To Kill A Mockingbird and the Gospel Story

UnknownHarper Lee’s 1960 classic To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the American south during the turbulent and transitional 1930s. Partly, I am drawn to the story because of the aura surrounding Mrs. Lee. The book has been hailed as an American classic, the winner of many prizes including the coveted Pulitzer, yet Mrs. Lee continues to live a quiet and private life, largely shunning the celebrity spotlight her book undoubtedly provides. She’s said her piece, and doesn’t feel the need to say it again. I remember reading the book in High School. I had a remote memory of some tragedy or injustice that took place therein, but it was too long ago to remember the details. And so I recently picked the book up again. After reading the book afresh, I was struck by the rich connections between To Kill a Mockingbird and the Gospel story. Here I share but a few.

I’ve described the gospel story in terms of a three-act play: Tragedy—Comedy—Fairy story. We find all three elements in Harper Lee’s story as well:

Tragedy: Maycomb County in the 1930s was divided racially between blacks and whites, socially between the educated townspeople and the simple-minded country folk, and economically between the poor and the rich. The result was a town that lived in relative peace, until some events shattered their fragile co-existence. A black man is sexually assaulted by a poor and lonely white women, and when he resists, he is falsely accused of rape. A white jury convicts the black man of rape, even as the evidence points to his innocence. In desperation, the black man tries to escape prison and is shot dead, leaving a wife and children to fend for themselves. The real villain, the dad of the lonely white women, tries to kill the children of the lawyer (Atticus Finch) who defended the black man, and falls on his own knife in the process. All of this is tragic and it reveals the evil in man’s heart, and our need for healing. So too, the gospel story begins with man’s tragedy. As the book of Romans describes it:

“There is no one righteous, not even one….there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10, 12)

Comedy: The comic is the unexpected. It is the unforeseen. We find high comedy in the person of Atticus Finch, the father of the little girl, Scout, who narrates the story for us. Who would have expected a respectable white man to defend the lowly black man, Tom Robinson? Who would have expected this same white man to stand bravely before a lynch mob who came one night to drag Tom Robinson out of jail and deliver a Southern kind of justice? Who would have expected a quiet, unpresumptuous man to be the strong, steady hand of courage, love, and truth in this southern town? Scout didn’t always understand her father, or see him for who he really was, but Atticus stands out as the hero of the story, and the champion of truth and justice. So too in the gospel story. Who would have seen it coming? Who would have expected the creator of the universe to send His Son, who took on a human nature, so that we could find peace, wholeness, and forgiveness for sins? Jesus, like Atticus, was unassuming, yet firm in conviction and purpose, methodically walking toward the Cross for the sake of that which he came to save.  Listen to Jesus’ own statement of his purpose in the gospel of Mark:

“For even the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 9:45)

Fairy Story: Fairy story is the happy ending, or better, the happy turn—for fairy stories never end. And we find this happy turn in To Kill a Mockingbird, as the story comes to an end, and we see that the story, at its most basic level, is a love story. It is a story of Atticus’ love for his daughter Scout as he gently tucks her into bed after a tragic filled night where she is attacked and her brother Jem is injured. We see this fairy story turn in the innocence and love of a brother (Jem) for his sister, when Jem defends her from their assailant. The story ends with echoes of a better world—where all the cracks are filled, and justice is found, and all people learn to live and love as members of the human race, created equal by their creator. And this is the gospel message, that in Christ, all peoples of the world are made one. As Paul puts in in Ephesians:

“For he himself [Christ] is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility….For through him we both [Jews and Gentiles]  have access to the Father by one Spirit.” (Ephesians 2: 14,18)

So, dust off your copy of To Kill a Mockingbird and read it again. Or read it for the first time. You won’t be sorry. And as you read it, listen to the underlying story that is the gospel, and then turn to Him who is the point of that story—Jesus Christ—and find hope, forgiveness, and peace.















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