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The Power of Words: A Review of "The Mockingbird Parables," by Matt Litton

79575998Until a few years ago, I had not seen nor read To Kill a Mockingbird.  That was to my great loss.  The book --- a sobering and yet ultimately life-affirming and hopeful story of racism --- is one of the great American novels.  The movie, a faithful retelling of the story with stellar acting by Gregory Peck and the supporting cast, particularly Mary Badham, who played "Scout," is also one of my perennial favorites.  The book and movie are a repository of virtuous character while at the same time contrasting that character with the impiety of religious hypocrisy and small-minded prejudice.

It is that repository of virtue that is ably mined by Matt Litton in The Mockingbird Parables: Tranforming Lives Through the Power of Story.  In ten meditations  on the characters and events of the book, filtered through his personal experiences, the author fleshes out the ramifications of these parables or stories for how we live in the world.  His avowed purpose is to help the reader "rediscover what it means to be a good neighbor --- and to experience the gospel message retold in modern language, unobscured by religious dogma."  For this reader, he succeeds.

From the outset Litton is all about de-familiarizing the gospel so as to bring its truth home to us.  For example, in the first chapter, "Discovering Our Divine Mysterious Neighbor," he analogizes the question that the movie asks, "Who is Boo Radley," to the question we all ask and keep asking in life, "Who is God?"  He addresses our tendency to domesticate God, taming Him, much as the townspeople of Maycomb, instead of accepting the mystery of Boo have "chosen instead to ignore define him, ignore him, and keep him in his place."  He speaks of seeking as being essential to our relationship with God, one that is never static, resting in a definition of God, but remains dynamic, as it must with a Being that is infinite and not fully comprehensible to us.  He is also one who is constantly pursuing us, a truth that the author says is pictured in Boo Radley's leaving items for the children in the knothole of an oak tree.

And so it goes, each chapter opening us up to another truth --- the responsibility to care for our neighbor and for Creation, courage, financial responsibility, parenting, and finally, in a powerful ending, in the way we communicate with one another, the very words we use.  I found this last chapter to be the most powerful in the book, a reminder of the divine nature of our communication, of the great power of words to hurt or heal, to build up or to tear down.  The model is Atticus Finch, a man the same at home as in public, a man who measures out his words carefully and always to build up or, when they must tear down (as when he exposes Mayella Ewell to be a liar), to serve a higher good never rejoicing in the tearing down but doing what must be down to preserve the truth.

Litton's words hit home.  The Christian community, whether politically left or right, can be some of the worst offenders in their use of language in the public square, having to have the last word, not listening, having to be vindicated to be right.  He commends instead the many scriptural admonitions to listen before speaking, to letting our conversations be full of grace, to letting our words build bridges rather than create division.  As he summarizes: "Atticus Finch affirms to us, and To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us, that it is the mission and deepest responsibility of the words we use to communicate hope, to spread truth, to be agents of grace and change to the hearts of our fellow men and women, and to speak God's reality of compassion into the souls of our neighbors."

As a result of reading this book, I can return to Harper Lee's novel with a new appreciation of how it resonates with the truth of the Gospel, and I can return to the Gospel narratives with the great analogies of the word-pictures of the novel to help put hands and feet to the meaning of scripture. Laced with scripture, memoir, and the images of the book and movie, I heartily recommend reading To Kill a Mockingbird, watching the movie, and then reading The Mockingbird Parables as a way of letting the overly familiar words of the Gospel become unfamiliar so as to become more real.

Having said all this, the one chapter that I felt was too polemical for the context of the book was the one on the role of women in faith.  That women are affirmed by Jesus and given high and equal stature to men by Jesus is unquestioned and the corrective offered by the author to any contrary notion is commendable and certainly evidenced by analogy in Harper Lee's book.  To then argue that women should be ordained and share in pastoral leadership is another matter, one on which Christians disagree.  Litton attempts to make that case but fails to account for the counter-arguments that are made, arguments that do not necessarily accord an inequality to women but a different role ascribed by scripture.  This chapter seemed out of place and weighed against the irenic spirit of the rest of the book.  All that being said, many of the insights here, as elsewhere in the book, are valuable and don't detract from the positive impact of the book as a whole.

I recommend The Mockingbird Parables.  Read it and be transformed through the power of story, through the power of the Gospel.

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