Tag Archives: Moby Dick

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.

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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?

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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.

Truth Anonymous

SparkMany a student has been spared the reading of primary sources by study guides. This is not a new phenomenon. While still regularly teaching Hebrew Bible, I picked up a copy of Cliff Notes, The Bible, to show students how not to get the picture. To be fair, I was teaching future priests, and, despite my progressive outlook, I believe all Christian clergy ought to have read the Bible at least once. I know enough of Christian history to realize that the emphasis on sacred writ is not as ancient as many Protestants think—before the advent of modern literacy rates, scripture reading (and interpreting) was the business of the church. The laity were to receive it in the form of sermons, and so reading the Bible wasn’t really necessary. With the Reformation, however, the Bible became central and preaching became a matter of intelligent interpretation of the same. Today any Christian minister should have a pretty good grasp of holy writ, believe it or not.

With a touch of puckish optimism, my family gave me a copy of the Spark Notes Old and New Testaments at Christmas. Spark, according to the copyright page, is a division of Barnes and Noble, and, should the cover be believed, today’s most popular study guides. As an erstwhile author of biblical studies material, I was curious about who wrote the notes. Enough of the scholar remains for me to be critical, and one of the first questions always to arise is, who wrote this? The question ought to be even more poignant for Bible readers. One of the most looming of questions is that of authority to interpret. Different branches of Christianity still maintain the proprietary right to be the true guardians of the sole truth. Although perhaps softened somewhat from soaking in the broth of religious-political activism, the Fundamentalist would, in any natural world, distrust the interpretation of a Catholic. And vice-versa. Looking at my Spark Notes, I wonder who it is that is telling me the truth.

Abridgment is a kind of crime for literary connoisseurs. As a child I purchased my books from Goodwill or Salvation Army—the kinds of places to which poverty-level readers have access. Although occasionally drawn to Reader’s Digest editions on purely economical grounds, I studiously avoided abridged works. Who decides what single syllable of Melville should be left out of Moby Dick? All the degrees in the world don’t justify that! The interpreter is just as human as the reader, and this kind of power is too heady for mere mortals to handle. The abridger of the Bible must take heed of Deuteronomy 4.2 and Revelation 22.18-19. There’s a lurking suspicion, nevertheless, that something might be learned from the stripped-down scriptures. It is with some anticipation that I look forward to receiving some anonymous instruction as I seek a Spark of truth.

Medusa on the Rocks

WreckOfTheMedusaShipwrecks possess a compelling resonance that is difficult to explain. I have seldom been on boats, but from my youngest days I’ve been drawn to the coast. While a student in Boston I made weekend trips to Gloucester to be near the place where ships go out to sea, sitting by the quote from Psalm 107 at the base of the famous fisherman statue. Moby Dick has passed under my eyes many times. While at Nashotah House I was frequently tormented with nightmares of sinking ships. Titanic was a huge movie late in those years, and even before watching it, I dreamed of going unceasingly down. In a used bookstore, Alexander McKee’s Wreck of the Medusa recently caught my attention. Although I’d never heard of the Medusa, the name suggested classic themes, and the shipwreck, I knew, would entail suffering and loss and human drama. I knew I had to take it home with me.

The true story of the wreck is tragic in just about every conceivable context. The year was 1816 and aristocracy was still openly practiced. The Medusa, bound for Africa from France, ran aground and, in echoes of what would happen (at least in some instances) a century in the future, the insufficient number of lifeboats were claimed by the wealthy and powerful. The most tragic aspect, however, was the matter of the raft. The masts were felled and a poorly designed raft was hastily constructed (the Medusa was grounded, not sinking). The greatest number of people were herded onto this raft where the water came up to nearly their waists, as the six boats towed the makeshift craft toward shore. At the instigation of the about-to-be-installed governor of Senegal, those towing the raft dropped the line and rowed themselves to safety. The raft, with no means of propulsion, was left adrift where 135 people of the 150 on board slowly died over the next two weeks. The governor and his party made it safely to their destination.

To me, this election week, it seems that I’ve just read a potent parable. We have public officials in place who, like those safely in the boats, cry out “we abandon them” before the masses of those who expect and deserve their protection. Power, it is said, corrupts, and as we witness the constant increase of political power over the sea of humanity taught that their religion favors the party able to quote the Bible the loudest, we sometimes forget that sinking ships may leave very long memories. In another week we will reach the commemoration of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The Essex, the Medusa, and countless other tragically doomed ships may easily slip our minds now being propelled at full speed toward the spending frenzy of Christmas. Meanwhile, I urge us all to take a few November moments to consider where this ship is heading, and if there is yet time to change her course.