The latest film in the Star Wars franchise, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” is scheduled for release on December 18th, and soon our culture will become awash in Star Wars imagery. It seems we take fantasy stories very seriously! So much so that on Monday, October 19, when a movie trailer for the film aired on the Internet it resulted in such a rush for advanced ticket purchases that a popular on-line ticket site, Fandango, crashed.
Although some critics question the social relevance of fantasy stories like Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Star Trek franchise, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings, these forms of literature and film are deceptively potent forces in cultures. Underneath their texts, scripts and computer-generated action scenes, there throbs the heartbeat of ancient themes and characters that serve as strong “soul forming” vehicles. The history of every society is dotted with examples of “make-believe” stories that have shaped values like courage, self-sacrifice, acceptance of the neighbor and stranger when others do not, perseverance under fierce trials, defense of the innocent or defenseless even if it requires risking one’s life, or standing against formidable odds to promote justice As St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, saw so clearly in the 16th century, it is through our imaginations that we often grow into something more than we already are. This is why early Jesuit schools gave a special place in the curriculum to great literature.
Today, most Americans know something about Harper Lee’s famous first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was a runaway bestseller when it was released in July of 1960. Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and many other prizes for the book, and served as a consultant in writing the script for the movie, which opened in theaters on Christmas Day, 1962. Like the book, the movie is considered by many one of the best ever made—winning three Academy Awards. It still sells a million copies per year, and over 30 million since it was first published. It is regularly ranked in surveys as the most influential book in Americans’ lives, outside of the Bible.
On the surface, Mockingbird is a coming of age story, told through the reflections of a young woman looking back on her life as a pre-adolescent girl in a poor town in Alabama. But, both the book and the film are a tale layered with messages about living well and living poorly. Mockingbird explores the evil of racism, a child’s gradual loss of innocence and awakening to good and evil, the cruelty that exists among small-minded people, the human capacity to fight for justice despite an unjust and imperfect world, the idea that true heroism can exist within the day-to-day acts of a good person, and the courage and determination required to change a society. The story inspired many young people to become lawyers or go into public service, and many more to become involved in the Civil Rights movement, which was reaching a fevered pitch at the time the book and film were released—sometimes the right story appears when the human race needs it the most, and Harper Lee’s book was the right book at the right time.
Mockingbird has continued to inspire generations of people, and it was such a runaway success that Harper Lee never published again. That is, until this summer when she released her second novel, Go Set a Watchman. This new novel has many of the same characters as her first, but it tells a very different kind of story. Several sections in Watchman have racially offensive language, and while Atticus remains a somewhat principled individual who believes in the law as a humanizing force in society, he also has an almost irrational distrust of the federal government, a conspiracy theory about the NAACP, and believes that 1950s African-Americans in the South are not ready to assume full citizenship alongside the white descendants of the Confederacy. At the beginning of Watchman Atticus is still Scout’s ethical north-star, but she’s an adult now, has been living in the progressive environment of New York City, and the hero worship of her father unravels when she witnesses him attend a Ku Klux Klan meeting. The climax of the book deals with Scout’s struggle to make sense of the inconsistencies in her father’s attitudes about race and his character—she struggles to stand up to him without walking away from the relationship altogether.
Watchman is a bitter disappointment if you are expecting a sequel to Mockingbird. The beloved Atticus of the first book is a mere specter of the character he exhibited in the second. But, Watchman is not meant to be a sequel—it is actually Lee’s first draft of Mockingbird. When she submitted it to a publisher, the company saw the promise in both the writer and her story, but did not see a value in printing her submission. Consequently, Lee engaged in a grueling re-write process that gave birth to a far more attractive story. Harper Lee’s second book offers an insider’s view of the process of writing the great American novel. In this first draft, we see a story dripping with an existential grayness. Given Lee’s own story as a bright girl growing up Alabama, you can get a glimpse of her own struggle with navigating relationships with family and friends she left behind in the South who held reprehensible racial attitudes. For all of its limitations, Watchman highlights one of the biggest challenges faced by those who have been awakened to the ingrained injustices in a society: the tension that comes with facing family and friends whose contradictory beliefs allow them to hold high-minded morals in some areas yet narrow-minded bigotry in others.
Although a lot of people don’t like Watchman, I think the two books together showcase an important study in the dynamics of changing the world. We need the Atticus of Mockingbird to fuel our own idealism—someone who is clear in vision, courageous, noble, and uncompromising in values of compassion and justice. Our mythologies and literature are filled with this kind of Atticus. Such characters operating in our inner worlds help us to reach beyond our limitations, first in our imagination, and later in incremental steps in our real lives. The importance of these mythic characters to our interior development is the reason stories like Star Wars and To Kill a Mockingbird still attract us. If we are to change the world, we need to see our fictional heroes do it first. We need to believe that we can fight a lost cause without wavering, and we can endure the bone-crushing experience of defeat and disappointment without having the flame of hope extinguished.
But, Watchman reminds us of our broken and fallen world and the real people who exist within it—helping us see the need to understand the kind of world God wants us to try to build together. For, sadly, it seems our world is filled with too many of the Atticus character in Watchman, and too few of the Atticus character in Mockingbird. There are many people who are decent and loving in some situations, but can become abominable in their thought and actions in others. These people typify the complex mystery of contradictions that exists in the human heart and the mind. In Watchman, Scout is so repulsed by the darkness she sees in her Atticus and her town that her first impulse is to leave him and it and never come back. Like many of us, she doesn’t want to remain in relationship with such toxic humans. However, her Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, tries to convince Scout that the best course is to not flee to New York, but rather the opposite—to set up roots in her home town of Maycomb with the intent of changing people’s minds about issues of race: “The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise (Scout). They don’t need you when they’re right.” At the end of the book the reader is left with the impression that Scout does decide to return to Maycomb, to become an active participant in community life and act as a moral irritant to her fellow citizens.
Uncle Jack’s advice to Scout reminded me of one of the most powerful women I have ever known – an African-American Catholic woman named Pauline Humphrey. Pauline was a third grade elementary teacher in a poor African-American neighborhood in north St. Louis, and a dedicated and unbelievably effective community activist. I worked and lived in her community for about four years as a young Catholic seminarian, and was involved in many projects with Pauline: campaigning to tear down abandoned buildings because they were becoming drug houses and several children had been sexually abused behind their boarded up windows and doors, creating community gardens in abandoned lots, fighting the city’s intention of placing a methadone clinic in the already distressed community, getting the children of the community into afternoon and summer programs. Pauline was kind, forgiving, compassionate, usually gentle in demeanor and one of the most nonjudgmental human beings I have ever met. But, she was also unrelenting and tough as nails when it came to goading the community to projects that protected the kids of the neighborhood. Although she may not have known it, Pauline became one of my heroes, and one of the most impactful mentors I’ve ever had.
Pauline moved into the neighborhood in the late 1950s. She was one of the first black professionals to move into the north St. Louis community and almost as soon as her family settled into their home, white families began selling their houses at such an alarming rate that property values plummeted. Eventually more than 1,500 houses flipped over a two-year period. While some of the original black families also left, Pauline and her family decided to stay. One day I was going door-to-door with her asking people to come to community organizing activity later in the evening and she told me story after story of the ignorant and hateful things that were said to her during those years of white flight, most of it said by the white Catholics in her parish. After hearing a dozen or more outrageous stories, I finally had to ask her a question: “Pauline, why are you still Catholic after encountering such atrocious behaviors?”
She paused before responding with a thoughtful tone in her voice: “We’re all sinners, weak and stupid in certain ways,” Pauline said, “some of us are weaker and dumber than others, for sure. But, if I believe that we are all made in the image of God, as I do, how would my fellow Catholics and their children ever grow up to think differently if I left to go somewhere else? God put them in my path and me in theirs, after all. Whatever I’m called to do with my life, part of it has to do with remaining faithfully present and engaged with those in my path.” She admitted that it was often difficult, but Pauline was made to do difficult things and her very presence in the world challenged others.
The racism in the United States that was the context of Harper Lee’s book when it was released in 1961 is still very much a part of the nation. While there have been undeniable advancements, racial attitudes have continued to fester, and racial oppression has just taken on new forms (Michelle Alexander has documented the mass incarceration of black men with painstaking precision in her book, The New Jim Crow). Despite all of the Mockingbird Atticus wannabes, the blatant ignorance of discrimination has continued to flourish in family systems, congregations, places of businesses and other places of community. It has been passed on from generation to generation like a virus that will not respond to medical intervention.
After reading Watchman I was left wondering if the viscous potency of this legacy is the result of flight—fleeing the discomfort of having to relate and argue with family and friends who just don’t seem to get it. In this second half of the 20th century we just don’t seem to have enough Pauline Humphreys—people who are willing to remain faithfully present and engaged with those in their path, even when it’s painful.
Inspired by these heroes—fictitious or real—can we stick around when it feels uncomfortable? Can we persevere through challenging relationships to get closer to God’s vision for us? Can we stay in the struggle without fleeing? Maybe in this next generation we’ll get the best of both worlds – the Atticus in Mockingbird and the Scout in Watchman and be graced with more people like Pauline Humpreys.