The Challenge of Atticus Finch
Few challenges are as great for novelists as crafting a believably good character. Our native preoccupation with darkness often casts virtue in a light that is less than plausible. Perhaps most damning of all, however, is the deep-seated assumption that goodness itself is boring while the allure of badness remains magnetic. Poets and critics have long pointed to the character of Satan as the runaway hero of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Though this certainly wasn’t Milton’s intent, it is difficult to dispute that Satan stands out in the roster of characters as arguably the most dynamic, compelling, and relatable. A contemporary example would be the late Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It’s not just that we find darkness more interesting than light, it’s that we find it more believable.
Many have received the details from Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman as disheartening news once it became clear that the book was going to cast a shadow over the beloved character of Atticus Finch. This man who has stood for many as a champion of truth, justice, and human decency may turn out to be more of a fiction than his readers ever realized. Dramatic as it sounds, America may be losing one of her icons. In the words of Sam Sacks in his Wall Street Journal review, “Go Set a Watchman is a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of To Kill a Mockingbird. This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion.”
Though Harper Lee may force us to reconsider the character of Atticus Finch, I find it deeply encouraging that our sorrow regarding his possible moral compromises shows a clear hunger for genuine goodness. True, disillusion may be an all-too-common theme in our imaginative landscape these days, but if we feel betrayed by Atticus Finch (or his author), that sense of betrayal is surely motivated by a conviction that true men and women of integrity exist, and that their example, strength, and leadership are much-needed. Moreover, that goodness is not only plausible, but foundational to reality. In other word, not only is goodness real, but there is a goodness that sets the clear standard against which we measure all else, including Atticus Finch and his shortcomings.
When a rich young man approached Jesus with a question about his possessions, he began by addressing Jesus as 'good teacher.' Jesus responded to the young man's queries with a question of his own: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but One; that is, God.” Coming from the lips of one who soberly commanded his followers "to be perfect as your Father is perfect," his response here may be peculiar, but it is also immensely freeing. On the one hand, we may not all have criminal records, but all of us harbor secrets that, if exposed, would likely put us in Atticus Finch’s current shoes. As C.S. Lewis shrewdly observes, we have “inside information” on moral failure.(1) None of us will remain on pedestals for very long. But Christ’s question to the rich young ruler resounds as much with hope as with urgency. There is one who is good, whose very life embodies the standard of our perfect Father in the very hopeful form of a fellow human. Christ is the person of goodness by which our very standard is informed, who meets us as a believable, perfect character and beckons us to be changed by him, to take hold of goodness by taking hold of him.
Believably good characters don’t just present a challenge to poets and storytellers. If goodness has a plausibility problem in our world, it falls to each of us to offer a firm explanation. You might say this is Atticus Finch’s challenge to each of us now. If we recoil from his failures, we ought to do more than just grieve; we ought to wonder if we are any different; we ought to inquire after this sense of goodness as a standard and trace a believable source. The Atticus Finch who graced the pages of To Kill a Mockingbird wouldn’t have it any other way.
Cameron McAllister is a member of the speaking team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 23.
"A Slice of Infinity" is aimed at reaching into the culture with words of challenge, truth, and hope. By stirring the imagination and engaging the mind, we want to share the beauty and truthfulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
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