Monday, October 30, 2006

Moby-Dick and Calvinism

Born in New York in 1819, and baptized and reared in the Dutch Reformed Church, Herman Melville was steeped in the Scriptures, especially Job and Ecclesiastes. But he was tormented by the seeming discrepancies between a loving God and a cruel world and what he viewed as the inadequacy of traditional religious solutions to this mystery.

Moby-Dick, Melville's masterpiece, introduces us to the archetypical wanderer, an outcast engaged in one metaphysical speculation after another. The book is steeped in biblical themes. Consider the names of the main characters--Ishmael, Ahab, Elijah, Peleg, and Bildad--and Father Mapple’s foreshadowing sermon that sets the tone for the following narrative. But Melville remained spiritually ambivalent and skeptical throughout his life.

Enjoying a rare respite from the torturous hunt for the White Wale, Melville’s Ishmael reflects on the reality that all human beings live on the edge of a precipice: “these are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean's skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang.”

Sadly, Melville, through Ishmael, asks, “Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? in what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary? Where is the foundling's father hidden? Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must go there to learn it.”

Contrast Melville's words with God’s promise to Israel in Psalm 81:13-16:

Oh that My people would listen to Me,
That Israel would walk in My ways!
I would quickly subdue their enemies,
And turn My hand against their adversaries.
Those who hate the Lord would pretend obedience to Him;
And their time of punishment would be forever.
But I would feed you with the finest of the wheat;
And with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.

Jesus Christ is our final harbor. He meets us in our failures, in our wilderness wanderings. Paul knows this: “all drank the same spiritual drink, for they were drinking from a spiritual rock which followed them; and the rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4, 5).


Anonymous said...

In Brooklyn, NY we are staging Chapter 9 from Moby Dick in a chapel. Great show! If you are in the area, please come and see it.

Moby Dick:the sermon

Bradford Mercer said...

Thank you for the comment.

That sounds intriguing. Where is this? When? Are you in a church there?

Thomas said...

Great Post!

Stephen Burden said...

Every Calvinist/Christian who writes articles like these act as if Moby Dick was written in the years B.C. It is willful ignorance to act as if Melville, raised a Calvinist, was unaware of Christ's existence. Moby Dick is railing against a cruel and abitrary God who would elect some for salvation, through Christ, and damn the rest, reprobates like Captain Ahab, to eternal hell. Please have the Christian decency to honor Melville's work and represent the meaning of his work as he intended since he is not here to defend himself.