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Gregory Pecks's Atticus Finch

As we age in Christ, some have to battle for their character with frontal lobe damage. They hold up a mirror to us.

A generation of children that studied To Kill a Mockingbird for O Level (including me) may have been disappointed to hear about the changes to Atticus Finch in the recently released Go Set a Watchman. The lawyer with incorruptible morals is presented as racist, deeply opposed to the order of the Supreme Court to the southern states to desegregate. Michiko Kakutani observed in The New York Times: ‘in real life, people named their children after Atticus; people went to law school because of Atticus’. What happened?

A simple answer could be given. As Atticus Finch was Harper Lee’s creation, she is entitled to shape him in the way she chooses; it’s only a novel. Furthermore, the second book was written before the first. A more interesting question has emerged out of the publishing moment of 2015: do people become more prejudiced as they age?

There is an assumption that older people are more prejudiced than younger people and many surveys back this up. It is usually attributed to growing up in an era where different norms applied, though there is something self-serving about a younger cohort of commentators making the point. A recent survey has, by contrast, shown younger people to have more negative views of disabled people than their elders. Can we expect younger people to become more prejudiced as they age: to turn from rainbow coalition hipsters into Catherine Tate’s Nan?

Brain science has helped us to understand the process of ageing and in particular the impact of frontal lobe damage. This part of the brain is responsible for inhibiting inappropriate comments and its deterioration in later life can lead people to say embarrassing or unworthy things in company. The frontal lobe is also the last part of the brain to develop, which helps to explain in part why teenagers can be withering in their judgment of others.
Frontal lobe damage makes it harder for older people to draw on the right words to use; in an era where vocabulary is so carefully monitored to ensure minority groups are not offended, this holds inherent risks for them.

The assessment we tend to make of some older people who speak their mind without restraint or discretion is that their true self is being revealed, but is it? The case can be made that we use our inhibitory instincts because we know we should. For the Christian, the calling to exercise self-control is, in part, about not necessarily saying the first thing that crosses their minds in a particular situation. This works well when our frontal lobe is healthy but not if it isn’t, rather like the deterioration of a washer on a tap that leads to dripping.

Jesus said ‘the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart and these defile them; for out of the heart come evil thoughts (Matthew 15: 18-19). Before him, Jeremiah said: ‘the heart is deceitful above all things…who can understand it? (17:9) All of us have had the sense of thinking things that shock us with their intensity and unworthiness; we wonder where they came from, so quickly do they register and in such coherent form.

The struggle to master our inner life and to shape it fruitfully by the Holy Spirit is an area of discipleship most people find wearying and enduring, like a low-grade insurgency that never seems to be put down. We should not abandon the battle and if we were to, we would eventually see the effects in our conversation. As we age in Christ, some have to fight this battle with the growing disability of frontal lobe damage. What they say at times may belie what went before. It also exposes what some of us may be thinking ourselves. The log isn’t in the other person’s eye and perhaps we should thankful for the self-control they showed when they were able to.



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