Leviathan: The Meg, Moby Dick and Power from the Deep

Leviathan: The Meg, Moby Dick and Power from the Deep August 10, 2018
Promotional art from The Meg, courtesy Warner Bros.

The Meg paddles into theaters this weekend, and the makers of this Jason Statham action vehicle surely hopes it gobbles up dollars like the prehistoric shark does swimmers. I haven’t seen The Meg, and I doubt it has deep spiritual undertones. But its very presence gives us an opportunity to consider the enduring fascination and fear we have for these and similar creatures.

Let me tell you a little secret: I’m kinda scared of big fish. I’m not particularly phobic about them,  and oddly, it doesn’t extend to sharks. Sharks are familiar. They’re supposed to be big, toothy and scary. Big, traditional fish, on the other hand, feel surreal to me. I’m fascinated and freaked out by them. I sometimes have nightmares about being in some sort of body of water and sensing something mostly unseen but obviously massive swimming near me. And then it brushes against my leg …

That’s part of what makes these undersea monsters so scary for us. The ocean is a big place, and it hides lots of secrets, and secrets we might never see coming from the watery gloom. From the time of Jaws and probably before, shark movies have made hay (and money) from that sense of unseen terror—the lurking, underwater other. Stephen Spielberg famously kept the shark in Jaws out of sight, revealed only by the tip of a dorsal fin and a telltale musical “du-dun, du-dun.” Though Spielberg’s hand was forced by a cantankerous mechanical shark (three of them, actually, collectively nicknamed “Bruce“), he knew that the animal’s power and terror came from its inherent mystery—how sneaky it was, and how alien it felt.

From the very beginning, it seems, we’ve been left in awe and terror of the big, bad, curiously beautiful beasties of the deep. The creation story in Genesis refers to the tanninim created on the fifth day (translated in the King James Bible to “great whales”), and the leviathan is namechecked no less than six times in the Good Book—sometimes as a beautiful creation, sometimes as a terrible demon, but always something in which we look on with awe. “Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?” Job 41 says. ” … Any hope of subduing him is false; the mere sight of him is overpowering. No one is fierce enough to rouse him. Who then is able to stand against me?”

But culture’s most enduring leviathan (using the term loosely) isn’t the shark in Jaws and almost certainly won’t be the megalodon in The Meg. It’d be Herman Melville’s great white whale, Moby Dick.

Moby Dick, the book, just might be the greatest American novel ever. It’s filled with depth and mystery, much like the subject sea itself, and it reveals itself in layers. Many have seen reflections of faith within Melville’s most famous work—with Moby Dick either a deep-dwelling demon or, more popularly, a manifestation of God Himself—an avatar of the awesome, incomprehensible Almighty.

Theologian R.C. Sproul unpacked those religious undertones in a brief, sparkling essay, that the whale was a symbol of God, and that “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.”

In his essay, Sproul dwells, as Melville did, on the creature’s whiteness—an absence of color and a blending of all colors, of which Melville wrote “at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form.”

Sproul writes:

If the whale embodies everything that is 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 fullness of the perfections in the being of God Himself?

Sproul gives us a view of God often lost today, I think—not just one that concentrates on His grace and goodness, as we like to concentrate on, but on His power and mystery and blinding majesty. We think of God as someone we could walk up to and slap on the back. But when we read about folks who truly encountered Him, more often they would fall to their knees and shake in holy terror and awe.

Only one other book I’ve read has touched this sense of a God so huge, so terrible, so wholly incomprehensible: G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. It just might be the oddest book I’ve ever read—in part it’s because of the incredibly strange twists the book takes as our hero and his surprising cadre of helpmates pursue the book’s own Great White Whale, the apparent anarchist President Sunday.

One man, Syme, describes his first impressions of Sunday—how when he saw him from the back, he looked “apish” and had the “stoop of an ox.” “I had at once the revolting fancy that this was not a man at all, but a beast dressed up in men’s clothes.” But then, when Syme saw him from the front, “His face frightened me, as it did everyone; but not because it was brutal, not because it was evil. On the contrary, it frightened me because it was so beautiful, because it was so good.

It was like the face of some ancient archangel, judging justly after heroic wars. There was laughter in the eyes, and in the mouth honour and sorrow. There was the same white hair, the same great, grey-clad shoulders that I had seen from behind. But when I saw him from behind I was certain he was an animal, and when I saw him in front I knew he was a god.

Sounds a lot like Moby Dick, really: The beast that Ahab saw (and inherently, almost always its back), the godlike beauty and power and mystery glimpsed at times by the narrator.

I doubt moviegoers will see much of any sort of god in The Meg. But the movie is a nice excuse to reflect on what makes such creatures so tantalizing and terrifying, how we’re entranced and repulsed by their power and mystery—and how these leviathans may, in their own strange ways, point to the most unfathomable and holy mystery of all.

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