Battle in the Bible Belt

 

Recently the mayor of Morden, Brandon Burley, was barbecuing burgers for himself and his son in his back yard, when a number of cars all blasting their horns, pulled up onto his driveway outside his family home. The drivers were upset. Very upset. They hurled insults and even threats at the Mayor.

What upset them? Covid restrictions and the Mayor’s support of those restrictions that had been imposed not by him but by the provincial government.

As Malak Abas of the Winnipeg Free Press reported,

“It was the final straw for the 39-year-old father of four who, for months had watched the crusade create a divide in the city he represents. He said, he “saw red” and lashed out at the group, something he is not proud of. But he’d had enough.

 

The deniers had a tough time convincing the Mayor that Covid-19 is not real. In part this was because Mayor Burley had contracted Covid-19 and knew whereof he spoke. He knew first-hand that Covid-19 is real. Last November he tested positive for the virus. Today, he is still dealing with its ‘miserable’ effects. It took over a month before he was able to climb a flight of stairs without having to stop to catch his breath. He still can’t run a block without getting winded, and much of the food he once enjoyed now has a sulphuric odour and taste.”

Morden and Winkler, twin cities of the Bible Belt of southern Manitoba,  have now taken over from Steinbach as the hotbed of “freedom rallies.” Some of the events there have attracted more than 100 supporters. As Abas reported,

 

Demonstrators with signs reading, ‘Away with Masks,’ and ‘Stop the lockdown’ have become common sights in the region. The demonstrators oppose pandemic-related restrictions and lockdowns, arguing they are more harmful than Covid-19. Some deny the virus exists. Others assert restrictions are violation of their freedom and human rights.

Mayor Burley believes a rise in Trumpism as a political ideology in southern Manitoba, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms are behind the protests.

What interests me, is that there is growing evidence that in Canada, as well as the United States there seems to be a merging  of the forces of white supremacy, right wing ideology, anti-vaxxer doctrines, and Trumpism. These forces seem to be growing in strength and militancy. They seem to have a holy cause—freedom from government interference with their liberty to do as they please, no matter who is harmed in the process. To me it seems that this is there commonality.

As Abas reported, “Anti-lockdown protests have become a threatening presence, he said, noting public spaces, including big-box stores have become battlegrounds between weary employees and anti-lockdown protesters.”

Martin Harder, the Mayor of the other twin city, Winkler, said he has been trying to get to a middle ground with these opposing groups since the pandemic began. As Abas reported, “My focus, is how in the world do we live with each other when this is over?  Martin Harder said. “It’s tearing families apart, it’s tearing businesses apart, it’s tearing communities apart.”

Randy Smart, Senior Pastor of Bergthaler Mennonite Church in the region, which has been following government restrictions, though not entirely with enthusiasm, says,

“He believes Covid-19 skepticism exists in the community, in part, because people who settled in Winkler faced unjust governments in other parts of the world. ‘I think one element that is probably unspoken, not in Bethel, but in the community is this lack of trust in government,’ he said, describing Winkler residents as ‘hard-working and generous.’  ‘So people who’ve had exposure and awareness of government tyranny in other places, they’ll come here and they say, ‘Oh, no…now the government is going to tell us when the church can open and when the church can’t open.’ “

 

I think Pastor Smart makes a good point. Distrust of government and an automatic suggestion that if the government wants us to do something it must be bad, are creating havoc with attempts by the government to impose health restrictions “for the good of Manitobans.” We have experienced decades of distrust in government here in Canada just as they have in the United States. They are a much more violent country then we are, so it is understandable if our levels of violence here have not been as great. But the ill-will towards government is strong here too. That is very unfortunate, particularly in a time of pandemic when trust in government is needed to achieve public goals.

Trust in God or Science During a Pandemic

 

I come from a very religious community. At least a lot of people profess to be religious. Vaccine hesitancy has been occurring in a number of communities and some of them are also purportedly very religious. I might even say many of them.

I really cannot understand what religion has to do with vaccines.  Just like I cannot understand why it is a political issue either.  In my view, we should decide whether to take vaccines based on the best science available, even though that science is imperfect. I think it is the best tool we have when making such decisions.

Recently, a woman near Winkler, another religious community told CBC news, why she was not going to take the vaccine. The woman replied, “I trust in God. I trust he’ll get us through this.”  I wonder if she takes the same attitude when she drives a car. If she needs spectacles to drive safely, would she leave them at home when she drives because she trusts in God? Does she lock her door when she leaves the house or does she trust God to keep the burglars away? Does it show a lack of trust to lock the door?

What does God have to do with it? I would say nothing.

Meet-up with an Anarchist

 

Recently, I went on a birding walk with 2 friends in Bunn’s Creek park in Winnipeg. This is one of my favorite trails. It is right inside Winnipeg and follows a meandering creek. Bunn’s Creek of course.

Two young people smiled at us as they walked by and one of us made some comment about being old rebels.  This attracted the attention of the two young people who came over to chat.

Very soon it became clear that these were two young rebels.  In fact, the young man said he was an anarchist. He said, “I am young and healthy and have zero per cent chance of catching Covid-19 so I am not going to take the vaccine. I would rather take my chances with the coronavirus than the vaccine. The vaccine was developed in such a hurry and I am not sure it is safe.”

I expressed an opinion that he had more than zero percent chance of catching the virus. Just that morning a 13-year-old child died in Ontario from the virus. I have to admit though  that so far, the chances of young people catching a serious illness are very low. But not zero. And the rates are rising with the new variants.

He said the long-term effects of the vaccines are not yet known because they have not been around long enough. So those of us who take the vaccines are agreeing to be laboratory rats for the vaccine trials. I admitted this argument has some merit.

He added that he thought the elites might be using the vaccine to gain social control over people so that eventually they could enslave the people. Or the elites might be using the vaccine to reduce the population by 80% so that they could enjoy a better world with those that are left. I didn’t say anything about such a hideous conspiracy theory, but I did tell him couple of things. First, I said I doubted that the elites wanted to reduce the population because they needed these people to buy their products and do their dirty work. They likely would want more peons not less. I also said  that I resented people like him not taking the vaccine because it reduced the chances of our society achieving herd immunity, which could mean that we are stuck with this disease for a very long time. That would mean that we might not for a long time be able to do things we loved doing, like going to concerts. I also could have suggested that it was because of people like him that the coronavirus is getting a chance to evolve and mutate into more serious and deadly strains of the virus, that might even be able to get around the vaccines, putting many people at risk of serious harm.

We did not argue vehemently, but respectfully. Eventually, we agreed to disagree and left it at that. I know that if you want to convince people you have to talk respectfully. But actually, I thought his idea that elites wanted to reduce the population by 80% was nonsensical. Anyone disagree?

Pip’s Strange Quest

 

As I said earlier, many members of the Pequod crew were on religious quests. One of those was Pip. An astonishing incident occurred to a little negro boy, Pip, “the most insignificant of the Pequod’s crew.” After all he was a mere boy and a black one at that. Except that Pip was very bright, we are told.

When one of the men who was scheduled to go  the small whaling boats pursuing  a whale that had  harpooned, sprained his hand little Pip was put in the boat to temporarily replace him. Ordinarily he would have stayed with the mother ship.  He was really too young and small. When the boat approach the harpooned the tail of the whale whipped at the small boat and it came right under Pip’s boat  and he veritably leaped out of the small boat and then was dragged by the whale as it fled. The men had to cut Pip free,  but that meant losing the whale. The first time it happened he got a stern lecture from Stubb, one of the mates. He was reminded that “a whale would sell for 30 times what he would sell for.”  Being a black boy in slavery he was worth a lot less than the whale and next time he would not be saved. Stubb told him men loved money more than their fellow men.

Well, sure enough it happened again and this time Stubb was true to his word and the boat in hot pursuit of the whale did not stop to pick up Pip when he was cut loose, although Stubb thought the next whaling boat would pick him up. There were two behind him. After all the ocean was dead calm that day. Unfortunately, the next two boats did not pick him up.  Alas poor Pip was lost at sea. Eventually the mother ship found and rescued Pip, but by then he had suffered such terrible loneliness in the ocean the experience  damaged his mind. In an astonishing but mysterious passage As Ishmael described it this way:

“from that day the little negro went about the deck an idiot; such, at least, they said he was. The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God.”

 

What is God doing with his foot on the treadle of a loom?  What is miser-merman wisdom? This abandonment of Pip presaged another abandonment later—that of Ishmael himself.  We will talk about that later. When one feels abandoned by fellows or God, or worse both, one believes one’s God is “indifferent” and madness is apt to follow. I think frequently slaves felt that God had abandoned them. Can you really blame them?  If he did not abandon them, where was he? He was supposed to be omni-present.

A Kinder Gentler Quest

 

In Moby Dick we come to realize Captain Ahab is mad in his monomaniacal quest.  “He was now both chasing and being chased to his deadly end.” Yet there was an amazing chance for him to change course. A chance to turn the quest from the malign to the benign.

 

An amazing encounter is experienced in the Pacific Ocean when the Pequod, of Nantucket,  captained by a madman meets the Samuel Enderby, of London. The captain of that English ship could not have been more different than Captain Ahab. The English captain lost an arm and leg to Moby Dick. He should have been twice as enraged as Ahab. But he saw the whale as noble. It had a tale “like a marble steeple” he said. The English ship and crew escaped with their lives, but had no thought of revenge. Unlike Ahab the captain of the English ship knew resentment was a poison. He thought Moby Dick doesn’t bite as much as he swallows, and he was lucky to have escaped. At sea, he crossed the white whale twice again but gave him a wide birth. He decided not to fight nature. The opposite of Ahab. The English captain said whales could not really eat humans and told Ahab “what you took for the White Whales malice was only awkwardness.”

 

So, the English ship returned home filled with all she needed. The captain and crew were content. They saw no need for a mad quest. “He’s best left alone, don’t you think” he asked Ahab. Ahab had a surprising admission. “He is, but he will still be hunted for all that. What is best left alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures. He’s all a magnet.” Sometimes the mad quest attracts.

The English mate gave Ahab a wide birth when he walked around him. He could tell that Ahab’s blood “was at the boiling point!—his pulse makes these planks beat!” So it is with the Ahabs of the world. They are cursed by their quests. The quests drive them mad.

The Monomaniac Quest for God

 

In the novel Moby Dick, Captain Ahab persuaded the crew of the ship to join him in the “quenchless feud” seeking revenge against the whale. The whale was “a Sperm whale of uncommon magnitude and malignity” according to Ahab, though there is absolutely no reason to believe that. All the whale had done was to try to defend himself from attack by Ahab and his crew and in the process chewed off one of Ahab’s legs. Yet Ahab convinced the men that there was “great ferocity, cunning, and malice in the monster attacked.”He persuaded them that  the whale was “so incredibly ferocious as continually to be athirst for human blood.” Ahab believed the whale had “intelligent malignity” which he showed over and over again in his assaults. And remember the whale is god! What kind of a god is that?

The narrator, Ishmael described the white whale this way:

“…such seemed the White Whale’s infernal aforethought of ferocity, that every dismembering or death that he caused, was not wholly regarded as having been inflicted by an unintelligent agent.

Judge then, to what pitches of inflamed, distracted fury the minds of his more desperate hunters were impelled, when amid the chips of chewed boats, and the sinking limbs of torn comrades, they swam out of the white curds of the whale’s direful wrath into the serene, exasperating sunlight, that smiled on as if at a birth or a bridal.”

 

Ahab was consumed by a mad desire for revenge. As Ishmael described it Ahab was taken over by a unholy hatred:

“…ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness, he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations. The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. That intangible malignity which has been from the beginning to whose dominion even the modern Christians ascribe one-half of the worlds; which the ancient Ophites of the east reverenced in their statue devil;–Ahab did not fall down and worship it like them; but deliriously transferring its idea to the abhorred white whale, he pitted himself, all mutilated, against it. All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst  his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

 

No wonder Ishmael called Ahab’s condition “monomania.” That is precisely what it was. And that made the quest monomaniacal too. After that initial encounter with Moby Dick that left Ahab with an ivory leg, sailing for home with “his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so infusing, made him mad.” That is where the thirst for vengeance leads—to madness. And this a major theme of the book. Ahab “was intent on an audacious, unmitigable, and supernatural revenge.” As Ishmael described Ahab,

“Gnawed within and scorched without, with the fixed, unrelenting fangs of some incurable idea; such an one, could be found, would seem the very man to dart his iron and lift his lance against the most appalling of brutes.”

 

What he sought was “monomaniac revenge.” The whale was in his eyes “the gliding great demon of the seas of life.” What turned a religious quest into a religious evil quest was Ahab’s monomania. By ignoring everything else the quest became evil. And that is true of all quests. If they are pursued with monomaniacal passion, the quest becomes evil, whether it is a pursuit of money, love, prestige, golf, causes such as Black Lives Matter, Antifa, a life without taxes, or, even, God. Any quest can become evil. Such causes can drag the innocent and the guilty to their doom.

If a person refuses to believe a cop no matter how credible his claims that he is innocent, or if a person follows his leader to Capitol Hill to rampage Congress to protest a claim that an election has been stolen no matter how much evidence to the contrary, the beliefs have gone beyond all reason and are maniacal.

The mania makes it evil. When the quest goes beyond all reason it has turned to evil. That is what we learn from Moby Dick and why it is still relevant 150 years after it was written. We learn from Moby Dick that one can lose one’s soul by pursuing God.

That was what Ahab’s religious quest was all about: it was “monomaniac,” and that made it evil.

There are many religious Quests

 

It used to be said that there are 8 million cities in the Naked City (New York).  That was when New York had 8 million people living there.  They could just as well have said, there are 8 million religious quests in the Naked City and each of them is different. Most of us were brought up to think there was only one. In the small city in which I was raised and still live, this view is still pretty common, but I think many of us now realize that is too narrow a view. There are many religious quests and many of them are worth looking at. But some of them are maniacal, like that of Captain Ahab’s mad pursuit around the world for vengeance on a white whale.

 

In this blog I want to share some of the more interesting ones that I have found. I am not trying to convert anyone, or persuade them to abandon the one they are on.

 

This idea of mine, as I have mentioned was inspired by a Religious Studies Professor in the 1970s at the University of Winnipeg. Some of my friends were lucky enough to take that course. I had to be satisfied with hearing a lecture or two on television without an opportunity to ask questions. Now I have decided to go on this quest on my own.  I hope to learn a thing or two. And I hope to share of my thoughts along the way.

 

Moby Dick, the second book, I have considered on this voyage, actually considered a few different quests.  The one that stuck out was of course the one by its Captain. It was not only his quest, but he actually persuaded the members of his crew to join him, even though it was pretty clear that his quest turned mad.  What makes people follow such a leader like Ahab?  That is a puzzle. Many of us think we have seen such blind allegiance in the United States recently, where people were led to the Capitol in Washington to participate in a rampage, solely because their leader, I would say their spiritual leader, called them to do so.  What makes people heed the call? I think Herman Melville has some important things to say on the subject, and even though the book was written more than 150 years ago, those thoughts can help us understand this phenomenon better. For example, It can help us to understand what happened in Washington on January 6, 2021.

 

The Quest for God

 

Some of you may think I am seeing things when I say the whale being pursued by Ahab and his crew in the novel Moby Dick is God.  Perhaps you think I have been on the deck of the ship in the hot sun for too long. Perhaps. But perhaps not.

Here is what the narrator of the novel, Ishmael had to say. The men on the voyage are pursuing the white whale, but he  described this as “on the road to heaven.” In fact, if there was any doubt about this, the whale is described as “thou big white God aloft there somewhere in yon darkness.”  ?

Ishmael describes the whale in clearly religious terms. He says the head of the whale is “sublime.” He says, in the brow of the whale “this high and mighty and god-like dignity inherent in the brow so immensely amplified, that gazing on it, in that full front view, you feel the Deity and the dread powers more forcibly than in beholding any other object in living nature.” Ishmael also says the people of the Orient would have recognized a god in the whale. “Had the great Sperm Whale been known to the young Orient World, he would have been deified by their child-magian thoughts.” In other words just as in the Magi’s account of meeting Jesus,  they fell down and worshipped him, Ishmael says the people of the orient would have worshipped the white whale. They “were now in valiant chase of this unnearable brute.” He says the whale is “both ponderous and profound.”

Yet,  the pursuit of God, at times  becomes a Satanic . How is that possible?  This is to me is the most interesting question  in the novel. What brings about this transformation

It is not clear whether what is being faithfully pursued by the 30 men in the boat is God or the devil.  Ishmael describes the whale rising from the deep and breaching above the surface of the sea this way:

“…this peaking of the whale’s flukes is perhaps the grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature. Out of the bottomless profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the highest heaven. So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth his colossal claw from the flame of Baltic Hell. But in gazing at such scenes, it is all in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels. Standing at the masthead of my ship during a sunrise that crimsoned sky and sea, I once saw a large herd of whales in the east all heading towards the sun, and for a moment vibrating in concert with peaked flukes. As it seemed to me at the time, such a grand embodiment of adoration of the gods was never beheld, even in Persia, the home of the fire worshippers. As Ptolemy Philopater testified of the African elephant, I then testified of the whale, pronouncing him the most devout of all beings. For according to King Juba, the military elephants of antiquity often hailed the morning with their trunks uplifted in the profoundest silence.”

Therefore, it is up to the pursuer whether he or she is pursuing God or Satan. The seekers determine whether they are on a voyage of the damned or a voyage of the saved. I think that is profoundly true. Melville expands upon that in the novel.

The blasphemous Quest for Moby Dick

 

Eventually after months at sea Ahab tells the crew the real intent of the voyage. Whaling is incidental. The real purpose is a quest, nominally to find and kill a great white whale. Or perhaps, more accurately to pursue and kill God. It is hardly a holy quest. It was in fact a quest for vengeance because the whale on a previous voyage attacked Ahab who was pursuing him, and chewed off his leg in self-defence. Now Ahab had one ivory leg.

Captain Ahab said he would pursue the whale, Moby Dick, round the world and

round perdition’s flames before I give him up. And this is what ye have shipped for, me! To chase that white whale on both sides of land, and over all sides of earth, till he spouts black blood and rolls fins out.”

 

Some of the crew see that Ahab must be mad. This is literally a mad quest. Starbuck, one of the mates, says, “I came here to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.” He realizes this is “blasphemous.” This is not your ordinary religious quest, this in fact a blasphemous religious quest.

But Ahab denies that his quest for revenge is blasphemous: Ahab was delirious with a desire for revenge against the whale. This riled Ahab to no limit of fury. Ahab saw in the whale “outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate, and be the white whale agent, or be he principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk to me not of blasphemy man: I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”

The classic quest was of course the quest for the Holy Grail—the Chalice of God from the Last Supper. There is a perverse version of that in the novel. This was the ceremony in which Ahab enlisted his ship-mates in his unholy quest. Ahab gathered the men around him and passing the “bringing pewter” around, with drink “hot as Satan’s hoof.” The men standing around the captain had “wild eyes,” like “bloodshot eyes of the prairie wolves” looking at their leader. Ahab appointed the three mates “cupbearers to my three pagan kinsmen,” the harpooneers, calling them “my sweet cardinals.” They were cardinals in a diabolical religion.  Ahab acknowledged that these are “murderous chalices,” as the “the long, barbed steel goblets were lifted; and to cries and maledictions against the white whale.” “The spirits were simultaneously quaffed down with a hiss.” No matter what Ahab tells his men, clearly this quest was more Satanic than divine sent forth with malediction rather than benediction.

The narrator, Ishmael realizes Ahab’s quest is for an “impious end” but he, like the other men, can’t resist helping him. Ishmael sees “my miserable office— to obey.” Even though Ahab has a “heaven insulting purpose” and he is sailing “with such a heathen crew that have small touch of human mothers in them. Whelped somewhere by the sharkish sea. The white whale is their demigorgon (murderous demon beast).”

Ishmael is pointing out how a religious quest can turn Satanic. Not exactly something most of us would seek out. But something that would be worth understanding. How does this happen?

Philosophers  Not needed on the voyage

 

The crew of the Pequod had to be alert on such a voyage. This was particularly true of the men who each had to man one of the 3 masts. From their lonely fearful posts at the top they had to keep at all time their lookout for whales. They had to be vigilant. Of course that really meant, they were to keep out their lookout for God. They had to be spiritually vigilant. After all, this was a true religious quest. Ishmael admitted he did a poor job of it:

“Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I—being completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude—how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships’ standing orders,” Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time.”

Those at the watch were expected to be keenly aware of approaching whales (or gods) and sing out when spotted. The worst thing for a whaling ship was to have someone on the watch like this:

“any lad with lean brow and hollow eye, given to unseasonable meditativeness…Beware of such an one, I say your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer.”

The young Platonists dreaming of metaphysics instead of whales were a dangerous extravagance on a whaling ship:

“…lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some indiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment  of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, they sprint ebbs away who whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Cranmer’s sprinkled Pantheist ashes, forming at last a part of every shore round the globe over.

The young “sunken-eyed Platonist” has no life left in him “except that rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God.”

In other words, on a religious quest, philosophers were not needed. They were a hindrance. Darn.