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Becoming sure of something about which I'm not sure.
09/20/2002

Well, once again, rather than assisting the careers of Rhode Island's own struggling writers, The Providence Journal has picked up a column from out of state: by Bill Tammeus, an editorial columnist for The Kansas City Star. Frankly, I'm not sure what to make of it.

Tammeus draws on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to illustrate how religion was at fault for September 11. I don't see it. Yeah, Huck's big revelation comes when he says, "All right, then, I'll go to hell," but the power of this passage, and most of the book, derives from the reader's presumed knowledge that Huck has it backwards.

Luckily, I've still got my copy of the book from college, with all of these pages cross-referenced in the margins (here's the resultant essay, which got me blackballed from grad school). By the time of this revelation, the reader ought to be absolutely convinced that Huck has religion entirely backwards and is, in fact, doing right when he follows his conscience to do what he thinks is "wrong." To set the reader up to understand this, Twain never has Huck question whether there is right and wrong or whether there is a God. Tammeus seems to acknowledge this by writing that "Huck believes some kind of faith community is important," but I think he misses the larger point. For one, he fails to acknowledge that Huck's resolution to "go to hell" comes after a full page of the boy trying to pray, and the reader ought to know that he succeeds. (I'd even argue that the passage of Huck's "thinking" about who Jim is to him is a description of prayer.)

Furthermore, Tammeus blatantly misses the significance of another passage when he writes:

Huckleberry Finn is in many ways a guide to bad religion. No one who understands the book and its attacks on misguided faith would have been surprised that people still commit evil in the name of religion. And yet Huck believes some kind of faith community is important because, he says, you can't trust just your instincts or your conscience alone.

"A person's conscience ain't got no sense," he declares. "If I had a yaller dog that didn't know no more than a person's conscience does I would pison him."

I suggest that Huckleberry Finn is a guide to good religion. This lamentation about the senselessness of conscience arises not because Huck thinks his conscience has led him astray, but because he blames himself for not being able to warn the "King and Duke," who have done him naught but harm, to save them from being tarred and feathered. This is quintessential Christianity, as the Pope recently showed by forgiving the September 11 terrorists (which, I think, could have been done more prudently, but that's another issue).

Toward the beginning of his column, Tammeus, to point out how pervasive religion is in the book, cites its first appearance in the first chapter, when Huck loses interest in Moses because he "had been dead a considerable long time." It seems to me that this joke is the first instance of religion for a reason: Moses freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt; Huck decides to free Jim (who is about as close to family as Huck's got by the end) from slavery. The point here is that the story of Moses is still relevant; if Huck had remembered it, he mightn't have been so (incorrectly) convinced that he was going to hell.

And that, to me, is a large part of Twain's point. I think Twain might have agreed that it isn't so much that "religion has a dark side," which is Tammeus's point, as that humans have a dark side. Extrapolating the lesson to 9/11, since religion is meant to keep us from that darkness — that sin — those who would do evil for other reasons (greed, wrath, and envy, to name three) will find the way more attractive (and more salable) if they manage to create a deluded path around the barriers that God has laid down through religion.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 12:45 AM EST