If you know anything about the South, then you know that there are, literally, United Methodist churches everywhere you go in the Bible Belt.
You also know that United Methodist churches down South are usually not as "conservative" as, say, their Southern Baptist counterparts, but they tend to be more conservative -- even "evangelical" in some cases -- than UMC flocks in other parts of the country.
Thus, it is certainly interesting that the celebrated, and ultra-private, author Harper Lee was an active member in her local United Methodist congregation down in Alabama. That detail made it into the New York Times story about her funeral, since it's hard to cover a funeral without saying where it was held. However, the story managed to avoid any of the details of that rite of worship or of the implications of her faith for her life's work.
It's interesting to note that the very first pages of "To Kill a Mockingbird," published in 1960, include references both to Methodism and to its founder, the Rev. John Wesley. Hold that thought.
The Times funeral story does include this information about the setting:
MONROEVILLE, Ala. -- Friends and family from around the corner and across the country gathered here on Saturday to pay final respects to Harper Lee, the author whose Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about racial inequality in the South during the Jim Crow era inspired generations of readers.
A dense fog that had shrouded this small town lifted as mourners filed into the First United Methodist Church, which Ms. Lee attended for many years, for a simple, private service that lasted about an hour.
The relatively small guest list of perhaps 40 people included nephews and other relatives of the publicity-shy author, as well as friends from her hometown and places afar like New York City, where she once lived and had written her celebrated book, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“She controlled what world she wanted to live in,” said Joy Brown, a close friend from New York who, with her husband, financed Ms. Lee’s writing pursuits during the period when she wrote “Mockingbird.”
This local Methodist church was part of that private world that she created.
Was the church an important part of her life? Was she a believer? Was she a person who struggled with faith and the many ethical issues that came with it? Did any of that struggle influence her writing?
Come to think of it, there is a book called "The Faith of a Mockingbird, backed with all kinds of church-based materials, focusing on these kinds of questions.
But I digress from the content of the Times report. Back to the details that matter:
She was buried at Pineville Cemetery near the church, next to her father, Amasa Coleman Lee, who was the role model for her fictional character Atticus Finch, and near the graves of her mother, Frances, and her sister Alice.
Ms. Lee, known here as Nelle, was a Methodist, and Alice Lee held a number of prominent positions with the church and was also its lawyer.
Harper Lee was a different story, recalled the Rev. Thomas Butts, who was pastor from 1993 to 1998. “She did not want to do anything that put her in the public eye,” he said, though she attended church regularly, typically sitting in the fourth or fifth pew with her sister.
Let's go back to the funeral rite. What kind of service was this? As I have mentioned many times here at GetReligion, I have always found it hard to cover funerals (or other services linked to major life events) without finding material in the scriptures, hymns and liturgical texts that offer insights, or simply colorful details, worthy of including in the story. Did Lee choose the hymns and some of the texts for her own funeral? If so, what might they reveal about her?
Harper Lee loved beautiful, simple language. Here is the opening of the funeral rite in the United Methodist hymnal. Were these gorgeous lines in her service?
O God, who gave us birth,
you are ever more ready to hear
than we are to pray.
You know our needs before we ask,
and our ignorance in asking.
Give to us now your grace,
that as we shrink before the mystery of death,
we may see the light of eternity.
Speak to us once more
your solemn message of life and of death.
Help us to live as those who are prepared to die.
And when our days here are accomplished,
enable us to die as those who go forth to live,
so that living or dying, our life may be in you,
and that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us
from your great love in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
If you are interested in knowing more about this celebrated writer's faith and life, you can -- logically enough -- turn to a news story ("Harper Lee was United Methodist in word, deed") from the press office of the United Methodist Church. I thought these details were especially interesting and would have, if they had been included in the Times report, have added some depth.
Dawn Wiggins Hare, top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, knew Lee as a fellow resident of Monroeville and fellow member of First United Methodist Church in that town.
“Imagine the strength of character, the undaunted courage, the ethical heart that a young 30-something woman from south Alabama would have to have to write a book about racial injustice before the Civil Rights Act had even passed,” said Hare, a former Alabama judge. “It took clarity of vision to see injustice in what was otherwise accepted as the norm.”
Born Nelle Harper Lee, the author grew up Methodist and was a longtime member of First United Methodist Church in Monroeville. Hare called the Lee family the “backbone” of the church and noted that the stained-glass windows in its chapel were given in honor of Lee’s parents.
Lee’s older sister, Alice, who died in 2014 at age 103, was a lawyer and a leading layperson in the local church as well as the first woman to lead the Alabama-West Florida Conference delegation at General Conference. ...
“Her words resonate with evidence of personal and social holiness that reflect her Methodist heritage, which she held dear,” the Rev. J. Cameron West, Huntingdon’s president, said in a statement Friday.
And in conclusion:
Hare stressed that Methodism helped shape Lee, and Lee honored Methodism with her life and work.
Lee, she said, “is a shining example of the capacity of a lay person to see injustice, speak up, tell the story, and transform the world. We as United Methodists define our mission as making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Those were not just words to Nelle Harper Lee. That was her legacy.”
Obviously, Methodist writers have a strong motive to note the connections between a great writer's life and work. I get that.
But here is my final question: When we are talking about the author of one of the most important American books of all time, might the editors of The New York Times have a motive NOT to discuss the role of her faith -- even a liberal Christian faith -- in her work?
OK, perhaps that is being too harsh. Perhaps it was hard for them to imagine that a writer as great as Harper Lee might have been, well, a Christian? Perhaps it was hard to grasp that the eternal, transcendent themes in that funeral rite had anything to do with the eternal, transcendent themes of this great novel?