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

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @carlgregg.