By now Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman, released less than a month ago and the controversy surrounding it’s publication has become old news. However, I wanted to read the novel for myself before weighing in or making any judgments regarding it.
I should say at this point-spoiler alert!
If people weren’t turned off by the publishing scandal, many of those who read it voiced their ire as they bemoaned the fate of beloved literary character Atticus Finch. No longer was he the shining moral example who encouraged people to embrace a brighter future of racial justice. Atticus was discovered – to the horror of his now twenty-six year old daughter Scout – to be racist.
For many readers this was too much, an implausible literary development. It quickly became evidence to support the theory that this book was no more than a rough draft. The Atticus of To Kill a Mockingbird could not be the same Atticus found in Go Set a Watchman.
To which I ask why not?
Why is it so hard to believe Atticus might be a more complicated figure than I want to admit?
Could it be our reaction says more about me as a reader, as a society, than it does about Atticus and whether or not it was a plausible development?
“Selfie” has become a part of our digital society’s vernacular. The rise in popularity of “selfies” is more than what is often attributed to narcissism in extreme. It is in many ways an idolizing of what a moment can capture, what a moment can say, or how a moment can define who I am as a person. With time in short supply – a statement full of irony when I think about it – snap judgments are encouraged. Society is enamored with “selfies” as a direct consequence of the constant state of always being in a rush. Is this not also why labels and stereotypes are relied upon? A moment has come to define a person because this is all the time I can allow in my schedule as I need to keep moving.
Could it be this is the reason we are upset about the turn of events in Atticus’s character development?
Atticus has had his moment. We know Atticus. He is the man who stands for racial justice at the risk of bodily harm and becoming socially isolated. He stands for what is right, no matter the consequences. And yet…as Scout discovers, this isn’t always the case. Atticus is a more complicated figure than first thought. A truth not confined to literary characters – think Lance Armstrong, Tom Brady, and Bill Cosby, to name a few where the person and moments which have defined them at one time conflict. For biblical characters start with Noah (“righteous”/drunk), David (“man after God’s own heart”/murderer), and Peter (“Rock”/”I never knew him”).
The moment cannot define a person, the person defines each moment as they navigate life.
In church we struggle with the same problem. We project “selfies”. We act a certain way; speak words we don’t always mean. It’s standard church protocol. If the church has a greeting time, the typical response to “How are you?” is “Good” even when inside things aren’t.
There are no short cuts!
If I truly want to know someone, better yet, love them, it’s going to take more than a moment of time. To be deeply known requires a willingness to share life together and a willingness to be vulnerable and transparent about life’s messiness and a willingness to listen without passing judgment.
For this reason and more Lee’s second book, really her first, is worth reading. No, Go Set a Watchman, isn’t going to win a pulitzer. Yes, there is probably some validity to the book being a stepping stone to her immortalized To Kill a Mocking Bird. But, there is beautiful prose worth pondering as well. Consider these words:
“…the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise [Scout]. They don’t need you when they’re right…”
Words spoken to Scout by her uncle Jack. Words spoken as Scout wrestles with whether she could ever move back home and rejoin a community she deeply disagrees with. Words worth pondering today in churches which are too often divided because too often I only have time to know “selfies”, labels, and stereotypes. There is not enough time to know each other deeply. And so I miss out on the opportunity to change for the better because at times it requires a friend who doesn’t confirm when I am right, but tells me when I am wrong.