Rethinking Atticus

by
October 22, 2015

The first time I met Atticus was at the theater.  He was tall, spoke with a quiet confidence, walked with a sense of dignity, and looked remarkably like Gregory Peck. Atticus Finch was a hero, unafraid of disrupting the narrow-mindedness and racial prejudice of his community, willing to stand up and defend the liberty and rights of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of a horrific crime. Atticus was a larger-than-life hero and we loved him.

I first encountered Thomas in a classroom. He was genius, a man before his time—part engineer, part philosopher, part political scientist, part educator, and a revolutionary.  From the quill of Thomas Jefferson flowed ink that would change the course of history, poetry that would be as powerful as any force unleashed upon the present world order:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Jefferson was heroic and hailed as one on whom to model a life of purpose.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Atticus and Thomas, about our nation, our founders, our heroes—both fictional and historical. I’ve been taking a second look, gazing deeper. At least with fictional characters we can make them perfect, make them pure.  But we don’t have that luxury with historical figures.  Dig past the superficial, dive deeper into the psyche of even the brightest, the most gifted and celebrated among us, and be prepared to find conflict and inconsistency. Be prepared to find depravity.

Thomas Jefferson was a deist who rejected Scripture as inerrant.  He was a man who turned a blind eye to the very principles of life and liberty he espoused in his writings. His prejudices are there in plain sight.  Even in his masterpiece on Independence, following his eloquent declaration that all are created equal, that all are “endowed by our Creator with unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” are unsettling, jarring words of inconsistency. As he lists reasons for revolting against the Crown, he accuses King George of encouraging domestic insurrections among the, “merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Jefferson’s incendiary language belies his lofty ideal of human equality.

Jefferson, to whom we owe a great debt of gratitude for our nation’s independence, founding, and development, was nonetheless imperfect. He was complicated, conflicted, and wrong in his understanding of God’s Word.  He and many of his compatriots weren’t even totally committed to the very ideals for which they fought, buying and selling fellow human beings as chattel.  Hailed as a stalwart of liberty and justice, Jefferson inexcusably held in bondage fellow image-bearers of the Almighty.  His humanity—inhumanity—makes us uncomfortable, repels us, and forces us to comprehend him within a larger context than the neat and tidy vignettes history presents.  For that matter, the first people groups that occupied North America were imperfect, often at war with each other; they too were sons and daughters of Adam.

But of course, Atticus Finch was a figment of Harper Lee’s imagination, a work of fiction.  At least he is an unchanging portrait of goodness and justice.  Alas, even Atticus is revealed to be all too human, even in his world of fiction. Apparently the Atticus of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was a man pictured through the eyes of a young daughter, not yet able to comprehend the complexities and inconsistencies of her hero-father.  Harper Lee’s famous novel was not, as it turned out, the original portrait of Atticus she conceived. Instead he was a memory of her character, Scout, the tomboy daughter of the novel’s hero.  The whole affair of Atticus defending the falsely accused Tom Robinson, while admirable, did not tell the whole story.

Lee’s original novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” was released this summer. I received my advanced order and began what I thought was a sequel to Lee’s masterpiece. I read instead her original portrait of Atticus.  What had caught the eyes of her publisher and editors of this original work was a flashback memory about Atticus defending an innocent Black man, and so Harper Lee went about fully developing that aspect of her original novel, which was released as “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And So I began reading this newly released, yet original work written by Lee, meeting in the pages the more fully developed character of Atticus.  Scout’s encounter as a grown woman with her hero-father proved to reveal a much more complex man.  One much too real—one with prejudices and pride.

My first reaction was irritation with Harper Lee. For destroying a hero in my eyes and spoiling an idealized memory.  For sullying a character I’d grown to love.  For making Atticus all too human.  But of course, this was her original Atticus.  The Atticus of the flashback, the Atticus of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was the secondary perspective—a portrait intentionally naïve and seen through the eyes of a young girl who idolized her father.  And with the grown daughter of the original novel, we are forced to grapple with a hero who isn’t all that we had imagined him. “Go Set a Watchman,” while full of social commentary relevant still today, affected me in a way I had not anticipated, forcing a new reality in my understanding of Atticus, Harper Lee, and the world in which she lived and about which she wrote.

In many ways my experience in discovering that Atticus wasn’t entirely who I thought, parallels my thinking about and understanding of where we are as a culture and society, both domestically and abroad. To be candid, I find that I am as stunned at the new realities and complexities of our present culture and attitudes as I found myself reading about the much more complex Atticus.

Without enumerating all of the social and cultural shifts, suffice it to say that for many evangelicals, the new realities we face today are radically different than those with which many of us grew up, understood, and falsely assumed were permanent. A worldview that at least showed deference to a Judeo-Christian ethic—however superficial it may have been—has been upended and is the source of much soul searching and analysis.

As are the cases with our heroes discovered to be all too imperfect, we are forced to recognize the new realities of our culture, our communities, our country.  To prepare for our future and to live successfully in the now requires an honest evaluation of present day realities and honest evaluate of our history—whether it be world history or the histories of our own communities, tribes and families. Even the history of the church (or at least those claiming membership in the church) is fraught with actions irreconcilable with the very Author of the Word and object of our faith, Jesus the Messiah.  Our own Southern Baptist Convention has a history uncomfortably rooted in a narrative of slavery that required repentance and requires ongoing efforts to remove lingering vestiges of racism and to continue progress toward full reconciliation.

Understanding these new realities, wrestling with our histories, and being honest about our pasts and our very flawed heroes are insufficient however, if we learn nothing, if we fail to live in the present in an intentional way. We fail if we do not learn from the past, live out a more excellent way in the here and now, and chart a course for a future that will reveal us to be faithful to the Word and to the teachings of Christ.

I propose that intentionally Christian universities be devoted to the preparation as sons and daughters of Issachar. When David was under oppression from the jealous King Solomon, men began to gather to him, siding with him as the next King of Israel.  From every tribe in Israel they came and among those who joined him were those from the tribe of Issachar.  The words used to describe them are captivating.  “Of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with knowledge of what Israel should do (1 Chronicles 12:32a).”  Descendants of Issachar who were gathered to David’s side were those who understood the times, and who had knowledge of what the nation should do.

My prayer is that Christian university students would be equipped as sons and daughters of Issachar.  My hope is that they will be men and women who understand our times.  My desire is that they be filled with wisdom and the knowledge of what to do—not merely as citizens of an earthly nation—though certainly that too.  But more so, that they be men and women who understand the times and are filled with wisdom and the knowledge of what the church should do, what individual believers should do.  For Christian educators and intentionally Christian colleges and universities, that is why we gather in classrooms and hallways, in offices and under shade trees, in chapels and on mission trips.  That is why we live in community.  We seek to learn, to grow, to evaluate honestly, to think critically.  We attempt to put into practice and live out in the present that which we learn.  And we set a trajectory for our future, individually and collectively.  We seek to understand the times and to know what to do.

As members of a Christian community, we approach life and learning with deliberate thinking and meditation, with honest introspection. In distinctively Christian higher education, we seek to move forward in tandem with truth as revealed in the Holy Writ of Scripture, and we find great comfort and genuine liberation in a world that was deliberately and lovingly crafted, a world that begins with an Almighty Creator.  We seek in distinctively Christian higher education to wrestle with the great questions of life, knowing that an all-wise God can lead us to answers. Unafraid to ask why, we seek wisdom that we believe is ultimately found in the reverential fear of an all-powerful God.

We learn from the past and even from the failure of our heroes, conscious always of our own flaws and fallibility.  We hold on to what is true and pure and learn from that which causes pain and suffering. We embrace that which is noble and cast off that which ensnares us, ever striving to live worthy of the high calling of God in Christ. We approach learning from self-admitted presuppositions. Everyone approaches life and learning from presuppositions and it is a fool who does not recognize such. We begin with a presupposition that before the beginning there was God, that behind this magnificent universe is a more magnificent Creator.  We begin with a belief that the Word of God has been divinely inspired and protected throughout history.

We begin with a presupposition that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.  We begin with a presupposition that something has gone wrong in God’s created order, and that something is the sin of humanity—rebellion against the Word and ways of Jehovah.  We begin with an understanding that in the Person of Jesus the Messiah we have a Mediator who lived and died in the place of rebellious humanity; that He fulfilled the Law of God’s Word; that through repentance and faith in Him we are reconciled to God and to each other. We begin with a belief that in Jesus we find our hope and our future and we believe He is coming back at the time of His choosing and that through Him all things will be made and that by Him all will be judged.

Does that make us strange?  Does that make us countercultural?  Does that make us entirely offensive to a large part of society?  Yes. Yes it does. Yet only briefly in history (and then only in small geographic areas), have those assumptions, those strange belief systems been perceived as anything remotely normal by world. Consider Noah who was called by God to be a ship-builder, called to believe God’s Word that judgement was coming upon the whole earth.  Do you suppose he was considered odd?  Was his beliefs and ways misunderstood? Consider a middle-eastern pagan named Abram who upon encountering God, left his homeland to go to a place he would be shown and instituted all manner of strange customs at the command of Jehovah. Was he was a stranger and pilgrim among the world around him? And what of John the Baptist, Lydia, Mary, Martha, Paul, Priscilla, Aquila, and Peter? Were they considered at odds with their respective cultures?  Were they considered outsiders and out-of-step with Jewish culture? With Roman culture?  Were they considered strange?  Peter himself describes the followers of Jesus as a “peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9).

If you are a follower of Jesus, be ready to live as strangers and pilgrims even among those you would consider to be among your own tribes and people groups.  As culture shifts around us, we are awakening from a self-delusion that America is a Christian nation—in fact many now use the term “post-Christian” to describe our country.  The nation and world that college students are entering as adults is radically different than the one of their parents and grandparents.  In our nation, the Christian worldview may have been a dominant force both socially and politically during much of the twentieth century.  Not so in the twenty-first.

To be identified as a Christ follower in the current age is no longer a necessity for career or political advancement, no longer a requisite check-off for social standing.  We are in the midst of what John Dickerson has described as “the great evangelical recession.” In his book by the same name, he challenges conventional thinking arguing that the evangelical church in the United States is not just receding but that it is not nearly as large as has been told or believed.  And he adds that the fastest growing subcultures in the United States are militantly antagonistic against Christians who take seriously the Bible.  In brief, we have never been as numerous as we have heard reported, and we are shrinking in numbers even now.

These are challenging days for the Church and there are difficult days ahead.  Yet this is no time for hand-wringing or giving up.  Russell Moore, in his excellent work, “Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel,” calls believers to live out our faith and beliefs with convictional kindness. He reminds us that we are not a “moral majority” in our country but that we should instead see ourselves as a “prophetic minority,” and writes:

“To say that we are a minority is not to talk, as pollsters or economists would, in terms of numbers.  It is to speak in terms of a mind-set, how we view ourselves.  The church of Jesus Christ is never a majority—in any fallen culture—even if we happen to outnumber everyone else around us.  The Scripture speaks of a world system that is at odds with the kingdom, a world to which we are constantly tempted to pattern our own intellects and affections after, until we are interrupted by the ongoing transformation of the kingdom.  The world system around us, the cultural matrix we inhabit, is alien to the kingdom of God—with different priorities, different strategies, and a different vision of the future.  If we don’t see that we are walking a narrow and counterintuitive road, we will have nothing distinctive to say because we will have forgotten who we are.” (pp.29-30).

Though no longer a moral majority, believers amidst these changing times do well to engage with culture including in the political arena. But as Russell Moore and others remind us, we ought never to confuse our faith with our political activism. He poignantly states that it would be a tragedy to get the right president, the right Congress, and the wrong Christ noting, “That’s a very bad trade-off.  The gospel makes us strange but the gospel doesn’t make us actually crazy.  In the New Testament, Jesus and his disciples were often thought to be mad.  Of course they were.  They were saying insane things: bloody crosses and empty tombs and Jew/Gentile unity” (p.31).

Christians indeed walk a counterintuitive road and though we have much to say and contribute, we must not forget who we are in Christ.  So, be ready.  Prepare for a culture and a world that will not take kindly to your strangeness, who may not embrace you as the pilgrims and sojourners you are as Christ-followers. Don’t be surprised when they think us mad. After all, we do believe in a virgin birth—a biological impossibility aside from a supernatural cause.  We do embrace strange notions and customs.  We practice memorial meals where we eat bread and drink the fruit of the vine symbolizing the flesh and blood of Jesus. The world will misunderstand and misrepresent us and our deeply held convictions that seem so counter to the culture around us. We hold strange convictions such as our belief that Jesus is the Bridegroom and the Church is His bride and that all of history culminates in a wedding feast.  As such, we view marriage not merely as the joining of two people for economic, social, and legal benefit, but as a sacred act or ordinance of worship meant for a husband and wife to live out monogamously for life as a testimony of our faith. Strange?  Of course. Let’s own up to it. We believe that we are saved through the death of Jesus on a cross, who died in our place and that He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven—scientifically impossible apart from divine intervention. And we dare have as our great hope that He is returning again at some point to ultimately set all things right, restore all things good, and make all things new. These are revolutionary—and weird—to the world around us.

Face it. Own it. We are countercultural.  We are strangers and pilgrims.  And we desperately need sons and daughters of Issachar who can understand the times and know how to lead us with convictional kindness. The Gospel has been described as offensive to the world. Yet while we live out our convictions, we do not need to add to the offense.  But we must be prepared.  Do not be surprised that the world will reject your countercultural beliefs. Whether you are a college student preparing for the future, in middle-age, or a nonagenarian, use your time as Christ followers wisely to be equipped to give an answer.  Commit to be winsome in your witness, to show love even in disagreement, and to practice patience with those misunderstand and even oppose you. Remember those who are in disagreement are not your enemies, but your mission field, and understand that all the snarky comments and sarcastic condemnations you can “shout” on twitter feeds and Facebook and Instagram aren’t helpful in leading others to a faith in Christ.

Russell Moore challenges us in his most recent book Onward, “Many who are standing will fall away, unable to bear the scandal that comes with following Christ in a culture that sees such as superstition or hatred.”  He argues that perhaps, “…America is not ‘post-Christian’ at all.  It may be that America is instead pre-Christian, a land that though often Christ-haunted has never known the power of the gospel, yet” (p.218). Yet these are the days in which we find ourselves. We may find ourselves tempted to believe we should have lived in another generation, another place, and another time.  We may find ourselves longing for a past that seems somehow less complicated, more serene.  But because we believe in a sovereign God who governs the affairs of nations and all people, we know He has placed us where we are and precisely at this time in history.

I am reminded of Paul when he was in Athens and began discussing with the philosophers there. As recorded in Acts we read of Paul saying, “From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.’” (Acts 17: 26-27). You and I have been divinely placed precisely where we are and for this point in history by God.  We were marked out for this appointed time. We were marked out for this particular land.  Why?  So that we would seek him, reach out for him, find him. In order that we would be His ambassadors at this precise moment in history.

In many ways, Harper Lee echoes our own call in her novel’s title, “Go Set a Watchman” itself a reminder of when God spoke to Ezekiel saying, “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me” (Ezekiel 3:17).  Like Ezekiel, so should we heed the call to be ready to watch and speak truth to those God has called us to serve and testify. May God find us faithful as we discover our place of service in the cause of Christ, as we prepare for the tasks to God has called us, as we seek to be agents of transformation in our fields of work, in the disciplines to which God has called us. May God grant us favor as we prepare for the future, as we live out our lives in the present, and as we honestly examine and learn from our histories and even our terribly flawed heroes.

Atticus may have been an imperfect hero. So too, Jefferson and hosts of others we may hold in high esteem.  History has proven that the doctrine of depravity is at work in even the most well intentioned of us all. But may we learn from the weaknesses of our flawed heroes and forebears.  May we keep what is true and best and leave that this is less than noble. Atticus isn’t who we thought he was. Neither is our nation nor our world. But as we recognize the new realities of our world, may we respond with convictions in grace and with kindness.

As we chart a course for the days ahead, may we recognize our own flaws and propensities to veer off course.  As sons and daughters of Issachar, may we prepare to be excellent in our disciplines and in our acts of service.  As He did with Ezekiel, may God set us as watchmen.  May we be found faithful to the Word, faithful to Christ, seeking His face and praying for wisdom as we seek to understand the times and know what to do.


David Whitlock
David Whitlock is president of Oklahoma Baptist University.