Huck Finn and the Providential Benefit of a Good Novel

N O T I C E

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR,
Per G. G., Chief of Ordnance

With this unilateral prohibition, Mark Twain warns off any conscientious readers from setting foot in his greatest novel. Of course, his threat only serves to excite the very thing it forbids. Like trespassing vandals, we shrug off his violent injunction and enter The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at our own peril—shovel in hand—eager to unearth motive, moral, and plot even if we have to dig them from a deadman’s grave.

Those who ignore the author’s satirical notice never leave empty-handed. Huck Finn is rife with moral complexities, clear themes, and compelling narratives. However, we may not be pleased with the loot we gather from the story. Many readers finish the adventure with a deep sense of frustration and displeasure. To them, Twain winks an eye: “Can’t say I didn’t warn you…”

Torrential Providence.

Twain’s tale is straightforward in one sense. It chronicles the adventures of a young town pariah and a runaway slave. Huck and Jim encounter one another on Jackson Island after escaping captivity—Huck from a locked cabin and his abusive father, Jim from his owner Miss Watson and the prospect of being sold to slave traders. The two are forced to the fateful decision to try their luck on the river.

Surging through the novel like an unpredictable, undulating serpent is the mighty Mississippi. The river is an unfeeling, irresistible force that holds absolute sway over the course of events that unfolds chapter by chapter. Early in the novel, Huck wrestles with whether to trust “Providence.” However, as Twain’s narrative flows downstream, he shows how mistaken Huck and the rest of the characters are to even conceive of a capital ‘P’ Providence. In his mind, providence is an emotionless river. Providence often punishes good men and rewards scoundrels. Providence has a lower-case ‘p’; it is not something to trust so much as an inevitability we must come to accept. We cannot miss Twain’s cynicism: the flow of life’s current is completely outside our control.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is about the futility of life and the scrambling of morals. When the river swallows a shipwrecked steamboat along with three ruffians aboard, Huck feels guilty for stealing their boat to save his own skin—guilty of murder! When Huck and Jim’s raft is commandeered by two testy vagrants, they feel powerless to resist. Town by town, Huck is forced with uneasy conscience to participate in their shameless scams. When he finally tries to do what’s right, intervening on behalf of sisters who are about to be swindled out of their inheritance, everything goes wrong. Twain’s point in all these river adventures is that we are passive actors in this life, largely unable to change the events around us and foiled in our best attempts to do good.

Twain steers the plot in a way meant to confound us at every river-bend. At the close of Chapter 29, when it seems Huck and Jim are finally free of the infernal Duke and King, the author refuses us the satisfaction. The two conmen come bursting from the shore to recapture the raft. We share Huck’s hopeless despair: “So I wilted right down onto the planks then, and give up; and it was all I could do to keep from crying.”

The Long Con.

In the end, Twain proves to be the greatest conman of them all. Huck’s serendipitous encounter with pal Tom Sawyer late in the novel gives us brief hope things may end well after all. However, much like the King and Duke, Tom coopts the entire narrative and all its characters to create his own ever complicating and confounding Quixotic adventure. The reintroduction of Tom—and his nonsensical imagination—as the story wanes should tip us off to Twain’s devious scheme. It doesn’t.

The author saves his wry twist for the moment when it will inflict the most shame on his readers. After using Tom to drag out the novel’s conclusion for what feels like an eternity, he gives Tom the honors of unraveling everything. Tom reveals a preposterous truth: Jim has been free all along! Tom explains that Miss Watson is dead and granted Jim’s freedom in her will. Twisting the sharp blade of irony, Jim then reveals a secret he’s kept the whole journey: Huck’s murderous father is dead as well.

The fateful decision Huck and Jim made at the story’s outset was based on false pretenses. Jim and Huck had risked life and limb on the Mississippi for nothing.

Cracking the spine of Huckleberry Finn is like buying tickets for what promises to be a fantastic show—it’s Mark Twain for goodness’ sake! However, when the curtain rises Twain himself “comes a-prancing out on all fours, naked; and…painted all over, ring-streaked and striped, all sorts of colors, as splendid as a rainbow.” Wagging his bare, be-striped rear in our faces and cutting a shine, Twain then exits stage right. As the curtain falls, we realize the whole novel was one big farce.

Twain is the ultimate Tom Sawyer. He creates a fanciful world that pretends at meaning, that feigns at purpose, that gives just enough hope for redemption. As we close the book, Twain leaves us blushing. Having transgressed his initial warning, we are left with a sense of regret for having ever indulged his ill-fated saga.

True Character in a Fictional Narrative.

Twain’s point is to satirize the human instinct to search for a meaning in this universe. How foolish for us to pretend that there is any point to the story we are living—that it has any sort of sensible conclusion or triumphant finish. Rather, all human existence sputters to an embarrassingly pointless finale. In his conception of reality, we are all voyagers on the fickle yet omnipotent Mississippi. To believe otherwise is to play pretend.

However, Huck Finn is not meaningless. Certainly the plot takes a rather circular turn, yet we cannot help but recognize that the characters caught up in this epic have been forever changed by their participation in it. Herein lies the value of fiction literature. Although the circumstances shaping Huck’s journey were false, the character he develops along the Mississippi isn’t.

In Chapter 31, Huckleberry comes to a crisis moment while separated from Jim. He must choose whether to send word to Miss Watson of the location her runaway or to commit what is in his mind the unforgivable sin: Help Jim attain his freedom for good. Obviously, Huck’s morals have been completely twisted around by the perverted influences in his life. Nonetheless, he makes what he believes to be a damnable decision out of love for Jim. After first writing the letter to Miss Watson, he says, “I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: ‘All right, then, I’ll go to hell’—and tore it up.”

Crisis moments like these are why fiction is an invaluable gift. If we are willing to suspend disbelief and enter a fictional reality for a few hundred pages, we can emerge out the back cover changed. In her book On Reading Well, Karen Swallow Prior explains the way fiction forms virtue: “Plot reveals character. And the act of judging the character of a character shapes the reader’s own character. Through the imagination, readers identify with the character, learning about human nature and their own nature through their reactions to the vicarious experience” (20-21).

We don’t have to receive Twain’s fatalistic worldview to benefit from our journey down the Mississippi with Huck and Jim. We knew implicitly that the entire perilous trek filled with bandits, shipwrecks, starvation, violent family feuds, and manhunts was a complete fiction from the start. When we nevertheless willingly enter into each moral dilemma with Huck, our own wrong perspectives are being deconstructed. Real virtue is being built in its place.

Good and Bad Reading.

To read fiction with no other objective than entertainment is to be like Tom Sawyer. Unlike Huck, he has read the great novels. But his mind is stuck in the realm of disbelief—or rather, make-believe. Sawyer misses the entire point of fiction to begin with. It is not merely a means of escape from reality, but it is a place where we can abscond for a few hours to develop true character that bears fruit when we return to the real world.

Sports are a perfect modern day example of the way fiction develops character. We agree to play by certain made-up rules inside arbitrarily drawn lines for a random amount of time with foolish things like balls, sticks, and rackets. And yet, when young men and women step inside the lines of that field or court—a realm based on a fabrication as false as the one that steered Huck’s raft down the Mississippi—it becomes a place to cultivate true grit, integrity, and virtue. No one can deny that.

The notice nailed to the cover of Huckleberry Finn gives us fair warning. The providential hand of Mark Twain that steers our raft through his novel will not allow us to leave his fictional world the same. We will feel the pinch of conflicts with no clear resolution. We will be confronted by the contradictions in our own morals. We will question how we have been shaped by wrongheaded societal norms.

What a wry twist indeed that a novel meant to satirize providence can be used by Providence to change Huckleberrys like you and me.

(photo credit)

2.4 — Adoniram Judson and Counting the Cost

Today 3,700 Baptist congregations in Myanmar trace their origins to the ministry of one man: Adoniram Judson. The only Burmese Bible in existence was translated by this Baptist missionary. Hundreds were set free from the oppression of Buddhism during his lifetime, many missionaries were raised up, and a legacy of gospel proclamation was laid in Burma.

But at what cost? Judson suffered from malaria, persecution, despair, imprisonment, beatings, starvation, and the loss of two wives and seven children. He left behind friends and family. He died at sea.

Are the lost and dying nations worth the cost of bringing them the gospel? Judson writes of the desperation of the Burmese:

“The Spirit of inquiry…is spreading everywhere, through the whole length and breadth of the land…Some come two or three months’ journey, from the borders of Siam and China—‘Sir, we hear that there is an eternal hell. We are afraid of it. Do give us a writing that will tell us how to escape it.’ Others, from the frontiers of Kathay, 100 miles north of Ava—‘Sir, we have seen a writing that tells of an eternal God. Are you the man that gives away such writings? If so, pray give us one, for we want to know the truth before we die.’”

This is his story. Count the cost with Mr. Judson.

Here are some further resources:

Who Wrote the Bible?

“And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God…”

1 Thessalonians 2:13

Whether we will admit it or not, we come to the Bible with presuppositions. We come with a certain disposition, a state of mind, a perspective. Fundamentally, we come to the Scriptures either with or without faith–and this makes all the difference: “For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened” (Hebrews 4:2).

The gift of faith changes the way we receive “the message.” This is why Paul thanked God without ceasing. When the Thessalonians enthusiastically received his gospel, they didn’t think they were receiving some new philosophy or some new manmade religion or some new spiritual fad. They believed they were receiving the very Word of God. Paul is celebrating the clear evidence of faith.

Believers receive the Scriptures with faith. With Paul, we believe the words contained in the Bible are not merely the words of men but the Word of God. This believe shapes how we understand the Word’s origin and its authority.

The Word’s Origin.

Let’s talk about the Bible’s origin. Did the words of the Bible originate in the mind of men or in the mind of God? Are they first and foremost the words of God or the words of men? If you will only admit that they are the words of men—it does not matter whether you think they are the words of enlightened men, spiritual men, very wise men—if you believe they are merely the words of men, then they are utterly powerless.

We live in a post-postmodern society engaged in a war of the words of men. Every man and woman uses his words to try to exercise power over others. The person, party, or movement with the most persuasive and aggressive and loudest words wins.

Friends, if the Christian Scriptures are just the words of men, then we are no different from anyone else. Our religious book is just an attempt to exercise political or social or cultural power over others through human words.

Sadly, many professing Christians live as though this were true. They act as though the Bible needs help evolving for the 21st century. The Bible embarrasses itself at times and needs someone to fix its makeup, so to speak. So they alter or explain away parts of the Bible to try to make it more competitive for today’s market.

It’s a matter of origin. Is the Bible just a library of outdated religious thoughts–the best intentions of people who lived long ago, or is it the product of the mind of the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresence Lord of the universe? Because if this book really is God-breathed (as it claims to be–2 Timothy 3:16), it doesn’t need our help. It doesn’t need our assistance. It doesn’t need us to doll it up so that it can keep up with the times. The God who spoke these words can do just fine on his own to make sure that he has the last word.

The Word’s Authority.

However, the faith of a new believer also acknowledges the Word’s authority. Let’s say my kids are coloring, and my son wants a certain marker that his sister is keeping to herself. First, he tries, “Give me that marker.” She refuses. What’s the next thing he does? He runs and finds dad and says, “She won’t give me the marker. She’s keeping it all to herself.” Then depending on the mood, I say, “Tell your sister to give you the marker.” Then, he goes back and says the exact same thing, but one thing is different: “Daddy says, give me that marker.” What has changed? The level of authority. The second time, the command isn’t coming from her brother; it’s coming from her father.

It’s the same way with the Word of God. If 1 Thessalonians or Leviticus or Romans are merely the words of men, we are dealing with equals–men just like us. However, if they are commands given through men from God, we are dealing with a superior–the Almighty God himself.

The issue of authority crops up in interesting places. Take red-letter editions of the Bible, for instance. If you haven’t seen one, a red-letter edition of the Bible is one where the quotes in the Gospels attributed to Jesus are in red letters and all of the rest are in black.

Here’s the possible danger with red-letter editions. You may be tempted to think the words in red are more important, more authoritative, than the ones in black. But what color are all of the words in 1 Thessalonians? Black. Here’s the thing: Every letter in 1 Thessalonians is as red as any jot or tittle uttered by the mouth of Jesus when he walked this earth.

If you want to make a distinction, Paul says, it’s this: While every book on every shelf in every library and on every Kindle and in every newsfeed is written in black, the Word of God alone is written in red. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, every single letter is soaked through and through with the authority of King Jesus who has sealed its words with his own blood.

The Word of God is the only book in all the world that carried with it the authority to forgive sins against the Lord of the Universe, the power to grant salvation to all who believe, the good news that the King has died and been raised and grants eternal life to all who repent. And so, whether we are reading Law of Moses from Leviticus or Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew or the instructions of Paul in 1 Thessalonians, there is not a varying level of authority. All of these words are the Word of God.

There are men and women who style themselves preachers of the Gospel who will discredit commands that don’t jibe with today’s culture–for instance in 1 Timothy regarding gender roles in the church or in Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 regarding homosexual practice–because they are the words of Paul not the words of Jesus. But Paul reminds us that true believers don’t make any distinction. The words of Jesus, the words of Moses, the words of Isaiah, the words of Paul—they are all the Word of God. They all carry equal authority.

To be a follower of Jesus Christ is to totally surrender to Word of our King. We receive his Word all or nothing. Either Jesus is the King, or I am. The desire to reject parts of Paul’s letters as “words of men” is a desire to reject the authority of Jesus Christ. They are no less the King’s commands because they are sent by a messenger.

This is what we believe. We believe in the divine origin and divine authority of the Word because it is the Word of God.

The Proverbs 31 Woman at CT!

At Christianity Today, I had the pleasure of sharing some new (read “old–very old”) theological reflection on a famous passage: Proverbs 31. There’s a woman out there who needs to hear this chapter the most:

In recent years, many faithful Christian women have internalized the words of Proverbs 31, but I can’t help wondering with 17th-century Bible commentary author Matthew Henry, “This passage is to be applied to individuals, but may it not also be applied to the church of God, which is described as a virtuous spouse?” The answer historically—though not in modern interpretation—has been emphatically yes...

2.3 — Lottie Moon and the Missionary Call

A giant of the faith packed into a 4’3″ frame, Lottie Moon was an incredible force for spreading the Kingdom to the ends of the earth. In this episode, learn all about her call to missions and how she herself trumpeted the clarion call to give, send, and go. Miss Moon shows us what it means to live lives worthy of the calling. She made the most of every opportunity, and many of her skills and talents were put to work in North China.

During her faithful service to the Chinese, she found time to bombarde the home-front with letters and bulletins and pleas to take the Gospel to the nations:

November 11, 1878—“Here is a province of thirty million souls & Southern Baptists can only send one man & three women to tell them the story of redeeming love. Oh! That my words could be as a trumpet call stirring the hearts of my brethren and sisters to pray, to labor, to give themselves to this people.”

This is her story.

Here are some further resources:

2.2 — George Liele and the Church as Global Witness

Born in 1750 in Burke County, VA, George Liele’s life is the remarkable journey from being a slave of men to the true freedom of being a slave of righteousness. Set free by his earthly master Henry Sharp to go preach the gospel to slaves on plantations in Georgia and South Carolina, hardship during the Revolutionary War forced him to leave America.

Rev. E. K. Love writes,

“He was led by the loving hand of a smiling Providence, though he knew it not…Historians, blinded by prejudice, have tried to rob the brother in black of the honor conferred upon Leile…But the planting of the first Baptist church in the West Indies, so far as human agency is concerned, was inaugurated by George Leile, the black apostle of Georgia, who planted the standard of Christianity in the far-off West Indies, and despite opposition, oppression and persecution, he saw the church strengthened, prosperous and flourishing.”

Take a listen to the story of a humble church planter.

Here are some further resources:

2.1 — Introduction to Missionary Heroes

Season 2 is on its way! This season we will learn about Missionary Heroes. Each episode will focus on one missionary and on one aspect of functional theology in his or her life.

Episodes will feature the lives of Jim and Elisabeth Eliot, George Liele, Lottie Moon, Adoniram Judson, Hudson Taylor, John G. Paton, Betsy Stockton, Amy Carmichael, and more.

Great for the church history enthusiast, the homeschool mom, the morning commuter, or the Christian seeking to grow a passion to take the Gospel to the nations!