Melvillian Meditations on Manhood

I began to read the beloved American classic Moby Dick: Or The Whale by Herman Melville[1] for the first time in the summer of 2021. Melville’s prose soon held me captive, and my soul was transported to the docks of Nantucket, to the greased deck beneath the billowing sails of the Pequod, to the infinite horizon of the edge of the world under a hot Pacific sun. Between the riveting maritime adventures of Ishmael, Queequeg, Starbuck, and Captain Ahab, the 19th-century accounts of cetology, and philosophical wandering upon the nature of whiteness and beauty, I was enamored with the world of Moby Dick and its creator. Specific passages, however, kindled a fire in my belly—passages, in particular, which testified to the grizzle and dauntlessness of a different generation of men than my own.

       Melville not only opened a window to a different time, but to a different man, a man who quite literally sailed stormy seas in hunt of Leviathan and other sea monsters. Such a man is often a mere legend compared to the man of today; his fabled existence is only found in movies, literature, and the young boy’s imagination. There is much to be gleaned, therefore, from Moby Dick as to what a man can be and what heights he can ascend in virtue and character. Coupled with an intimate knowledge of the Man Himself (see John 19:5), Christian men can be edified by reading this seminal work of American literature.

“Not by beef or by bread, are giants made or nourished.”[2]

       The apostle John would indeed agree with Melville's quip, for the beloved disciple once recorded Jesus’ words, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Certainly those who feed upon the bread of life become giants. Of course, we must equivocate what we mean by “giant” here. One sense is rather small, denoting an abnormally large person, sometimes to mythic proportions. Such is the context of this quote, as Ishmael describes the fabled pagan Queequeg. One can be so physically large and intimidating that he towers over the rest of his companions, more so over his enemies, and is esteemed for his presumed strength and force. This was certainly the case with Goliath, that champion of the Philistines, who made the armies of Israel freeze over with a fear so cold that not even the king of Israel would stand against the uncircumcised colossus (see 1 Samuel 17:10-11). 

       Yet, Melville seems to be alluding to another sense of giant, for certainly the Goliaths of the world are nourished by beef and bread. Indeed, there are men who, irrespective of their size, are capable of rising to such a tremendous height of character and aptitude that their personal gravity captures all who are around them. There are men who have titanium backbones, reinforced with "Damascus" convictions and galvanized cheer. As Melville says elsewhere, “For I believe that much of a man’s character will be found betokened in his backbone. I would rather feel your spine than your skull, whoever you are. A thin joist of a spine never yet upheld a full and noble soul. I rejoice in my spine, as in the firm audacious staff of that flag which I fling half out to the world.”[3]

       Goliath was not the only giant in the Valley of Elah; the handsome shepherd boy David, Son of Jesse, rose above his trembling kinsmen and let the audacious flag of his spine fly out against the uncircumcised Philistines in the name of One True and Living God, Yahweh. Goliath was a giant nourished by beef and bread; David was a giant nourished by the Word of God (Psalm 19:7-11). David believed in the truth that “the LORD saves not with sword and spear. For the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give you into our hand” (1 Samuel 17:47), and, according to Melville, “clear Truth is a thing for salamander giants only to encounter.”[4] 

       Men of God are called to be giants—giants fed by the Word of God and the Bread of Life, who see and stand for Truth in defiance of any and all enemies who stand against the living God. And the only way to be such a godly giant, the only way to grow some backbone, the only way to stand up against the towering behemoths who mock and destroy, is to bow in humble submission to the King of kings and Lord of lords. Only when our sin is pierced in the head by the smooth stones of Christ can we ever rise to the calling of being warriors for Christ and his kingdom. 

“Men of God are called to be giants—giants fed by the Word of God and the Bread of Life, who see and stand for Truth in defiance of any and all enemies who stand against the living God.”

       We must be careful here; utilizing the words of one popular sermon, we are certainly not David. Indeed, in this sense, we are in fact the trembling Israelites who could only run to battle once the enemy had begun to flee in defeat. We are lowly servants who merely scavenge the crumbled riches of gold, bronze, iron, and clay from the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream-statue, smashed by the rock cut without human hands (see Daniel 2:31-45). In short, we were once helpless, enslaved, and dead sinners who could do nothing for their own good or salvation. 

       In another sense, however, we are made more than conquerors in Christ Jesus. With the newness of vigorous life granted to us through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to the same kind of courage and faith that David possessed when he walked into the Valley of Elah. Christ is our greater Son of David and we walk in His shadow, but we have been made kings nonetheless, kings who are called to slay dragons, behead giants, and harpoon Leviathans.

Slaying Dragons, Beheading Giants, and Harpooning Leviathans

       What does this exactly mean? A boy can read something and feel inspired by it; a man, however, will do something with that inspiration. What, then, does it mean for Christian men to slay dragons, behead giants, and harpoon Leviathans, especially in a day when such mythic creatures are so few and far between? Perhaps one may be strung thin to discover a literal dragon’s lair, but invisible dragons are constantly around all of us. Indeed, there are enemies not only without, but within, for we still carry within us this body of death (Romans 7:24).

       Indeed, to be a man of God is to stand resolute on your convictions, for “in man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority,”[5] and we have been united to Christ, who is of total and absolute supremacy (Ephesians 1:19-23). Men united to Christ, therefore, can stand in boldness when others fear, while also humbly serving when others mock. 

       To be a man of God is to be capable of bearing the load of suffering for the sake of others. It is, as Melville says, to possess a Catskill eagle of a soul. He goes on, “There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though they soar.”[6] A man of loyalty to Christ will not only soar above mountain tops in joy, but he will also navigate gorges in peace. He does not succumb to the darkness in the black night of his suffering, and he does not become idle in the ease of the tranquil dawn. Indeed, the strength which God imparts to his adopted sons is meant to be a beautiful, steadfast strength, which is embodied in the soaring eagle. As Melville says, “Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with the magic.”[7] Melville’s observation here is most true in the context of God himself: The Triune Creator, who made all things of nothing with the Word of His power and fashioned all things with His omnipotent hand, is the fount of all things beautiful and is Beauty itself. Strength and beauty coalesce in God; we who have been made sons of God are thus called to manifest the same beauty and strength we are imaged after.

       Even more so, to be a man who slays dragons, beheads giants, and harpoons Leviathans, you must kill your sin, aid your brothers in their fight, spread the kingdom of God, and love others as Christ loves you. And to mine the arsenal of Holy Scripture, it specifically means laughing in the face of your own impatience and frustration when your car repeatedly has problems (Galatians 5:22; Colossians 3:12); it means caging the slippery serpent of your tongue when someone cuts you off in traffic (James 1:19-20; Ephesians 4:31); it means girding up your tired mind when your baby cannot stay asleep throughout the night (Proverbs 19:15; 25:28) ; it means taking up the mantle of responsibility in all cheerfulness and solemnity, no matter the cost of humiliation (Genesis 3:17; 1 Corinthians 11:3) it means speaking the truth in love, especially when everyone in the room will despise you for it (Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 2:6-7); it means wounding a friend so that the infection of his own sin does not spread any further (Proverbs 27:6; Hebrews 3:12-4); it means defending the faith by giving a reason for the hope within us and bringing every thought raised against Christ to submission to His Lordship (2 Corinthians 10:3-6; 1 Peter 3:15); it means relating to our wives in an understanding way and loving them as Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5:25-33; 1 Peter 3:7); it means being able to do a pull-up, lift some weight, and run a mile without stopping should you be called to immediate action to aid or protect others (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12; 1 Timothy 4:8); it means eating and drinking to the glory of God and to the benefit for your own health, avoiding gluttony and its obese consequences (Proverbs 23:1-3, 20-21; 1 Corinthians 10:31); it means providing for and protecting your family within your means (2 Samuel 10:12; 1 Timothy 5:8); it means honoring and caring for your parents who raised you when they become old and feeble (Proverbs 20:29; 1 Timothy 5:3-4); it means remaining faithful to your wife, and resisting fornication and all its lustful cousins if you are single (Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8); it means submitting to your elders and your authorities, and resisting any and all authorities who demand any dis-allegience to Christ and his commands (Acts 5:27-32; Hebrews 12:17); it means catechizing your children in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4; Titus 1:6); it means refusing to allow a moment of precious, God-given time to be wasted away in sloth and idleness (Ecclesiastes 10:18; Colossians 4:5) it means lending a generous hand to the poor and vulnerable in one’s community and beyond it (Psalm 112:5,9; Galatians 2:10); it means seizing opportunities to share the good news of Jesus Christ with boldness and sincerity (Matthew 28:18-20; Romans 10:14-17); it means seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, trusting that God will provide you all things he has decreed for you to need (Matthew 6:33-34; Romans 8:28). The dimensions and imperatives of manhood can multiply even more, but in the words of Paul, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong” (1 Corinthians 16:13). 

       There is much to be gleaned from Moby Dick, not just for illustrative examples of manhood, but also for deep appreciation for the beauty of creation, the spirit of adventure, and the loveliness of wonderfully knit sentences and story-telling. Like most literature, there are things to leave in Melville’s world, so one must always be somewhat critical in what he reads. Nonetheless, if you have not read Melville’s masterpiece, I do recommend it. It just may spur on a timid spirit into the zealous man you are called to be. But the ocean-salted skin of Ishmael can only go so far as to move and inspire; if zeal with knowledge is what you want, you must look to the bloodied crown of Christ to know what it truly means to be a man.

Bibliography

[1] eds. Harrison Hayford, Herschel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle, The Authoritative Ed. (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University, 2001).

[2] Ibid, 153.

[3] Ibid, 349.

[4] Ibid, 338.

[5] Ibid, 376.

[6] Ibid, 425.

[7] Ibid, 376.

Sam is currently a second year student in the MDiv General program at WTS, and is living in the Philadelphia area with his wife, Anna, and his first newly born daughter, Selah.

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