There Will Not Be a Test on To Kill a Mockingbird [But Let’s Pretend There Is]

There is a reason that we are still discussing To Kill a Mockingbird 59 years after its publication.

The most I ever learned in college was not from a professor. I’m not referring to life lessons, or extra-curricular information, but specifically to one US Intellectual History class. The professor, well-respected and well-published, provided the spark, the facts, and the direction, but the actual learning came from a motley study group made up of a very-Republican lacrosse player, a brilliant Southern belle, an angsty body-building Yankee libertarian, and me. How we came together I don’t remember, but I am forever grateful for their diverse perspectives and thoughtful intelligence.

Lectures happened MWF at 9 a.m., an early hour at a university noted for its nightlife. We set multiple alarms to ensure that we didn’t miss a bit of our crazy-haired professor’s insight. When exam time came, we picked up pizza and hunkered down in one of our crusty apartments, ready to cram. We didn’t review facts; we just tried to figure out what questions he would ask us.

We didn’t obsess about the details, because our professor didn’t. He wanted us to understand the big picture. We didn’t have study guides or practice tests: we just were supposed to make sense of the thought movements that had influenced the United States, and there were endless ways to consider the topic.  As we tried to determine what mattered, we bickered, disagreeing about what we might face on the test. We couldn’t discount anyone’s opinion, because we just didn’t know. We stayed up late, covering the waterfront. In the early hours we parted, to meet again after we had closed our bluebooks and signed the honor pledge, rushing out of the creaky lecture hall to high-five each other if we had guessed the questions correctly or, even better, if we thought we had known the answers.  We were excited about the material.  We wanted each other to succeed.  And, as we attempted to understand our complicated country in one short undergraduate semester, we didn’t realize what a gift our different perspectives gave us.

On August 4th, the Christ Church Cathedral congregation will gather to discuss Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Dean Thompson will provide us with questions to explore in groups. It will be a conversation, most certainly not a test. But what if we prepared as if it were? What if we thought about this book from the perspective of those most different from us: what questions would they ask?  When we meet to discuss this novel, we will gather across generations. We will gather across political affiliations. Across gender lines, economic lines, and most pertinent to this book, racial lines. But we will gather with the intent of each of us coming away with the deepest understanding possible.

There is a world of intellectual, social, and political history packed in this novel. There is a reason that we are still discussing it 59 years after its publication, a reason that it won the Pulitzer Prize, that the movie won multiple Academy Awards, that Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation for the theater is the top-grossing Broadway play to-date,* and that over a dozen books have been published about Harper Lee and her one story. There is a reason that it is as controversial as it is beloved.

We don’t know what questions the Dean will ask us. But more important than those questions is the preparation we bring to the discussion. Consider the story from your experience. Consider it from the point of view of a Republican lacrosse player, a brilliant Southern belle or a New England libertarian. As Atticus says, climb into someone else’s skin and consider things from that point of view. Because even though there isn’t a test, helping each other to understand the material makes all the difference.

*[https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/kill-a-mockingbird-becomes-top-grossing-us-play-broadway-history-1208931]

Ideal conversation must be an exchange of thought, and not, as many of those who worry most about their shortcomings believe, an eloquent exhibition of wit or oratory.
~Emily Post

 

The Cathedral Reads: To Kill A Mockingbird

Experience a world much different than our modern, urban home, but in many ways the same—roiled by racial tension, peppered with a few good people trying to make a difference, and inhabited by kids watching and trying to make sense of the grownups’ words and actions.

Our lives are fragmented. We all watch different TV shows, and discussing Johnny Carson or Saturday Night live around the water cooler or the church coffee table are no longer widely-shared experiences. Some of us play bridge together, or attend regular bible study with a group, but others are bowling alone. But this summer, whether we venture to distant lands, enjoy a relaxing stay-cation, or just continue our routine with the AC cranked down, we have the opportunity to take a journey together.

Join the entire Cathedral community on a trip back in time to the Deep South of the 1930s. We’ll experience a world much different than our modern, urban home, but in many ways the same—roiled by racial tension, peppered with a few good people trying to make a difference, and inhabited by kids watching and trying to make sense of the grownups’ words and actions.

We’ll get there by reading Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Many of you have read it, of course, but like the gospel, a good story can be revisited many times and never fail to provide new insights. Read it for the first time and discover why the name Atticus Finch became synonymous with morality and reason, re-read it to discover aspects of Boo Radley’s heart you never considered. Take it further and research Truman Capote’s relationship to the novel or the legal history of the South. We’ll all read it, but how deep you go with it is up to you. There will not be a quiz.

Rather, we’ll have a celebration of story. As summer winds down, we’ll gather to talk about what we discovered in this classic novel. Kids and grownups will have the opportunity to share their insights and learn more. Then, in one of the rare cases where the movie is as good as the book, we’ll enjoy the 1962 Oscar-winning Gregory Peck film together with a little Popcorn Theology. Readers who want to go further will delve into the story with Dean Thompson in book club.

If you can’t make one of the events, don’t worry: just relax knowing you’ll be able to walk up to anyone at the Cathedral this summer, grownup or kid, and say, “How’s that summer reading?” or “What do you think about Scout?” “Do you think Harper Lee wanted to release the earlier version, Go Set a Watchman, or was she pressured into it?” There is much for us to consider in both versions of this story.

Sharing our experiences will be better than retelling Johnny’s jokes or reenacting Roseanne Roseannadanna, and it will leave us with deeper perspective and a little more enlightenment.  For those still in school, it’s a good opportunity to get some actual summer reading done with lots of support.

Whatever your motivation, join the Cathedral community this summer on a journey into a Southern literary classic that has as much to offer us today as it did when it hit the scene in 1933. Harper Lee’s messages, now more than ever, are important for us to consider as a group. In to Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus says. “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” While that depth of empathy is not physically possible, exploring an important novel and a writer’s evolving perspective on the world together is a good way to start understanding each other and our own world a little better.

Sunday, August 4, 10 a.m., Intergenerational small group book discussions of the novel To Kill a Mockingbird in Reynolds Hall

Friday, August 16, 6:30 p.m., Popcorn theology (dinner, movie, discussion) of the film To Kill a Mockingbird

Wednesday, Sept. 4, 6:30 p.m., Dean’s Book Club deeper dive into the novel To Kill a Mockingbird

 

Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
—Harper Lee

A Wrinkle in Time: Was the Book Better?

Will the new light this movie sheds on L’Engle’s tale of good and evil amplify the message for you, or will your ink-on-paper experience–or your devotion to the specifics of the original story–prevail?

As director Ava DuVernay brings Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time to life, moviegoers have begun the eternal debate: Was the book better? L’Engle herself maintained great skepticism towards a film adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time, but the story’s richness lends itself to further exploration of religion, creativity, and inclusivity.

A quick recap (sans spoiler) for those of you who have not read the book since middle school: Meg Murry, an awkward teenager, must travel through time and space to rescue her little brother from the clutches of evil. The method she uses is called “tessering,” a phenomenon her scientist father studied until he disappeared several years earlier. Meg learns of her mission from other-worldly beings; and the journey demanded of her takes her to the most dangerous landscape imaginable, that of her own heart.

Despite the difficulties of categorizing the quirky story published in 1962, it quickly became an international bestseller. Because of L’Engle’s treatment of religious themes, it soon became as controversial as it was beloved. The American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom lists it in the top 100 frequently banned books.

L’Engle, who served as librarian and writer in residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City for over thirty years, included many biblical references in the novel, and the ecumenical world view she put for went so far as to suggest a “happy religious pluralism” described by The New Yorker as one in which “Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and even scientists can live together in peace.” Her intimation that love was more powerful than doctrine upset some conservative Christians, who claimed it offered an inaccurate portrayal of God and nurtured an unholy belief in myth and fantasy.

L’Engle suggests that the powerful messages of Christianity are not just for Christians. As Meg’s father tells her, “We were sent here for something. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”  The author appreciated the tension created by opposites and understood that tolerance and love could bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences. In community, she explains, we draw closer to God not through sameness but through our shared life. Love, L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time says, conquers all, and we do not have to be privileged, pretty or perfect to experience the power of this world-bending connection.

Several dozen Cathedral members recently ventured to the theater together to watch DuVernay’s new movie, discuss a little Popcorn Theology, and decide book or movie? A little background, ICYMI: Nominated for the Academy Award and winner of four EMMYs, DuVernay has received critical acclaim for her work across film genres. In 2017, she was named one of Fortune magazine’s 50 Greatest World Leaders and TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. She is the founder of ARRAY, a grassroots distribution and advocacy collective dedicated to the amplification of films by people of color and women which was named one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies. She gathered an all-star cast including Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Mindy Kaling, and Zach Galifianakis, and A Wrinkle in Time is the first film directed by a woman of color to have a budget of over $100 million.

And our reaction? With its presentation of the full breadth and accessibility of God’s kingdom, Ava DuVernay’s film version matches L’Engle’s creative fire, although some viewers in our group criticized it for combining and deleting characters and for deleting Christian references. The question was also raised: Would children understand the meaning of the story, or would they just be mesmerized by the special effects? But whether or not an individual approved or disapproved of DuVernay’s interpretation of the story, watching the movie together led to thoughtful discussion.

And that division might please L’Engle, who believed that our seemingly insurmountable differences can, in fact, be bridged—through that amazing tesseract we know as love. It’s not surprising that our group would have differing opinions about a movie based on this story. Three generations of readers have loved, questioned, or banned A Wrinkle in Time, and its longevity proves its power to withstand disapproval. More than half a century after the book’s original publication, DuVernay’s newest film opens the story’s arms even more widely and brings its mid-century perspective into the future.

Will the new light this movie sheds on L’Engle’s tale of good and evil amplify the message for you, or will your ink-on-paper experience–or your devotion to the specifics of the original story–prevail?

Book or movie? Strict adherence to the original or a more liberal interpretation? You’ll have to decide for yourself. But whichever medium you prefer, you’ll be reminded that one of the great strengths of the underlying message of A Wrinkle in Time is its ability to carry us beyond the perceived boundaries of our understanding.

Read or reread the book. Watch the movie. Or come by the Bookstore and pick up one of the many books we have by and about Madeleine L’Engle. Whether your path to understanding takes you through fiction, non-fiction, books, movies, or all of the above, we’d love to examine her fascinating world with you.

 

 

A book, too, can be a star, “explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly,” a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe. 
― Madeleine L’EngleA Wrinkle in Time

 

Christmas Cheer Starts Here!

Have yourself a merry little lunch hour

Cathedral members know the powerful joy of celebrating Christmas surrounded by the poinsettia-banked rood screen, the gleaming candlelit altar, and the invigorated voices of the congregation raising the roof with favorite carols. As the hushed tones of “Silent Night” reverberate, our hearts fill with wonder at the magnitude of God’s love. For us, despite commercialism all around, this feeling builds through Advent–with wreath decorating, Christmas at the Cathedral, Las Posadas, and so many other opportunities for worshipping together. Our Cathedral traditions feel so familiar that it can be hard to imagine celebrating Christmas anywhere else.

While all are welcome to join us in sharing our Christmas services, many people in our immediate community don’t know our traditions, and they can be a little intimidating for newcomers. What goes on behind the stained glass in that big, beautiful building? Why are those people running around the courtyard in ornate dresses? What if I don’t know when to stand or when to sit? If we are truly to show people that God is in the midst of the city–feeding and clothing people, offering relief from Harvey, providing spiritual guidance, and so much more–we first need to invite them in and make them feel comfortable.

This Advent season, the Cathedral is focusing on sharing our beautiful campus and traditions–with Treebeards customers, our downtown neighbors, and you! Come have a merry little lunch hour filled with Christmas shopping in the bookstore, a great Cajun lunch, a tour of our historic cathedral, and even a noontime Eucharist. Not only can you get body and soul fed, you can learn their way around the Cathedral, ask questions, and determine if one of our beautiful services might be a good fit for Christmas Eve or other times.

Even if you already have a church home for the holidays, the warmth of our hospitality and the help with preparations are a sure formula for reducing the stress and staying present to the real excitement and joy of the season. Whether you decide to bring your kids to watch the pageant, to stay up late with the booming brass and percussion, or to pray with joyful hearts on Christmas morning, everyone at Christ Church wants you to feel that the Cathedral is a welcoming place to celebrate the birth of Christ and the love he brings–the ultimate Christmas cheer!

Christmas Cheer Starts Here!

Have Yourself a Merry Little Lunch Hour
weekdays, December 1-22

Get into the spirit by
discovering unique gifts, jewelry and books
enjoying lunch at Treebeards
celebrating the Eucharist 12:05 p.m.
touring Houston’s historic Cathedral 12:35 p.m.
learning about the holiday service that best suits you:
    Christmas Eve worship at 4, 6 (en espanol), 8 and 11 pm
    Christmas Day at 10 am
picking up wrapped gifts
and returning, reinvigorated, to your routine!

Keeping Faith with Books

We’re celebrating 35 years of our beloved bookstore with a tea.

A good bookstore, by definition, shares stories, but when your bookstore celebrates its 35th year in a church that was established in 1839, it’s important to document and share your own history, too. We asked J. Pittman McGehee D.D. for his recollection of our beloved shop’s beginnings during his tenure as dean of Christ Church Cathedral.

The Founding of the Cathedral Bookstore

Henry Ford said, “The greatest wisdom is in doing the obvious.”  So it was with founding the Bookstore.  There was a kind of old-fashioned church parlor where the bookstore is now.  It was affectionately known as, “the Red Room.” (Obviously because of the decor.) For 99% of the time, it was wasted space, with anachronistic decor.  I had desired a bookstore at Christ Church Cathedral, as symbol and fact that I wanted the Cathedral to become a center of intellectual curiosity. So, on October 16,1983, the Cathedral Bookstore was founded.

There was a historic bookstore in Houston called the Episcopal Bookstore. I asked the former manager, Alberta Jones, if she would consult and help us begin our own store.  At that time I asked Cynthia Pyle, who had been in conversation with me concerning the bookstore founding, to be program director and coordinator of volunteers.  Within a manner of months, it became obvious the Cynthia was more than capable of running the store, so, on January 4, 1984, I appointed Cynthia as manager.  Much of the success of the Cathedral bookstore is due to the innovative leadership of Cynthia Pyle.

In 1993, Kathy Jackson succeeded Cynthia as manager and successfully led the store through some of the most tumultuous times in bookselling history until her retirement this summer. The current dean,  the Very Reverend Barkley Thompson then appointed Lucy Chambers, a pioneer in Houston publishing, to carry on their work.

The rich history and tradition of the Bookstore, soon to be 35 years old, continues thanks to those mentioned above, plus long-time volunteers Wendy Bentlif, Jan Fitzhugh, Pat Hallmark, Earle Martin, Roxanne Dolen and other dedicated volunteers who have served their ministries at the Cathedral as a part of the bookstore.

~J. Pittman McGehee D.D.

Thanks to the faithful work of this team, the Cathedral Bookstore has provided a haven for book lovers for decades, and we are grateful to the Very Reverend J. Pittman McGehee for his vision in 1983. The Cathedral has indeed become a center of intellectual curiosity in Houston, so in addition to a well-curated list of religious, spiritual, general non-fiction, fiction, and children’s titles, we carry books by the many notable speakers who visit the Cathedral and a constantly-refreshed supply of quality used books.

The Cathedral celebrates the store’s history and retiring manager, Kathy Jackson, Friday, September 29th with a tea. For more information, stop by and see us or visit the Cathedral’s website www.christchurchcathedral.com.

God is in the midst of the city, and we are assured that He, too, loves a Good Book!

 

 

[Y]ou might also choose to see it as a cathedral of the human spirit–a storehouse consecrated to the full spectrum of human experience. Just about every idea we’ve ever had is in here somewhere. A place containing great thinking is a sacred space.
~Forrest Church

The Peace Builders’ Poems

Taking more time for stories won’t solve our problems, but it provides an understanding that is the first step. 

The Jerusalem Peace Builders, Israeli young adults from the each of the Abrahamic faiths–Christianity, Islam, and Judaism–spent the week at the Cathedral. On Sunday, before reading the lessons in the service in Hebrew and Arabic, they explained themselves to us by reading poems they had written.

Each poem began, “I am from…” And each list-format poem included sweet, mundane ingredients that made up these young men and women: my mother’s hummus, my sister’s tabbouleh, roses and olive trees. But going beyond the sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice aspects of their character, they also shared darker ingredients: trouble, chaos and death, and the ways love had softened hearts of stone.

As they had opened up to each other through the course of the week, they opened themselves for the coffee-hour crowd. They shared their inside jokes and their respect and love for one another. They will never be able to look at a person from another religion as other, because by sharing their stories, their “I am,” they created connection and empathy.

At the Cathedral, the Dean has a book club. The titles are varied, selected by the group, and we carry them here in the bookstore. The title for September’s meeting is My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, by Ari Shavit. Called a “must-read book” by Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times, Shavit doesn’t try to tell us what to think about Israel, instead, he shares its story, intimately intertwined with his own.

“The Israel question cannot be answered with polemics,” he writes. “As complex as it is, it will not submit itself to arguments and counter arguments. The only way to wrestle with it is to tell the Israel story. That is what I have tried to do in this book.”

Taking more time for stories–for sharing our own openly and listening to and reading those of others intently–won’t solve our problems, but it provides an understanding that is the first step.

The heartfelt group hug after the Jerusalem Peace Builders’ reading testified to what an important start knowing and understanding one another is on the path to peace.

 

The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story.
–Anthony de Mello