The gospel according to Harper Lee

“Arthur Radley just stays in the house, that’s all,” said Miss Maudie. “Wouldn’t you stay in the house if you didn’t want to come out?”

“Yessum, but I’d wanta come out. Why doesn’t he?”

Miss Maudie’s eyes narrowed. “You know that story as well as I do.”

“I never heard why, though. Nobody ever told me why.”

Miss Maudie settled her bridgework. “You know old Mr. Radley was a foot-washing Baptist–”

“That’s what you are, ain’t it?”

“My shell’s not that hard, child. I’m just a Baptist.”

“Don’t you all believe in foot-washing?”

“We do. At home in the bathtub.”

“But we can’t have communion with you all–”

Apparently deciding that it was easier to define primitive baptistry than closed communion, Miss Maudie said: “Foot-washers believe anything that’s pleasure is a sin. Did you know some of ’em came out of the woods one Saturday and passed by this place and told me me and my flowers were going to hell?”

“Your flowers, too?”

“Yes ma’am. They’d burn right with me. They thought I spent too much time in God’s outdoors and not enough time inside the house reading the Bible.”

My confidence in pulpit Gospel lessened at the vision of Miss Maudie stewing forever in various Protestant hells. True enough, she had an acid tongue in her head, and she did not go about the neighborhood doing good, as did Miss Stephanie Crawford. But while no one with a grain of sense trusted Miss Stephanie, Jem and I had considerable faith in Miss Maudie. She had never told on us, had never played cat-and-mouse with us, she was not at all interested in our private lives. She was our friend. How so reasonable a creature could live in peril of everlasting torment was incomprehensible.

“That ain’t right, Miss Maudie. You’re the best lady I know.”

Miss Maudie grinned. “Thank you ma’am. Thing is, foot-washers think women are a sin by definition. They take the Bible literally, you know.”

“Is that why Mr. Arthur stays in the house, to keep away from women?”

“I’ve no idea.”

“It doesn’t make sense to me. Looks like if Mr. Arthur was hankerin’ after heaven he’d come out on the porch at least. Atticus says God’s loving folks like you love yourself–”

Miss Maudie stopped rocking, and her voice hardened. “You are too young to understand it,” she said, “but sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of–oh, of your father.”

I was shocked. “Atticus doesn’t drink whiskey,” I said. “He never drunk a drop in his life–nome, yes he did. He said he drank some one time and didn’t like it.”

Miss Maudie laughed. “Wasn’t talking about your father,” she said. “What I meant was, if Atticus Finch drank until he was drunk he wouldn’t be as hard as some men are at their best. There are just some kind of men who–who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”

[Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird]

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