I have begun to read Moby Dick. It's one of those books I was supposed to read in 11th grade AP English class but opted for the Cliff's notes instead. I realize now this was my loss! But at that young age I wouldn't have appreciated it anyway, at least not nearly as much as I do now. Melville is a master who has written this novel without a single careless word. Every description of people and places has such wonderfully drawn details, and the observations that "Ishmael" makes about the world of whaling are specific to the time and place but universal to the human condition.
I've just finished Chapter 8: "The Pulpit." In this chapter Ishmael visits a whaleman's chapel in New Bedford for Sunday services. I won't go into all the fabulous descriptive detail, but when the preacher arrives to give his sermon, he uses a rope ladder like that used to board a ship to climb into the pulpit, which is quite high and prominent in the sanctuary. When he has climbed into the pulpit he turns and raises the rope ladder, as if to ward off invasion. The pulpit itself is shaped like a ship's bow, with the Bible placed on the foremost tip.
Of this, Melville writes, "What could be more full of meaning?--for the pulpit is ever this earth's foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world... Yes, the world's a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow."
These powerful words causes me to consider with what authority do I myself climb that rope ladder into the prow of the world each Sunday. Who do I think I am, that I would stand there at the place where the seas of the universe part? What have I got to say that might change the course of humanity?
Well, of course, if it's just me talking, not much. But if God is the Captain in charge then wouldn't the person at the prow be the one to call out what they see, so as to help prepare the deck hands for stormy weather or treacherous iceburgs? If Melville's got the measure of the pulpit, then the preacher does not set the course, but rather keeps her eye on the horizon, scanning for troubled skies, lost ships, and ports of call.