Saturday, August 15, 2015

Aug. 15, 2015, column:

'Watchman' challenges moral injustice

By Mike Haynes
            The only people in these parts who paid much attention to the unveiling of “To Kill A Mockingbird” writer Harper Lee’s second novel last month seem to have been English teachers, librarians and a few bookworms like me.
            As with the much-hyped publication of books about a certain young wizard, stores nationwide opened early to offer “Go Set A Watchman,” the so-called sequel to “Mockingbird” that the reclusive Alabama author had written before the 1960 classic and which had been “lost” for six decades. But when I dragged myself to a bookstore at 7:30 a.m., I was one of only three people snagging an early copy.
            “Not quite Harry Potter, is it?” I quipped to the two clerks as I exited.
             In “Watchman,” Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the child who became a beloved literary figure in the first book, is in her 20s in the 1950s. She rides a train from her new home, New York City, back to the Maycomb, Ala., that we know from “Mockingbird.”
            The new novel did make headlines because of the change in her father, Atticus Finch, from the heroic attorney later played by Gregory Peck in the movie version to a less admirable man in his 70s. That racial issue has been analyzed to death, and while significant, my focus today is church.
            In Chapter 12 of “Mockingbird,” the Finch housekeeper, Calpurnia, takes the young Scout and her brother, Jem, to visit First Purchase African M.E. Church. One woman member criticizes Calpurnia for bringing white children to the service, but most of the black congregation welcomes Scout and Jem.
            It’s a poor, 1930s church, “with no sign of piano, organ, hymn-books, church programs” that the Finches are used to. Reverend Sykes, prominent in a later courtroom scene, preaches strongly about sin. And maybe the most telling aspect of the service is how the members support each other, especially as a collection is taken for Helen Robinson, whose husband Tom is in jail unjustly.
            “Watchman” gives us a glimpse of Scout’s own church, which she attends while on her visit from New York. Real-life Methodists certainly will recognize this 1950s southern service. In Chapter 7, Lee writes: “Immediately after collection, Maycomb Methodists sang what they called the Doxology … ‘Praise – God – from – whom – all – blessings – flow…’”
            Those who gnash their teeth over music styles in the 21st century should know that worship controversies are nothing new. Jean Louise describes her uncle accosting Herbert, the music director, after church because he had sped up the Doxology, causing confusion in the pews. The members were used to a slower version.
            The music leader explains that a New Jersey instructor had encouraged the change in a music course Herbert had taken at Camp Charles Wesley: “He said we ought to pep up the Doxology.” The instructor also had condemned traditional hymns, such as those by Fanny Crosby.
            The Finch uncle won’t stand for that: “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. He tries to make us sing the Doxology like we were all in Westminster Abbey, does he?”
            The Doxology argument struck a minor chord with me. I grew up in a Texas Panhandle Methodist church hearing it sung at a fairly quick pace. Suddenly one Sunday, my mother, the organist, was dragging the notes at the end of lines, apparently the way it was written in a new, modern hymnal. I didn’t hear complaints, but I’m sure there were some.
            Author Lee seems to make a point about the triviality of a music disagreement compared to serious issues facing blacks and whites of the time. The uncle’s Supreme Court reference probably was to 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, which did away with segregated schools.
            The new book’s title comes from this church service. The Rev. Stone preaches from Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”
             Former Alabama United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon wrote last month that he believes the new novel is a Christian one, maybe even a Methodist one in the sense that his denomination historically has challenged moral injustice. And he suggests that in addition to other criticism, some of the negative response to the book may be because “Lee has written as a Christian.”