I am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.
R.C. Sproul (Drs, Free University of Amsterdam) is chancellor of Reformation Bible College, co-pastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel in Sanford, Florida, founder and chairman of Ligonier Ministries, and author of numerous books, including Everyone’s a Theologian.
If your goal is to write the Great American Novel, I have bad news for you. Herman Melville accomplished that feat more than one hundred and fifty years ago when he wrote Moby Dick.
The greatness of Moby Dick is in its unparalleled theological symbolism that is sprinkled abundantly throughout the novel. For example, consider its use of biblical names for characters such as Ahab, Ishmael, and Elijah, and ships such as Jeroboam and Rachel.
Melville scholars disagree on the meaning of the central symbolic character of the novel—the great white whale, Moby Dick.
Many argue that he symbolizes the incarnation of evil. Ahab certainly holds this view, as he is driven by a monomaniacal hatred for this creature that took his leg and left him permanently damaged in body and soul.
Other scholars are convinced that the whale symbolizes God Himself. Thus, Ahab’s pursuit of the whale is not a righteous pursuit of God but natural man’s futile attempt in his hatred of God to destroy the omnipotent deity.
I favor this second view.
I believe that Moby Dick contains the greatest chapter ever written in the English language: “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Here we find insight into Melville’s profound symbolism as he explores how whiteness is used in history, religion, and nature. The terms he uses to describe the appearance of whiteness in these areas include elusive, ghastly, and transcendent horror, as well as sweet, honorable, and pure. Melville writes:
But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous—why, as we have seen, it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay, the very veil of the Christian’s Deity; and yet should be as it is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind. Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a colour as the visible absence of colour; and at the same time the concrete of all colours; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows—a colourless, all-colour of atheism from which we shrink? . . . And of all these things, the albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
If the whale embodies everything symbolized by whiteness—that which is terrifying; that which is pure; that which is excellent; that which is horrible and ghastly; that which is mysterious and incomprehensible—does he not embody those traits that are found in the perfections of God Himself?
Who can survive the hostile pursuit of such a being? Only those who have experienced the sweetness of reconciling grace can look at the overwhelming power, sovereignty, and immutability of the transcendent God and find peace rather than a drive for vengeance.
Read Moby Dick—and then read it again.