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IS THERE GOSPEL GOOD NEWS FOR THE ANIMALS?
A Survey of Recent Literature - Updated 17 Mar 2002
by Elizabeth Farians, Ph.D.
Most animal rights activists would say, "Who cares?" They have long ago written off the Christian gospel as far as animals are concerned. And for good reason. For centuries, the churches have done little or nothing for the animals either in preaching, teaching or practice. There has been almost complete theological silence. And worse: a false reading of scripture, interpreting the "dominion" of Genesis to mean that humans were given, by divine approval, the unrestricted use of animals, has made it almost impossible to persuade many Christians that compassion to animals is the ideal.
But recently, in a welcome turn of events, there are many new publications which stress that Christianity is rife with themes and ideals that could benefit the animals This is important for believers and nonbelievers alike among animal advocates because Christianity remains a very powerful force in modern life. Anglican priest theologian, Rev. Dr. Andrew Linzey, was one of the first to insist that a true Christianity is gospel good news for the animals. His 1976 Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment led the way. Christianity and the Rights of Animals soon followed and has been the primer for this view.
Animal Gospel (1998, Westminster John Knox Press) is Linzey’s latest. He says it is a pastoral, evangelical sequel to Animal Theology. It is about God’s unlimited love for creation. The book opens with a passionate commitment to the gospel and to animals, a confession of faith that is stunning. He says he wanted to write a book that will "touch the hearts and souls of the readers." He has done that.
Dr. Linzey says that how we treat the animals is not some minor aspect of ethics, but that "it is one of the big questions confronting all of humanity." He also believes that the moral arguments of animal rightists need the underpinning of religion to be effective. Otherwise, they are irritating and too self-righteous, he says. But where does this leave animal advocacy for those who do not hold religious beliefs?
Obviously, Linzey holds orthodox Christianity and he takes the canonized Bible as his norm; he doesn’t allow for interpolations. The Linzey thesis is that creation, as God intended it to be, was a paradise. Then there was the fall of man that took the earth and the animals with it. The good news of the Gospel is that, through Christ, there will be a redemption, as promised, which will restore the paradise for all: humans, the earth and the animals. Dr. Linzey is adamant that the "fall" is necessary if there is to be a restoration. Otherwise, the suffering and pain of the present world would be the way God intended. Also, without gospel faith there can be only despair. This is a powerful statement. Dr. Linzey is Professor of Christian Theology and Animal Welfare at Mansfield College, Oxford University. He has received several awards for his work in this field.
However, I think there is a problem. Those Christian authors who maintain that there has been a fall from grace but that God will make it OK in the end need to ask the baby pelican of Jay McDaniel’s Of God and Pelican, (1989, Westminster/John Knox) if it is OK in the end. The chick was pushed out of the nest by its mother, in order to ensure the survival of her other nestling. In this example McDaniel tries to explain natural evil as opposed to man-made evil. Of course, a human person who has suffered terrible life-long agony could ask the same question.
In the meantime, between the paradise of creation and the fulfillment of the promised salvation, Linzey proclaims that humans are to treat the animals with compassion and kindness, because "dominion" as revealed by Christ, our exemplar, means a loving stewardship, as God treats all of creation. Linzey says, "The power of God in Jesus is expressed in katabasis, humility, self-sacrifice, powerlessness….There can be no lordship without service." He claims, "To stand for Jesus is to stand for God’s justice and the fin-al release of all creation from bondage to decay, against the moral hopelessness and despair that characterize our time." He argues insistently that this promise includes the animals. He challenges the Christian to believe that God is powerful enough to fulfill the promise.
As in his other books, Linzey treats the various animal exploitations of our times such as: entertainment, hunting, cloning, vivisection, fur and leather and factory farming. He does not hold back in his criticism of the church. His detailed analysis and disparagement of the teaching about animals in the new Catholic Catechism is very important for animal advocates. There are many practical suggestions in Linzey’s book, but no index. Linzey makes strong points about love for all, even the church, the animal exploiters and each other. Animal Gospel is an inspiration.
Just published is Stephen H. Webb’s, Good Eating, (2001, Brazos Press). Good Eating (morally good) is Dr. Webb’s second theological work in the animal field. On God and Dogs was Webb’s first, very scholarly work. Webb uses the relationship between dogs and humans to promote the theological notion of God’s unstinting love for creation. Both books are treasures of references on the biblical record and the Christian tradition. Good Eating closely follows the earlier work. But I found it easier to read with its many headings for guidance. It is frustrating though because there is no subject index for easy access to the material. However, there is a useful appendix with analyses and critiques of Process Theology, Ecofeminism, Environmental Theology, Roman Catholic Natural Law Theory, and Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism. Dr. Webb is a professor of religion and philosophy at Indiana’s Wabash College.
Perhaps Webb’s most unique idea is that of a vegetarian Eucharist. It is surely an idea whose time has come. Dr. Webb shows how Pauline theology "set the stage for what became orthodox Eucharistic practice when he emphasized the similarities between the Lord’s supper and pagan sacrifices". Webb says Paul "used the logic, language and even the elements of animal sacrifice-bread/body and wine/blood-to build a bridge from pagan religion to the new religion of Christianity." But, Webb continues, "by preaching a new sacrifice that renders old ones redundant, he risked continuing the very thing that he was trying to replace". Historically, Webb says "the process of animalizing the Eucharist reached its peak in the Middles Ages with the doctrine of transubstantiation, which portrayed the Eucharist as an reenactment of Christ’s death".
Dr. Webb goes on to explain that the doctrine of the real presence is not contrary to the concept of the Eucharist as a vegetarian meal. He says, "What the doctrine of transubstantiation highlights is how the bread and wine are not arbitrary signs of faith but instead fitting vehicles of the nourishment given by God’s outpouring in Jesus Christ." Webb’s point is well taken as he explains that a vegetarian Eucharist best represents a loving God of justice, harmony and peace. He says, "the message of the Eucharist is that God is one with us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ" and that "the medium of that message-the actual food eaten-is not irrelevant to the content of what the Eucharist conveys."
Dr. Webb is critical of the animal rights movement. He strongly advocates practicing compassionate stewardship of the animals. But he holds that biblical vegetarianism is an alternative to the utopian rigor of the animal rights movement that he feels is impossible to uphold. Instead he says Christian vegetarianism "will be a way, gradually and humbly, of looking to God’s restoration of creation, the fulfillment of God’s promise to complete history by returning the whole world to God’s original intentions. This diet of hope can be one way of witnessing to the good news of Jesus Christ". This should be a wonderful incentive for being vegetarian for those claiming to be Christian. Dr. Webb’s work is serious theology worth serious consideration.
One of the newest offerings, and one of my favorites, is The Bible According to Noah (2001, Lantern Books) by Rev. Gary Kowalski. This is a book that I would like to give to everyone I know, animal friend or even ones not so friendly, who is interested in religion. It is a delightful read.
The Bible According to Noah, a slim volume, is well suited to meditation. Kowalski writes in a beautiful and creative way, exemplifying his theological points with fascinating facts about animal life. He recreates many of the well-known Bible stories "as though the animals mattered.". As in his earlier work, The Souls of Animals, Kowalski forcefully shows us how much like us the animals really are. He says, "the idea that Homo Sapiens alone bears the imago dei (has had) far-reaching and destructive consequences", and that, "Little besides parochialism can support such a claim." He says, " It is now well-accepted that the Bible reflects a patriarchal culture (reviewer’s note: "I wish") but that it is also anthropocentric is not yet recognized."
Rev. Kowalski, a minister to the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Burlington, Vermont, has great respect for the Bible, but he maintains that it is meant to be read according to new knowledge of the times. If the Bible is to keep its tradition alive it must "change and grow". He acknowledges that, "Those who treat the Bible as an inerrant document whose every word is sacrosanct may be scandalized by the idea that these stories can be given a new rendition." Each chapter of The Bible According to Noah ends with a Bible story retold, in what Kowalski call a ‘biocentric’ way, which embraces the unity and diversity of life.
There is a controversy going on within this new movement. It is: was Jesus a vegetarian? One of the latest books to come out is The Lost Religion of Jesus (2000, Lantern Books) by Keith Akers. Wow! What a book! Written in almost outline form, the book is an easy read.
Akers comes down hard on the side of the ‘Jesus was a vegetarian’ movement, although his book is about much more. The Lost Religion of Jesus argues that the religion of the established church has become a religion of dogmas; it is Pauline Christianity. It is not the religion of the Jesus movement, a religion of nonviolence, simple living and vegetarianism. Akers maintains that this core message of Jesus has been lost by the institutional church. This surely will incite many arguments within Christianity.
Keith Akers boldly lines up the historical facts about early Christianity along with strong reasons of support. His book is filled with quotations from authentic, early sources. He says any idea of early Christianity must come to grips with Jewish Christianity like the Ebionites, a Jewish sect, who "understand Jesus better than any of the other early groups… and that conclusions about the historical Jesus need to be adjusted accordingly." The vegetarianism of Jesus is imbedded in this record. One of Akers’ most startling statements is that Jesus’ radical attack on the temple was because he opposed animal sacrifice. The Lost Religion of Jesus is an amazing book. A Vegetarianism Sourcebook is an earlier work by Akers.
Seemingly to do the ‘Jesus was a vegetarian’ crowd one better, Richard Allen Young titles his work: Is God a Vegetarian? But surprisingly, he holds that Jesus probably ate fish, although he admits that this leaves many nagging questions. So Young falls in line with the Christian Vegetarian Association’s excellent, very useful pamphlet "What Would Jesus Eat--Today?" Both Linzey and Webb sit on the Association’s Board of Directors and both argue, like Young, that the historical Jesus probably was not a vegetarian, but that a Jesus of our times surely would be a vegetarian.
Is God a Vegetarian? (1999, Open Court), is a gentle, easy-to-read book. In Young’s view we do not have to argue with the meat eaters over ‘sound bite’ texts, as feminist and animal advocate Carol Adams calls them. The author considers the bible a narrative into which we should enter and participate. We are invited to see where the story is going. "What we see is a story of a people and their loving God on a journey together", explains Dr. Young. He does not want us to interpret their times by our times. He situates the story firmly in orthodox Christianity.
Richard Allan Young is a professor of New Testament Studies at Temple Baptist Seminary and he has done his homework on the ‘ Jesus was a vegetarian’ writings. He critiques several, including those of Gideon Jasper Ouseley, Edmond Szekely, Upton Clary Ewing and Carl Andres Skriver. Young doesn’t mince words in his criticism. Following the lead of Per Beskow in Strange Tales About Jesus, he thinks the Ouseley and Szekely works are forgeries. He concludes that the others do not hold water. Young also deals with the Pauline controversy mentioned by several holders of the ‘Jesus was a vegetarian’ theory. However, his book predates the Akers work.
Dr. Young offers several reflections on why Jesus is presented in Scripture as eating fish but in the end he admits it "remains hidden in the mysterious way of God." However Dr. Young states that Christians follow the crucified and resurrected Christ and that to "confess the risen Christ is to testify of the present possibility of a new kind of existence for all creation." He says, "Christian vegetarianism is… a testimony to the cosmic reconciliation available through the transforming power of the risen Christ." Vegetarian recipes are included at the end of each chapter of the book.
For practical, political reasons the ‘what would Jesus eat today?’ tactic seems to me to be the better approach to the problem of the food of Jesus, although as time probably eventually will tell, I think that the historical and logical facts are on Keith Akers’ side. If Christ is supposed to be the " lamb of God" the Agnus Dei, it seems incongruous to me to think of him chewing on a leg of lamb. Young argues against this kind of statement because as he probably would say, it is trying to find the ‘historical Jesus’. Many scholars like Albert Schweitzer have debunked this idea.
Keith Akers ideas are not new. Despite Young’s criticism, books like Upton Clary Ewing’s The Profit of the Dead See Scrolls", demand a second look. And besides those mentioned above by Young, the Rev. John Todd Ferrier, a prolific spiritual writer, puts forth many of the same ideas especially in his On Behalf of the Creatures. He left the Congregational Church ministry and in 1904, in England, founded The Order of the Cross. The Order is a deeply spiritual, yet informal, i.e., not ecclesiastical, Christian fellowship requiring ‘ethical’ vegetarianism and compassion for animals of its members, as a first and necessary step toward spiritual maturity. Today the Order is active in several parts of the world, including the United States. Rynn Berry’s Food for the Gods provides information about the Order.
In 1977, the Edenite Society, once headquartered in New Jersey under the direction of Frank and Lois Muncie, published a pamphlet entitled "Jesus Was a Vegetarian, Why Aren’t You?" Polemic in style, its main argument is that the orthodox scriptures of the church have been tampered with to eliminate any reference to vegetarianism. The Society closed in 1989 and turned over its materials to the Essenes in Oregon, mentioned below. Steven Rosen mentions the Edenite Society in Diet for Transcendence, previously published in 1987, as Food for the Spirit. Interestingly in one of the appendices of his book, Steven Rosen himself offers a cogent argument for the ‘Jesus was a vegetarian’ theory. He says Jesus was a Nazarene, a fact implying more than just that Jesus was from Nazareth. The Nazarenes followed Essene vegetarian practices. Also, the modern day, Essene Church of Christ, centered in Oregon and founded by Brother David Owen, known as Brother Nazariah, hold many of the same theories as do the California based "Essenes of Mt. Carmel." Quaker member, Charles Valclavik, M. D., in The Vegetarianism of Jesus Christ explores these same points and Essense minister, Gabriel Cousens, M. D., relates the same opinion in his book, Conscious Eating.
Bruce Friedrich, vegetarian campaign coordinator for People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has taken up the ‘Jesus was a vegetarian’ theme with fever, as well he should. Someone has to be out in front urging the reluctant forward.
Some of the problem concerning the food of Jesus centers around a controversy about the vegetarianism of the Essenes. Some question this especially since the finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Excavations around the Qumram area where some of the Essenes were thought to have lived have turned up bone fragments and some of the references in some remnants of "bootlegged" Dead Sea documents, show a society neither pacifist nor vegetarian. In an excellent article available from The Essene Church of Christ, Brother Nazariah, D.D., argues that the biblical Essenes of Mount Carmel are to be distinguished from the Essenes of Qumram of the Dead Sea area. Nazareth is in northern Israel and is not near Qumram in southern Israel.
When the scrolls were found there was a great deal of fear about what they might reveal about early Christianity or Judaism. As a consequence a small group of scholars gained control of the scrolls and refused access to the larger academic community. How much the Vatican has been involved in this secrecy it would be interesting to know. Finally in 1991, under intense pressure and serious criticism from the academic community, the scrolls were taken over by different and much larger group of scholars. On November 16, 2001, the project’s present editor-in-chief, Professor Emanuel Tov of Hebrew University in Jerusalem, announced that the work is complete and all the scrolls will be published and available to everyone. He says the scrolls will show that earlier fears were unfounded. Then scholars may be able to get a clearer understanding of the Essenes.
Some of the recent writings have been done by non-theologians. The academy, including the biblical scholars, has yet to get really involved. This does not mean that the other books are not scholarly, for indeed they are. I predict that it will not be too long before more biblical scholars get into the act. Previously, they glossed over the vegetarian texts, not paying much attention. But now the question about what Jesus ate will get really hot. We haven’t heard the last word on this subject.
A very interesting little book by J. R. Hyland, God’s Covenant With the Animals (2000, Lantern), originally published as The Slaughter of the Terrified Beasts, is an excellent overview of the history of animals in Jewish life. Rev. Hyland’s is an Evangelical minister. Her thesis is that the people of God can be progressively more ready to hear the full word of revelation and so she offers new, compassionate interpretations. She does a detailed reporting of temple slaughter and, like Akers, maintains that Jesus’ aggressive act of cleansing the temple was a protest against animal sacrifice. She also deals with the translation and interpretation problems of the book of Revelations. God’s Covenant With the Animals is a highly respected publication as it is quoted often by the other authors.
It is about time that a Roman Catholic gets into the act for the animals. Prolific Jesuit writer, Father John Dear, has produced a short pamphlet, Christianity and Vegetarianism. It is situated in the strong non-violence tradition of Jesus, Gandhi and King and is an excellent summary of the whole issue although he doesn’t mention the fish problem. There is nothing new or startling here but it is helpful to have a supportive Catholic resource. The pamphlet is available from PETA (People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
I am happy to report that most of the writings explored in this review are feminist in their perspective. They respect the caring ethic of ecofeminism, often quote women scholars, use inclusive pronouns and sometimes refer to divinity as "she".
Other Excellent Recent Books:
Carol Adams. The Inner Art of Vegetarianism.
Michael W Fox. The Boundless Circle.
John Murti Vasu. They Shall Not Hurt or Destroy: Animal Rights and Vegetarianism in Western Religious Traditions.
Charles Pinches and Jay B. McDaniel (Eds.) Good News for Animals? Contributors are: Carol Adams, John Berkman, Richard Clugston, John Cobb, Jr., Gary Comstock, George Frear, William French, Stanley Hauerwas, L. Shannon Jung, Andrew Linzey, Theodore Walker, Tom Regan, & Rosemary Radford Ruether.
Lewis G. Regenstein. Replenish the Earth: A History of Organized Religion’s Treatment of Animals and Nature.
Richard H. Schwartz. Judaism and Vegetarianism. 2nd ed
Animals, People and the Earth www.ape-connections.org email: [email protected]
The calf photo on these pages is from Farm Sanctuary with our thanks.
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