Category Archives: Religious Quest in the Modern Age

The Holdovers


The film takes place over the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays in 1970, mainly at a New England boarding school. Barton, for the sons of wealthy parents. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) has no love for the students clearly believing they are, privileged and entitled philistines. He  is a strict teacher of ancient history who is unpopular or even hated by the students and fellow staff members. Because he refused to “lift up the marks” of a wealthy donor’s son, who as a result was not accepted in Princeton, Paul was punished by the headmaster and made to stay over at school to chaperone 5 students who had no place to go for the holidays. He was  stubborn that the school should not “sacrifice our integrity on the altar of their entitlement.” In each case the parents had reasons for leaving these students at the school rather than bringing them home for the holidays.

Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph),  the black cook, whose husband died earlier,   understands why Paul had to flunk the boy: “He was a real asshole. Rich and dumb. Popular combination around here.”  Mary was another holdover, but by choice, because she did not want to go home where she would be reminded of the recent death of her son in Vietnam where he had been stationed. These were “the Christmas orphans.” 4 of the boys get lucky and were rescued by the father of one of them, leaving the unlikely three alone at school. It is their Christmas story.

Paul has little sympathy for the students who don’t religiously follow the rules. As a result, he punishes them to

“clean the library. Top to bottom. Scraping the underside of the desks, which are caked with snot and gum and all manner of ancient, unspeakable proteins. On your hands and knees, down in the dust, breathing in the dead skin of generations of students and desiccated cockroach assholes”


And then he tells them that are lucky and they should

“consider yourselves lucky. During the third Punic campaign, 149-146 B.C., the Romans laid siege to Carthage for three entire years. By the time it ended, the Carthaginians were reduced to eating sand and drinking their own urine. Hence the term punitive.”

The students, needless to say are unimpressed with this ancient history.

Angus Tully (Dominic Sesa) the one Baron student who did not get released because Paul could not reach his parents for consent, and Paul approach each other as opponents, if not enemies. Yet they come to realize that they have a connection.

Paul gives the other two a Christmas gift of a classical book, “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. Paul says, “For my money, it’s like the Bible, the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita all rolled up into one. And the best part is not one mention of God.” Maybe Paul’s quest is not a religious one.  At least he doesn’t think it is.  

The three of them enjoy a lovely Christmas dinner in a huge room in the school. They exchange looks and all seem to realize there is in fact an intimacy of some sort between them. Much to his surprise, Angus, finds out that “I don’t think I’ve ever had a real family Christmas like this. Christmas dinner, I mean — family style, out of the oven, all the trimmings. My mom always just orders in from Delmonico’s.

Each of three them learns a valuable lesson. It is a lesson from a great Classic writer, much admired by Paul, Cicero, who said, “Not for ourselves alone are we born.” It really is a religious insight. Each of them must learn it in their own way. I think it is the theme of the film.

Paul as a teacher of ancient civilizations knows that, but  he does not really understand it. He needs to really learn it, like the other 2. Paul must learn it by living it, as do the other 2 members of the trinity.

Paul has an unexpected gift that helps him.   Underneath his crusty surface, he has a surprising amount of empathy.  He is not a cynic. To Mary, spending her first Christmas without her son, he says “Mary, we remember Curtis as such an outstanding and promising young man, and we know this holiday season will be especially difficult without him. Please know that we accompany you in your grief.” The students have to learn it however.

When the privileged students mock Mary Paul says,

Will you shut up! You have no idea what that woman has… (reining it in) For most people… life is like a henhouse ladder — shitty and short. You were born lucky. Maybe someday you entitled little degenerates will appreciate that. If you don’t, I feel sorry for you, and we will not have done our jobs.”

Paul must teach empathy to his students.They have a lot to learn.  After Angus annoys young boys in a bar who want to exact retribution from him, Paul buys them each a beer to keep Angus out of harm’s way. Angus wonders why Paul would do that for such “assholes,” but Paul asks him to look at them. One has a metal hand.

“How many boys do you know who have had their hands blown off? Barton boys don’t go to Vietnam. They go to Yale or Dartmouth or Cornell, whether they deserve to or not.?”

Angus catches on quickly.  He learns. He says, “except for Curtis Lamb.” Curtis was Mary’s son who joined the armed forces in Vietnam to earn enough money to go to a university, but he died there. He never got to go to college.

Mary has to teach Paul that he must also have empathy for his students, Angus in particular. Paul gets mad at Angus when Angus begs him to let him go back to a party so he can try to connect with a young lady. As a result, Paul yells at him and says he did not want to be with the Christmas orphans. Mary rebukes Paul “You don’t tell a boy who’s been left behind at Christmas that you’re aching to cut him loose. That nobody wants him. What the fuck is wrong with you?” This helps Paul to come to his senses. Paul catches on and realizes that Angus deserves some empathy too. He has actually had a difficult life even though he was the son of a woman who had married a rich man.

Paul told Miss Crane that he taught because he thought he could make a difference and she asks him what that means. He says,

“I used to think I could prepare them for the world, even a little — provide standards and grounding, like Dr. Green always drilled into us. But the world doesn’t make sense anymore. It’s on fire, the rich don’t give a shit, poor kids are cannon fodder, integrity’s a punch line, trust is just a name on a bank.”


But I guess I thought I could make a difference. Miss Crane smiles at him, “dazzling even with the dark sentiments. A bittersweet Christmas moment.” She tells him that if that’s all true then now is when they most need someone like you.”

Paul tells Angus,

“I find the world a bitter and complicated place, and it seems to feel the same way about me. I think you and I have this in common. Don’t get me wrong — you have your challenges. You’re erratic and belligerent and a gigantic pain in the balls, but you’re not me, and you’re not your father. You’re your own man. Man. No. You’re just a kid. You’re just beginning. And you’re smart. You’ve got time to turn things around.”


 In the film Angus makes a big sacrifice for Paul and Paul makes a big sacrifice for Angus.  They are life changing moments. They complete, for each of them, what I have called their religious quest. The film does not use this expression, but I do. In a sense each gives his life for his new friend. It is no accident that the words “sacrifice” and “sacred” have the same root.   At the end, Paul dismisses that any suggestion that he was heroic. “All I did was tell the truth, mostly” he says. But that is enough.

But that is not easy. Sacrifices are never easy. And Paul’s face reveals “the terror and hope.” The consequences of telling the truth can be painful. But they are important.

Using Artificial Intelligence to Amplify the worst of religion


Somewhere on this trip to the southern USA I also learned  that in India spiritual guides are giving advice to truth seekers.  Nothing really unusual about that, in the most religious country in the world. India, not the United States has earned that designation. But this time there is a difference. The spiritual guides are AI Chatbots! Spiritual advice is being given online by machines without human intervention. Apparently, thousands of people have signed up for the spiritual advice from the Bhagavad Gita an epic scripture that has the answers to all our problems.  Many Indians in the past have got spiritual advice from that source but not with the twist of AI to tailor the advice to you!


According to Salimah Shivji of the CBC, people are now fearful that some will use religion online to spike up political violence?  This is not impossible. We have all seen what happened in the US in earlier elections. As well, look at some of the things American televangelists have done. Much of it does not inspire confidence. After all, the internet is quite capable of amplifying the worst of religion, just as it currently does with politics!


The Land of true believers


When we were in Texas, Chris remarked that there the churches are built to look like shopping malls. Is that done to attract and maintain the interest of people? Or is because to the believers of Texas, commerce was sacred and shopping is prayer?


Chris let out a bit of rant in a small town in New Mexico where we dined for lunch. A small family at the next table conspicuously prayed before dining. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but she immediately felt they were fanatics! This was not a fair evaluation, but we believe it was her reaction to zealotry.  Zealotry is all around us these days, nowhere more so than America. Often it is in the form of fanaticism. It is often not attractive.


Seeing these adherents felt like it we were back in the company of the Convoy protesters back home continually bearing Canadian flags on both side of the hoods of their vehicles. That experience has poisoned the Canadian flag for us. This is an insignificant fact, but it reveals something important. The cost of fanaticism is high. And these feelings came from a woman who not that long ago counted herself as a good Catholic. Zealots can ruin some pretty good stuff.

Religion in America is always interesting, but not always attractive.


Group Thinks v. Long Thinks


In the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck encounters a number of deep moral dilemmas. The biggest of course is whether or not he should help Jim a slave escape from his “rightful owner” a woman who had never done him any harm. Huck “knows” what he should do. His conscience tells him that. He should not help a slave to escape. That would be wrong. But Huck stops and makes “a long think.” He must think critically.


Huck is also challenged by religion. He was taught that ever since he was born. Religion, together with the notion of white supremacy, is the ideology of his life. He “knows” it is right yet is challenged about it. Both of these are ideologies. They are both born from group think. We believe what we are taught by our team.

When Huck was having difficulties falling into the group think, Miss Watson would take him into the closet and pray with him.

“But nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for hooks there or four times., but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, I asked Miss Watson to try for me, but she said I was a fool. She never told me why. And couldn’t make it out no way. ”


As a result, Huck did what he should do.  He “set down one time back in the woods, and had a long think.” He thought about it critically with all his faculties. His reasoning would not be considered very sophisticated. As he said,

“I said to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork?  Why can’t the widow her snuff-box that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No, I says to myself, there ain’t nothing in it. I went and told the widow about it and she said, the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told me what she meant—I must help other people, and do everything I could for others, and look out for them all the time and never think about myself…I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time, but I couldn’t see no advantage about it—except for the other people, so I reckoned I wouldn’t worry about it anymore, but just let it go.”


Ironically this is exactly what Huck later did. He followed her advice when it came to helping Jim. He neglected in the extreme what was good for himself—namely avoiding hell, but helped Jim anyway. And this is really what religion is all about. It is not about praying for fishhooks. It is about felling empathy for others, like Huck did to Jim. In Huck’s case it was his critically thinking, not his religious ideology that led him to do the right thing. His religious ideology taught him to do the wrong thing, namely worry about eternal heaven at the cost of his friend’s freedom. His ideology misfired. He said he would listen to this ideology but could not do it. He rejected the group think and did the right thing, thanks to a long think.

A long think combined with fellow feeling is a most powerful force!

I think that is what the religious quest in the modern age is all about.

Shouldn’t we all make more long thinks?


We need a Spiritual Declaration of Independence


The original American dream was a dream of freedom. Sadly, that dream is often for sale or forsaken.  Many Americans have given up on that dream. They are willing to turn their lives over to a strongman, no matter how foul. They have traded their freedom for the perceived belief that only a strong man can save them from the carnage. Instead of freedom these paltry Americans (just like their equally paltry Canadian cousins) want security or wealth or fame or grimy tax breaks.


The members of the fictional world, epitomized by Huck Finn who would not give up his freedom for anything, are the real heroes of the American and Canadian dreams. As Azar Nafisi said,

“We must remember that, despite the prevailing attitude today that arrogantly defines success as money, the real heroes of this nation’s fictional landscape are vagrants, marginal, and subversive, from Melville’s Bartleby, the scrivener whose mantra is “I would prefer not to,” the heroines of Henry James and Edith Wharton, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Zora Neal Hurston’s Janie, Bellows Herzog, Philip Roth’s Sabbath   or Omar Little of The Wire, who reminds us of the importance of a code of honor. All seek integrity and listen to their hearts’ dictates, cautioning us against our willingness to betray the American dream when it is, as Fitzgerald put it, besmirched with the “foul dust that floats in the wake” of our dreams.”


That is why Nafisi said “we must make a new declaration of independence, a spiritual rather than a political one this time.


Like young but brave Huck Finn, all must be able to enjoy “a freedom to turn their back on society and what is expected of them, and to forge their own lonely path.

Like Huck we must be free to abandon conventional wisdom or morality and “light out for the territory.” If Huck can do it, we can do it. The American dream, which really is also the Canadian dream, may be besmirched but it is not dead—yet.

 I would go so far as to say that is a religious quest in the modern age.

Fiction vs. reality


This is of course not the first time I read The Adventures of Huckleberry. It is at least the second. I am trying to re-read at least one classic book each year. I know the last time I read it, about 30 years ago, or more, I was a bit put off by some of the fantastical elements.  I thought they were too far out there. Not real. Not believable.


Now with the maturity of a second read, I feel differently about these fantastical elements. They are fantastic. There is no doubt about that. But they have their place. They are there for a reason.

I know I was deeply perplexed by the scenes involving the Duke and the Dauphin.  These were two obvious conmen.  Who could take them seriously?  Not even rural rubes from Missouri could be fooled by these knaves. At least so I thought.

Now after my own “long think,” as Huck would call it, I feel differently. They are absurd and fantastical, but that is exactly the point.  Reality is no less absurd! In fact, reality is much more absurd than these fantastic or fabulist elements. After all, what could be more absurd and unbelievable than Jim, the noblest character in the novel, being owned by others solely because the “owners” have a different coloured skin than Jim does? That is the “real world” of Missouri in the middle of the 19th century. It is a world in which a noble black man can be ripped from his family and sold “down river” to evil men in the deep south of America just because these white men claim ownership.  And in that process these evil white men are constantly supported by the law, the churches, and “the good people” like Miss Watson. It is impossible for a writer of fiction to come up with anything as fantastic and unbelievable as this so-called reality.


And that is the point. Fiction is a mighty weak force for creating unreality compared to the powers that be.

 In the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn many people tell stories. The worst is probably Tom Sawyer in his short but extravagant appearance in the novel. He manipulates fakeries and puts the life of Jim in danger as a result. He means well, but he stresses out Jim to the point of torture with his crazy stories and absolute necessity of doing what the books say to save Jim when there is an obvious simpler saner way to do it. The fraudulent Duke and the dauphin are constantly making up stories to set people up to be conned. Pap rants and raves in his wild stories. And the pious Miss Watson tells stories about heaven and hell while she prepares to separate a black man from his wife by selling them down the river to different owners. Thankfully though she recants. Jim brings everyone down to reality. Jim shows the reality of his suffering and his pain that almost everyone else is blind to because he is black.

Fiction can be true in the same sense that sacred texts are true.  It is not because either of them produce facts. They don’t. But a work of fiction, like a work of faith, can have a much deeper reality than the paucity of surface facts. Such texts can show a deeper reality, if not a literal reality. They don’t need to show a literal reality, which, after all, can be a pretty thin gruel.  It is as nonsensical to read a work like the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to find facts as it is to find facts through a literal reading of the book of Genesis. And both exercises lead to perverse consequences. In both cases the person intended to benefit from the exercise is put in jeopardy instead, like poor Jim in jail being rescued by Tom Sawyer who merely desires to make the plot glorious no matter how much danger his planning puts Jim into. The literal reality is not important. The deeper reality is all.  Just as it was absurd for Tom Sawyer to plumb works of literature to learn how to rescue Jim from jail, so it is absurd to read the book of Deuteronomy to find rational ethical principles.  Yet neither texts are less for that. Both can sing with truth.

Heaven and Hell in Huckleberry Finn


Huck Finn, like Mark Twain, was not really that keen on heaven.  Twain also pursued this theme with his classic sense of humour in a wonderful essay called “Letters from the Earth.” It is well worth reading.

In many ways, hell seemed more attractive to Huck than heaven. As he thought to himself after Miss Watson tried to extoll the benefits of heaven to Huck, “Then she told me all about the bad place, and I said, I wished I were there.” Miss Watson said it was wicked to say that. But in his resolve Huck remained firm: “I couldn’t see no advantage in going where she was going, so I made up my mind, I wouldn’t try for it.” Why try hard to get to a place that really didn’t seem that attractive? But Miss Watson did not give us so easily. But neither did Huck. Twain described their spiritual tussle this way:


“…she went on and told me all about the good place. 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. But I never said so. I asked her if she reckoned Tom Sawyer would go there and she said not by a considerable sight. I was glad about that, because I wanted him and me to be together.”


Once again, Huck was prepared to go to hell for a friend. Friendship was more important than religious ideology. Even an ideology he had been swimming in since birth and even though it came with powerful religious artillery. He even wished his friend would be in hell to keep their friendship intact.

The Religion of Huck Finn: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


Some of the absurdity in the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is of course the result of taking religion too literally. Sometimes that means Huck and Tom and others times the civilized people. Taking religion literally is always risky. As Huck reported early in the book, after he got in trouble for failing to behave as he so often did:

“Then Miss Watson she took me in the closet and prayed, but nothing come of it. She told me to pray every day, and whatever I asked for I would get it. But it warn’t so. I tried it. Once I got a fish-line, but no hooks. It warn’t any good to me without hooks. I tried for the hook three or four times, but somehow I couldn’t make it work. By and by, one day, I asked Miss Watson to try for me but she said I was a fool. She never told me why and I couldn’t make it no way.”


How could it be that religion worked for people like Miss Watson and not Huck? He must be doing something wrong. So again, he did what he always did, he thought about it. As Huck said,

“I set down one time way back in the woods and had a long think about it. I said to myself, if a body can get anything they pray for why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork?  Why can’t the widow get back her silver snuff-box that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up? No says I, to myself, there ain’t nothing in it.  If I went and told the widow about it and she said the thing a body could get by praying for it was “spiritual gifts.” This was too many for me, but she told me she meant—I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself.”


Interestingly, this later of course turned out to be true, for Huck really did spiritual gifts when he ignored his own welfare and thought just of Jim.


Though Huck was not satisfied with this advice he actually soaked it in through osmosis for later that is exactly what he did when he saved Jim for the slave hunters and he won Jim’s freedom and in doing so won his own freedom as well! It was marvellous advice but it didn’t’ smell right to Huck.  Such advice always seemed like a con to a rapscallion like Huck but it really is the best advice he could get.

Pap, his father,  on the other hand gave him the worst possible advice. He taught him how to lie and steal as much as he could and only look out for himself.

Tom Sawyer on the other hand advised Huck to get his advice from books like Don Quixote because they were all about “enchantment.” I would have thought this would have been pretty good advice actually, but later in the book we learn how crazy it was when someone like Tom Sawyer takes his books as literally as the Bible Thumpers take theirs. Tom even said, “I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed  in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me, I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday school.”

An independent thinker like Huck would avoid the traps of traditional belief if he could, but he found it very hard, as he later learns. He puts eternal life on the line! You can’t get braver than that.

Deep Freedom


The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a book about freedom.  It is about the freedom of young boys who are smothered by demands that they conform to narrow constraints of maiden aunts and Sunday schools. And that is important. Revolting from such constraints is the freedom Huck seeks. That is the freedom that Huck seeks and is willing to pay the ultimate price when he lights out for the territory. He wants it even if means hell.


But it also about freedom that a large portion of Americans didn’t enjoy, namely the indigenous and black people of America. The freedom extolled by Americans since the time of the Puritans that for some reason was not for them. Some of them in fact were enslaved—i.e., as unfree as they possibly could be in this land lauded as being the land of the free.  It was free only for some. Most them were white and most of them were men.

The novel is also about freeing humans like Huck from the ideas that enslave him. These are the ideas—like making humans into property—that Huck must learn to renounce. And it is hard to renounce ideas with which we have grown up.

How can anyone who believes in and relishes freedom as so many Americans and Canadians do, ever think that slavery is acceptable? Canadians have to remember that slavery was also prevalent in Canadian society. Canada was much more than the underground railway inviting in slaves to sanctuary.

When charlatans, murderers, and thieves join the “God-fearing” white folks of the community to chase down en mass Jim the runaway slave, Huck says, aptly, “It was enough to make a body ashamed of the human race.”

Mark Twain once said, “Lincoln’s proclamation…not only set the black slaves free, but set the white man free also.” I believe that is profoundly true.

This is beautifully materialized in the character of Jim the black slave. Jim frees Huck. In pursuing freedom for Jim, Huck is also freed from the chains of the Sunday school marms.

Sin is hard to Give up


In the novel the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is tormented by his actions in helping Jim escape from his rightful owner. He even considered doing the “right thing” and telling Miss Watson what he had done and deliver Jim back to her. He thought Jim might be better off as a slave near his family.


Huck gave up on that idea because no doubt Miss Watson would not accept anything from him because of Jim’s rascality and ungratefulness. After all, the slave should have been grateful, Huck thought, for having such a good master as Miss Watson. Miss Watson would likely sell Jim down the river again because “everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger.” After all,  Huck was also scared that everyone would find out that Huck had disgraced himself by helping Jim escape.  This is what he thought about that”


“And then think of me! It would get around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get  his freedom; and if I was ever to see anybody from that town I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame.”


But that was only the half of it.  After all he committed a sin. As Huck said,


“Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I wasn’t so much to blame, but something inside of me kept saying,  “There was the Sunday school, you couldn’t ‘a’ gone to it; and if you’d ‘a’ done it they’d ‘a’ learnt you there that people that acts as I’d been acting about the nigger goes to everlasting fire.”

Huck even tried prayer. On his knees filled with repentance for what he’d done. But he couldn’t do it:

“But the words wouldn’t come out. Why wouldn’t they come? warn’t no use to run and hide it from Him. Nor from me neither. I knew very well why they wouldn’t’ come. It was because my heart warn’t right’ it was because I warn’t square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie.”


Helping Jim, Huck believed was a sin that would lead him to hell, yet he did anyway. Huck was greatly relieved when he realized this because he knew he had done a very bad thing.  As Huck said,


I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had felt so good in all my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn’t do it straight of, but laid the paper down and set there thinking—thinking how good it was all this happened and so how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And I went on thinking over our trip down the river and and I see Jim before me all the time; in the day and in the night time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along  dark, talking’ singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind


No matter what ideology he had been brought up with, Huck was able to break out of it. He just couldn’t be a supporter of slavery no matter how sinful he thought that made  him. His natural goodness burst through the chains of ideology. He was prepared to go to hell if necessary.