Friday, November 12, 2010

To Kill a Mockingbird's spiritual lessons

I wrote this feature for the Nov. 14, 2010 issue of The Living Church magazine.

Matt Litton grew up in an evangelical family of educators, giving him an early familiarity with both The Good Book and good books. In that latter category, one in particular, To Kill a Mockingbird, captured his heart when he discovered it at about age 12.

The novel’s messages of compassion and the importance of caring for our neighbors continue to resonate for him. Now 38, Litton teaches To Kill a Mockingbird at Mariemont High School in Cincinnati. In revisiting Harper Lee’s 1960 novel of racism and family life in the American South each year, he began hearing the word of God though the characters and themes.

After a couple of years of mulling over the biblical messages, he sat down and wrote a comparison of God and Boo Radley, the mysterious young man who lives hidden away from his neighbors in the tiny Alabama town of Maycomb. From there he crafted parables of other characters, as well as themes such as religious hypocrisy and the role of women in faith. The result is the creative and inspiring new book The Mockingbird Parables.

To Kill a Mockingbird is so familiar and a part of our culture,” he said one morning during a phone interview from his school. “It’s the most widely read book in secondary schools; more than a million copies are sold each year. It’s a story we’re all familiar with, but it also contains some gospel in it.”

He said he had no feelings of presumptuousness in taking on such a revered classic in his own book.

“It’s not literary criticism. It’s not intended that way. The themes, the characters speak into how we should live our faith out. It’s not meant to be academic. The Mockingbird Parables is a front porch conversation. I saw in To Kill a Mockingbird an opportunity to talk about our connection to each other. Loving God is easy. Loving our neighbor is challenging.”

Still, he didn’t send a copy to Ms. Lee.

“I know she’s reclusive,” he said. “I would love it if she would read it, but I want to be as respectful of her as I can. She wrote the book and that’s enough. She doesn’t owe anybody anything. The Mockingbird Parables is how an American story spoke to me in a kind of faith conversation.”

The novel’s appeal over a half century, Litton says, is that it presents so many different messages -- lessons in how to handle finances in hard times, of compassion, of courage.

“No matter the time period, it’s so rich. We’re eternally struggling with compassion and seeing the world through other people’s perspective. It’s why it continues to be so relevant.”

He hopes in his book readers will hear the gospel’s call to put compassion into action, encouraging them “to walk out your front doors and endeavor to truly know and love each other.”

The Parable of Boo Radley: Discovering Our Divine Mysterious Neighbor.

The 10 parables Litton has developed reflect deep insight into the novel’s characters and knowledge of scripture and the Christian faith. He clearly loves all three. Here are selections from one parable.

Like God, Boo is mysterious. “’Who is Boo Radley?’ may be one of the most haunting questions in the history of American literature,” Litton writes, likening it to our desire to know God.

“’Who is Boo Radley?’ eloquently mirrors the question that underlies our very existence, that should ignite our imaginations and stir us with passion on our spiritual journeys,” Litton writes. “The persistence with which we ask this question defines the vitality of our faith in God.”

In this parable Litton, like the novel’s three children, Scout, Jem and Dill, looks for an answer to that question, making a case for Boo as a loving God looking out for his children. That God is available for all, but too often people are content to label God without seeking to know God, just as the the townsfolk of Maycomb have done with Boo. But the children “are spellbound” by the question of who Boo is and “it is their persistence that ultimately drives Boo into their lives.”

“The children provide a wonderful model of how we should pursue God,” Litton writes. “The children’s act of seeking Boo Radley represents the quintessence of what it means to be people of faith. . . . Scout, Jem and Dill are constantly grappling for answers about Boo that reach beyond the shallow explanations of the detached and impartial town elders.

“The children know Boo is there, but are still seeking, and it is their inquisitiveness that drives them toward relationship with him. It is the wrestling or, more clearly articulated, the seeking that defines a vigorous and burning faith.”

This seeking goes both ways. “Boo Radley is pursuing a relationship with the children, much as God has been chasing after us since . . . well, since the beginning of time.” Boo hides gifts for the children in the knothole of the tree, gifts that “fit the everydayness of the children’s lives, and places them where they will notice -- meeting them where they are.

“I find that God works the same way. When we take the time to observe the day a little more like children do, with a little more inquisitiveness, we begin to see the gifts that God leaves for us in the midst of our routines.”

In the climatic scene at the end, Boo moves from the children’s imaginations into their reality, emerging from his house to save their lives from the drunken assailant who seeks to harm them. This, Litton maintains, reflects a God who still intervenes in the world.

The story ends with Scout and Boo walking hand in hand back to his house. “As she stands at Boo’s front porch, she notices that his view of the neighborhood is completely different from any she has seen. She realizes that from the Radley porch, Boo has a clear view of the ‘entire neighborhood’ -- not just one house. Every place the children frequent -- from Miss Maudie’s yard to their own front porch -- is in sight of Boo’s window. It provides a sobering reminder to us that God’s perspective on our lives is eternal and infinitely broader than our own.

“From the Radley porch, Scout understands not only that Boo’s view of the world is much different than her own, but that he has been vigilantly watching over ‘his children’ season after season.”

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