morality existed long before religion. Our species would have died if we didn't look after one another.

      September 9, 2010 at 9:41 am |
  3. KrLess

    I wish Christianity even pretended to support understanding others, but it doesn't. Sure, JESUS did – but I don't judge the church by how Jesus acted – just like I don't judge Jesus by how the church acts. The church's practices and methods do the opposite – they divide, divide, divide. That's why we have so many denominations, instead of just one church of Jesus.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:41 pm |
  4. Tom

    So does this mean that if one day I am strolling through Helmsland Province, Afghanistan and encounter a nice Taliban family about to stone their daughter for deciding against an arranged marriage, I am supposed to lecture Scout about accepting the ways of others, no matter how different or foreign their actions, beliefs and behaviors?

    September 3, 2010 at 3:40 pm |
    • Deb

      Atticus did not lecture Scout on accepting the ways of others, but to try to see something from another's point of view. At this time in the story Atticus was trying to help Scout understand why Mr. Cunningham didn't want attention brought to the fact that he was paying his legal fees with produce rather than money.

      September 3, 2010 at 4:19 pm |
  5. Kristine

    Seriously, if you don't like anything to do with christianity, stay out of the Belief blog. Really, stop spreading your hate around.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
    • AlisonJane

      Think of it like a car wreck Kristine – we just can't look away from the hypocrisy, ignorance, and misguidance.

      September 3, 2010 at 3:57 pm |
    • PeteH

      I'll keep my atheist friends out of the belief blog when you keep the bible-beaters away from Planned Parenthood.

      September 4, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
  6. sheppard

    john – in what schools is this book banned and why? A list, please.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:33 pm |
    • Steven

      As I stated earlier in response to your reply to John, just google "to kill a mockingbird+banned" and you will get the information.

      September 3, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  7. Buster Bloodvessel

    These are all lessons that are called 'disgusting liberality' or 'progressive' by today's leaders. You are too late; Jesus died for nothing.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
    • Deb

      I must disagree. Jesus died for everything.

      September 3, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
    • Selfish Gene

      Jesus died. The End.
      Constantine I needed power, invented christianity.

      September 9, 2010 at 9:37 am |
  8. Sharon

    Great article, and I couldn't agree more. TKAM is one of my favorite books in the universe, and I have read it over many times. In spite of the way things turned out, Atticus and Miss Maudie were heroes to me, and I know that they eneded up influencing my thinking more than any pastor ever did. Their "spirituality", if you will, had nothing at all to do with Christianity, even though I would define their behavior as truly "Christian", as the way I think Christ originally presented it. Course, this also means that it is truly Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist, as well, because I think all faiths lead to love and freedom.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:20 pm |
  9. john g

    Its a shame that this book is banned in most schools ,It is one of my favorate books since I was a very young child ,Great article!!!!

    September 3, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
    • sheppard

      Seriously john – in what schools (most???) is this book banned and why? You got that list yet?

      September 3, 2010 at 3:51 pm |
    • Steven

      Sheppard–just google "to kill a mockingbird+banned" and you will get the information.

      September 3, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  10. John

    @Tim. Morality is a behavior and behaviors are the key to whether we are part of the evolutionary 'main line' or just an offshoot that ends in a cul-de-sac. Altruism, for example, makes a great deal of sense when it is directed towards preserving the brood, the tribe, passing on your genetic make-up, etc. We started out as a creature made to live in extended social groups ranging in size from 8 – the minimum – to around 120 or so. At the present time, we are living in close contact with millions. The key to solving many of the problems which absolutely need to be solved – global warming, starvation, nuclear arms, etc – will actually lie in our ability to take the next step in evolution and develop into a creature that lives successfully in a global community. Teilhard de Chardin wrote extensively about this movement back in the 40's and 50's and got silenced by the Catholic Church for it. But his thoughts, which fit equally well in Christian, Judaic, Buddhist, or agnostic framework, may hold the key to taking the next step forward.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
  11. Michelle93

    Thank you, this is what Christianity should be based on. I feel as if Christianity has strayed away from spirituality and become too concerned with being "religious." I think christianity done right can be a very spiritual religion, its just too bad most Christians dont interpret its teachings in that way.

    September 3, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
  12. Mark

    Hmmmm.... I read this book recently and loved it, but I'm curious how some of you think it protrays christianity in a good light. It doesn't. One of the underlying themes is that the "Christian" people of the community are utterly incapable of seeing the hypocrisy in how they treat others.

    This book rocks, but it certainly is NOT about christian values!

    September 3, 2010 at 2:58 pm |
  13. Andi

    It wouldn't hurt anyone to read this article each day, as it begins, as a reminder. The movie is my all-time favorite, so I couldn't resist clicking on it. So glad I did. Thanks Matt.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  14. Steve Brooks

    Funny how a council in the 4th century voted on what sheeple's beliefs would be.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  15. V Saxena

    Oh Wow. I never read it because I was expelled for possession before I got to the upper-HS levels. After reading this article, however, I'm quite inspired to buy a copy! I've always wondered why people rave about this book, but I finally get it.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
    • Selfish Gene

      I read it in middle school. It is not about god at all.

      September 9, 2010 at 9:35 am |
  16. Lit. Prof.

    Well, besides the grammatical oversight "Oour," I find self asking: why do you need "religion" for evaluations 1-3? Can't educated, open-minded people arrive at these values? Moreover, the implications of the following statement is troubling: "Maybe we should conduct our daily business guided solely by our beliefs." Are we ignoring reason and dialogue? Plus, which beliefs? Religious beliefs are not mutually consistent. Your argument fallaciously assumes that there is one standard for all beliefs. A poor piece of literary criticism and logic.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
    • AlisonJane

      I completely agree with you Professor. I can't believe the author of this article calls himself an educator and actually published a book on this topic! Literary Criticism was my favorite class in school; if I had failed in providing credible evidence to support my claims, I guarantee I wouldn't have received a passing grade... This article is pathetic and an embarrassment to literary critics everywhere.

      September 3, 2010 at 3:05 pm |
    • Kyle

      This blog is a snapshot of Matt Litton's book THE MOCKINGBIRD PARABLES. It is neither literary criticism nor an attempt to be all things to all people. Rather, it reflects what he has come to see in Harper Lee's novel and its characters through the lens of his Christian faith. He doesn't speak for Harper Lee but for himself. Still, regardless anyone's beliefs, I think this article does speak of a truth with which we can all agree–that the world would be better if we lived our lives looking outward (compassionately loving others) rather than inward (always living to please ourselves).

      September 3, 2010 at 5:24 pm |
  17. Steven

    Favorite sayings of Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Oral Roberts, Richard Roberts, Benny Hinn and other christian hucksters of their ilk:

    "Send your money"

    "Let us prey"

    September 3, 2010 at 2:49 pm |
    • Andi

      Nothing about this article requested money from anyone for anything. There always seems to be at least one commenter trying to turn something lovely into something ugly. I don't understand why some folks feel the need to inject cynicism & ugliness into something beautiful, especially when the comment has absolutely nothing to do with article.

      September 3, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
  18. Angie

    Fantastic article! Thanks for the reminders of what our faith is suppossed to be, and for letting me re-live some of that wonderful book and movie in my mind!

    September 3, 2010 at 2:41 pm |
  19. RobertF

    The first three lessons have nothing to do with Christianity or any religion. They are basic morals with which any good person would agree. The fourth lesson is a real problem. People can have "faith" in many different things. The 9-11 attacks were carried out by people with "faith". Let's stick with something real rather than living our lives according to myths.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:40 pm |
  20. Steve Brooks

    US prisons are packed with christians who've committed violent crimes. It's a statistical fact, one which xtians will hopscotch and dance away from to the extreme of claiming the criminals aren't "real christians". Newsflash: it is up to the individual, not others to decide if they believe in xtianity or not.

    Adolph Hitler was christian to the core.

    September 3, 2010 at 2:40 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.