A Methodist reading of ‘Go Set a Watchman’

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Note: Retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, himself a novelist, agreed to review "Go Set a Watchman" — set in the 1950s — with attention to its Methodist references.

Jemson was Methodist of the whole cloth: he was notoriously short on theology and a mile long on good works. — From “Go Set a Watchman,” by Harper Lee

One of the many strokes of genius of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird" — our greatest American novel — is to make a child, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, narrator.  We see the South, that is,1930s Maycomb (Monroeville), Alabama, through a child’s penetrating stare.  In Harper Lee’s “new” novel “Go Set a Watchman” written in the 1950s but  published just this week26-year-old Jean Louise returns home from her sojourn in New York to visit her aging father, lawyer Atticus Finch, hero of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Many have already condemned the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” as a brutal defamation of our beloved Atticus or as an unedited, sloppy novel that detracts from Lee’s reputation. While “Go Set a Watchman” lacks literary perfection, I believe that it confirms Lee’s artistic genius, particularly when read in the context of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

I didn’t say that this novel is easy to take; the last third, in which Scout confronts Atticus’ racism, is excruciatingly brutal but utterly truthful.  I grew up in a town like Maycomb, among people just like Atticus, and I can tell you that no better picture has been painted of the evil of genteel, educated, polite Southern racism circa 1955 than “Go Set a Watchman.”

No one can help comparing this novel with “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Many take offense that Lee presumed to publish another book after reaching the apex of international literary glory.  I believe the main reasons for outrage against “Go Set a Watchman” are that Lee has dared to let us see Scout as an adult; that Lee has dared to tell the truth about race in America; and maybe that Lee has written as a Christian.

The Rev. Will Willimon retired in 2012 as bishop of the North Alabama Conference and now teaches at  Duke Divinity School.  Photo courtesy of Duke Divinity School.

The Rev. Will Willimon retired in 2012 as bishop of the North Alabama Conference and now teaches at  Duke Divinity School.  Photo courtesy of Duke Divinity School.

The first thing I noted by comparison was that “Go Set a Watchman” is often very funny; I never saw much humor in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The latter’s funniest passages are when Lee remembers church.   She recalls the Baptist revivalist’s sermon “Would You Speak to Jesus if You Met Him on the Street?” that led Jem, Scout and Dill (“Scout and me are Methodists,” admitted Jem) to re-enact a baptism by immersion in Dill’s fish pool.  In Jem’s pretend sermon, he asked, “Where is the Devil?” and answered, “Right here in Maycomb, Alabama,” a statement that proves to be prophetic by novel’s end.

The children are punished for their bogus baptism (Whap! came Miss Rachel’s switch on Jem’s behind before he could finish his sermon) but in a way, all church is pretend in Maycomb.

Returning to the church of her childhood during her fateful homecoming in “Go Set a Watchman,” Jean Louise encounters “the warmness that prevails among diverse individuals who find themselves in the same boat for one hour each week.” The sermon is delivered by the Reverend Mr. Stone, who Jean Louise’s uncle pronounces “had the greatest talent for dullness he had ever seen in a man on the near side of fifty.”  Stone’s preaching is studiedly inoffensive.  As a pastor, he has “all the necessary qualifications for a certified public accountant: he did not like people, he was quick with numbers, he had no sense of humor, and he was butt-headed.”  Maycomb’s Methodist Church at first was pleased when the bishop sent them a young pastor.  After less than a year, word around the congregation is, “We asked for bread and they gave us a Stone.”

The only show of passion during or after service comes when Jean Louise’s (“licensed eccentric”) uncle accosts the volunteer choir director and complains that the Doxology had been sung too fast.  He is informed by the musician that a pepped-up Doxology was pushed at a course led by a man from New Jersey on “what was wrong with Southern church music.” 

Her uncle shoots back, “Apparently our brethren in the Northland are not content merely with the Supreme Court’s activities.  They are now trying to change our hymns on us.”

While biblical allusions are scattered throughout “Go Set a Watchman,” one is impressed by the irrelevance of the church.  When push comes to shove in Maycomb (and the whole town is being pushed by the nascent civil rights movement), no one seems to recall anything of help or challenge from their Christian faith.   

The same Sunday evening of the church service, a meeting is held in the Maycomb County Courthouse (in the courtroom where Atticus had been unassumingly heroic in “To Kill a Mockingbird”) because “politicking’s done on Sunday in these parts.”  At this gathering of the County Citizen’s Council (euphemism for the South-wide effort to resist integration) are “not only most of the trash in Maycomb County, but the county’s most respectable men,” including the man Jean Louise (and all “To Kill a Mockingbird” readers) idolized.  Atticus introduces the guest speaker, who delivers the most vile and repulsive of rambling racist diatribes.  Jean Louise, who slipped into the “colored balcony” to witness the event, becomes infuriated and nauseous.

That evening Jean Louise grows up the hard way.  She discovers that she embodies Atticus’ noble values better than he.  Atticus “had betrayed her, publicly, grossly, and shamelessly.”  In the aftermath, she visits her beloved family servant Calpurnia, offering Atticus’ help in an upcoming manslaughter case against her son.  Calpurnia is polite but cold toward the child for whom she was a surrogate mother.  She thanks Jean Louise but indicates that she and her family will attempt to defend themselves.  (“NAACP-paid lawyers are standing around like buzzards,” warns Atticus.) The African Americans of Maycomb are moving on, securing their lives without the help of their privileged, white, disappointing protectors.   

“Did you hate us?” Jean Louise tearfully asks Calpurnia.  After silence: “Finally Calpurnia shook her head.”  Whether in assent or denial, we are not told.

Jean Louise has a bitter, angry confrontation with Atticus.  Atticus attempts to defend himself, trotting out all of the conventional Southern white justifications in defense of segregation, which seem dated but also somehow shockingly similar to the current rhetoric of certain right-wing politicians from Texas to North Carolina.  

I’m sure that “Go Set a Watchman” will be read and dissected for decades. But to me Harper Lee is spot on with her rendition of mid-1950’s Southern racism, white privilege, class tensions, relationships between men and women, and ordinary mundane evil.  Any Southerner over 50 is sure to find “Go Set a Watchman” a painful but revealing read.

In its own way, I believe “Go Set a Watchman” is a very Christian novel, maybe even a Methodist one.  Though Jean Louise is the only character who notices the gap between Maycomb residents’ universally held Christian convictions and the racist civilization they have built, that she notices and rebels is a Methodist moral achievement. “Go Set a Watchman” is a story of redemption, of the Wesleyan New Birth as a painful opening of the eyes, of the move into adulthood as learning to tell the truth.  

The text for the unfortunate Rev. Stone’s Sunday sermon comes from Isaiah 21: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.  In “Go Set a Watchman,” Harper Lee takes Isaiah as her model.  Even as the child Scout stared at her world, seeking the truth of things, so Jean Louise Finch stares at hers and dares to declare what she sees, thereby blessing the rest of us, if we dare to hear.

The Rev. Will Willimon served as bishop of the North Alabama Conference from 2004 to 2012, when he retired from the episcopacy. He's now Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School. He’s also the author of the novel “Incorporation” and the soon-to-be-published novel “I’m Not From Here.”

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