The Gospel According to Huckleberry Finn

Mark Twain presents certain tenets in his novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which a casual reader will not easily discern.  From social commentary to religious ideology, he blends humor, satire, and adventure into a statement and a critique about the issues of his time and our own.  A “gospel,” of sorts, is established by focusing on the religious themes Twain merges with the identity of his character, Huck Finn.  Huck’s religious beliefs, his gospel, are not as far off the mark as he believes.  A gospel is supposed to be “good news,” but the religious beliefs that many tout as truth cannot be construed as good news in any way.  The religious beliefs that Huck exhibits, even if he does not see them as such, are closer to the Gospel of Christ than many church-going, religious people demonstrate, both then and now.

Providence is a word that is uncommon in religious exhortation today.  Typically, people use words and phrases such as God’s will, plan, purposes, direction, and especially his activity in this world to allude to the idea of Providence.  God is supposed to be guiding, directing and controlling the events and circumstances that surround us all, according to a number of conflicting expositions.  The Widow Douglas, who is Huck’s guardian, and her sister, Miss Watson, each take their own opportunity to instruct him in their interpretations, as he divulges:

Sometimes the widow would take me one side and talk about Providence in a way to make a body’s mouth water; but maybe next day Miss Watson would take hold and knock it all down again. I judged I could see that there was two Providences, and a poor chap would stand considerable show with the widow’s Providence, but if Miss Watson’s got him there warn’t no help for him any more.  (115)

Huck recognizes the discrepancies between the two views in which he is instructed.  These two views, with many variations, are still influential today.  God’s love is manifest in some teaching, but his wrath, anger, and judgment are the defining characteristics in most.  Huck instinctively realizes that a god that is mostly angry is one which cannot be easily appeased.  As events in his life unfold, with his abusive father, an enslaved friend, and a perilous journey, Huck has to be wondering where and how this god is working in his life.

Christianity today, especially the southern flavor, has a lot to say about an eternal destination for all.  Heaven and hell, everlasting bliss or infinite torment, the good place or the bad, supposedly form a dichotomy with no alternative; however, there are a multitude of descriptions for either one being taught every Sunday morning.  The Widow gives Huck her description of the “good place,” and he informs us, “She said all a body would have to do there was to go around all day long with a harp and sing, forever and ever. So I didn’t think much of it” (110).  From the beginning of Christianity, heaven has been described as an ethereal realm of clouds and singing cherubs, a fantastic Oz-like domain of golden streets and bejeweled gates and walls, or a vast throne-room where everyone gathers to offer everlasting praise and adoration to the creator.  After establishing his view concerning the good place, and wanting no place in it, Huck asks the Widow if she thinks his friend, Tom Sawyer, will make it in, and she assures him that Tom will not.  Huck declares that he “was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together” (110).  Huck’s impression of the eternal destination the Widow describes does not suit his adventurous soul, and he instinctively grasps concepts concerning love, community, and brotherhood that most of the faithful fail to ascertain.  Huck’s love for Tom is even more important to him than where they might be headed.

The Grangerfords introduce Huck to hypocrisy in the manifestation of brotherly love.  The Grangerfords are a kindhearted, church-going family who take Huck in when a steamboat hits his raft, and he is separated from Jim, the runaway slave and his traveling companion on the journey down the river.  Huck attends a church service with the family and makes the following observations:

It was pretty ornery preaching — all about brotherly love, and such-like tiresomeness; but everybody said it was a good sermon, and they all talked it over going home, and had such a powerful lot to say about faith and good works and free grace and preforeordestination, and I don’t know what all, that it did seem to me to be one of the roughest Sundays I had run across yet.  (183)

The Grangerfords think the sermon is good, and they have a long discussion about some of the precepts of their religion, like faith, good works and others.  Huck says the sermon was about “brotherly love” and other “tiresomeness,” and he describes it as “pretty ornery.”  The preaching was ugly and unpleasant in his opinion, but Huck does believe in brotherly love, even if he does not recognize this fact.  Huck finds the whole day, in his words, rough.  Is it the subject matter of the sermon, or the discussion that follows by his foster family?  It is probably the hypocrisy of the Grangerfords and all the other religious folk that he has observed.  This same family who has taken him in and is having lively discussions about brotherly love and good works is at the same time in a deadly feud with their neighbors, the Shepherdsons.  Huck again recognizes the inadequacy of this revealed gospel.

Huck seems to grasp the important concepts from the bible as evidenced in his conversation with Jim about King Solomon’s ruling concerning a disputed child.  Jim believes Solomon is not wise at all when Solomon decrees that the child be cut in half to satisfy the claim of both women who profess to be the child’s mother.  But Huck understands the reasoning of Solomon; the true mother will love the child enough to give it up.  Huck intuitively grasps the essence of love.

In the bible, Paul instructs Timothy to command the people of Ephesus “not to teach false doctrines any longer or to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. Such things promote controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work—which is by faith”  (1 Timothy 1:3-4, NIV).  On another occasion, when the Widow Douglass is telling Huck about Moses, he is excited in the beginning of the story but then “she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time” (109).  Huck did not care to hear about Moses after this because he “don’t take no stock in dead people” (109).  There are many things that people of faith argue about: Should the creation account be understood as literal?  Was the biblical flood local or world encompassing?  What are appropriate dietary prohibitions?  Should I refrain from cutting grass on the Sabbath?  What should I read or watch for entertainment?  This agenda of exclusion comes from dead people, while the agenda of inclusion, the law of love, comes from someone living.  In stating that he takes no stock in dead people, Huck is standing beside Paul and discrediting those who exclude.  Huck understands the revelation, without acknowledging it as such, that the Old Testament is not the governing authority for true followers of Jesus.  Huck knows, subconsciously, that the Gospel of Christ is the only way to advance God’s work, and he unwittingly works for this cause.

Huck Finn’s crisis of faith comes when he feels the conviction of sin in his actions that involve helping Jim, a runaway slave, to escape.  He has grown very fond of Jim, but he feels that he is at the junction between heaven and hell.  He prays, then feels worse, and finally writes a note that will give Jim up to the slave’s owners.  Huck then achieves a sense of relief but is still not completely satisfied.  He again wrestles with his conscience.  He knows that he should obey the law and turn Jim in, which is good and should help in any bid for heaven, but he wants to help Jim, which is bad, and he believes this will land him in hell.  He stands at this juncture holding the note he has written and makes his decision.  He says to himself, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell” (246). Huck does not wholly divulge his beliefs regarding the netherworld, but they are probably in line with most of the teachings of the fundamentalist churches of the southern states today.  In choosing hell rather than turning Jim in, he believes he has sentenced himself to eternal torture in a lake of fire.  He understands that the fire will ravage him but never consume him.  This interpretation of a pain-ridden eternal destination for sinners is what most of the faithful convey to the masses, but Huck’s love for Jim, as well as his desire to help free him, actually allow Huck to make the truly righteous choice.  In choosing hell, and going against the predominant teachings of his day, Huck is really choosing heaven.

Mark Twain uses the character of Huck Finn to convey some of his own misgivings and solicitude about organized religion and what it conveys to the masses.  Twain’s allusions to these teachings and the bible provoke thought and consideration when they are held up against contemporary issues in any era.  Through Huck Finn’s moral growth and religious deliberation, Twain addresses a number of issues.  Is God in control?  How is he working in this present space and time?  Whose view is right about eternity?  What in the bible is really important?  Sin, choice, hypocrisy, love-what is the truth concerning these issues?

Huck Finn is a fourteen-year-old boy who is making life decisions that are more Christ-like than most bible-thumping, fundamentalist, southern Christians.  He does make mistakes in judgment, like when he allows Tom to torment Jim on a few occasions, but his love and concern for others is readily apparent.  He concludes rightly that a wrathful, vengeance-seeking god cannot be satisfied.  He perceives the hypocrisy embodied in the sermons and actions of the religious assemblies to which he is exposed.  Heaven, hell, and eternity are concepts he does not pretend to understand fully.   Jesus said, “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12 NIV), and Huck personifies this scripture.  Excluding his childish pranks, Huck does not want anyone to come to a bad end.  He never wishes harm on anyone, even those who do him harm.  Jesus, when asked what the greatest commandment was, replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV).  Huck never reveals any love for God, but his actions epitomize love for his neighbor.  In a time when it is considered right, moral, and even biblical to enslave a human being and treat him like disposable property, Huck makes a choice to burn in an ever-lasting hell rather than turn a friend back over to the institution of slavery.  The gospel, according to Huck, is simply love for others.  It is seeing humanity as a community of equals, all deserving the same treatment.  This is what Jesus tried to emphasize, the very thing for which he gave his life.  As far as Huck’s love for God, he ultimately proves it in his actionable love for his neighbor.  This is truly the gospel, and it is good news for all who love and are loved.

2 thoughts on “The Gospel According to Huckleberry Finn

  1. Shannon

    Great essay. It definitely critiques the tendency in many of our congregations of overly focusing on inward piety at the expense of transforming how we treat others. We oftentimes hear such when persons speak of others simply as “souls needing to be saved” rather than people needing to be loved. As one minister shared with me years ago, “I can tell how much you love God by how much you genuinely love people in a Christ-honoring way.” I’ve learned this to be true in my life.

    It’s much easier simply to quote scripture, learn songs, dress up, learn appropriate jargon, etc. while remaining self-centered. Loving others requires vulnerability, investment, conflict, give-and-take relationality, all of which is at great risk to oneself. As we’ve discussed many times before, such love resembles God, who exemplifies (in Jesus) what it means to pour himself out in behalf of the other.

    Curious. Who were some popular preachers during the time of Mark Twain?

  2. Sonny Post author

    Billy Sunday, Spurgeon, William Booth, Smith Wigglesworth, Dwight Moody were just some of the more well known preachers that were around during Twain’s time. I don’t know if he actually knew or heard any of them. It is well known that Twain did not have much respect for institutionalized religion but from his writing he seemed to have some idea about what Christ was all about.

    Some people think that Huck’s story is racist and it has been in and out of favor in school curriculum because of the disagreements. When I read it just for entertainment when I was a teen I did not see what I saw this semester in college. Twain actually wrote a novel a few years after slavery was abolished that directly condemned the institution of slavery for what it was. As you know, we still have racists and other such tiresomeness, to borrow Huck’s words, in the church today. It is sad.

    The population of “those souls needing to be saved” would be drastically reduced if we were to truly learn how to love people. Thanks for the comment. I guess I let the blog lie dormant for too long. And Happy Anniversary to you two.

    Love you both.

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