To Kill a Mocking Bird

Explorations in a Theology of 'Otherness'

William Wordsworth, in one of his major poems reflecting on his growing up, recalls how one summer evening he found a small boat under a willow tree and on impulse decided to go off rowing down Lake Windermere. As he rowed in the moonlight, surrounded by the mountains, it seemed as if the boat was gliding along almost under its own power and, anxious to prove his skill to row in a straight line, he fixed his gaze

                 ‘upon the summit of a craggy ridge, 
                  The horizon’s utmost boundary’

with nothing above but the stars and the grey sky,

                  ‘When, from behind that craggy steep till then
                  The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and large,
                  As if with voluntary power instinct
                  Upreared its head.’

It frightened him. Suddenly the mountains, the water and the skies, which had cradled and fascinated him from birth, created a deep anxiety. Stricken with fear — a mixture of awe, wonder, respect and apprehension — Wordsworth turned about, yet the more he rowed the more that ‘huge peak’ seemed to pursue him ‘with measured motion’ as he made his way back to the safety of the willow tree, abandoned the boat, and made for home, but for days that boy lived with an awareness ‘of unknown modes of being . . . a darkness . . . call it solitude or blank desertion’.

In that experience, Wordsworth was the victim of an encounter with  ‘the other’, an unknown force able to disturb his equilibrium, which he could neither control nor ignore. Deep down, he knew that that ‘other’ called for respect. A little deeper down perhaps, or maybe deeper in a different way, it frightened him.

Rudolph Otto defined such disturbing encounters with ‘the numinous’ as non-rational (not to be confused with irrational), a mystery which lies at the very heart of humanity. He called it mysterium tremendum to sharpen the strength of the emotion and the fear that goes with it. C S Lewis defines it as not so much the fear of a reality (like confrontation with a wild animal) as the fear of the uncanny (like a ghost). But then, to the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, Otto adds, the overwhelming experience from which you cannot escape. The consequences are profound because you never know what such a spirit might do or how to respond to it and so you find yourself living with the need to keep your distance. You can’t handle it or control it. You can’t deny it. Neither can you leave it alone.

This concept of ‘otherness’ is a fundamental and essential component of our common humanity. It begins in infancy, with a natural caution, suspicion, fear and anxiety. It is a necessary part of growing up until we learn who is or is not to be trusted, and in the process of growing up this ‘other’ morphs from anyone not in our family to anyone not in our street, town, country, tribe, race or the like, or to anyone who does not share our faith, interests, likes and dislikes.

So in this paper I want to explore this experience of ‘otherness’ in a variety of guises, beginning not with religion but with Harper Lee’s narrative in her only published novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. At one level, To Kill a Mockingbird  is a human story of racial prejudice in a fairly limited, not to say small-minded, community relating to a particular place and time (‘a tired old town’ in the 1930s); at another it is a communal expression of Wordsworth’s personal experience of fear and fascination and Otto’s mysterium tremendum. The first thing we have to do is to identify the ‘other’.

Identifying the ‘Other'

The ‘other’ varies from person to person and from place to place and is by definition subjective. To the white, ‘the other’ is black; to the black, ‘the other’ is white, and so on, in a multitude of less sharply defined, but no less significant, shades of grey, such as the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor, the clean and the dirty, the courteous and the rude, and so on. All these can be summed up as the ‘exclusive other’. It’s ‘them and us’, a label we pin on people we don’t like, are afraid of or suspicious of, and we are all party to it, sometimes as victims, sometimes as perpetrators.

For the most part ‘exclusive otherness’ can be kept in check by balances and counter-balances. It can even form the foundation for a healthy, positive and creative way of life, but without the checks and balances, it all too easily becomes set in stone, with negative results for all concerned, and in an extreme form, or in the hands of lobby groups or manipulators, provide the raw material for a lie or crude invention. To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on both kinds, the one in the main story (Tom Robinson) and the other in the metanarrative (Boo Radley).

In the main story, where the predominant theme is race and colour, the ‘exclusive other’ cuts both ways, the white excluding the black and the black excluding the white. So when Calpurnia, the black cook, takes the white children, Scout and Jem, to her (black) church, she and the children are rebuffed by Lula, a member of the congregation, who says to Calpurnia,

‘I wants to know why you bringin’ white children to nigger church . . . You ain’t got no business bringin’ white chillun here — they got their church, we got our’n. It is our church, ain’t it, Miss Cal?’ (TKAM 135-136).

In the metanarrative, which is almost a commentary on the main story, we see the damage caused by ‘otherness’ extreme and unchecked. Not altogether unlike Wordsworth, three children (all under 12 and moved by a mix of fear and fascination) let loose their imaginations on something strange or unusual, not of great consequence but quite beyond their experience and understanding. Almost before they know what they are doing, and certainly before other people know what they are up to, they allow their imaginations to distort what is there, partly for their amusement, partly to bolster their fear and uncertainties. These fears are then fuelled and complicated by the environment and folklore they have grown up with, to the point where they find themselves actually creating an ‘other’ that is not really there at all.

Both the narrative and the metanarrative are then backed by a chorus of ‘others’, each of whom tells us something about the way we treat not only ‘the other’ we keep on the outside but also ‘the other’ whom we allow inside our circle though not without taking care to establish our distance from them with phrases such as, ‘Of course, we are not like them’ or ‘Some people would do this, but we don’t’. There is no single brand of ‘otherness’.

There is a touch of the ‘exclusive other’ in us all, often a part of ourselves of which we may not even be aware but which we need to confront head on. Once understood and wisely handled, it can help us establish the ‘togetherness of the others’ that creates the harmony of community life, but in order to appreciate that we first have to come to terms with ‘the other’ in us all.

The ‘Other’ in Us All

Jem sums up his own feelings towards the end when he says,

‘There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind, like us and the neighbours. There’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes . . . The thing about it is, our kind of folks don’t like the Cunninghams, the Cunninghams don’t like the Ewells, and the Ewells hate and despise the coloured folks’ (TKAM 258).

Scout disagrees. She thinks there are only ‘folk’. To Kill a Mockingbird  suggests it is not quite so simple.

‘Otherness’ is not confined to education, social class or lifestyle. There are many other forms every bit as prevalent, powerful and destructive as race, colour or eccentric behaviour. Every community has its own collection of ‘others’, some more obvious and troublesome than others.

Miss Caroline, the newly-arrived teacher in Maycomb, is an example of the 'inevitable other’. She is the product of her upbringing and quite unaware of how the rest of the world lives. To her the whole of Maycomb is ‘other’, so a bright eight-year-old is reproved because her father is ‘interfering with her reading’ by teaching her at home (TKAM 19) but then when she goes berserk at the sight of a cootie in a pupil’s hair her class are left in no doubt as to who really is ‘the other’.

Miss Maudie is a variation on the 'inevitable other’. We might describe her as the ‘characteristic other’. She would be ‘other’ in any community. ‘Otherness’ is her driving force. It is what makes her who she is. She cherishes it and takes a pride in it. Possessions mean nothing to her. She hates her house, and spends most of her time in her garden which she loves, along with ‘everything that grew in God’s earth including the weeds’ (TKAM 47).

But then she also has the knack of making ‘others’ the ‘other’ in order to establish herself. So she and Nathan Radley, for example, are both Baptists but the Radleys are a different sort of Baptist. (TKAM 49-50). Similarly, she and Miss Stephanie are both churchgoers, but Miss Stephanie is a more traditional, churchy sort of person, a gossip and a busybody, with a lot of very negative attitudes. Miss Maudie may not actually reject the ‘other’ but she never has any doubt that the  ‘other’ is not Miss Maudie.

Mrs Dubose and Dolphus Raymond and are a couple of ‘self-created others’. Mrs Dubose, with a reputation as ‘the meanest old woman who ever lived’, chooses awkwardness and hostility to present herself as ‘a lady with a difference’. She does it to conceal the fact that she is a morphine addict, but that only comes out after her death when we learn that ‘she was a great lady’, with tremendous courage and (according to Atticus) ‘the bravest person I ever knew’.

Dolphus Raymond, for different reasons, has quite deliberately created an entirely ‘other image’ for himself as a drunkard, living with a coloured woman and mixed children and enjoying the company of the coloured more than the white, when the reality is quite different. He admits it is dishonest, but plays along with it because he says people have to find a reason for anyone of eccentric behaviour and ‘they could never, never understand that I live like I do because that’s the way I want to’.

In one way or another, we are all ‘others’, inevitable, characteristic, self-defining and self-created, as numerous and varied as the sand that is upon the seashore. But every now and then there strides on to the stage an ‘other’ of a different order. Such a man is Atticus. 

The ‘Other’ of a Different Order

What makes Atticus different is complex. Some of this is reflected in aphorisms (or Atticisms)  which tell us something about him, his character, principles and values. Early on, for example, when Scout is having difficulty with her teacher and classmates, Atticus says, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view — until you climb into his skin and walk around in it’ (TKAM 33). He is a man with a shrewd understanding of human nature, and when Scout’s recognition of a familiar face in the crowd saves him from a mob attack he points out that it can take ‘an eight-year-old child to bring ‘em to their senses’ (TKAM 174-176, 179), or later, when he explains to Jem that in that Maycomb jury you can see what happens when something comes between ‘twelve reasonable men in everyday life’ and ‘reason’. (TKAM 251-252). 

Asked why he insists on defending Tom Robinson, he says he couldn’t go to church and worship God if he didn’t. Told by Scout that most people think he is wrong, he says ‘before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself.’ For Atticus, living with yourself is a precondition of living with God; they might almost be synonymous.

Local people find Atticus puzzling if not irritating. Even in his own family he is something of a loner and an enigma. (TKAM 94). Scout, for example, complains he not like other dads, and towards the end when Jem is (wrongly) suspected of murder — the victim apparently fell on his knife — it takes all the sheriff’s powers of persuasion to prevent Atticus taking the case to the County Court to avoid any suggestion of a cover-up for his son.

Such a person, walking the face of the earth, amuses some, puzzles others and angers the rest. He has a natural, if unintended, flair to keep the tongues wagging, is clearly not everybody’s cup-of-tea, possibly not the sort of man you would want to meet up with in a bar and unlikely ever to be the soul of a party. He doesn’t easily build close relations with anyone and has few friends, associates and supporters, almost as if people respect him but don’t like him. Yet he risks his reputation if not his life in order to be himself, with all that that entails for himself and for his family and there can be no doubt that Atticus is unique, his own man, sui generis.

What actually motivates him is a matter for speculation. Unlike Browning’s Pippa, Atticus would probably never have said,

                 ‘God’s in his heaven
                  All’s right with the world!’

but he always seems to have a kind of hunch that all will be well. He never doubts who he is, where he belongs and whom he belongs to, and that is more than enough to give him confidence to face life for himself and with plenty left over for others. In any community he would be a ‘distinctive other’. We need to look more closely.

The Distinctive 'Other'

What enables Atticus to develop his hunch is never spelt out but some seeds may be found in relationships within his own family, particularly with his sister, Alexandra.

Atticus is ‘other’ to Alexandra. Alexandra is ‘other’ to Atticus. On family traditions, standards, values and social graces they are poles apart, and it is only as they come to terms with their own personal backgrounds and problems, in a particular situation and  in the interests of others (in their case the rearing of children), that each (the ‘distinctive' and the ‘exclusive') morphs to create a ‘balancing other’, rather like the ‘sail and keel’ in marriage or the ‘good guy/bad guy’ in management. 

Life and relationships for a ‘balancing other’ can never be smooth, sometimes creating harmony, sometimes strife, but in the ‘balancing other’ we see the potential for a new world.

To Alexandra her family is special — and different — so when Atticus has opened Scout’s eyes to a different view of the Cunninghams, Scout tells Aunt Alexandra that she is going to invite Walter Cunningham to tea, and even to stay the night. Not on your life! ‘Why not, auntie?’ she asks, ‘they’re good folks’. Alexandra has no wish to challenge the fact that they are ‘good folks’ but replies ‘they’re not our kind of folks’. But then we hear Atticus telling Scout that ‘most of this Old Family stuff’s foolishness because everybody’s family’s just as old as everybody else’s’, and that includes ‘coloured folks and Englishmen’, thereby essentially demolishing the one thing which makes them different from the Cunninghams, the Ewells and the rest and thus destroying one of the myths that props up not only Alexandra but so many others like her. (TKAM 255-259).

With that sharp division, rearing children is bound to be a bone of contention. Atticus accepts Scout as a tomboy. Aunt Alexandra wants to make her a lady (TKAM 257). Next, Calpurnia. When Alexandra is not getting what she wants with Scout she tells Atticus Calpurnia must go. He has a daughter to think of and, with Alexandra around, Calpurnia is no longer needed. Atticus will not hear of it. Alexandra gets in only two words to object and then she is silenced immediately and the matter is considered closed. (TKAM 155-56).

So the ‘balanced others’ haven’t reached agreement, and probably never will, but they have come to terms with each other, learned to respect each other and to live together. Each knows and recognizes what the other will and will not do. They also know they have a common job to do, and they both have to live in Maycomb.

But there is one crucial difference between them. Whereas one ‘balanced other’ (Alexandra) is still most at home among the ‘exclusives’, the other (Atticus) has one other facet to his character which distinguishes him from the rest. He cannot countenance the killing of a mockingbird, and with that goes a distinctive yen for that ‘other’ whom so far we have not mentioned and who needs help most of all — the ‘victimized other’, of which there are three classic examples: the rejected, the ignored and the not needed.

The Victimised ‘Other'

Tom Robinson is rejected — a quiet unassuming fellow but a fall-guy and a scapegoat, is rejected, caught in the crossfire of more powerful forces and prejudice, and the fact that we know so little about him tells its own story. For Atticus he is one of many. Atticus has to do what he does in order to help. Mayella Ewell is ignored. In court, when Atticus asks her if she has any friends, she seems not to know what he means. For Atticus, Mayella ‘must have been the loneliest person in the world’ — not even rejected, just ignored. Dill, even worse, is just not needed, knows it and feels it. (TKAM 158).  He is one who scarcely counts in the roll of life, the victim of an indifference that is the very antithesis of love. He arrives and departs very much like a summer holiday, has ideas and drive but is barely taken seriously. Nobody but Jem and Scout seem to notice him at all and he knows his face will be forgotten once he closes the door behind him.

None of these three is a natural ‘other’. None of them has done anything to merit ‘otherness’. They are victims of the attitudes of others. Shakespeare said, ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them.’  By contrast, all three have had ‘otherness’ thrust upon them, and it is only when we see Atticus in action with them that we begin to appreciate Atticus, the ‘distinctive other’, as ‘the other for all others’.

It is almost as if Atticus came from another world and found no personal difficulty maintaining the values of that other world come what may. He launches no drive or campaign to promote his philosophy but those closest to him (a few) find him an inspiration. More general reactions vary from admiration to puzzlement, from appreciation to anger and, by the end of the story, it is doubtful whether anything really has changed as a result of his presence.

But then could that be, I wonder, because change depended not on him but on the Maycomb community? Living alongside Atticus, it was up to them to write the sequel and for us, the readers, to imagine what that sequel might be, either in their situation or in a similar one of our own world. But then, before we can do that, there is yet one more ‘other’.

The Corporate ‘Other'

The ‘corporate other’ is not unlike all the other forms except that it finds expression in groups and communities rather than individuals and therefore can be much more insidious. At its heart is the fundamental nature of the ‘otherness’ we started with: a suspicion, fear, anxiety relating to the unknown (mysteriumfascinans) coupled with a desire to preserve one’s identity, and linked with an inability to achieve detachment and closure (). In Maycomb the focus is race and colour. In other places and other times it may be religion, politics or gender, possibly even language or dress.

At one level the ‘corporate other’ is what leads children in the playground to gang up against one who presents no threat but who is slightly out of the norm. At another, it may lead to more serious attacks (or defence), ranging from minor skirmishes to wars and rumors of war between races, tribes and nation states. The ‘corporate other’ can and does surface anywhere. In Maycomb, both sides subscribe to a ‘corporate otherness’ and both seem to accept it. History may explain how it came about but it takes more than history to tell us how and why it persists. In one sense nobody in Maycomb is responsible for it. It is bigger and more far reaching than any of them. In another sense everybody in Maycomb is responsible. So how does it persist and why?

The idea that some group (such as the Ku Klux Klan) is actively promoting it in Maycomb seems unlikely, and there is no evidence for it in Lee’s novel. What seems more likely is that Maycomb residents are all victims in different ways of something which has been there for as long as they can remember. They have grown up with it and learned to live with it. Perhaps, as with our growth from childhood to maturity, what began as a perfectly reasonable suspicion or anxiety has taken over, and hardened with age to the point where it has become little more than a deceptive creation or crude invention which nobody has the courage to challenge, which it is in the interests of some people to preserve, and the negative consequences of which most people prefer not to think about.

Harper Lee makes no attempt to get involved in such questions, and it probably would not be very helpful if she did. Instead she offers a metanarrative in which she uses the eyes of three children to help us to see a very similar situation in a slightly different context; she relies on the sensitive reader to spot the connections and reflect on them. So while alerting us to the potential damage in all forms of ‘otherness’, and particularly to the dangers associated with ‘corporate otherness’, she concludes her novel with a faint hint that once we can view all ‘others’ with a more perceptive eye, we may begin to see that, at least in some cases, it is through embracing the ‘other’ that we find our own deliverance.  And this brings us to Boo Radley.

The Tale of Boo Radley

The tale of Boo Radley addresses the brand of ‘otherness’ for which there is virtually no evidence but which can readily root and blossom if there is a seed or a doubt, a bit of mystery or imagination, and somebody on hand to exploit it.

Boo Radley is the ‘non-existent other’. There is indeed a person with that name and you can ‘find him’ in Maycomb, but of the real Boo Radley and his family Harper Lee tells us little or nothing. We never meet him until the end, and when we do he is totally different from what we have been led to expect. Yet in his story, we can observe the story of so many others, individual and corporate, in all parts of the world.

The reactions of three children to the ‘non-existent other’ are not unlike those of society in general, possibly a reflection of the attitude of many in Maycomb to those of a different race, colour or way of life, and (some would say) a reflection of ourselves in similar situations. It starts, as we said, when three children, an overdose of imagination and a modicum of maturity are let loose on something strange or unusual (mysteriumfascinans), in itself of no great consequence, and quite beyond their experience and understanding but they cannot let it lie (), at least not without trying to examine it and discover its reality for themselves. But notice the  stages they go through.

Initially, they are hardly aware of Boo at all. He was ‘just there’. He always had been. Sometimes they wondered if he was real, but mostly they saw him as part of the furniture, treated him with respect, and kept their distance. All they knew depended on stories, myths and the innuendoes that surrounded him, or what they had gleaned from comments and gossip, and most of it merely washed over them. Boo barely encroaches on their lives and when he does there are always others around to offer assurance, security and protection. All there is is just enough ‘strangeness’ to breed suspicion.

So it is that individuals, families, tribes, races, dogmas, ideologies and the like can live for years, if not generations, surrounded by all kinds of ‘others’ which they know are there but which scarcely impinge on their consciousness. Then one day something happens.

In this case the catalyst was the arrival of Dill, a year younger than Scout, a ‘visitor’ from another world. When boredom sets in at the end of a long summer vacation, Dill sells Jem and Scout the idea of taking on Boo Radley. From that moment, Scout and Jem’s world turns on its axis. Boo Radley becomes a phantom, a symbol, an icon — ‘the non-existent other’, with a power over them which they find hard to ignore. What they do may ring familiar bells.

First, a dare. They play ‘chicken’  with ‘the other’, testing and teasing themselves as to who has the courage to go and touch the wall or knock at the door (TKAM 15-16).

Next, fantasy feeds on ‘mysterious messages’. Stories, handed down from year to year, are combined with presents found in a tree adjoining the Boo Radley home, suggesting that Boo Radley may be playing games with them. (TKAM 37-38, 69-70)

Then, play-acting. They dramatize ‘the other’, fear and anxiety finding expression in humour as they make fun of the whole idea (TKAM 43-45), followed by careful planning to get Boo to come out of his hiding place (TKAM 52).

At each stage, boldness and the lack of response feeds suspicion, matched by increasing confidence and risk-taking, until even the adults join in and when a shot is fired in the Radley garden one night the story goes round that Boo’s older brother had shot a negro. Just the sort of thing to confirm precisely what everybody wants to believe.

Hard facts may still be hard to come by, but with constant dripping slowly there is a growing suspicion of this ‘non-existent other’, possibly enough to cause alarm (in a childlike way), but to the point where he looms larger and larger on their radar. Like Wordsworth’s peak, fear (mysteriumfascinans) is balanced by a fatal, almost irresistible attraction ().

More thoughtful adult attitudes vary. Nobody seems to doubt that Boo Radley is real. Some actually claim to know. Some to have seen him (TKAM 48). Some adopt a healthy indifference. Some just don’t see him as a problem. Some go into denial. Some wage a war against him. Only a few, like Scout and Jem, want an explanation.

Miss Maudie’s view is simply that Boo Radley was a fine youngster, stays in the house because he doesn’t want to come out (TKAM 49), and everything they say about him is ‘three-fourths coloured folks and one-fourth Stephanie Crawford.’ Atticus, wise and detached as ever, keeps things in proportion, tells them to ‘stop tormenting that man’, to stop their games and to keep well away from the house until they are invited (TKAM 54-55).

Yet, and still without any hard evidence, it is a story which runs only on fear and suspicion, and serves only those who want to relieve their boredom or those who find it stimulating to have an enemy. So it is that something ‘non-existent’ can assume reality.


As the story comes to a end, the details of narrative and metanarrative become secondary. By the middle of October little in Maycomb has changed and, by the end of the month, life for Scout and Jem had resumed the familiar routine of school, play and study (TKAM 277, 287). The story of Boo Radley is over. Or is it just beginning? Not altogether unlike the second gospel, To Kill a Mocking Bird ends on a positive, if uncertain, note.

Boo, it appears, was a much misunderstood character, a caring person who goes about his business unobtrusively, making advances and offering openings but leaving others to respond. He had made overtures to the children with gifts but they had no understanding of what was going on, found it impossible to believe it was Boo, and, (blinded by neighbourhood legend and folklore), found themselves unable to share their anxieties with the adults around them.

Yet, when Jem lost his trousers, making a hasty exit from Radley territory, it turns out that it was Boo who repaired them and left them in an orderly fashion for Jem to collect at his own convenience (TKAM 66). On a cold night when Miss Maudie’s house was burned to the ground it was Boo who provided a blanket for Scout (TKAM 81) and it was Boo who was on hand when she needed someone to protect her after the Halloween Party (TKAM 309-10). At no point however had the children seen him, not even on the night of the fire. (TKAM 80-82). As Jem pointed out, all Scout had to do was to turn round, but she was too busy looking at the fire to notice (TKAM 82). After the Halloween Party, standing there in his presence with Atticus and Mr Tate, there is still something of the mysterious about him which makes it difficult for Scout to acknowledge him. She is awe-stricken and speechless.

The sheriff asked her what happened. She  says,

‘Mr Ewell was tryin’ to squeeze me to death, I reckon . . . then somebody yanked Mr Ewell down . . . Somebody was staggerin’ around and pantin’ and — coughing fit to die.’

Who did she think it was? She knows. He is standing there straight in front of her, and she still cannot say his name. All she can do is to point and say,

‘Why there he is, Mr Tate, he can tell you his name’. (TKAM 309).

Her description which follows (TKAM 310) is poignant as she finally acknow-ledges his presence.

‘He had been leaning against the wall when I came into the room, his arms folded across his chest. As I pointed he brought his arms down and pressed the palms of his hands against the wall. They were white hands, sickly white hands that had never seen the sun . . .’I looked from his hands to his sand-stained khaki pants . . . up his thin frame to his torn shirt. His face was white as his hands . . . His cheeks were thin to hollowness; his mouth was wide; there were shallow, almost delicate indentations at his temples, and his grey eyes were so colourless I thought he was blind. His hair was dead and thin . . .

‘When I pointed to him his palms slipped slightly . . . and he hooked his thumbs in his belt. A strange small spasm shook him . . . but as I gazed at him in wonder the tension slowly drained from his face. His lips parted into a timid smile, and our neighbour’s image blurred with my sudden tears.

‘Hey, Boo’, I said.’ 

Readers familiar with the Bible (or Handel’s Messiah) may be reminded of other parallels to Lee’s portrait of Radley. Other readers, familiar with religious art, may recall associations with portraiture. This is not to suggest that Boo is Jesus, or even a Christ figure, but simply to note that occasionally, and not least among the rejected, despised and dispossessed ‘others’, one comes across a character who so closely resembles the one at the heart of the Christian tradition, and, when it happens, nobody is more surprised than we are, except perhaps the person themselves.  Atticus, the ‘distinctive other’, is perhaps the only one who knows that the story is never all failure and that there is much more to life than what regularly passes for success.


We began with Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans and noted how scholars of the history of religion have sometimes regarded this as humanity’s searching after God, a response to a limited understanding of life with a mixture of fear, suspicion and fascination. If there is any connection between the two searches it is not so much in the characters as in the quest. Biblical images of early encounters with God are scarcely concealed below the surface, beginning with God telling Moses, ‘you will see my back, but not my face’ continuing in Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant, coming to a climax with the women weeping at the cross and finding the ultimate expression in the stone which the builders rejected.

Perhaps Harper Lee is telling us more than she realized as she offers us a tool for dealing with our fears and uncertainties and giving us a fresh way of looking at them. If so, one way to get the most out of To Kill a Mockingbird is to identify the principal characters (Boo, Atticus, Tom, Mayella or the like) in our own experience, but instead of ‘playing games’ with them or fantasising about them, learning to see what we are doing to ‘the other’, to hear what the ‘others’ are trying to tell us, and to spot what it is that we are missing.

Page references are to the New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006 edition. 

© Alec Gilmore 2017