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by Christian Gonzalez Ho

In Of Politics, And Art, Norman Dubie juxtaposes the horrifying story of Moby Dick with the intimate “still and protected center” of a herd of nursing whales. At the same time, Dubie juxtaposes the horror of Mrs. Whitimore’s impending death by tuberculosis, and the raging storm outside the schoolhouse building, with the beauty and peace Mrs. Whitimore and her students experience as they read together. It is here, in the clash of the tender and terrifying, that God is rendered.

Jonah’s prayer also reflects a concurrent encounter with the horrifying radical otherness of the God before whom all of heaven cries “holy” (Isa. 6:3), and the tender mercy of the God who carries His people close to His heart (Isa. 40:11). It is after Jonah is cast into the “the belly of Sheol” that Jonah cries out, “O Lord my God,” like a nursing new-born crying out for his mother’s breast. In response, God rescues Jonah from the “heart of the sea”—by sending a whale to swallow him whole.

Albert Herbert’s painting captures the terror of Jonah’s salvation: a whale resembling a sock-puppet on a child’s hand. It is a hand cloaked in primal darkness that bears Jonah up from the sea. Although some may be inclined to consider the Jonah’s whale as a form of punishment, it more accurately embodies another instance recorded in Scripture of the deep, thick darkness wherein God dwells. Throughout Scripture, God invites those closest to Him into that darkness: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Job, Elijah, John the Baptist, and the disciples all met Him there at some point. To be near to God is to know both His tender love and His mysterious, terrifying power. It is a proximity that breaks our attempts at apprehending him through our minds or domesticating him for our own ends. Christ has torn the veil that we might enter boldly into the Holy of Holies, the thick cloud of glory that rested on Sinai. Let us not draw back from the terror of His mysteries, but go humbly into the darkness in which our God the Consuming Fire dwells.

Jonah and the Whale, 1987
Albert Herbert
Oil on canvas
11 x 14 in.

Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying, “I called out to the Lord, out of my distress, and he answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and you heard my voice. For you cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood surrounded me; all your waves and your billows passed over me. Then I said, ‘I am driven away from your sight; yet I shall again look upon your holy temple.’ The waters closed in over me to take my life; the deep surrounded me; weeds were wrapped about my head at the roots of the mountains. I went down to the land whose bars closed upon me forever; yet you brought up my life from the pit, O Lord my God. When my life was fainting away I remembered the Lord, and my prayer came to you, into your holy temple. Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love. But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the Lord!” And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

- Jonah 2:1-10

Of Politics, & Art

                                 —for Allen

Here, on the farthest point of the peninsula
The winter storm
Off the Atlantic shook the schoolhouse.
Mrs. Whitimore, dying
Of tuberculosis, said it would be after dark
Before the snowplow and bus would reach us.

She read to us from Melville.

How in an almost calamitous moment
Of sea hunting
Some men in an open boat suddenly found themselves
At the still and protected center
Of a great herd of whales
Where all the females floated on their sides
While their young nursed there. The cold frightened whalers
Just stared into what they allowed
Was the ecstatic lapidary pond of a nursing cow’s
One visible eyeball.
And they were at peace with themselves.

Today I listened to a woman say
That Melville might
Be taught in the next decade. Another woman asked, “And why not?”
The first responded, “Because there are
No women in his one novel.”

And Mrs. Whitimore was now reading from the Psalms.
Coughing into her handkerchief. Snow above the windows.
There was a blue light on her face, breasts and arms.
Sometimes a whole civilization can be dying
Peacefully in one young woman, in a small heated room
With thirty children
Rapt, confident and listening to the pure
God rendering voice of a storm.

- Norman Dubie

This reflection was originally published on April 1, 2019 as part of Biola University’s 2019 Lent Project.

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Christian Gonzalez Ho holds an M.A. in Architecture from Harvard University and a B.A. in American Studies from Fordham University. Christian's work focuses primarily on the dialogical relationships among philosophy, art, and culture.

From 2004 to 2009, Christian worked in New York City as an off-Broadway playwright, director, and actor. In 2010, he began graduate work at Yale, but left after a semester to intern at the International house of Prayer in Kansas City. During his time in Kansas City, he became the Director of Design at Exodus Cry, an anti human trafficking organization. He currently works as a cultural researcher in Los Angeles, CA. Christian loves to surf, snowboard, play basketball, and drink really, really, good coffee. He is the co-creator and co-director of Estuaries.