For more than 50 years, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has not only captivated audiences but transformed them. Now, a new book explores the novel’s lessons of spiritual truth.
Last year one of the most memorable novels in American history reached an important milestone. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird celebrated 50 years since publication, and next year marks 50 years for the equally iconic film version of Lee’s story.
Many of us recognize To Kill a Mockingbird as one of the books on our required reading lists from high school. For others, it is one of their favorite classic movies, with Gregory Peck’s quiet strength as Southern lawyer Atticus Finch representing one of the all-time great screen portrayals. Either way, Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel imparts a story of great significance; its characters leave a lifelong impression on our consciences and hearts. We don’t just read or watch To Kill a Mockingbird; we experience it.
Matt Litton understands this better than most. His latest book, The Mockingbird Parables: Transforming Lives Through the Power of Story, explores the insight and wisdom
To Kill a Mockingbird offers those who venture into its pages.
Litton (right), a high school teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio, was first introduced to Harper Lee’s only published book by his mother, an English teacher. She read it to him and his siblings one year during a family vacation to the beach. He recalls, “I found it deeply affecting that first listen. When I read it on my own, I think I was, like many others, enthralled with the courage of Atticus and the honesty of Scout, shocked by the actions and attitudes of the “churchgoing” folks, and grieved by the conviction and eventual death of the innocent Tom Robinson.”
Like most others who read the book, Litton found that the story of Scout, Jem, and Atticus brought a new perspective to life. “As a young person, it was my first glimpse at what can happen when good people make the decision to stand by and do nothing. I grew up in a middle-class setting, with parents who were both educators; we were taught that people are just people no matter their color, shape, size, gender, or income. I think To Kill a Mockingbird was my initial look at some pretty harsh realities about the world — my first inkling that there is injustice, my first realization of the existence of prejudice and racism. I didn’t understand it at the time, but it was also my introduction to true courage in the character of Atticus, and my first realization that real courage doesn’t always win the day. Like most young readers, I was also caught up with the mystery of Boo Radley.”
An educator himself, Litton also notes the impact the novel has on his students. “They are certainly touched by it on different levels. I think most of my students are immediately fascinated with the reclusive and mysterious character of Boo Radley. Initially Boo captures their imaginations, but then they are drawn into the greater story. For many of my students, it is also their first experience with prejudice and its destructive impact — not just on individual people, but whole communities.”
The greater story, a tale of the darkest and brightest aspects of human nature, still draws many to its pages. When asked about To Kill a Mockingbird’s relevance on American culture, Litton says, “I think it remains relevant because it teaches us so many lessons about how to live in community with one another.”
In The Mockingbird Parables, Litton points out that the essence of Harper Lee’s story is the message of compassion.
“Atticus tells his daughter, Scout, ‘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.’ In my opinion, the novel continues to be relevant because the message of compassion is one that we still need to hear. I don’t believe people can change, or that the world can change, without compassion. Change only happens when we take the time to stand in someone else’s shoes and see the world from their perspective.”
To Kill a Mockingbird is a great opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. Scout Finch is a compelling narrator and, in Litton’s opinion, adds to the relevance of the novel.
“Harper Lee’s choice to use a child as the narrator is one of the things that add to its lasting relevance. I think most children view the world with an innate sense of fairness. Scout sees things as they are — she has not yet been conditioned to see the world like the adults of Maycomb.”
He adds: “There is a remarkable moment in the novel that I discuss in The Mockingbird Parables where Scout walks out of the courtroom with her friend Dill. He is really upset about the way the white prosecutor has been talking down the witness, Tom Robinson, just because of his skin color. Dill is so disturbed by the behavior of the adults that he tells Scout he is going to join the circus when he grows up so that he can laugh at all of them. He simply can’t process the attitudes of the adults; he can see the injustice of it, so why can’t they?”
Litton also connects this childlike perspective to bedrock principals of the Christian faith. “In many ways that is exactly what Jesus is pointing to when he calls a little child to himself and stands him among the adults and tells them that we must become like little children if we are going to enter the kingdom of heaven. As we grow older, we begin to look around at the illness, the sin, the prejudice, the poverty, the injustice, and just resign ourselves to it. Adults are conditioned to think — that is just ‘the way it is.’ Children still possess that sense of idealism — a belief that things can change. Scout’s age allows her to speak the truth from that perspective.”
As Christians, we need to recognize that Jesus calls us into the same sense of idealism, Litton says. We must maintain a conviction that the world can change and things are not as they should be. “We need to grab hold of that ‘childlike’ view of the world.”
For more information about Scott Litton, visit hin at mattlitton.com.