God Floats His Boat

Phyllis Tickle on Captain Jack Aubrey as God and man in Best Picture nominee 'Master and Commander.'

BY: Interview by Paul O'Donnell

Best known in religion circles for her stint as Publisher's Weekly magazine's religion editor, Phyllis Tickle has an august resume: book editor, college dean, and poet-in-residence, among other titles. Her true skills as a thinker and observer of American religion are most evident, however, in her books, notably her spiritual memoir, "The Shaping of a Life," published in 2001. Now contributing editor at PW, Tickle has dedicated herself for the past few years to lecturing and writing, and to editing her "Divine Hours" handbooks for fixed-hour prayer.

"Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" is the long-anticipated first screen version of Patrick O'Brian's spellbinding series of novels depicting Britain's fight to reverse Napoleon's capture of Europe by pressing its supremacy at sea. In the movie, Jack Aubrey (played by Russell Crowe) captains the H.M.S. Surprise, a wily warship that succeeds despite inexperienced officers, still winds, and the presence of one man the crew fastens on as a scapegoat for their misfortunes.

I thought this would be just a good old fashioned sea movie, without much to talk about spiritually, but...

It reeked.

There was so much I don't know where to start. Where would you start?

Instead of starting with religion, I would put it in a secular historical context. This is sort of an updated Aeneid. It lifts out that metaphor, that structure that was so useful to classical people, of isolating a story around one man and usually one boat.

To look at authority, its proper usage, its origins and its misfortunes, the kinds of personalities it takes to make authority and hierarchy, there's no better way than to put a bunch of men on ship. I mean, you even get rid of women. The economy of the message is beautifully served by taking it down, just to an all male, restricted world, with one man as top dog.

I loved "Master and Commander" as a title. One would have been sufficient, but two drives home the point that God is both master and commander, and they are two different things. One owns you, the other tells you what to do.

So there are two ways to understand Jack Aubrey, as a human authority figure, but also as a stand-in for God, as master and commander of our lives.

Yes, they're double tracking the whole movie.

Taking him as God for a second--what does the movie say about our relationship to God?

Well, I think the movie talks about the God that a child perceives, or that even Western civilization perceives. Aubrey is a very anthropomorphic God. He deals with people within a physical universe. There's no way to change the circumstances. When the ship is becalmed, Aubrey says he cannot make it rain, nor the wind to blow. "I govern the wind; I am not its master."

I think God has many options beyond the physical. That confession--that he's not entirely God--is almost Gnostic in a way. He can't make the wind blow until Jonah is thrown over the side. It's resonant, not only of Jonah, but of the scapegoat out of Torah.

In many ways that Jonah sequence was the heart the movie, especially its religion.

It was. When he goes over the side, holding the cannonball... Death always opens a space--always, it never fails. There's a tear in temporality. And when that tear happens, everything stops. There is an exaggeration or distortion of time for those around it. So Aubrey can't control the wind. The sacrificial death has to happen. Something has to rush in through the hole that has been made by the spirit rushing out.

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