Book Club Channel
The Friends We Keep: A Book Excerpt
This month in the Patheos Book Club, we're featuring the book The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity's Compassion for Animals, by Laura Hobgood-Oster. An excerpt of the Introduction follows.
Even Dogs Deserve the Crumbs
Are your angels really hovering in the sky?
Because I think I just saw one walking by
Leaving paw prints in the snow
Cloven tracks in the mud
A slug trail on the sidewalk
Hoofprints . . .
How near they are. How holy they are.
The Georgetown, Texas, city animal shelter probably sees too much of me. While my professional life revolves around a university, its classes and students and in tellectual work, my "real" life revolves around dogs and many other animals. For almost a decade the kind and often quite stressed humans who work day in and day out at the city's shelter have allowed me to help find homes for the many dogs who end up there. They get the hard jobs of euthanizing the animals who are in pain, who have behavioral issues that they deem dangerous, or who just happen to land at the shelter when it is too full to take in any additional dogs or cats.2 Though some stories are heartwrenching for me as well, I usually get more happy stories of dogs landing on sofas in their new homes and cats curling up on their adopter's lap.
Questions from the religious tradition that filled my life as a child of the church, the intellectual practice that draws me into conversations with theories and their applications as a professor, and the activist engagement that takes me into animal shelters and slaughterhouses are the resources that drive me to fill the pages of this book. I am confident, and make this claim without hesitation, that religious traditions and spirituality do have much to offer if humans want to live differently with animals. By the same token, I am confident that thinking about animals and how they are included in our religious beliefs and practices will only enrich our religious traditions and provide compassionate and meaningful outlets for engagement with the world.
Consider the account of Jesus and the Canaanite woman reported in the Gospel of Matthew and quoted in the front matter of this book.3 It is one of many stories in Scripture that open doors into the world of animals in the Christian tradition. Not only is it loaded with meaning and dripping with various possibilities for interpretation, but it brings real animals into the conversation. As many exegetes have detailed, this story certainly has much to say about issues of ethnic identity and the comparative worth of human beings at a particular point in history. It is amazing as well that Jesus is corrected and accepts the challenge presented by this outsider, the Canaanite woman. And, yes, the dogs eating the crumbs are likely used metaphorically by both Jesus and the woman. But might these dirty dogs eating the scraps below the table also be real animals? It is based on this possibility that I begin this journey exploring the relationship between humans and other-than-human animals in Christianity. They have been symbols in the form of lambs and doves, they have been accidental onlookers and maybe even unwilling participants; imagine for example the horses ridden to the Crusades or on Methodist circuits on the American frontier. And they have been real bodies present in the midst of Christian practices, beliefs, and rituals in many cultures for two millennia.
Laura Hobgood-Oster is Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies and holds the Paden Chair in Religion at Southwestern University. Featured in the documentary "Eating Mercifully," produced by the Humane Society of the United States and frequently interviewed by national print and broadcast media, she is the author of Holy Dogs & Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition and executive editor of the Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature. She lives in Georgetown, Texas.