Whale Tales

Photo by Richard Sagredo on Unsplash

Always I’m surprised when other people seem surprised, specifically about animal intelligence.  Then I have to remind myself that our culture has absorbed the biblical view that people are different so thoroughly that even scientists believe it.  I watch the birds out my window quite a lot.  What they do is intentional and often quite intelligent.  True, not all animals are college material, but they are far brighter than the “automaton” paradigm with which I grew up.  So when I saw a piece in The Guardian titled “Sperm whales in 19th century shared ship attack information” I kept the tab open until I could read it.  Then I woke up this morning wondering why one of my many open tabs had the header “Sperm” on it, only to remember that I was going to read about whales.

I’ve written about Moby-Dick many times on this blog.  Although Melville didn’t experience financial success with it, he managed to pen one of the most profound and memorable novels ever.  One of the things he stressed was the intelligence of the whaler’s prey.  The Guardian article describes how, due to the magic of digitized log books, researchers can now compare captains’ notes about whaling.  What this comparison makes clear is that whales shared the information about attacks and avoided the areas where they occurred.  Despite the massive size of their brains, researchers had supposed whales to be rather stupid—or automatons—simply waiting to get slaughtered.  Animal intelligence is visible anywhere as long as we’re not afraid of that bogeyman, “anthropomorphism.”

We’ve been taught that human beings are so special that we think other animals act like us only because we’re projecting onto them.  Since the Bible informs us that we’re special and they’re further down the food chain, we must assume that creatures who destroy their own planet believing that they’re serving the will of God are somehow smarter than animals living in harmony with their environment.  We’re so smart that we had to add an extra sapiens to Homo sapiens to show just how special we are.  I’ve long suspected that animals are far more intelligent than we allow them to be.  Philip Hoare’s article offers us yet more evidence that we’ve underestimated our non-sapiens companions time and again.  Ironically we can accept that evolution explains how life forms change over time, but we somehow can’t let go of the story that says we’re somehow different.  I think we need to get out more and simply watch how animals behave.


Down to the Sea in Ships

One of the first great trends of 2021 has turned out to be sea shanties.  Micro-current historians have traced the craze, at least in part, to a TikTok video released by Nathan Evans, a Scottish postal worker.  His version of “Soon May the Wellerman Come” has spawned an international cooperition of other singers and musicians who’ve added to a song that has created a sense of community among many who’ve never been to sea.  It even got the attention of the New York Times.  In the long, waning days of 45’s term in office (what a foul taste that leaves in my mouth) people were feeling isolated and largely directionless.  It isn’t so different than, I imagine, being out to sea.  I grew up away from the ocean, longing to be there.  Nevertheless, I didn’t discover Moby-Dick until seminary.

Melville’s classic is essential reading for those who want to exegete “Soon May the Wellerman Come.”  While I’m a vegan for a reason, understanding the lyrics of this particular shanty require some knowledge of whaling.  The wellerman was a supply ship that met whalers on their often multi-year voyages, to bring them provisions.  They’re not mentioned in Moby-Dick because the Weller brothers ran their operations out of Oceania.  The idea of relief being brought by others is nevertheless something we can all appreciate as we’ve been isolated from each other while being given the cold shoulder by the Republican Party.  The fact that a nineteenth-century sea shanty has the pandemic-ridden world by storm is really no surprise.  There’s a romance to the sea and those of us lubbers who spend our days on dry ground sometimes dream of the freedom the oceans represent.

Although not a shanty, a sea song that’s always spoken to me is “Sloop John B.”  A folk song from the Bahamas, it tells the tale of a homesick passenger wanting to go home.  It shares an element with sea shanties like “Wellerman.”  Both seek rescue.  Many world religions suggest humans need “salvation” of some kind—from sin in Christianity or samsara in Hinduism or Buddhism.  Songs of the sea also frequently share that hope of help.  Whether it’s the supply ship or a return home, a longing for salvation runs through the romance of the sea.  I can’t help but think that during this pandemic that need has surfaced in a viral song about the wellerman expected, but not yet arrived.  Or the trip to normalcy delayed.  However we might interpret them, songs of the sea give us some hope that the journey home will eventually come.

 


Thousand and One

I’ve posted on big books before.  I’m reading one right now.  Many large books have had profound cultural influence, and something about their very girth suggests canonicity.  I have never read One Thousand and One Nights.  It is an amazingly influential collection of stories from storied Arabia.  Perhaps it was because I grew up in a small town, or more likely it was because my parents weren’t readers, the only big book to which I was introduced at a young age was the Bible.  The problem with this is that once you become locked into a greedy nine-to-five you’ll find your reading time limited.  Big books demand a lot of time, and you have to try to fit them in with your larger projects.  At least those of us who write do.

Don’t get me wrong—I’ve read many large books over the years.  My point is that if you missed the opportunity when you were in school, which got out around three, or in college with its immensely variable schedule, you’ll find yourself with limited time to catch up on the classics.  Not only are some of them large like One Thousand and One Nights, but there are also so very many of them.  I recently admitted to neglecting Hemingway until far too late.  Hemingway doesn’t stand alone in that regard.  I did manage my way through Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but that was largely during a period of unemployment.  I’ve tackled a few of the longer Dickens novels and some of Neal Stephenson’s books.  I’d love to read more, but work is a time miser.  And there’s so much to do around the house on the weekend.

So I wonder when I’m going to find the time to read One Thousand and One Nights.  How do you record a book on your Goodreads challenge that takes over a year to read?  Moby-Dick, in its lissome five-hundred pages, took me months to get through, and it’s a page-turner (for me, anyway).  Since I often blog on the books I read, not having anything to report for months at a time throws me off.  Our world is increasingly driven by metrics, and a book with the word “thousand” in the title is intimidating to those with so little free time that they must awake early to preserve it.  The problem isn’t with the classics, though.  The problem is with a world that won’t slow down enough to let you read the very documents upon which it was founded.  I could use about a thousand and one nights just to read.


Old Seas Man

Although my fiction writing has been said to resemble his by one of those websites that tell you who you write like, I’ve never read any Ernest Hemingway before.  In the wake of Melville I had a hankering to read his The Old Man and the Sea.  I honestly had no idea what it was about or how the story went.  I’d read Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” so Hemingway’s classic was the last of the holy trinity of sea-faring literary classics to remain unread.  Not knowing what to expect, I was blown out to sea by it.  Published about a century after Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea visits some of the same themes but also pulls into new ports as well.

Santiago has hooked a massive fish after nearly three months with no luck.  To do so, however, he has gone out too far from land.  This watery hubris leads him to make fast to a reasonable stand-in for God.  I don’t know Hemingway’s religious outlook, but sea-faring novels already have such a large dose of Jung that it’s difficult to imagine there’s nothing divine in the massive marlin Santiago snags.  With many classics the end is known before beginning to read.  I wasn’t sure if Santiago was going to make it back to land, or indeed, if he would kill the fish.  The old man’s conversations with himself are the heart of the novel.  And one in particular turns to the religious idea of sin.

Not a religious man, Santiago bargains Hail Marys and Our Fathers for the successful catching of the fish.  Then he begins to reflect on sin.  In words similar to lyrics discussed in a recent post, Santiago declares everything a sin, even though he doesn’t believe in sin at all.  His view of life is stunning at this point, and commentary on which theologians would do well to chew.  Sin is a concept meant to impute guilt to mistakes, often made unintentionally.  What might’ve begun as a form of social control has grown into a mass neurosis for those who believe humans are capable of no good.  This is especially worth pondering if the reader considers the marlin to be God.  Try it and see what you come up with.  I know little about Hemingway, but having read his Nobel Prize-winning novel, I do feel that I have learned something worthwhile.  And I also feel the trilogy is complete.


Rainbow of Reading

Reading in a time of plague is more than just a pastime.  It’s an opportunity to learn.  I keep fervently hoping that an occupation might be made out of reading, but those I’ve tried always have many long strings attached, most of them tied to capitalism.  Early on in the social distancing phase, a group in my town began posting children’s stories on lawn signs in the park.  Each sign stands six feet from the last one, and if you linger a few minutes you can take in a children’s book, presumably for the benefit of your child.  Such signs have cropped up in a couple of the parks here in town.  I’m pleased to see the attempts at literacy education continuing.  If anything’s going to get us out of this crisis, it’s going to be reading.

The local library, again early on, began giving away books that normally make up part of the book sale.  Libraries, which have proven their worth over and over, have been doing what they can to get people through the difficult times of loneliness, and in some cases, joblessness.  Those of us who cottoned onto reading at a young age realize just how much problem-solving you can glean from reading a novel.  Instead of encouraging writers, however, the capitalistic system makes agents and publishers interested only in those writers who are deemed to have commercial value.  All the rest, who often find a core audience after their deaths, are left to obscurity since money makes the world go round, right MC?  And yet where would we be without our formative fiction.

I’ve quite often admitted that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is my favorite novel.  I’d always assumed that it was a success but I recently learned that it too was a flop.  At first.  There was little interest in what has become the prototypical great American novel.  Its draw is in the lessons it teaches.  A bit too long to put on signs in the park, it explores what drives some people.  Indeed, for the owners of the Pequod it is money.  But there are more important things.  As the weather has been improving, it makes me glad to see the signs of summer.  The signs posted with books.  While I have no small children to take to the park, I am made happy by the efforts of those who take the initiative to show young people the way out of any crisis.  You must read your way through.


Ahab’s Garden

One of my motivations, I have to admit, for re-reading Moby Dick this year was my wife’s gift of Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick, by Richard J. King.  I wanted to read the latter, and I’d been toying with the idea of reading the former.  So I did both.  King’s book explores the oceanic world introduced by Herman Melville’s classic.  The various creatures and natural phenomena mentioned by Melville are examined in the light of what we now know today and a few key finding emerge.  We continue to know little about our oceans, even as we deplete them.  The book is about whales, but not only about whales.  Anyone who’s read Moby Dick knows the novel encompasses about a year at sea and describes the many sights experienced by a crew that sets out with few port calls and many long hours on the open ocean.

King does a fine job here.  It’s particularly refreshing that he doesn’t hide from what he calls Melville’s natural theology.  Many science writers fear to go to such places.  Clearly Melville looked at the world through such lenses, however.  The novel is one of the American philosophical masterpieces.  Not only philosophical, but also theological.  We can only guess what Melville’s true beliefs were, but he described the book to Nathaniel Hawthorne as wicked, and he knew that he was butting heads with orthodoxy throughout.  Natural theology was, of course, an early form of science.  Today scientists tend to be embarrassed by their heritage, but King shows that in the hands of a genius like Melville the results can be extraordinary.

This is also a disturbing book.  Any volume dealing with the natural world these days likely is.  The over-exploitation of the ocean, our use of it as a dumping ground, and global warming have combined to make the recovery of whales, as well as many other species, slow if not impossible.  While commercial hunting of whales has largely ceased, the leviathans haven’t made much of a comeback, and several species are well on their way toward extinction.  Sea birds are less common than they were when Melville was writing.  We’ve influenced our world in such a bad way that we’ve likely set the clock ticking on the extinction of our own species.  In a sense then, natural theology is facing its own apocalypse.  Ahab’s Rolling Sea is not a dour book—it is a celebration of the world as it was once known, even if that world was less than just two hundred years ago.


White Whales

Every once in a while I return to Moby Dick.  I’m not sure why exactly Melville’s classic has such a hold on me.  Perhaps because I first read it while living in Boston.  For a land lubber like myself being so near the ocean was a kind of epiphany.  I read the novel as part of a course on wisdom literature in the Bible.  Harrell Beck, who was an influential person in my life, insisted that if wisdom themes were truly wisdom they would be found outside the Good Book.  We were assigned a list of modern novels from which to choose and I selected Moby Dick.  The thing that immediately struck me about the novel was just how biblical it is.  Ahab and Ishmael aside, the many references to Jonah and Job and incidental asides referencing scripture made this an intense reading experience.

I started reading it for the fifth or sixth time just before the pandemic became a crisis.  It is a large book and I didn’t want to rush through it.  I tried to pause and appreciate it this time around and I noticed just how remarkable it was that a man who made much of his life as a laborer, without any higher education, was so incredibly literate.  Classical references that I had to look up, and citation of sources blend together in a story that is compelling as it is unsettling.  Long explanations and descriptions are part of the tale, and the soliloquies are so philosophical that you have to sit back in a reverie after reading them.  I’ve read many novels in my life, but no others like Moby Dick.

As metaphorical stories go, the book is remarkably natural.  The descriptions of whales are as scientific in their own way as they are literary.  For an author with no scientific training this too is remarkable.  Indeed, a good part of the draw of Moby Dick is Herman Melville himself.  Although I have gathered a few degrees over the years, in my mind I am, like Melville, unlettered.  I’m sure he would’ve understood.  The fiction I write, although in a very different style, is a tip of the hat to him.  Friends used to tell me that nobody writes like that any more and that no publishers would show an interest.  The latter has proven to be true, and so much more’s the pity.  We could use more novels like Moby Dick.  And were my days not even fuller during the pandemic, I might even have a few moment to pursue my own white whales.


Misreading Melville

I make it a practice not to discuss books I’m still reading on this blog.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t, I suppose, but it just feels like cheating getting more than one post for a book.  Besides, there’s so much other stuff to blog about!  I’ll make an exception this time, because it involves an unusual typo.  Well, it’s not so much unusual as it is apt.  In chapter 82 of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, “The Honor and glory of Whaling,” he discusses the mythical history of whaling.  In typical Melvillian style, he takes mythical stories to support his contention of how honorable whaling is.  After Perseus and St. George and the dragon, he mentions the curious biblical episode of Dagon and the ark of the covenant, found in 1 Samuel 5.  It’s here that my edition has a typo.  Melville writes “this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name” but my edition reads “Dragon by name.”

Image credit: Vignette by Loutherbourg for the Macklin Bible 12 of 134, via Wikimedia Commons

My very first academic publication was on this story about Dagon (I had intended to write my dissertation on that deity).  I had no idea of H. P. Lovecraft’s appropriation of Dagon at that point.  The interest was purely based on the fact that you couldn’t find much information on this curious god.  It was clear that he was well known among ancient cultures of West Asia.  He was attested at Ugarit, specifically as the father of Baal.  (Both would later be assumed to be demons.)  Further east, he was apparently a fairly major deity in Mesopotamian religions, although we are still awaiting a readable synthesis of that massive corpus of texts and the religions toward which it points.  In other words, Dagon is mysterious.  Lovecraft likely picked him up from the biblical story.

The tale in 1 Samuel is provocative.  After defeating Israel, the Philistines (who would eventually give Palestine its name) took the ark to the temple of Dagon as spoils.  The image of their god fell face-down before the ark overnight.  Disturbing as this was, the next morning after they’d replaced him, Dagon was again tumbled but also decapitated and with his hands broken off.  That meant his body was all that was left.  Somewhere along the line the name Dagon (close to the Hebrew word for “fish”) was interpreted as a maritime entity.  This seems unlikely, given what we know of his origins, but the idea stuck, leading to some compelling horror fiction.  Dagon does indeed become a kind of dragon in that realm.  My edition of Moby Dick has a typo that we today would blame on autocorrect, but in reality was likely the result of a copyeditor not knowing his or her Bible as well as Melville did.


Russian Passions

Dmitri didn’t do it; guilty anyway. That’s it in six words. I have to confess my tolerance for really long novels isn’t what it used to be. Blame it on being a child raised by television—every thirty minutes I’m ready for something new. I first read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov when I was in seminary. Seminarians are an odd breed, and many of them relished the deep, ponderous novels with profound things to say about humankind. The Brothers Karamazov is such a novel. When you’re a student, reading’s part of the job description. As a writer Dostoyevsky gets away with things that’d lead to you failing composition class these days. Speeches that stretch on for chapters, characters taking 100 pages to die, and children talking like adults. It’s a heady mix.

I’ll have to admit that I remembered very little of the story from my last reading. I knew Fyodor Karamazov got killed. I couldn’t remember by whom. All the buzz in seminary was about the famous Grand Inquisitor scene. That’s the part where the Grand Inquisitor interrogates Christ and finds him wanting in the eyes of the church. So daring. So deep! And so early in the book. As I made my way through many heavy-lidded pages, with some dismay I realized that after I’d read the high point of the book I still had 457 pages to go, none of which I remembered from my reading three decades ago. I don’t mean to disparage the classic—I noted and underline several passages as I read. The blame is entirely on me. Still, the endless gloom of personal guilt that hangs on every character, even Alexei—whom Dostoyevsky states outright is his hero—become overbearing at times. This is a nation battened down by Christianity.

Often I’ve expressed the idea that we force children to read great novels before they’re ready to do so, ruining the classics for them for life. I first read Moby-Dick in seminary and I’ve read it several times since. It seems nobody’s really ready for Melville before their twenties. What is the age for Dostoyevsky? I think I comprehended more this time through. There were ideas here that, had I more time, I would likely have enjoyed lingering over. If life were so kind as to allow us the leisure to digest huge books I have no doubt that we would all be wiser, if not more satisfied. Fyodor Karamazov is dead. Alexei is cheered by the school boys. This long journey has itself been the goal.


Reading Preferences

How do you decide on a favorite author? The question has been looming in my head as I’ve been reading through old novels on my shelves. It’s a question that strikes me whenever I walk into a bookstore. You see, my parents weren’t readers. As a child my literature was selected from the book table at the local Goodwill. I had no literary advice of ancestral pedigree. Teachers had assigned some books I’d liked, but nothing that really grabbed me. How was I to go about finding a favorite author? My favorite novel, hands down, was discovered in seminary. Moby-Dick is, to my way of thinking, the perfect novel. But I’ve never read anything else Melville wrote. I’d discovered Edgar Allan Poe as a child, but he was no novelist. Who suggested these books on my shelf?

Among those responsible was a young woman I knew when I was in college. She was in high school, but she’d grown up in an educated family and she was passionate about her authors. Thomas Hardy and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Were among her favorites. I was startled to realize that among the books I found myself reading as 2017 draws to a close were both Hardy and Vonnegut. A blast from the past. Then, of course, my wife has suggested many books to me. We still read together—a practice we started as newlyweds (today commemorates the start of that status, by the way, which occurred 29 years ago today). There’s an intimacy involved in sharing books.

For the past few years I’ve been participating in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge. Since it involves only a dozen books it’s seldom a problem to finish it. We go to our local independent bookstore and seek advice. I encounter writers unfamiliar to me. I still struggle, however, with that favorite author question. As I lay down each book I say to myself—was that the best I’ve ever read? Maybe the point is that there is no favorite author. If I were to sit down and try to list everything I’d ever learned from the fiction I’d read, I’d never stand again. The list would be endless. The lingering longing after closing a book, feeling as if I’d just had an intimate evening with the author, requires a certain literary promiscuousness. I enjoy many authors in many different ways. More often than not, they have changed my life. I look forward to the reading challenge of 2018. No matter the disappointments of politics and human folly, I’ll have good books to read as the world wobbles onward with no particular goal in mind.


Informed Deceit

I sign a lot of petitions. That’s because the job of prophet doesn’t pay well enough to support a family any more. What it does mean is that I get a lot of emails from causes looking for supporters. I don’t sign blindly. That was brought home to me the other day when I had an email from the “White House.” A more obvious effort at trying to scramble for table scraps of respectability I cannot imagine. Already since January our government has swooped to new lows of deception and now false news comes right to your inbox. This email informed me that Neil Gorsuch has overwhelming bipartisan support for his Supreme Court nomination. Being an individual with a working brain, I know that’s not true. The “White House” wanted me to sign a petition supporting Gorsuch when I’ve already signed several protesting his candidacy. It’s clear that our government wants a court prophet.

Isn’t it odd, I mused, that a government that has no intention of listening to the majority is sending a petition to support one of its own? We know that the Russian Party (formerly known as the GOP) will support anything Thurston Howell the President hands them. Such a petition is only a way of saying “I told you so.” I miss the days when Isaiah could walk right into king Hezekiah’s bedroom and say “Thus saith the Lord…” These days the Lord tweets and the chirplings in the nest beg for more worms. You see, court prophets know which side their palms are crossed on. This isn’t Ash Wednesday, it’s Ash Administration.

Court prophets, in ancient times, were those paid by the government to support what the king wanted to do. It was a cushy job. What the reigning Trump wants at the moment he or she (for the modern court prophet can double-cross her own gender) proclaims it as God’s will. No experience necessary. The thing about the Bible, though, is that court prophets are pretty roundly condemned. The real prophet could generally be told by the fact that he (less commonly she in those days) was dead. Or soon to be. Those in power seldom care for criticism. Especially when skeletons are fighting each other for elbow room in their closets. Even so, Holy Writ says, figuratively, that it’s better to be a living politician than a dead prophet. If that doesn’t sound biblical, read the words of the prophet: “Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia’s Dismal Swamp… and break the green damp mould with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.”


Sea Change

MelvillesBiblesMy reading list is long, and it grows longer all the time. I read both fiction and non-fiction with equal avidity. Given that there are so many books I want to read, it is unusual to read entire books a second time (they should be kept for reference’s sake, of course). Two exceptions to the multiple reading trend have been, for me, the Bible and Moby-Dick. In reading Ilana Pardes’Melville’s Bibles, I discovered I’m not alone in according Melville nearly biblical status. As a book itself, Melville’s Bibles went on my reading list as soon as I learned of it. You see, Moby-Dick was added to my personal Deutero-Canon as soon as I closed its cover. Perhaps before. It was an assignment for a seminary biblical studies class on wisdom literature. My high school wasn’t one that required the novel, and all I knew about it previously was that it was a big book about whale hunting. I knew so little.

Pardes looks at Moby-Dick, and other literature, both by Melville and others, through the lenses of biblical characters. Of course there’s Ishmael. And Ahab. Melville, however, knew his Bible well, and to understand his work on a deeper level so must his reader. Job’s there. As is Jonah. Jeremiah, Elijah, Micaiah ben-Imlah, and even Rachel. Pardes takes these characters and shows how they appear, generally in Moby-Dick, spread across a variety of characters. More than one Ahab and Ishmael walk these decks. All the while, she notes, Melville himself wasn’t a typical “believer.” He struggled with the deity that he just couldn’t find. The end result is a compelling analysis of literature and human nature.

This brief study has a disproportionate number of insights. I frequently found myself stopping to ponder what I’d just read. Perhaps that’s to be expected in any book that brings two weighty canonical works together in such a gam. (If you can’t recall what a gam is, reading either Pardes or Moby-Dick will remind you.) Encountering Moby-Dick the first time was like finding a lost book of the Bible. I had no idea, however, at the depth of comparison. Pardes shows just how deep that ocean is. Melville’s well-thumbed, indeed, annotated Bible does play a role in all of this. Perhaps he didn’t intend all the connections readers like Pardes find, but that doesn’t make the connections tenuous. They’re clearly there. Canonical works are like that. Moby-Dick, indeed, is an iconic book and Pardes is a very capable Captain to guide a reader through it.


Writers and Readers

Writers are immortals. Well, at least as long as our species lasts. As a mere internet writer, I suppose that I’m not alone in wanted published books to my name. Solid books that don’t disappear in a power outage. There’s an immortality, no matter how mildewed or mouse chewed, to being in a book. Just two days ago Harper Lee died. And Umberto Eco. On the same day. Like many American kids, I was assigned To Kill a Mockingbird in school. Although I would go for decades without re-reading it, the novel stayed with me powerfully, the way that classics do. When it was assigned to my daughter’s high school class, I read it again, reinforcing the story that held me captive when I was a teen. In many ways it was an introduction into that confusing and convoluted world of adults. It was true, like most fiction is.

Umberto Eco I discovered in seminary. The Name of the Rose was one of the choices for assigned reading in Medieval Church History. Although less of a classic, it was no less real for all that. The work that hit closer to home, however, came when living in the Medieval city of Edinburgh. Foucault’s Pendulum was frightening in its conspiratorial intensity. Esoteric fanatics gather in an unholy profusion. Then, in the midst of reading it, a package, hand-addressed, arrived in my student mailbox. From Germany. Curious, I opened it only to discover a mound of tracts on Satanism, all the scarier for being written in German. They seemed to point to a conspiracy, just as I was reading about in Eco’s novel. Only after much searching (there was no internet to speak of in those days) did I trace them to the Schiller Institute. How they got my name, I never did learn.

IMG_2678

I haven’t read all the works of Lee or Eco. In fact, there are few writers whose entire oeuvre I’ve managed to read. That doesn’t mean that I love them any the less. All it takes is a powerful novel and you can be hooked for life. I leaned this in a profound way reading Moby-Dick in seminary. If there is another book that should be added to the Bible, that is the one. Writers are one of our least appreciated resources. They are, however, among the true immortals of our breed. Harper Lee and Umberto Eco left this world on the same day, only never really to leave it at all.


States Right

Can you name your state insect? State bird? State dinosaur? The concept of united states, perhaps more obvious in Europe where languages differ, is a complex one. In the United States of America we’ve got our culture wars that generally divide along predictable state lines, but each state has a mix of progressives and conservatives, and caricatures may be funny but are hardly accurate. In this jambalaya of divergent ingredients, each state develops its own image in keeping with a couple centuries (for some) of tradition. We even have quarters that show our distinctive features on the reverse side! As one of those whose profession (whatever that is) has moved me across state borders periodically, I know that choice of domicile often depends on what it might offer by way of employment. Although one of my parents was born in New Jersey, I moved here not out of family loyalty but out of desperation to find work. Nearly every day I cross a state border to get to a job, but it feels pretty much the same to me.

Although I’ve lived in these states for nearly half a century (some of my years were spent abroad) I didn’t know that states had a choice of books. I don’t know if every state has a book. It saddened me to hear that New Jersey rejected “Born to Run” as state song since it was about trying to get out, but I don’t know if we have a state book. The Godfather, perhaps? Moby Dick? When NBC announced that Tennessee had its proposal to name the Bible as its state book shot down, I was a bit shocked. What is a state book? Tennessee, which (as a caricature) still takes pride in the Bryan side of the Scopes Monkey Trial, often leads the way, like Davy Crockett, against the untrusted, heathen other. The undiscovered country of modern thought. The Bible can be a comfortable book in that way.

The Bible justifies our prejudices. Written mostly by white men who believed they were specially chosen by God, well, is it any wonder that it bestows a sense of entitlement? Radical in its time, the Bible now stands for status quo ante, ante meaning before women and non-whites won the right to be considered equal. It is a kind of Paleolithic justice. A caveman ethic. What better way to demonstrate that your state, like Indiana, is a special haven of the Almighty? Only here can the truth be found. If you’re looking anywhere this side of 1611 you’ll miss it. We don’t need to know what came before. Protestants, now partnering with conservative Catholics when it fits the political agenda, have always recognized book over state. We the people and all that. I really do wonder, can you name your state dinosaur?

800px-Crystal_palace_iguanodon


Maritime Dreams

MaineEarly in my teaching career, I used to arrive in Milwaukee on a train after midnight. A student from Nashotah House on work-study would pick me up at the train station and drive me the thirty miles to the seminary so that I could teach the next morning. Along the way, depending on the student, conversation ensued. One time I asked the driver why he was interested in what seemed to me an arcane topic (and that’s saying something!). He replied, “Who can ever say why they’re interested in something?” There was some deep wisdom there, I realized. Can any of us say why we’re interested in what we are? I, for example, don’t know why I’m interested in life on the sea. And in the sea. I fell in love with the idea of living on the coast when I was a landlocked child. The ocean came to me only in books, and I never actually saw an ocean until I went to graduate school. The experience confirmed for me that this was where my heart lies. The salt air, the gray waves, the constant call of the pounding surf. Moby Dick immediately became a kind of personal scripture when I first read it. A life near the sea felt right.

I could never really answer the question why. I don’t swim, and besides, the ocean currents I have experienced are really too strong for the placid kind of swimming a lake or pool seems to offer. I don’t own a boat, and I’m a poor pilot when asked to drive one. I’ve been out over the ocean on commercial boats only a couple of times. Still, the imagination is fired by the idea of the ocean. Especially the stormy north Atlantic. As a child Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us was one of my favorite books. Just staring at the cover could transport me to places I’d never seen. When landlocked in Wisconsin for several years, I turned to the Great Lakes for consolation. “Those who go down to the sea in ships” Psalm 107 declares, “Who do business on great waters; They have seen the works of the Lord.” Even so those who dream of the sea.

Ironically, for the Psalm, the Israelites were not a seafaring nation. Good harbors are rare on the coast of ancient Israel, and the maritime trade of antiquity was dominated by the neighbors to the north, the Phoenicians. Still, even the psalmist could dream of the sea. It has been said by various commentators, that the sea represents sexuality, or transcendence, or both. It is larger than we are. Indeed, the earth is by far mostly water as opposed to dry land. Life, even according to Genesis, first began in the waters. So I find myself in the midst of winter thinking about the ocean. It has been a long while since I’ve indulged in a day on the coast, even though I’m pretty much daily in a city on the sea. But I can’t experience the ocean so well with so many people around. Besides, there’s work to do. In those moments when my time is my own, however, I still dream of the ocean and the endless possibilities it represents.