Mourning the Death of False Idols

Poor Atticus Finch. Once a hero to millions, now a flawed human being—just like the rest of us.

In Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s unexpected pre/sequel to her beloved 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, the fictional Finch, small-town lawyer and conscience of a nation, showed his young daughter Scout what it meant to be a just man in an unjust world.

Now, in Watchman, Scout is all grown up and Atticus has turned into a cranky, old, Southern, white man, infected by all the mid-century racist presuppositions that those adjectives imply.

He has become what no one expected him to become—the opposite of what he was.

In the real world, there has been outrage at this fictional change of character. There has been disappointment.

Australian journalist Terry Barnes declared he wouldn’t read the new book because of its depiction of his idol, Finch.

“The principled, color-blind Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird is a person all of us should strive to be. Certainly that Atticus has inspired countless people entering public life, be they politician, lawyer, community advocate or journalist,” he wrote.

Barnes left one profession off his list.

I can’t imagine a father anywhere in the world reading To Kill a Mockingbird or watching Gregory Peck’s performance in the 1962 film version and not measuring himself against Atticus Finch.

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand,” Atticus tells his son Jem.

“It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.”

On the one hand, the fall of Finch is bad news for all. It confirms what was long suspected: nothing good lasts; everything turns sour. Something in our character demands that exalted idols be brought down to earth.

The title of Go Set a Watchman is drawn from the bible, the book of Isaiah, chapter 26. It’s the story of the fall of Babylon.

“For thus my Lord said to me: ‘Go, station a watchman, let him tell what he sees . . . Then the watchman cried . . . ‘Fallen, fallen is Babylon! All the images of her gods are smashed to the ground!’”

As Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked, “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.”

But you don’t actually need to be Irish to appreciate that sentiment. Think of Charles Lindbergh. Think of Lance Armstrong. Think of Bill Cosby.

Think of all the Catholic clergy implicated in the sexual abuse scandal. Think of Adam and Eve. Think of our fallen nature.

Think, now, of Atticus Finch.

The Watchmen business is troubling. On the other hand, it offers the reflective parent a lesson in humility.

None of us are on the side of the angels all the time. And, just because we were once right, doesn’t mean we’re always right—or righteous.

Think of your own mom and dad. When you’re young, they seem all-powerful, all-knowing.

Eventually you develop the ability to see them as they are—regular, flawed, human people. The mistakes they made were human mistakes.

Maybe they let us down here and there, but they did the best they could.

The only One who will never let us down is our God.

Only He is all-powerful, all-knowing. He supplies the time that can heal broken hearts. He supplies the courage we need to face our fears.

He is the face of true justice, the model of true fatherhood.

From the July/August 2015 issue of Fairfield County Catholic

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