Learning from Literature: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

This is a gripping book in many ways. I think every American should read it. It has brought me to tears on more than one occasion. History is an important teacher. It can smack you in the face with past realities so that you don’t get smacked in the face by present ones. We, as Christians, must be discerning, and realize that the same foil may come in a different guise.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin reminds us that Scripture is often interpreted in the darkness of cultural situations without the light of a clear and unbiased perspective. As soon as society changes so will the interpretation of the text. Where are the Harriet Beecher Stowes who will stand up for what the text is saying however unpopular it may be? As Stowe said, if the cotton trade was no longer needed people’s understanding on slavery would be changed, there previous “understanding” would no longer be needed.

Of course, the issue then was slavery but Stowe makes a valid point for any day. Hermeneutics (i.e. the science of interpretation) seeks to understand what the text means.[1] However, we often view the text in light of our own context instead of the original context. We interpret texts many times to mean what we want them to mean and not what they really mean. We put a spin on things to suite ourselves. It is much like what the media can do with a sound bit. If you look at words out of their context, you can make them mean almost whatever what you want. We should take hints from history and seek to not make the same blunders.

What texts or issues do we dismiss outright or misinterpret to our benefit? Who or what are you avoiding listening to or reading? I am inclined to think that our (my!) use (or ill use) of money is one area where we tend to reinterpret Scripture.[2] Or what about God’s command for us to be holy? It’s pretty easy to knock that command down to moral, isn’t it? We think: other people watch this movie, even other “good” people. Yet, did you see where the thinking went wrong? We are not merely commanded to be good, moral, or culturally acceptable; we are called to be set apart as God’s own people. God’s holiness is our standard. Not our neighbors.


[1] Which implies application. You don’t truly understand something until you understand how it applies… further, you might say you don’t truly understand something until it is applied. At least, I think this is the case with Scripture.

[2] I realize that there has been a lot of harm done in this area by people laying legalistic blanket commands that are neither helpful nor biblical. Yet, the Bible and Jesus do speak much of, and strongly about, wealth and the stewardship that we have of it. So what I am saying is we must make sure that we are not just dismissing texts on wealth and the right use of wealth but honestly evaluating what God is calling us to. It is too easy, as history demonstrates, to be blinded by the now. This applies to wealth, it applies to many things.

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About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 10 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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