Is This the Dawning of the Age of Aquariums?

In my college years in New York, I used to pass a bar called One Fifth, imaginatively enough located in the lobby of the landmark One Fifth Ave apartment house, at the foot of Fifth Avenue, just north of Washington Square Park. My (tiny) circle of friends and I used to call it “the fishbowl” because it had a huge picture window fronting Eighth Street. O how I looked longingly into that chic smart room in which I yearned to swim. So I saved up my money – which used to be a thing people did – and once I had a suit nice enough to wear there – also a one-time thing – I went with a friend to One Fifth, to toast our good taste and even better fortune.

It wasn’t a cabaret because the talent wasn’t featured and there was no cover charge, but there was on a small dais a pianist and a bassist. After a few rounds of liquid courage I went up to the bandstand and leaned in to speak with the pianist. She had a gossamer-soft polar-fleece-smooth voice, and she leaned in, too, and I asked her to play my then-favorite number, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” She fluttered under the highly flattering lighting (for her, not me), and said in beguilingly French-accented English, “I’m sorry, I don’t know that song.” Then she reached back into a darkened area of the bandstand and drew out a sheet of lined paper, torn from what we called “copybooks” in grade school, but are more properly known as “composition books.” She pointed to some twelve hand-scribbled titles on the sheet and said, “I can’t read music. These are the only songs I know.” Well, reader, I married her.

Not really. But I was smitten, that is true. I thanked her, returned to my seat, and ordered another round for the entire … table. Which was one other person. On our big night in “the fishbowl.” It was hard to leave.

It still is, isn’t it? Jesus tells Simon in Luke Chapter 5, “Put out in deep water,” a missionary call of the kind anyone who has ears ought to hear. Deep water is a go-to metaphor that speaks of being overwhelmed, of panic in the face of the unknown and of being caught in the grip of forces stronger than ourselves. Better to remain in the harbor – or, as I see more and more in my experience of contemporary culture, better to create an aquarium. I had one when I was a kid; I guess I wanted something I could be in charge of. What goes on with an aquarium? Well, there’s a lot of “I,” isn’t there? I pick out the tank, I choose the color of the gravel, I select the fish and the plants, I feed these fish and watch them live and die, I run the pump that brings life-giving air, I make the light shine in the day and bring the darkness at night. This is my aquarium, my realm. None shall enter ere I give consent.

It’s a false choice much at work in our world today. Think of all the ways we can avoid encounters and can build environments where we’re never in over our heads or in contact with people we don’t choose to meet. Aquariums can be wrought ethnically or racially, and that still goes on, and now big data in private and public hands can arrange inputs and outcomes so that one’s designed environment delivers the precise temperature and lighting and groceries and edutainment such that we never want to leave. And such that we look on anyone not on the checklist we have written for our aquarium as an invasive species.

This is not the Gospel way. The Gospel way is taking risks and journeying to lands we know not (Jer 16:13), breaking down walls and turning over what works only for a few in the hope that the many will be saved. Leonardo Boff said, “Christ is not the church’s divine prisoner,” and we imitate him when we desire to go into deep water to seek and to do what must be done to help build up the Reign of God. Jesus is the master builder, it is true – but what I see Jesus building looks and smells more like a swamp than an aquarium. And before you hold your nose – have you ever been to Everglades National Park, endangered though it is? It’s beautiful, and it teems with life, with every creature that swimmeth or creepeth or walketh or flyeth. Drain the swamp? At our peril. No, save the swamp – creature by creature, bird by bird, person to person, until all know Jesus and desire to live as he lived, until he calls us out of this world and into the next. May he find us in deep water.