Lord of the Pets
In his spiritual autobiography, historian Paul Johnson surmises that when future generations reflect on the carnivorous habits of their predecessors they will be appalled, and—at least as far as people who take biblical faith seriously are concerned—he is most likely correct. For it is doubtful that the brutal, if economical, treatment of food animals in the industrialized world's factory farms is anything less than an affront to God's creation.
Getting Christians to put down their forks and consider such things is one objective of Stephen Webb's new book, On God and Dogs: A Christian Theology of Compassion for Animals (Oxford Univ. Press, 222 pp.; $29.95). Webb, who is associate professor of religion and theology at Wabash College, is not himself an advocate of "animal liberation." Against the "rights talk" of the liberationists, Webb calls for what he calls a "language of care." He maintains that animals need to be loved, not liberated. And he takes human feelings about animals—especially pets—seriously.
"I think that there is something philosophically significant about sentimentalism itself," he writes, and he believes that because animals (and especially dogs) are able to touch humans "deeply and completely," they can teach us something significant. In particular, Webb thinks that animals have something to teach us about divine grace, "the inclusive and expansive power of God's love to create and sustain relationships of real mutuality and reciprocity."
Webb suggests that the "sheer excess" of pets is their greatest value. "[N]ature itself seems to encourage the excessive and extravagant," he writes. "Animals do not serve a metaphysical or moral purpose; they are just there, splurges in the divine economy, embellishments, exuberant. … Animals show us that God loves waste, that God identifies with complexity and excess and not just order and organization. God countenances that which is not necessary, that which seems accidental, trivial, and frivolous." Indeed, Webb continues, "Perhaps [dogs] can tell us something about grace, about the power of God to love in spite of utility, to create in spite of efficiency, and to give in spite of the cost."
When a child requests prayer for a sick pet, we might titter; yet we know, at the same time, that God does care about such things. And we know he cares about things because, speaking of sparrows, he has told us so. (Some of the parents of those children, in fact, have prayed with them for a beloved dog or cat or guinea pig.)
Since Webb draws explicitly not only on his own sentiment but also on the work of ecofeminists and, in one place, on Matthew Fox, it is not surprising that some of his propositions are awkward at best. In at least two places, for instance, he maintains that "God's venture across the great divide to identify with humanity is not unlike the human project of domesticating and adopting the canine species"—a thoroughly undemonstrable, if not just plain weird, position.
In what is probably this book's biggest clunker, Webb suggests that there may be some meaning in the fact that the word dog spelled backwards is god—a manifestly silly thing to bring up because, to my knowledge, this works only in English. And then there is Webb's case for a "vegetarian eucharist," where one is confronted with such bewildering lines as this: "The eucharist risks turning a voluntary act of self-donation into a metaphor for the food chain."
Yet critics, and especially committed meat eaters who might be eager to brush Webb off as just another eco-maniac, should not take such lapses as an occasion to ignore this book. For if a line like "we can hear the animal cries in Jesus' death" strikes an odd note, the paragraph in which it appears makes the simple suggestion that a people committed to the humane treatment of animals, rather than the abuse or worship of them, is likely to be a people committed to the humane treatment of humans.
Indeed, this is how much of Webb's argument goes: time and time again the dubious and freaky vie for pre-eminence with the sane and sensible. Thus in a section replete with theoretical gobbledygook—for example, "Perhaps one of the reasons that the [Christian] communion service has become such a token ceremony is that for many it does not seem like a real meal because no meat is served"—one finds a few highly sane sentences on how maintaining a vegetarian diet can be easily construed as a Christian service; it is an established fact, after all, that for all its cold efficiency, the beef industry, driven by popular demand, requires an extraordinary amount of grain that could be put to better use in the world's hungry human stomachs. "By practicing vegetarianism, we literally feed the body of Christ, by contributing to all who are dependent on a more fair use of the world's resources," Webb writes. This, it seems to me, is a good point.
If for no other reason than that Jesus himself was obviously a meat eater and that there are no scriptural injunctions against meat eating (though there are clear injunctions against the cruel treatment of animals), Webb's attempt to discover a biblical case for vegetarianism is unconvincing. But one hopes that this book will nevertheless challenge Christians to wonder if God cares about animals. And if he does care, then perhaps we might think twice about what our appetites have driven megafarmers to do.
Preston Jones is completing a Ph.D. in history at the University of Ottawa, Canada.
The End Is Not in Sight
Pick yourself a collection of almost indisputedly canonical works of fiction from Christianized cultures: Dante's Divine Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost, Langland's Piers Plowman, Spenser's Faerie Queene; Poetry of Marvell, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley. Now start searching for a common obsession.
While you're at it, throw some modern works into the pot: Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, D. H. Lawrence's Women in Love, Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, James Joyce's Ulysses. Any broad thread of association unraveling itself yet?
Finally, let's run the risk of canonical meltdown and sprinkle in the recent work of some big contemporary names: John Updike's Toward the End of Time, Kurt Vonnegut's Timequake, Tim Winton's The Riders, Don De Lillo's Underworld. (Winton is big in Australia; trust me).
What's the connection between all of these? If you're still scratching your head, don't fret. It's not the end of the world. Actually, it is. The connecting idea between these works of Western literature is apocalypse. Apocalypse: the revelation of the end, doomsday, judgment, the Second Coming, the new heavens and the new earth, the end of history, the millennium. A better catch-all word is probably eschatology: that's the concept connecting all of these works of Western literature. This concern with the future—in particular, the final state of humanity—is at the core of literary endeavor.
Strangely, this pervasive theme has been relatively neglected in literary criticism by Christians. The focus of Christian literary theorizing has been the link between Creation and creativity.
That is an ennobling critical starting point, but it is also a theologically insufficient one. It does not take seriously enough the unfolding plan of salvation and renewal the Bible records. Theologically oriented critics need to take a longer view. We need to Moltmannize Christian literary theory. Barthianize it. Re-Pannenberg and De-Bultmannate it. We need to employ more effectively the notions of salvation history and biblical theology in our criticism. We need to rediscover the future and the end.
I am not expecting to subvert centuries of critical thinking in one brash opinion piece, but the time is nigh for a reworking of Christian poetics and literary criticism along eschatological lines. I am certainly not the first to propose this; in fact, I am renovating and breathing new life into the thesis of Frank Kermode's The Sense of an Ending. A few Christian critics have undertaken work in this field, notably Robert Detweiler and David Jasper, but there is much more to be done, especially among evangelicals.
What would an eschatological poetics look like? It would need to pursue at least three avenues of inquiry. First, the future orientation of literary expression itself needs to be considered. "The creative act," wrote Berdyaev, "alike in its power and impotence, is eschatological—a prefiguration of the end of the world." Paul Ricoeur thinks that language itself reveals an eschatology. For example, metaphor is an eschatological device, since it stands for "the 'more than actuality' which is the object of our hope." This forward "leaning" in language generates in literature visions of possible futures and possible worlds by which, Ricoeur claims, we can be "freed from despair and able to entertain a passion for the possible." Literature shapes our desires, and any desire worth having is an eschatological one.
Northrop Frye reasoned in Anatomy of Criticism that the source book of the Western tradition is the Bible; in particular, the Book of Revelation—the Bible's "undisplaced mythical conclusion"—which fulfills the types, metaphors, and symbols introduced from Genesis onwards. Extending this notion, it would appear then that apocalyptic concerns are a key source for literary art.
Second, we need to continue to uncover the eschatological concerns of individual authors and works, and highlight their pervasiveness and their importance for understanding the literary impulse.
This excavation has picked up speed recently, perhaps motivated by the millennial mood. It is now possible to find detailed eschatological studies not only of many of the authors I mentioned earlier, but also of others for whom such a focus is less than obvious. For instance, Mary Wilson Carpenter has written at length on the apocalyptic structures of history in George Eliot. But again, Christian contributions are few and far between.
The kinds of eschatological concerns in literature vary widely, particularly among modern writers. The genre of science fiction has a fascination with utopias and dystopias, with ways of resolving present dilemmas using technology and fantasy. Contemporary fiction tends to be end-denying, Parmenidean in its suggestion that nothing really changes and that history has no telos, and yet apocalyptic in its mood and literary devices (Antichrist figures, hellish settings, soulless characters, etc.). Thomas Pynchon's story "Entropy" is a celebrated example of an antiapocalypse that embraces apocalyptic rhetoric.
John R. May (Towards the New Earth) claims that almost all serious American fiction qualifies as apocalyptic because it exhibits two major symptoms: catastrophic change and a norm of judgment. It is these qualities that so irritated Robert Alter in his 1966 article "The Apocalyptic Temper," where he pleaded for American apocalypticism to enter its Last Days.
Alter's complaint was chiefly a religious one: he claimed that apocalypticism grew out of aberrant Judaism—the kind of Judaism that resulted in the formation of the Christian "sect." His appeal to writers to return in their interests to the ordinariness and repetitiveness of human experience was heeded in part, as testified by the nonteleological nature of much contemporary writing, but always the psychic thirst for apocalyptic paradigms remains.
Third, Christian eschatological criticism needs to operate at a theoretical level, challenging and redirecting critical theory. Happily, eschatology is already back on the agenda in the academy. The field known as "apocalypse theory" has arisen as the century draws to its close. Historians and sociologists are interested in millennial behavior. Literary critics are catching up. Continental theorists such as Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault have all explored the notion of the End, particularly connecting nuclear catastrophe with philosophical imagining. I even stumbled across Marketing Apocalypse: Eschatology, Escapology and the Illusion of the End, a fabulously titled volume on millennial theory in marketing.
Once again, I regret to say, academic Christian contributors to this endeavor are mere blips on the radar. Why should this matter? It matters simply because they are the ones who in fact take the biblical apocalypse seriously and might allow it to inform their work in more than a rhetorical or ironic fashion.
In his article "No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven missiles, seven missives)," the title of which invokes both John's letters to the seven churches and Finnegans Wake, Derrida claims that literature itself belongs to "the nuclear epoch." It is written with the awareness that it could all be destroyed at the push of a button.
But a nuclear end has only been at the forefront of humanity's collective mind for a few decades. A divinely effected spiritual End has been part of human imagining since at least intertestamental times (it may go back to Zoroaster, around 1500 B.C., if you follow Norman Cohn's argument). If the nuclear end informs all modern literature, the Christian end informs all literature.
Derrida admitted some time ago in an interview to a vague subconscious hope for the future:
Unfortunately, I do not feel inspired by any sort of hope which would permit me to presume that my work of deconstruction has a prophetic function. … The fact that I declare it "unfortunate" that I do not personally feel inspired may be a signal that deep down I still hope. It means that I am in fact still looking for something.
We critically engaged Christians ought to be working hard to give substance to that yearning, for it is a yearning we detect in most authors who have ever put pen to page.
Greg Clarke is a frequent contributor to Kategoria: A Critical Review of Modern Life, published in Australia.
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