BOOK REVIEW: The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity's Compassion for Animals

(Laura Hobgood-Oster, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals. Baylor University Press, 2010, 227 pages.)

As a longtime owner of animals ranging from dogs to cats to rabbits (my wife and I currently own three cats and one dog and are on a list to adopt a second dog), I was pleased to be asked to review Laura Hobgood-Oster’s new book which invites us to think theologically about animals. Also, our ethical approach as humans to our companion animals is one of the many reasons that I have been a vegetarian for almost a decade-and-a-half. And, indeed, the author writes of the potluck dinners of peasants that eventually evolved into bread-and-wine Communion (where meat would have often been too expensive to include) as the “‘vegetarian’ Eucharist” (89).

Our twenty-pound rat terrier mix is my almost constant companion. And in the spirit of the Monks of New Skete, our dog even sleeps in the bed with us: we lift the covers and she burrows to the foot of the bed, where she sleeps through the night. So I was interested to learn from Hobgood-Oster that humans have lived side-by-side with domestic breeds of dogs for at least fifteen thousand years. Accordingly, she asks, “Including dogs in our religious life simply makes sense. Or does it” (xii)?

To me it does make sense, and the most explicit and embodied way that I have seen animals incorporated into religious life is through St. Francis of Assisi Feast Day worship services that are usually called something like a “Blessing of the Animals Service.” I have facilitated a number of these services, which are a time to meet some the animal members of your congregation of which you may have previously been unaware. A bulletin board can be posted for pictures of pets who are deceased or are unable to attend the worship service. Hobgood-Oster’s book would be excellent for a study leading up to a Blessing of the Animals service — a study which could include the small group planning the worship experience for the larger congregation on St. Francis’ Feast Day (October 4). Or the St. Francis’ Feast Day celebration could be used as a launching pad for a multi-week study of her book. To this end, the book includes a “Group Discussion Guide” as well as “Ideas for Individuals and Households” and “Ideas for Communities and Congregations,” which includes tips for a “Annual Blessing of Pets at the Feast of St. Francis.”

Early in the book, Hobgood-Oster briefly surveys some of the many places animals explicitly play significant roles in scripture from Noah’s Ark to the Nativity. She then proposes to proceed, not only with an analysis of the explicit references to animals in the Bible, but also to read between the lines of the text to infer the places were animals were almost definitely present in the biblical world, but were not mentioned explicitly. She, thus, proposes to adapt techniques honed by feminist biblical scholars like Elisabeth Schussler-Fiorenza to recover the lost (or suppressed) role of women in the biblical narrative to the end of recovering the lost (or suppressed) role of animals in the Bible (xiii). To realize this goal, Hobgood-Oster begins with questions such as the following:

Can Christianity be understood without knowing that bees lived at the monasteries, providing the wax for the candles made by these religious communities for worship? Can Christianity be fully comprehended without knowing the stories of the wild animals who provided food for saints? Indeed, can Christianity be understood without consideration of the sparrows, the fish, and the donkeys with whom Jesus lived, those animals included in his life and in his parables? And, in the contemporary world, can Christianity be a fully engaged, living tradition if it does not consider how the chicken got into the casserole at the potluck supper? (xiv)

These questions help outline the directions in which her theoretical methods will launch her in this book.

One of the many reasons that a book such as this one is necessary are the many mistaken notions about animals circulating in many corners of the Christian world. Hobgood-Oster cites one famous example of Kay Warren — the wife of bestselling author and megachurch pastor Rick Warren — writing on her blog that, “Jesus didn’t die for animals; he gave his all for human beings” (4). As a progressive Christian I think Warren is wrong on both the atonement and on animals. On the atonement, my theology is much more in line with Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker’s landmark book Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. On animals, Hobgood-Oster gets it right that Warren’s opinion is just one more instance of prideful speciesism: “the belief that one species is superior to and more valuable than all the others” (148). In contrast, she cites Albert Schweitzer, St. Francis, and many others are examples of why “all life is sacred” (169).

About Carl Gregg
  • kay warren

    My views about animals have been widely misquoted and misunderstood. I never said that we should not have compassion for animals. In fact,a reading of the blog post in question will clearly show that I said just the opposite. I said that animals are part of God’s creation and that they have a role that is unique and should be cared for, protected and highly valued. I am horrified by cruelty to animals, and believe human beings are responsible to care for the creatures God has made with great respect and tenderness. What I DID say – and many may still disagree with my point, but at least disagree with what I actually said and not with a distortion – was that I believe Jesus died to redeem human beings, not animals. I don’t believe animals have a soul, and therefore aren’t in need of salvation or redemption. That doesn’t make them unimportant or of no regard and it doesn’t give human beings license to willfully abuse or neglect them. God clearly took great delight in creating the various species of animal life, and Scripture tells us they will populate Heaven along with redeemed humanity. Even in this life, animals add an infinite amount of joy, pleasure and comfort to our sometimes drab existence. I can’t even imagine a world without the precious animals that have graced my life thorugh the years. With that said, I cannot refute Scripture that repeatedly offers salvation to human beings, not animals. To my understanding, that means that human beings have the greatest value in God’s eyes, and that orphaned children must be cared for above everyone else, for they are truly the most vulnerable in our broken world.

    • Carl Gregg

      I appreciate this clarification. I’ve removed the reference to not having compassion for animals and added a link to your original blog so that interested parties can click through to read the original context.

  • Chris Pearson

    “The Bible says that God has fixed a day in which He will judge the whole world with justice (Acts 17:31). It is well to remember that although man was created in the image of God, the whole message of the Bible is that all mankind has fallen into sinful rebellion against God.”

    “They are quick to hurt and kill; they leave ruin and destruction wherever they go. They have not known the path of peace, nor have they learnt to fear God…Everyone has sinned and is far away from God’s saving presence.” Romans 3:15-17, 23

    “On the other hand, the Bible indicates that all animals are acceptable in God’s sight. They never degenerated into rebellion against God. While all human beings need forgiveness and salvation, all animals are already in a right relationship with God. We should remember this and be humbled.”

    ~ Peter Hammond, The Bible and Animals

  • Chris Pearson

    Also, it is important to note that the broken world alluded to above inevitably stems from a total disregard for compassion and understanding (i.e. ignorance). Sadly, when it comes to animals, many people, including Bible-believing Christians, choose to live their lives as if compassion/respect for life is mutually exclusive when, in fact, it’s limitless in its absolute truest form. The act of selective compassion towards any of God’s creatures has always been terribly inconsistent, detrimental, discriminatory by nature, and a set back for humanity. Quite frankly, this is the complete opposite of Jesus’ teachings of love, compassion, and mercy towards all of God’s Creation. On the other hand, a habit of doing something good (i.e. showing compassion) obviously comes with the territory just as an attitude of indifference would have the opposite effect. Moreover, contrary to what some people tend to believe, most people who support animal rights support human rights on the same grounds; they reject exploitation, abuse of power, victimization, etc. because it’s all cut from the same fabric: violence. However, where human rights are often a given (no argument), animal rights (even the most basic) have been a constant struggle/moral dilemma for obvious reasons: we live in a culture that enjoys eating them, wearing them, and exploiting them. In my opinion, the fact that we benefit from their misery is often overlooked in human/animal rights discussions and I think an element of denial has to exist, esp. when we choose to eat some animals but not others. Quite frankly, given the silliness of the human race and the fact that human nature (power, greed, selfish desires, etc.) has often delayed truth and justice throughout history even for humans, an attitude of dominance towards animals is nothing more than a human concept for man’s own advantage.

    “Various philosophers and religious leaders tried to convince their disciples and followers that animals are nothing more than machines without a soul, without feelings. However, anyone who has ever lived with an animal–be it a dog, a bird, or even a mouse–knows that this theory is a brazen lie, invented to justify cruelty.” Isaac Bashevis Singer