Herman Melville’s (very) short story, “The Lightning-Rod Man,” should be required reading for anyone who consumes the daily news. It rings with modern relevance despite being published in 1854.
In the story, we meet a homeowner who lives in a mountain region in Albania known since ancient times as Cape Thunder. He is enjoying a “majestic” storm one evening when a traveling Lightning-rod salesman unexpectedly arrives with a “doleful” knock on the door. After inviting the visitor in, the homeowner is pitched a well-worn bill of goods by the roving doomsday prophet. Relying on propaganda and gimmicks, the seller tries to convince his host that with only a lightning-rod his home can be made completely safe from lightning’s destruction—a veritable Rock of Gibraltar—for only “one dollar a foot!”
With lots of drama, the salesman attempts to breed fear and sell safety. Rather than being persuaded by the peculiar stranger, the homeowner is increasingly entertained as the sales call continues. The salesman is laughable—and unsuccessful—because he is so transparently afraid himself. The homeowner sees right through him. The salesman’s visit quickly reveals itself as a two-pronged, thinly veiled door-to-door crusade of self-interest. The first goal is the obvious pursuit of personal commercial gain. The second is a desperate attempt to grow a tribe of frightened friends to whom he can peddle his philosophy of scientism by way of his metal pole.
After introductions, and before the hard sell, the dripping wet guest is offered a warm seat by the hearth fire so he might dry himself. The skittish alarmist refuses this and other reasonable gestures of hospitality. While the homeowner rests comfortably by his hearth, the salesman explains that, in addition to standing in the middle of the room in wet clothes, he follows many dictates of precaution to avoid being struck by lightning. He declares,
“I avoid pine-trees, high houses, lonely barns, upland pastures, running water, flocks of cattle and sheep, a crowd of men. If I travel on foot … I do not walk fast; if in my buggy, I touch not its back or sides; if on horseback, I dismount and lead the horse. But of all things, I avoid tall men.”
The homeowner responds in shock, “Do I dream? Man avoid man? And in danger-time too.”
The salesman avoids nature and shelter, water and animals, proper walking, proper sitting— and, above all, the company of fellow men. In pursuit of security, he avoids most risk and puts his faith entirely in Science (with a capital S), that untruthful god that offers false hope and leaps at every opportunity fear presents. Consequently, the salesman fashions for himself a life strategy that exalts self-protection as the highest good. He has, to an extent, given up living for the sake of life.
This is the kind of irony that shows up in spades in Melville’s story. As things progress, we learn from the Lightning-rod man that his man-made protective device will fail with poor man-made application. We also find out that the lightning-rod only offers one-way help for lightning’s round-trip journey: It is peddled as a protection against lightning arriving to earth from heaven, but there is no claim whatsoever that it will prevent the equally probable damage of lightning’s “returning-stroke” traveling from the earth to the skies.
After enduring the arrogance (“only a Lightning-rod man may know”), the rudeness ( “Are you so horridly ignorant…?”), and the pride (“Quit the spot—I conjure—I command you.”) of the traveling Lightning- rod man, our gracious host is no longer merely bemused. His temper turns and he sharply refuses and expels the intruder who has come into focus as a much darker foe. In the wake of the raging storm, the clear-sighted, well-rooted homeowner rises up to declare, “False negotiator, away!”
The homeowner recognizes the Lightning-rod man for what he is—a messenger of fear and an agent of death. It is for good reason that Melville compares the Lightning-rod man to an undertaker at the beginning of the story. Faith offers Life; fear keeps us from it.
The Lightning-rod man has been seduced by a worldview that takes so much more than it gives. In misdirecting his faith toward the capability of Man he has burdened himself with responsibilities that only God can handle. An outsized sense of control has cast upon him self-inflicted expectations of perfection that can never be humanly met. Safety, to the Lightning-rod man, is a burden, not a blessing.
The Lightning-rod man could be excused for feeling fear. It is not a sin to be afraid; it is a temptation. God knows the hearts of His children. “Fear not” is the most frequent sentence in the Bible, after all. The point is this: God does not ask us to be fearless. He asks us to be faithful. Our homeowner seems to understand well his rightful place in relation to God, as well as the limit of his human power. He chooses to put his faith in God instead of those who make God-like promises. Consequently, he is not easily duped. The homeowner shows us how to resist fear by accepting the uncertainties of earthly life and believing instead in the certainties of a heavenly future. He shows us how to cast out false prophets and stand firmly at the hearth of the home, enjoying all that is “glorious” in thundering circumstances.
“The Lightning-Rod Man” is prescriptive. Life will toss us, too, into the middle of raging storms. No amount of precaution can prevent trials that must be weathered. Even as others try to convince us otherwise, we cannot avoid the thunder. But we can learn to tolerate it (at the least) and even appreciate it (at best). If we can do so, when the unexpected knocks on our doors we can respond in kind with Melville’s homeowner who boldly proclaims, “In thunder as in sunshine, I stand at ease in the hands of my God.”
This is why we read classics. Stories like “The Lightning-Rod Man” reveal a timeless reality and enable us to be wide-eyed about the journey God asks us to make. They give us models of moral courage, intellectual strength, and personal sacrifice. They encourage us to accept that we won’t always feel comfortable, physically or emotionally. And they offer lessons earned by living vicariously through the storms of others. They help us build an endurance for uncertainty. This is training we need. Because, as we have been rightly warned by Melville, “… the Lightning- rod man still dwells in the land; still travels in storm- time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.”