I recently jumped on the bandwagon and reread To Kill A Mockingbird.
I first read the book in seventh grade, so I was surprised at how many scenes and bits of dialog I knew. Little details were just as I remembered, like Bob Ewell’s embarrassment at the reading of his name in court.
But, a thirty eight year old reads differently than a twelve year old. Experience and circumstances made several things to stand out.
For one, I now appreciate what a good father Atticus was to Scout and Jem. Atticus Finch, augmented by Gregory Peck’s movie portrayal, modeled the patient and fair, yet understanding, father. It seems that much of Go Set A Watchman’s controversy revolves around the novel’s differing version of Atticus. As a father, I now appreciate the patience and care that Atticus showed to his children.
Or, with four daughters being homeschooled in the classical tradition, I could talk about the novel’s opinion of home versus public schooling. This conflict erupts on Scout’s first day of school. Her teacher, newly trained in the Dewey method, tells Scout that Atticus couldn’t have possibly taught her to read since he had not be trained properly. I highlighted entire pages to show my wife.
But, the thing that really stood out to me was the novel’s condemnation of ultra-fundamentalist religion and its view towards women.
Miss Maudie, whom I didn’t remember at all, was a neighbor and longtime friend of the Finch’s. She was especially fond of Atticus’ brother Jack. Early in the novel, during the mission to lure out Boo Radley, Scout asked Miss Maudie if she thought Boo was still alive. They began to talk about the Radley family and Miss Maudie commented on their religious choices.
“Miss Maudie settled her bridgework . “You know old Mr. Radley was a foot-washing Baptist—”
“That’s what you are, ain’t it?”
“My shell’s not that hard, child. I’m just a Baptist.”
“Don’t you all believe in foot-washing?”
“We do. At home in the bathtub.”
“But we can’t have communion with you all—”
Apparently deciding that it was easier to define primitive baptistry than closed communion, Miss Maudie said: “Foot-washers believe anything that’s pleasure is a sin. Did you know some of ’em came out of the woods one Saturday and passed by this place and told me me and my flowers were going to hell?”” (59)
Scout was confused, but Miss Maudie explained that the foot-washers believed she spent too much time outdoors with her flowers and not enough time inside reading her Bible. Scout protested and said that Miss Maudie was the best lady she knew.
“Miss Maudie grinned. “Thank you ma’am. Thing is, foot-washers think women are a sin by definition. They take the Bible literally, you know.”” (59)
While I certainly think the Bible should be taken literally, after all so did Jesus, I don’t understand those who use a literal interpretation to make women into second class Christians.
Later in the novel, Scout and Jem attended church with their housekeeper, Calpurnia. Her pastor, Reverend Sykes, voiced familiar views about women.
“His sermon was a forthright denunciation of sin, an austere declaration of the motto on the wall behind him: he warned his flock against the evils of heady brews, gambling, and strange women. Bootleggers caused enough trouble in the Quarters, but women were worse. Again, as I had often met it in my own church, I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen.” (162)
I have often marveled at the connection between fundamentalism and the suppression of women. I would hope that those who rightly believe the Bible to be the inerrant, inspired, and infallible Word would also understand its teachings about women.
Paul wrote in Galatians 3:23–29, “23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. 26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise (NASB).”
Certainly, the Bible is specific about male and female roles. Ephesians 5 and Genesis 2 are clear. But, those roles do not define a person’s worth. Jesus retained His deity and position in the Godhead while obeying the will of Father. A wife who follows the leadership of her husband does not lose spiritual significance.
Rather, the Bible is clear that both male and female are created in God’s image.
Genesis 1:27 says, “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (NASB).”
At this point you may be saying, “I don’t oppress women,” or “I wouldn’t put up with the kind of attitudes you’re talking about.”
I hope you are saying that, but I want us to think a bit deeper about how we treat women, especially our younger women.
Take, for instance, the Purity movement. Beginning in the 1990s, churches encouraged teenagers to take a pledge of sexual purity before marriage. The well-intentioned goal of the Purity movement is to provide a safe outlet for teens to openly express their commitment to waiting.
I, of course, believe that sex was created for marriage. There is a subtle danger, however, in this movement.
In her book, Faithful: A Theology of Sex, Beth Felker Jones, argues that sexual purity is not about being faithful to your future spouse. Rather, the more important aspect of sexuality is faithfulness to God.
Felker listed what she believes to be the understood rules of the purity movement. First, those who take the pledge should expect to get married as a reward for obeying the rules. Second, a person must work diligently to retain virginity before their wedding night. Third, Felker believes the purity movement assumes that its cause is more important for girls than boys. Fourth, physical virginity makes a person pure. (84)
Felker criticized the first rule by writing that Christianity is not about following rules, rather it is about grace. Also, she wrote that these assumptions deny the value of those who live as single Christians. (85)
Regarding the second rule, or what she calls “teeth-gritting” effort, Felker wrote, “This teeth-gritting, desperate waiting also tends to create atrophied and legalistic definitions of what sex is. The purity paradigm turns sexual intercourse into the ultimate act that two human beings can engage in. This creates damaging cycles of behavior in which couples committed to ‘waiting’ for marriage escalate physical intimacy in every way possible while avoiding actual intercourse.” (86-7)
Felker responded to the purity movement’s unstated focus on girls by writing, “Not only does this belief make our bodies out to be merchandise, it makes female bodies into merchandise in a special way. Male bodies, maybe, can be seen as human, as personal, and the tangible lives of human beings who bear the image of God, but female bodies are downgraded. Women and girls here are treated as property and our bodies are placed on the market.” (87)
She wrote that the fourth rule, which attaches purity to physical virginity, “makes virginity into a thing that one needs to cling to in order to retain value. It tells the graceless lie that we are more valuable spouses for someone if we have this thing. It tells the demonic lie that our market value is what makes us precious to God.” (91)
These attitudes and beliefs are exhibited when men criticize women for dressing provocatively. Some Christian men actually blame their lust on women. Modesty is important and biblical, but a man’s sin is his own responsibility.
Men, how about we look the other way. Or, choose not to dwell on sinful thoughts. If we are truly Christians, then the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13 leave us no excuse and do not allow us to blame others for our sin.
In her final chapter, Felker summarized, “Healthy, happy, holy sexuality – lived in married faithfulness and celibate singleness – is an emblem in this world of the relationship God has with his people. As God is faithful to us, our faithful bodies testify to his faithfulness. Our faithfulness is possible only by grace, only by the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling us. The faithful body is visible in the world as a testament to who God is and to what God can do.” (95)
For some reason, which I will never understand, God gave me a house full of women. With one wife and four daughters, conservative Christianity’s failings toward women are important to me.
Do I want my daughters to live with sexual purity? Absolutely.
Do I want my marriage to be one of faithfulness? Of course.
But, purity and faithfulness do not increase anyone’s worth in God’s sight.
Rather, purity honors God and His holiness and faithfulness.
I’m sure Miss Maudie would agree.
Jones, Beth Felker. Faithful: A Theology of Sex. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.
Lee, Harper. To Kill A Mockingbird. New York: Harper Collins, 2006.