Chapter 9: The Sermon

For better or worse, our experience of literature changes through the ages, especially when said literature reaches iconic status. Every year I read Shakespeare with my sixth graders, and though I don’t waste a second of time talking about Shakespeare’s life (who cares?), I’m always sure to spend at least some time discussing the history of theater, because I think it’s important for them to understand that Shakespeare as Inaccessible High Culture is a relatively new idea — Shakespeare wrote for the people, and the people threw apple cores at the actors if they weren’t having fun, kind of like the Muppet Show. In other words, you need to read Shakespeare looking for the entertainment of it all, not for the secret of life.

I realized that my thoughts about this week’s chapter have been influenced by the book’s iconic status as well, albeit in a totally different way.  After evoking preacher-as-captain imagery in the preceding chapter, Ishmael begins Chapter 9, “The Sermon,” by setting Father Mapple in stark contrast to Ahab, as Mapple sings a hymn about salvation at the hands of a forgiving God. Mapple’s sermon continues with a masochistic message about Jonah displaying true repentance by being “grateful for punishment,” and concludes with a message for all spiritual leaders: “Yea, woe to him who, as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!” The sermon seems a ready foil for Ahab and his madness.

But we haven’t met Ahab at this point in the story. In fact, Ishmael hasn’t even reached Nantucket, or heard of the Pequod. Sure, Ishmael is a masterful storyteller, and Moby-Dick an extremely well-planned tale. And sure, every good storyteller builds themes before introducing the main plot arc. But still, like most people (I think), I went into Moby-Dick looking for the secret of Ahab, because that’s what Moby-Dick means as an iconic piece of literature. What I got instead, of course, was the secret of Ishmael — a terrifically entertaining story. It’s nice to remember that, for the most part anyway, the classics are classics for a reason — not because they are painful to read though good for us, but because they’re really good books that have entertained people for centuries.

Chapter 9: The Sermon

Purge your pride, in the belly of
Desire, in the valley of
Required opportunity —
Delight in obedience.

The flame burns true as a compass, there’s
No skew on perspectives you
Want to simply justify —
And so do you slumber.

But, oh!
The hand of God is up above!
And, oh!
You cannot run from boundless love!

Carried down with a tempest of
Renown, to the stillness of
Each round individual sphere —
Peace now is a punishment.

So beg your Lord for the trying reward
Bestowed for the congress of man,
Each lost in his wickedness —
And so, with your pilot!

And, oh!
The hand of God is up above!
And, oh!
You cannot run from boundless love!

(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 6, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea March 20, 2010

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