Boat Stories
December 11, 2018

Back in January, Venkatesh Rao wrote a fascinating post on the Ribbonfarm blog, discussing different forms of models of narrative. Engaging with Ursula LeGuin’s talk ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, Rao explores her contrast between the (male) ‘hero narrative’ and the (female) ‘carrier-bag story’, and suggests a third model: the ‘boat story’.

The male hero narrative foregrounds themes of journey, conflict, and bravery, centring upon a single larger-than-life protagonist; it is the sort of story that first developed out of the exaggerated hunting tale told around the campfire. It continues to represent an influential narrative model that stories are often naturally squeezed into. The carrier-bag story, by contrast, is implicitly female and emphasizes contexts and communities over events and heroic individuals, evolution and transition over radical disruption and disjunction.

These contrasting narrative models provide a useful heuristic framework for thinking about a variety of phenomena. For instance, the carrier-bag approach to history-telling would be something along the lines of a social history, while the hero-narrative approach might push us in the direction of a ‘Great Man’ theory of history (in the discipline of history, epic scale history-telling is also an extremely male-dominated activity).

Rao presents his third model using LeGuin’s contrasting hero narrative and carrier-bag models as his foil:

Thinking about the two opposed theories, it struck me that between the carrier bag story and the hero’s journey, there is a third kind of story that is superior to both: the boat story. A boat is at once a motif of containment and journeying. The mode of sustenance it enables—fishing, especially with a net, a bag full of holes—is somewhere between gathering and hunting ways of feeding; somewhere between female and male ways of being. It at once stands for the secure attachment to home and a venturesome disposition towards the unknown. It incorporates the conscientiousness and stewardship of settled life, and the openness to experience of nomadic life. A boat is a home, but a home away from home. A boat story is a journey, but one on which you bring home, and perhaps even Mom, along with you. But it isn’t an insular home, even though it has a boundary. It is a territory but it is not territorial. It is socially open enough to accommodate encounters with strangers, and is in fact eager to accommodate them. Xenophobes do not generally go voyaging.

Boat stories, like hero’s journeys and carrier-bag stories, are a good way to understand the human condition.

As a conceptual metaphor and model, the boat and its attendant stories can helpfully frame many different phenomena. As it frames these phenomena, accenting key features, it may enable us to see familiar things in a new way, perhaps even facilitating moments of epiphany. While Rao uses the boat and its stories as a model to explore such things as the medium of blogging, making various insightful observations in the process, the model itself offers an illuminating paradigm for a host of realities beyond this.

As Rao observes, the boat is an unusual place. It is a fragile realm of order and community immediately bounded by a realm of chaos and disorder. The boat and its crew can venture forth on a great heroic quest, punctuated by forays into the unknown and/or dangerous realm beyond the boat itself. However, in doing so they share the evolving quotidian life of a community and its non-heroic relationships. Build your stories around a boat, and you can more easily fuse elements of soap opera with elements of the heroic epic. The imaginative appeal of boat stories—from Moby Dick, to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, to Star Trek, to Titanic—is often found in the possibilities that the form affords for bringing together narrative approaches that are often detached from each other.

Conceptual models and root metaphors are powerful things. As they frame reality for us in distinctive ways, they offer us paradigms for being, thought, and action. The root metaphor of the boat is an especially powerful root metaphor, framing reality in a way that foregrounds a particularly powerful conjunction of features. The boat is a fragile micro-environment moving within a potentially dangerous and occasionally hostile larger environment. It is exposed to the threats of chaos, death, and the unknown, but is typically driven by a specific quest. The world of the boat itself can sometimes be akin to a terrarium—a tightly enclosed environment that functions as a self-contained social ecosystem. For the boat to fulfil its quest, it is necessary for those on board to recognize their extreme interdependence, to resolve conflicts swiftly, and to cooperate effectively.

Unsurprisingly, the metaphor of the boat has been attractive to contemporary environmentalists and social reformers. Thinking in terms of ‘Spaceship Earth’ foregrounds the fragility of our planet in the Anthropocene, its thin atmosphere all that lies between us and the fathomless blackness of space, just a few inches of topsoil essential for its life-giving fertility terrestrial existence depends upon. It highlights the need for cooperation if we are to preserve a liveable environment and continue the human mission into the future. For an environmental consciousness, a boat model is far more versatile and illuminating than either carrier-bag or hero-narrative models. The hero narrative can encourage a ‘man versus wild’ way of thinking, while the carrier-bag model can easily obscure any dangerous or hostile external reality that might rupture its self-contained environments. By contrast, the boat model presents the maintenance of our vessel’s social and material environment as both essential to our survival and vulnerable to our mismanagement.

Boat stories are rare in the Old Testament. Only two such stories stand out: the first is the story of Noah’s Ark and the second is the story of Jonah.

The story of Noah’s Ark is a big boat story, yet it is also a story in which the boat’s significance as a micro-environment is prominent. When the earth is flooded, the Ark is the only human realm that remains, a bark adrift on the deep in a world returned to its original formlessness and emptiness. As Meredith Kline and James Jordan both emphasize, the Ark is a world model, its three storeys corresponding to the heavens above, the earth beneath, and the depths((James Jordan, Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World[Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988], 170-173)). The window of the Ark is related to the ‘window of heaven’ and the door to the ‘doors of the deep’. Like other world models (the tabernacle being one example), the dimensions and construction of the Ark are closely defined and ‘every time the animals are mentioned they are listed broken down into categories’ (Through New Eyes, 172).

The Ark is akin to a life raft by which people escape an old larger vessel that has sunk beneath the waves. The story of the Flood is not a grand heroic quest, but is rather a story that highlights the fragility of our world and its exposure to the threat of overwhelming divine judgment when we fill it with sin and violence. Noah is not a solitary hero who fashions a vessel to escape the wrath of the gods, but a man whom God rescues with his wife and children.

When the Ark lands on Mount Ararat, it is the pattern and the seed for a new world. As a microcosm, the Ark reveals the fragility of the earth more generally, our vulnerability to forces of chaos utterly beyond our control, and our absolute dependence upon divine grace.

It is not accidental that it is in the context of such a boat story that a deeper environmental consciousness emerges in the text of Genesis. The wider creation is fragile and can be thrown into jeopardy by the sin of man. While on land, man might fancy himself a match for the elements, yet the sea is a realm of vulnerability and lack of control. While we may navigate through the ocean and survive the power of its waves and storms, we can never become its masters. Adrift in a boat in the deep, our dependence upon gracious divine providence is cast in sharp relief.

The sea is chaos, a realm beyond human mastery and order, yet bounded by God’s sovereignty. In revealing the destructive might of the sea, the Flood also reveals the radical dependency of creation upon a gracious providence more generally. Through the Flood, we can see the whole earth as a sort of Ark, a realm whose quiescent elements—stable ground, gentle rains, fertile earth, light winds, meandering rivers, changing seasons—are a fragile environment that can be enjoyed only because the terrifying forces of chaos that lie just beneath the surface are held at bay by the goodness of God.

The second great boat story in the Old Testament is found in the book of Jonah. Even besides the big fish, the strange episode with the gourd, and an Israelite prophet being sent to a foreign nation, the book of Jonah is an unusual one in the context of the Old Testament. Apart from the Flood, the sea hardly ever features in Old Testament narratives, making the book of Jonah’s account of the ship in the storm stand out in its canonical context.

The story makes clear that the sovereignty of YHWH extends over the sea as much as the dry land. The ship is also a place where lots are cast in together. Jonah’s flight from YHWH places the pagan mariners in peril: they are all quite literally in the same boat. Jonah is forced to take an interest in the well-being of pagans and foreigners, if only to save his own skin (Tim Keller’s discussion of this and other details of the Jonah narrative in his recent book, The Prodigal Prophet, sparked some of the lines of thought that prompted this post). The narrative setting of the boat offers a framework for considering the relationship between the people of God and the pagan nations, who are implicated in the blessing or the judgment of Israel.

James Jordan has suggested—in a reading that I find convincing—that the episode with the big fish and the episode with the gourd in the book of Jonah are parabolic signs to Israel. That the events befalling Jonah should have a symbolic import should not be surprising, considering the way that Christ refers to them in the gospels.

Jordan suggests that both the big fish and the gourd are pictures of Assyria. The disobedience of Jonah mirrors the disobedience of Israel and his sleep their spiritual insensibility. The storm is the turmoil of conflict that the region is cast into. Jettisoned from the ship, Jonah is like Israel, cast into exile. The big fish is Assyria, an appointed beast—nations being represented by beasts in the prophets and elsewhere—that swallows Jonah and later vomits him out. The gourd is Assyria, giving Israel the shade of its regional dominance, which had permitted Israel under Jeroboam II to recover land that it had lost to the Arameans (according to Jonah’s own prophecy in 2 Kings 14:23-27). Assyria’s dominance under Adad-nirari III changed Israel’s fortunes for the better and gave the nation some relief from its misery, much as the gourd shielded Jonah.

As a symbol of international relations, Israel as the sleeping prophet, fleeing from the calling of YHWH, caught in a storm on a ship with pagan mariners, is a powerful one. Israel can no more control the storms of regional conflict and unrest than Jonah can control the storm in the deep. However, Israel’s disobedience has consequences for the surrounding nations, as the waves of Assyria may overwhelm them too. In Jonah 1-2, God presents a different way of thinking about Assyria: as an appointed ‘beast’ to protect a disobedient prophetic nation from utter destruction as it has forsaken its calling. The Gentiles are associated with the sea in Scripture and the seething fury of the storm-tossed sea threatening to overwhelm the weak vessel symbolizes the vulnerability that the land of Israel stood in relative to the surrounding nations.

Once again, the image of the boat at sea highlights divine providential rule over the most uncontrollable and terrifying natural forces and here connects this providential rule to God’s orchestration of the rise and fall of empires and grand conflicts. While Jonah’s unwillingness to go to Nineveh probably arose in large measure from his fear concerning the threat posed by the might of the rising neo-Assyrian empire, the book reveals that even the great sea monster of Nineveh is ‘appointed’ by God, just like the big fish and the gourd. Bringing the word of the Lord to the beast is easier to do when you know that it is subject to divine mastery. Mercilessly tossed by the waves of the Gentile empires, Israel must learn to entrust itself to God’s power and purpose, even when they are cast into the dark abyss of exile.

Moving from the Old Testament—which is dominated by the land, by sheep, and by shepherds—it may come as a surprise that the New Testament is so often full of fish, fishermen, and references to the sea. Jesus himself is spoken of as a man from Galilee, a region closely associated with its eponymous Sea (Matthew 3:13; Mark 1:9). Andrew, Simon Peter, James, and John were two sets of brothers, fishermen called while about their business, casting and mending their nets. Jesus declares that he will make them ‘fishers of men’ (Matthew 4:19), presenting their new vocation in terms of their familiar trade.

In Matthew 8 there is another boat story, this one reminiscent of the story of Jonah. Once again, a prophet is sound asleep in a boat in the middle of a storm on the sea, while the others on the boat must rouse him to action. The prophet is not thrown overboard on this occasion, but brings a great calm through rebuking the winds and the sea. Jesus is like Jonah, but is also the one who can do what God alone could do in stilling the raging of the storm.

Several key episodes in Jesus’ ministry occur on or next to the Sea of Galilee, the centre of his first phase of ministry. The pronounced narrative presence of the Sea of Galilee is noteworthy, perhaps especially given its modest size. The surface area of the Sea of Galilee is 64 sq mi, about a third of the size of Lake Tahoe. Nonetheless, Matthew, Mark, and John all consistently speak of the ‘Sea’ of Galilee or Tiberias, while only Luke speaks of the ‘Lake’ of Gennesaret (perhaps Luke wishes to present the sea themes in Acts as an escalation of the less pronounced lake themes of his gospel?). This language choice accents the contrast between land and sea throughout the gospels (something Elizabeth Struthers Malbon highlights in her treatment of the significance of the sea in Mark’s gospel).

Part of the significance of Galilee as a ‘sea’ likely comes from the fact that it had foreign territory on its eastern shore. The land/sea opposition in the Old Testament was closely connected with the Israel/Gentile opposition (Galilee itself was something of a liminal location, something suggested in the reference to it as ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ in the quotation from Isaiah in Matthew 4:15). The unusually pronounced relationship that Jesus has with the Sea of Galilee suggests some sort of renegotiation of this opposition. When Jesus walks on the sea as if on dry land (Mark 6:45-52), when he teaches people on the land from a boat on the sea, so that the multitude must face the sea (Mark 4:1), or when he drowns demons in the sea (5:13), the land/sea opposition is being transformed. Malbon writes:

The boat might well be viewed as a mediator between the land and the sea. In Jesus’ experience the boat serves to extend the land, offering a dry, firm, and safe place to sit while teaching (4:1). In the experience of the disciples the sea nearly overwhelms the boat, filling it with water and them with fear (4:37-38). The disciples cannot cross the sea even with the aid of the boat (6:48); Jesus does not even need the boat to cross the sea (6:48). Thus, not only is the sea less a barrier and more a bridge between lands for Jesus, but for him the sea itself becomes as land. The disciples feel endangered by the sea (4:38). By his word Jesus calms the sea (4:39), secures the danger… In thus mediating the opposition of land and sea, Jesus manifests the power of God.

In Jesus’ miracles and teaching the sea and fish frequently feature. Both the land-based parables of the Wheat and the Tares (Matthew 13:24-30) and the Hidden Treasure in the field (13:44) are thematically paired with sea-based parables of the Dragnet (13:47-50) and the Pearl of Great Price (13:45-46) respectively. Both the feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand involve the multiplication of fish.

Both at the first calling of Simon Peter in Luke 5 and at his restoration in John 21, Jesus gives a miraculous catch of fish. In both instances there are contextual details that suggest that this miracle might have some symbolic significance: the connection of the miraculous catch of fish with the fishing of men in the first case (Luke 5:9-10) and the specificity of the number of fish that were caught in the second (John 21:11). As James Jordan observes of the catch of 153 fish in John, the fish likely symbolize the Gentiles that will be caught through the ministry of the apostles (and the gematria of 153 might involve an allusion back to one of the rare Old Testament references to fish in Ezekiel 47, where the healing waters flowing from the Temple will lead to a very great multitude of fish).

Behind all of this emphasis on the sea and fish lurks the boat as an entity that mediates between the sea and the land, a small piece of the land afloat on the sea. As Peter Leithart remarks:

the fact that Jesus teaches from a boat shoved out in the sea perhaps gives us an image of the church—the church is a little ark, a little bit of Israel, tossed about on the sea of nations. But there’s no danger, because the Lord of the church walks on the sea as dry land.

Church as ark imagery is implied in 1 Peter 3:20-21, where our salvation through baptism is compared with the salvation of Noah and his family through the waters of the Flood. We are baptized into Christ, his body being the Ark that bears us through the waters of judgment. Like the Ark, the Church is a microcosm, the seed of a new humanity waiting to find its purchase in the soil of a renewed creation. Like the Ark, it is exposed to all the terror of the elements, being radically dependent upon God’s good care to guide it through them all. While people of the land may seek to control their environment, people of the sea must adapt themselves more to its conditions and look to the heavens for their care.

Both in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, Luke frames his narrative around journeys. And there are parallels between the two accounts. Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem and Paul sets his face towards Rome. And, as N.T. Wright recognizes:

At the equivalent point where, in the gospel, we come to the crucifixion itself, we come in Acts to the shipwreck, the moment when the forces of wind and wave do their worst and it looks as though Paul will be drowned at sea, or smashed on the rocks, or killed by the soldiers, or finally, in an almost comic touch, poisoned by a Maltese snake. The darkness and hopelessness of the storm at sea mirror the dark hopelessness of Gethsemane and Calvary itself. And then, finally, after the sailors have used one anchor after another to slow the boat down and prevent it simply accelerating into the waiting rocks, they manage to steer close enough in to land so that when the ship finally runs aground and starts to break up, everyone on board comes safe to shore.

There are several striking details in Luke’s account of Paul’s shipwreck. The reference to the arrival of the fourteenth night (Acts 27:27) and the strict instruction to the centurion and the soldiers that everyone must stay in the ship or be destroyed (verse 31) both evoke a Passover context, and, by extension, the context of Christ’s death (the fourteenth of Nisan being the day of the Passover). We read that Paul took bread, and when he had given thanks, broke it and began to eat—the echo shouldn’t be hard to hear! The specificity of the number of the company—276—is also interesting. Like 153 and 666, it is a triangular number (the 23rdsuch number). What symbolic meaning it might have, if any, is unclear to me (perhaps something related to 24 minus 1, connected with the removal of Judas from the company of the Twelve at the Last Supper?). As in the story of the crucifixion, a centurion is a significant figure.

In contrast to the boat stories of the gospels, the ship of Acts 27 has a mixed multitude of passengers, saved through the message of the apostle. A tempest striking a pagan ship bearing a Jewish prophet towards the west is quite reminiscent of the story of Jonah. However, whereas in the book of Jonah the disobedient prophet places the lives of everyone else in danger, here the situation is reversed: God grants Paul all those who sail with him (verse 24). This is a powerful image of salvation and, as it is paralleled with the crucifixion in the literary structure of Acts, it invites our attention. As the ship’s passengers are saved by observing the apostle’s teaching, faithfully remaining on the ship, and being sustained through blessed and broken bread, parallels with the Church aren’t difficult to identify. The vision of the Church that appears here is one formed of many different peoples, enduring suffering and hardship, formed together in a communion that serves to break down former oppositions, surrounded by threats and tempests, persevering and overcoming through the divine guidance and aid upon which they depend.

Even as boat and sea imagery are explored in the New Testament, it is subtly subverted. When Jesus is on the scene, people of faith can leave the boat and walk on the water with him, the sea becoming as if dry land (Matthew 14:22-33). In Peter’s leaving the boat and walking on the sea with Jesus, there may be a figural anticipation of his bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. While the book of Revelation often plays with the land/sea contrast, the story moves to the point where the opposition is overcome and there is no more sea, no residual realm of chaos and disorder, no lasting opposition between the people of the land and the Gentiles of the sea. The boat, as that which begins to transcend the opposition between land and sea, anticipates this coming reality. Borne upon the seething tumult of an unsettled sea, the Ark of the Church is the seed of a new humanity, the embryo of a new world. Within her we can entrust ourselves to the care of a gracious providence, secure against all that the sea of this present age might throw at us.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is adjunct Senior Fellow at Theopolis and is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.  He is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged

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