Death in the Stream: Hemingway on How Far Natural Theology Takes Us

Reading Time: 4 mins

In his last novel, Islands in the Stream, Hemingway shows us what we get when we look to nature for ultimate truth: death.

At some time and some point, we have probably invited someone to church only to hear the reply: “I feel closer to God in nature.” In my state of Minnesota, this excuse for skipping out on worship reaches epidemic proportions between Memorial Day and Labor Day, as many Minnesotans leave the Twin Cities and head “up north” to “the cabin.” Although the northward trajectory to one of the many 10,000 plus bodies of freshwater may be unique to the Northstar State, the phenomenon of preferring the beauty of nature to the preached Word of God has no geographical bounds.

But what exactly do we get from God in nature? What can we know about our Creator from looking at the stars or listening to the waves of the ocean? Rather than crack open the many tomes of Western theology for answers to this question, I turn to the modern, hedonistic, inconsistently Roman Catholic author Ernest Hemingway. In his last novel, Islands in the Stream, Hemingway shows us what we get when we look to nature for ultimate truth: death.

In the opening scene of this novel, Hemingway takes us to a beautiful spot on the Bahaman island of Bimini, where his protagonist Thomas Hudson lives on a narrow strip of land between the harbor and the waters of the Gulf Stream. Thomas can walk out his front door and into the blue-green waters of the stream. During the day, he can see through the water, and it makes a fine place for swimming and enjoying the beauty of creation. At night, however, only a madman would enter the water, for the thrashing of feeding sharks can be heard from the shore making the beautiful spot a terrible one. Sharks are not the only danger. Hurricanes threaten humans here too. Even though the sun is shining on a beautiful morning, Thomas Hudson knows that beneath that beauty, death lurks in the waters of the Gulf Stream.

In his last novel, Islands in the Stream, Hemingway shows us what we get when we look to nature for ultimate truth: death.

With eerie prescience, Hemingway moves from Thomas’ reflection on death in nature to his excitement at the anticipated arrival of his three boys, whose mothers have allowed them to spend the summer with him at his island home. Thomas takes himself to a bar as he awaits the arrival of his sons, planning all kinds of manly fun on the waters of the Gulf Stream. When he arrives at the bar, though, another image of death in nature awaits him.

Thomas is a painter, and over morning gin and tonics, the bartender, Bobby, implores Thomas to paint him a picture to hang in the bar. The painting he wants, however, is not a scene of a peaceful day at the beach. He wants Thomas to pain him a waterspout, and not just any waterspout; Bobby wants a painting of the most terrifying, killer waterspout imaginable.

The bartender describes the terrifying scene, where the waterspout morphs into a full-blown hurricane with wooden planks flying through the air together with dead birds, men and women washed out to sea, trees going down, and beneath it all those killer sharks ready to consume any survivors. Bobby’s planned painting then takes on truly apocalyptic proportions. Amid the hurricane, the gates of hell themselves open to devour sinners, as holy rollers and drunks alike are pitch-forked by demons to eternal perdition with oceanic scavengers feeding on their eyes and limbs. Thomas moves quickly to change the subject, not wanting to think any more on “God’s own hell of a waterspout.”

Soon Thomas Hudson’s sons Tom Jr., David, and Andrew arrive. Thomas sets out with some friends and his boys on what is planned to be a summer full of quality time, relaxation, and adventure on the Gulf Stream. But beneath the seemingly-placid blue-green waters, death lurks, waiting for a chance to grab at human life.

That grab comes one day as Tom and his boys are fishing. While Thomas is relaxing on deck, the boys are snorkel fishing with spears off a nearby reef. Suddenly, a fin appears on the surface of the water, as a gigantic hammerhead shark comes straight for David, who has a bloodied, fish hooked on his spear. Paralyzed with fear in what would be any parent’s nightmare, Thomas is unable to aim his rifle and shoot the shark attacking his son. As the monster moves in for the kill, the day is saved by a friend named Eddy, who—in true Hemingway style—dispatches the beast with a Thompson submachine gun.

The tearful reunion of father and son that follows emphasizes the preciousness and fragility of life on the Gulf Stream. The story goes on, and Tom and his sons live out a lovely summer in the Bahaman sun, fishing, swimming, talking of girls, and doing all the kinds of things that boys and fathers should do. Life on the Gulf Stream seems to have returned to the picturesque beauty of the opening scene, but death is not so quickly satiated.

Hemingway offers a stark warning: while beautiful, nature ultimately will not bring you good news.

As his boys leave Bimini at the end of the summer, Thomas is left not only with the loneliness that we would expect of a father who will not see his three sons for another year but also with a sense of impending doom, that some disaster will strike. He tries to work through the feeling through his painting, but one day an envelope arrives bringing horrific news. His two sons, David and Andrew, have been killed in a car accident. Death cannot be avoided. It awaits its day, and now it comes not as a tropical cyclone or killer shark but as a telegram.

Hemingway offers a stark warning: while beautiful, nature ultimately will not bring you good news. It will only bring you death. If we look to nature for theological truth, we will find it. The truth is that death is inevitable and insatiable. Nature is beautiful. At the same time, beneath the placid surface, the fact that we will all die lurks like a hammerhead shark. This is true, but it isn’t good news.

Nature alone can never get us beyond death. It can never give us the gospel that says our death has been conquered by the One who descended into the deadly depths for us on the cross and was raised to life again for us so that we would also be raised from the depths of death. Nature can’t tell us that. For that Good News, as St. Paul tells us in Romans 10:14-17, we must have a preacher.