Ruminations on “Moby Dick” as Theology

My always astute friend Jim Gorman once suggested that my book, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Reflections on the Atonement (its subject matter being an unlikely topic coming from the generally optimistic American Protestant Mainline), might have something to do with the fact that I live in gloomy New England, and more specifically in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, where Herman Melville lived during the years he wrote Moby Dick.

In fact, Melville lived right here in my town of Pittsfield at the time, on a farm named “Arrowhead,” a few miles from where I am sitting.  “Arrowhead,” which is still very much here, is now a museum, and the home of the Berkshire Historical Society. It is well worth visiting.

Many years ago I gave a lecture at “Arrowhead” on theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, another Berkshire resident, and I recall being struck by the irony of speaking about theology’s best 20th Century interpreter of human sin in the home of fiction’s best 19th Century writer of sin’s power and perplexity.

Moby Dick remains one of those books that you can come to again and again to find more and more about the human condition, not to mention whaling practices (which is why so few actually get through it.) I once mentioned to my old friend Roger Linscott, now sadly gone, that I had read Moby Dick(more than once), and he came as close as a gentleman can to calling me a liar. I have often thought Moby Dick has not been given the attention it deserves by theologians, so I was pleased today when I read Australian Theologian Ben Myers always thoughtful blog Faith and Theology. His post, “A note on Unwritten Books,” is a busy scholar’s daydream about the books he would like to write if he ever has the time.

Here’s what he had to say about one of them: “A book on Melville’s Moby Dick as the great anti-theodicy, Nature’s shattering reply to Paradise Lost. (Frankly, it baffles me that more theologians have not written on Moby Dick – though Catherine Keller is an outstanding exception.)”

It baffles me, too.

I really do hope that he, or someone, writes that book, and if someone does, I’ll be the first one lined up to read it (My English teacher friend Bob Barsanti from Nantucket will be right there with me, I’m guessing).  We need for Melville what Elton Trueblood did for Abraham Lincoln in his 1973 book, Abraham Lincoln: Theologian Of America’s Anguish.  Like Melville, Lincoln was unchurched, but I consider his Second Inaugural Address to be one of the greatest theological writings in our nation’s history.

For those of you who didn’t spend whatever youthful fortune you may have had to acquire a theological education, theodicy is that branch of theology that addresses (or tries to) the problem of evil in the world, and how God can be justified in the face of it.  A good recent example is David Bentley Hart’s astute The Doors of the Sea, which he wrote after the great tsunami that wreaked havoc in Asia a few years ago. By calling Moby Dick “the great anti-theodicy,” and “Nature’s shattering reply to Paradise Lost” I am guessing that Ben Myers shares my wariness about theodicy in general, and all attempts to say too much about why God does what God does. I hope he might say more about that.

Ironically, we have as our appointed Old Testament reading for this week Psalm 55, where in verse 8, God says,

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

”I am guessing from Myers’ limited comment, and from my familiarity with Moby Dick, that he might agree with that sentiment, and therefore with me.

Ironies abound here in Pittsfield about Melville. One irony is that he lived on Holmes Road, named after the novelist Oliver Wendell Holmes (and not the famous jurist of the same name, who was his son), who was arguably the most popular and highly esteemed novelist of his day. Does anybody but miserable English Ph.D. candidates in search of a suitably obscure dissertation topic ever read Holmes today?  I suspect not. So here was Melville, who it must be admitted was not entirely unknown, for he had written some exotic best sellers many years before about his travels in the South Seas as a young man, laboring away in near obscurity over a book that was, at publication, almost universally panned.  That book is now considered by many, including me, as a top candidate for the “Great American Novel” (I think Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn has a claim as well.)

“The Great American Novel,” I might add, is as hard to locate and pin down as Ahab’s white whale, and has taken on some of the same mystique among those of us who still read books.

Another irony, it seems Melville was hardly known here in Pittsfield at the time.  I served for 22 years as the Pastor of the First Church of Christ in Pittsfield, which had been the town’s founding Puritan Church in 1764 (you couldn’t get a town charter in the theocratic Massachusetts Commonwealth without establishing a Congregational Church.) Today it is a just another lively but perennially struggling mainline church with a beautiful (but too big) building to maintain, but it was not always so.

By 1850, when Melville bought “Arrowhead,” First Church had long been disestablished (in 1833), but still remained the community’s premier religious institution. Puritanism as a movement was pretty much gone by 1850, and what replaced it in Pittsfield was a “carriage trade” church at the outset of the Gilded Age. Puritanism had been economically successful in New England, and the new generation of the privileged wanted to show off their newfound wealth (unlike their Puritan forbears.) First Church Pastor John Todd had commissioned a grand granite Gothic Revival church to be built in 1853 to replace the white clapboarded Bullfinch Meeting House (damaged by fire in 1851). There were many prominent, even famous, citizens, now forgotten, in the membership of First Church, but Melville was not among them, as he was not a churchgoer. I have found no mention of him during those years in either the church or town annals. It was as if he never lived here.

This is not too surprising, as he was known by the few who knew him a loner. He was also seriously broke and most likely depressed, although depression hadn’t been discovered yet, at least not by that name. He was also certainly a great disappointment to his family, and especially to his wife, who was the daughter of a very distinguished jurist, later to become the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. By most accounts the marriage was not a happy one in the Pittsfield days. There were rumors of madness, alcoholism, and spousal abuse. The only bright spot seemed to be his friendship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, who championed him, and to whom Melville dedicated Moby Dick.

Still, even the popular and influential Hawthorne couldn’t get him back into solvency. The first run of Moby Dick (there were only three thousand copies printed) didn’t sell out. He never had a commercially successful book for the rest of his life.

He live at “Arrowhead” for thirteen years, and it was here that Moby Dick was written. They say his vista from the windows of “Arrowhead” looking north toward snow-covered Mount Greylock gave him the visual inspiration for the great white whale.

Moby Dick to my mind is one of the most incandescent and perplexing books ever written. Parts of it are magical and riveting; others are tedious. But it raises questions about the way our world is that have seldom been matched in their depth of insight.  Theological issues and images bristle throughout.

John Todd may have been the preeminent churchman of his time in Pittsfield, and Oliver Wendell Holmes the preeminent author, but Melville, perhaps despite himself, may well have been the most astute theologian.

But that book remains to be written.

7 thoughts on “Ruminations on “Moby Dick” as Theology

  1. >Hey, Rick! I remember that conversation that led to these marvelous ruminations. I was obsessed with the "dark side" of American literature in those days. Melville and Hawthorne versus Horatio Alger (also of Mass. but rightly of Unitarian descent).I think our conversation was about my, then recent, discovery of that touching moment when Melville handed somewhat tenuously his manuscript of Moby Dick to Hawthorne and asked him to read it. I imagined Melville holding his breath while doing that.This is such good stuff, my friend.Jim

  2. >Dear Roger, This is "Student" from Ben's blog. Thanks a bunch for this writing. Thanks to you an others I've realized in the last day I never read Moby-Dick, and now what a delicious treat to discover it anew, while I'm traveling around Melville's area. I'm also fairly new to an academic study of theology.Moby-Dick was perhaps too mystical for me when I saw it in my youth; or perhaps I didn't appreciate how dark and melancholy it is, or may have thought it not "christian" in my fundamentalist teen years. I missed quite a bit of theologically useful culture back then.I drove through the Berkshires for the first time early this week, not realizing I was so near Melville. I'm considering visiting Pittsville, or even moving there as I look for a place to be near the New England theo libraries that is quiet enough for study.Your blog is wonderful, and a great find for me at a time of transition. I now sort of know a fellow theologian in this new place. You are so interesting!Blessings to ya from Cape Cod.

  3. >Dear Student,Thank you for your kind words. I read your comments on Ben's blog and thought you must have driven right by here.The Berkshires are indeed a lovely place to live, with a rich cultural heritage, and a theological one, too. JJonathan Edwards wrote Freedom of the Will just down the road from here in Stockbridge, where Reinhold Niebuhr lived out the final years of his life, and where Max Stackhouse if now retired. And then there is Melville, who is something else altogether. I wish I could read Moby Dick for the first time again. Enjoy.Blessings,Rick

  4. >Jim,I regret that I don't recall the conversation, but you put some of it in an article in Colleague back in the day. Are you having as much fun as I am reading Edwards?Best, Rick

  5. >Thanks, Ben, and thanks for inspiring the post in the first place. I want to write someday (not a book) about why Hawthorne “got” Moby Dick when nobody else did. The reason is, I think, that both Hawthorne and Melville (in their own different ways) were trying through their fiction to come to terms with the major themes and issues of Puritanism, which was the faith of their fathers and grandfathers, but by their time was gone (leaving some wonderful cultural afterglow, but also dark secular versions of election like Manifest Destiny in the 19th century and American Exceptionalism in ours.)

  6. >I'm catching up with this belatedly and can add some tidbits. First, I think I recall that Hershel Parker in his great two-volume biography of Melville mentions a few interactions of Melville with the Episcopal church in Pittsfield, where he may have set foot now and then.But Melville apparently did know John Todd, as just about anybody in town would have, and used him as the model for the main character in his story, "The Lighting-Rod Man", in which a manic salesman of lightning rods preaches to the narrator on the perils of inhabiting a house not equipped with a proper set of lightning rods.More recently, Todd's influence on the moral education of several generations of Americans was explored in some depth by G. J. Barker-Benfield, in The horrors of the half-known life: Male attitudes toward women and sexuality in the 19th century (New York: Routledge, 2000), which pretty much blames Todd (a prolific author of youth-oriented tracts) for the whole idea that masturbation is at the root of all kinds of moral downfall (and points out the various pre-Freudian phallic references Melville managed to weave into the lightning rod story).

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