‘Moby Dick,’ or The Whale

  This week, USA Network will re-air its most successful made-for-television movie. No, it's not an adaptation of a trashy Danielle Steele novel or some science fiction extravaganza. Surprisingly, the award-winning movie is an adaptation of Herman Melville's classic, Moby Dick, a novel that speaks as powerfully to us today as it did when Melville wrote it 150 years ago. From the book's famous first sentence, "Call me Ishmael," to its final image evoking Satan falling from heaven, Melville's masterpiece is filled with biblical images, themes, and allusions. In case you missed this book in high school, Moby Dick is about a three-year whaling expedition out of Nantucket on a ship called the Pequod. It's narrated by Ishmael, a young man who signs on as a sailor. But it is the mad Captain named Ahab who soon takes center stage. Ahab is less interested in hunting whales than he is in hunting one specific whale, a white monster named Moby Dick, who tore Ahab's leg off in a previous expedition. Ahab is so obsessed with wreaking revenge upon the whale that his soul becomes warped in a hatred not just of the whale but also of the God who created the whale. In a kind of Faustian pact with the devil, Ahab forges a special harpoon and calls on the powers of darkness to help him. But Moby Dick isn't just a morality play about how taking vengeance into our own hands often leads to our destruction. Moby Dick is really about a larger crisis of faith. Is there a God who made this white monster? And how could a good God create evil? Elizabeth Renker, a Melville scholar at Ohio State University, explains that Melville wrote his masterpiece "in the midst of a shattering Western crisis of faith.” This crisis came, she says, "in the wake of early theories of evolution and of new scholarship on the Bible that treated it as a product of history rather than of divine revelation.” Renker says that for Melville, "Moby Dick was a literary quest for truth." Literary critic Alfred Kazin, agrees. Behind Ahab's fury, he says, "is the fear that man's covenant with God has been broken, that there is no purpose to our existence.” And he says that Ishmael, the book's narrator, represents modern man, "cut off from the certainty that was once his inner world [and] condemned... to wander the seas of thought, far from paradise." Thus Moby Dick is a literary search for the meaning of the universe. Melville struggled with this question throughout his life, and never quite resolved it. But he left an honest, profound, and deeply moving testament to his search in Moby Dick. Why not watch the USA Network's award-winning adaptation of Moby Dick? It airs on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings this week. Better still, read or reread the book. Melville's questions are even more important in our own post-Christian culture because we're even more cut off than were Melville's contemporaries from biblical ideas that make sense of the universe. And watching the show or discussing the book with your neighbors could open up great apologetic opportunities—opportunities to discuss the most important question in life. Besides, it's a great yarn, a classic sea-tale you'll enjoy.


Chuck Colson



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