Moby Dick is rich in theology. On this episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and R.C. Sproul discuss shark attacks, the whiteness of the whale, and our shallow view of God.
STEPHEN NICHOLS: We’re back for another visit in your library, and to this point we’ve been talking about a lot of theology books, which of course makes sense; you are a theologian, after all. Today, however, we will be talking about a piece of literature, though you can probably make a case that there’s a lot of theology in it. I’ve heard you say that this is the great American novel.
R.C. SPROUL: I believe it is.
NICHOLS: We’re talking about none other than Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. Do you remember the first time you read Moby-Dick?
SPROUL: Here’s the thing about it. I had a course when I was in college. It was an elective course called “Melville and Twain.” Half of the course was on Herman Melville and the other half was on Mark Twain. In the half on Melville, we had to read Redburn, Billy Budd, and, of course—the big one—Moby-Dick. We also read the South Sea stories Typee and Omoo, and some of his smaller short stories, such as “The Lightning-Rod Man” and “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Great stuff. One of the things that was exciting to me when I was reading Moby-Dick was that my professor was from New England, and he was from a whaling town. He was an expert. He did his doctorate on Moby-Dick. One of our textbooks for the course was a compilation of essays about Moby-Dick, written by seven or eight experts. My professor was one of them. So, I had this impulse to read it. When I read Moby-Dick for the first time, I just fell in love with it. When I read the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale,” I thought it was the most dramatic, exquisite chapter I had ever read in the English language. Of course, it was intensely theological. If you read Moby-Dick, you’ll read all the names—Elijah, Ahab, and Ishmael. The ship that is looking for the sailors who had gone overboard—that ship’s name is Rachel, who’s looking for her lost children. So, I wrote my senior philosophy paper on Moby-Dick because I had received permission from my philosophy professor, and I would interact with my other professor the whole time I was reading Moby-Dick with philosophical observations about the book. You know, I don’t remember which of Melville’s parents, the father or the mother—one was a Calvinist and the other was a Unitarian.
NICHOLS: That would be an interesting mix.
SPROUL: The conflict in his religious upbringing certainly poured out into his personal responses to the characters in his book, in Ahab and his attempt to control and predict God absolutely. When he was writing this book, he wrote a personal letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne and said, “I’ve written a wicked book.” I’ve read it more than once, obviously, but the chapter on “The Whiteness of the Whale” is so rich theologically that I try to get everybody to read, at least, that chapter.
NICHOLS: I’ve read your thesis “The Existential Implications of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.” A lot of your focus was on the whiteness in that chapter, and you made this great observation about how Ahab, by charting the whale, thought he had circumscribed and understood the whale. You made a comment about how this represents “the shallow religious views of mankind.” It strikes me how, in such books as Chosen by God and The Holiness of God, it seems like that line, “the shallow religious views of mankind,” is very much what you’ve been trying to write against in order to help people see what is the proper view of God versus a shallow view of God. It fascinates me that your sources aren’t only Calvin and Augustine, but also Moby-Dick.
SPROUL: You know who else was a fan of Moby-Dick? Karl Barth. I read a review of it in German when I was in graduate school about Barth’s understanding of Moby-Dick. You know, there are a lot of things people stumble over when reading Moby-Dick as Melville gets into cetology or the scientific aspects about whales and their habitat and so on.
NICHOLS: One of my favorite chapters, beyond “The Whiteness of the Whale,” was this interesting chapter on the shark attack where Quequeg, who is the harpooner, catches a great white, or a great white gets brought on board. He’s never seen one before, and it’s basically a killing machine. There is this line about how he marvels at “the God who made the shark.” It’s a really fascinating book.
SPROUL: Every single one of those characters in there is fascinating—Pip the cabin boy, Starbuck—all of them.
NICHOLS: Well, it’s good to see this book in your library, and it’s been great to have a moment to talk with you about it. For those who are interested, I think that if they go back and read The Holiness of God, they can see how Melville is in the background.