“I like Atticus the way he is,” my daughter told me.

You see, Atticus Finch, the fictional hero of To Kill A Mockingbird holds special status in our house.

I read the book to our kids when they were young and we were all inspired by Atticus’ consistent pursuit of justice in the segregated south.

Our kids even named our beagle, “Scout” after Atticus’ precocious daughter.

When my middle school daughter heard that a second book by Harper Lee revealed some of Atticus’ personal flaws and failures she told me she didn’t want to read it. She didn’t want her pristine impression of Atticus’ nobility to be soiled by more information.

I felt the same way a few weeks ago when I read about John Newton in a powerful new book, The Justice Calling. I knew that Newton wrote the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace” and that he was a repentant slave trader in the late 1700s.

Yet, I was surprised to read that it took Newton over 20 years after he found faith to reject slavery.

The folklore version of history, that Newton instantly rejected slavery after his conversion experience, just isn’t true. He continued to buy slaves, torture them, and transport them across the Atlantic while he was learning about the sweet sound that saved a wretch like him.

For this human trafficker, even after he was found he was still lost in some ways.

“Amazing Grace” was written over a decade before Newton publicly spoke out against the slave trade. Instead of a “carefully scrubbed redemption” narrative, the truth is messy and muddled. The good news is that Newton got to the right place in the end.

His journey took time.

I think it is easier to admire accomplishments or respect people when we don’t know the whole story.

We like placing people on pedestals more than understanding their complexity. 

We say we want transparency in others, but I wonder if that is really true. The idea of authenticity may be attractive but its reality might disappoint us.

Is it possible that we prefer incomplete caricatures of people?

Many in our culture seem to take great joy in exposing others flaws and subjecting them to public humiliation with a #EpicFail trailing behind. It makes headlines when someone’s affair, addiction, or other little secret is revealed.

Tearing down people and their ideas feels like sport these days, especially if they play for a different team or opposing party.

Here is something to consider:

  • Do failures negate accomplishments or can they co-exist?
  • Can a noble character have flaws?
  • Can a writer’s work remain brilliant after his/her personal failings are revealed?
  • Can someone enjoy new love after an old relationship ended poorly?

A thorough investigation of anyone would probably reveal some level of hypocrisy or internal inconsistency.

None of our stories are stain-free.

Parents know their children aren’t perfect. Kids negligently make mistakes and sometimes are willfully disobedient. Even so, we love and train them through their failures and do not allow their worst moments to define them.

The same should be true in healthy marriages. We should honestly deal with conflicts and lovingly resolve them.

Why can’t the same texture exist for our leaders, role models, the lady down the street, and the annoying guy at work?

People don’t have to be perfect to be good.

Their imperfections don’t have to be denied or whitewashed . . . but they also shouldn’t negate their other ideas or contributions.

I don’t want to let the scandalous truth about John Newton taint the beauty of his song “Amazing Grace.” After talking about these ideas with my daughter, we agreed to read Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s second book about Atticus Finch. If it is okay for Atticus not to be perfect, perhaps we don’t have to be perfect, either.


Article by John Richmond