Book Review – A Faith Embracing All Creatures

I’ve always been around vegetarians but I never gave it much thought. I’ve always been fascinated with people who have convictions and live by them. The fascination with the conviction itself usually comes later if they are persistent. I am more inclined to see someone make a choice to live a certain way despite what is normal for society as a contagious way to live than I am in studying behaviours of people who do things out of habit or nurture. Generally it means that the thing that caused the life change was a cognitive switch and rarely does that translate into a real life switch. So when it causes a life switch, I’m intrigued. This is probably because I like arguments. I love seeing both sides of an issue and playing it out to the fullest extent. If a succession of arguments is enough to change someone’s mind, then I want to dive in and see what those arguments are and see if I can be convinced.

So this is what happened over the last few months. A new friend moved in with us who is a vegetarian for environmental reasons (it is not a sustainable) and then Daniel, who I’ve been eating meat with and living with for the last three years became a vegetarian over Christmas. Volume-2-cover3Since we share a Kindle account, I discovered that he bought and purchased A Faith Embracing All Creatures and since we’ve both have a kind of a blog crush on The Amish Jihadist (Tripp York, editor of the book) I thought this would be a great place to jump in. So I read it not really knowing what I was getting into. I didn’t really read the subtitle even “Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Care for Animals” so it was quite a learning experience. For starters I had no idea that there was commonly asked questions about Christian Care for Animals. Now that I know there is commonly asked questions, and there is answers to those questions, I feel a bit more educated on the topic. A lot of the questions they answered throughout the book, I never would have dreamed of asking, such as ‘doesn’t the Bible say that humans are more important than animals’ and ‘does Christian hospitality require that we eat meat?’ And many times I felt as if there was points being defended as if people they were talking to somehow thought it was wrong to be a vegetarian. So that threw me off quite a bit. I’m not sure who is out there criticizing vegetarians because they somehow think it is a Christian duty to be a meat eater, but I did learn that they must exist since much of this book seemed on the defensive. Though I doubt that anyone who is saying that ‘Christians must eat meat’ would ever go through the trouble of actually organizing a sensible argument for that statement, so much of the defense is probably to people who don’t care to actually engage in the dialogue.

This book did a very good job at defining terms that Christians use flippantly and attach plenty of meaning to them. For instance the first chapter by Carol J. Adams seeks to define the idea of dominion and how we are to understand this word since it is so commonly mistaken to mean lord over or use for our own purposes.

Understood christologically, therefore, dominion cannot be attached to a will-to-power, but is intimately bound up with God’s love and God’s creation.

This is right on and I think that any holistic view of the Christian story would have a hard time defining dominion outside of this understanding. This is essentially what this book did for me. It helped me appreciate the wide reach of vegetarianism as a theological move that seeks to bridge our lives today with the all encompassing redemption of the new creation we are actively pursuing and hoping for. This book though for me was also full of a lot of ‘reaching’ for explanations and arguments where I don’t think there is any. A few quotes stuck out to me as a bit of a stretch. In speaking of Genesis 9:1-3 Judith Barad says

However, if we interpret this passage as merely descriptive rather than prescriptive, the tension in this passage between God’s loving nature and the words spoken dissipates. Our omniscient Lord knows what will happen once humans start eating animals. Norm Phelps writes in The Dominion of Love, “How that must have saddened God. . . . God was not commanding that it should be so, but acknowledging that humanity was still so mired in greed and violence that it could not be otherwise.”

That is a hard stretch for this verse. Sure it is hard to swallow the idea that God is prescribing fear into animals about humans. However, it isn’t very hard to see that when God says “I give you everything” that he is saying it as a response to what has happened. I can’t see where we would get the idea that God was saddened by this because humans misinterpreted him by thinking they could now eat animals. Or Stephen H Webb writes

Only meat has the capacity to bring out our worst expressions of ravenous hunger, and thus meat frequently spawns tension over who gets the biggest cut and the best pieces.

What? That can be said of cake, candy and portobello mushrooms too – any kind of food when people are hungry, or in my house. There was a number of these little one liners thrown around that I felt was lacking in proof and a lot of hype surrounding certain ideals of meat. Thankfully, no chapter really stayed focusing on these little one liners too much, but the very existence of them showed that there was some far fetched reaching going on to make their point which didn’t further their argument but was just misleading vividness or used ad hominem attacks. There was different things thrown around such as maybe Jesus didn’t actually eat the meat that he provided to others, or that we should consider that Jesus didn’t kill any animal in his days in the wilderness as a argument for his vegetarianism which was frustrating at times. The essays weren’t without outlandish claims, but again, I think at the heart of what they were attempting was right on.

There is a few questions I am left with at the end of the book which I don’t think was answered well. Often the Isaiah 65 passage that says “The wolf and the lamb will graze together” was quoted and generally interpreted as a literal understanding of how animals will treat each other in the new redeemed earth. I’m not sure how it could be seen as anything more than a metaphor especially since in the same sentence it speaks of serpent and the dust being it’s food. You can’t take something literally just because it fits your argument. If this was really about animals not eating each other as a literal description of the future one day, then why is the serpent not get treated the same as the rest of the animals? I still can’t get over the fact that eating meat it is quite a regular occurrence all throughout the Bible. Whenever meat was condemned or frowned upon there always seemed to be some other reason for it outside of ‘eating meat is killing living things and we shouldn’t kill living things.’ So any attempt to make eating meat a moral issue, or even to claim that eating meat as an act in and of itself is acting outside of the Christian conviction of God’s creation to me is misleading. However, all that to say, this book did well at linking vegetarianism with the discipline of non-violence. Andy Alexis-Baker nails it on the head for me with this.

Even if the Gospels do not call upon us to imitate Jesus in what we eat, when our diets destroy human communities in other parts of the world, create economic havoc, and threaten people’s (and other creatures’) survival, then I contend that choosing not to eat any fish is one way that we can live out Christ’s love, service, and sacrifice. – Andy Alexis-Baker

I am right on board with his reasoning. The only part I don’t buy is that this is intrinsically tied to meat. This kind of destruction of human communities, economic havoc and destruction of the earth is just as rampant (if not more) within the farming industry and within the oil industry as well. There is no merit in giving up meat if you just go eat grapefruits that destroy the environment just to get to your plate, or you eat the grains that come from farms that have clear cut native forests and shut down small local economies. So while I agree that eating meat is a core issue when it comes to living peacefully with our earth, I don’t think it’s because animals are dying. The issues are systemic of how we treat all of creation and how we depend on systems of oppression for our livelihood.

I think there is easily a connection to make, which some of the authors of this book do quite well, between where our meat in our culture comes from and what that means for living peacefully. That is hands down the most powerful argument for the case of vegetarianism when it’s linked into living a life that is to confront the empire and all that seeks to destroy. But it’s not vegetarianism that is the answer to living this way, even though for some it may be the best way to do so. What we need is a community of people who are willing to risk everything to live all parts of their lives – where they live, what they buy and what they eat – to the glory of God and in hopeful expectation of God’s future. The argument shouldn’t be to stop eating meat. The argument should be to do everything in your power to not participate in activities that are directly or indirectly destroying the earth and humanity. If that includes eating meat (which in many cases in North America it will) then so be it. Here are a few more quotes that I thought were great on their own and really made me think.

Vegetarianism-a specific practice of nonviolence-can thus be a respected component of an authentic Christian spirituality whose uppermost goal is union with God and whose organic expression is a substantial moral character that proclaims Christ to be King of the peaceable kingdom. – Danielle Nussberger

This way in which Christians see the world renders Christianity eschatological. James McClendon argues that Christian faith “sees the present in correct perspective only when it construes the present by means of the prefiguring past (God’s past) while at the same time construing it by means of the prophetic future (God’s future). ‘This is that’ declares the present relevance of what God has previously done, while ‘then is now’ does not abolish the future but declares the present relevance of what God will assuredly do.” McClendon is arguing that inasmuch as Christianity is eschatological, it refuses any sort of depiction of the world as, “that’s just the way it is.” By its very eschatological nature, Christianity resists the inherent violence assumed in accounts of nature that tempt us to imagine death as a prerequisite to life, and it protests the sort of pragmatic realism that tempts Christians to lead lives of practical atheism. What this demands is a proper understanding of the purpose of creation-which Christianity claims is to glorify the triune God. All of creation, from red howler monkeys to Indonesian mimic octopi, exists to glorify God. Of course, there is very little to suggest that these creatures recognize this as their purpose, as they are, along with humans, doing everything they can just to survive. Nevertheless, one of the central claims of Christianity is that creation is ongoing, and that it is, ultimately, a narrative of fulfillment. Stanley Hauerwas and John Berkman argue that it is from “our conviction that God redeems all of creation we learn that God, having created all things, wills that all things enjoy their status as God’s creatures.” A Christian account of creation, therefore, does not end with the first two chapters of Genesis but must include passages such as Isaiah 11, Romans 8, and Revelation 21. Creation can only be properly understood in light of its original purpose, its ongoing struggle with fulfilling that purpose, and its ultimate completion. – Tripp York

While there may well be farming operations or slaughterhouses in North America where these kinds of violations are rare, the cruel treatment of animals described above is not unusual, extreme, or technically criminal. Unlike dog fighting, where a relatively small number of people at the margins of society become addicted to this perverse form of entertainment, factory farming is not the result of a few nasty guys having “fun.” Rather, it is mainstream corporate America employing torture and cruelty as means of making money-lots and lots of money for those who mastermind the factory slaughterhouses.10 For the unfortunate individuals-increasingly, new immigrants and migrant farmworkers-who have to work on these “farms” and in these slaughterhouses for a paltry hourly wage, it is cruelty as a means to an end. This is the business of torture….If you treat a few animals callously, whether it is training your dog for fighting or torturing a few cats, you can be cited for animal cruelty. However, if you cage millions of animals in small spaces where they can hardly move; mutilate them by cutting off their beaks, tails, and/or horns; brand them with hot irons; castrate them; genetically engineer their bodies; and breed them with techniques that result in a lifetime of severe pain, you are unlikely to ever get penalized. – John Berkman

1 thought on “Book Review – A Faith Embracing All Creatures”

  1. good review and really good ideas coming out of this discussion…
    In my mind, eating meat isn’t wrong. It’s a natural thing that all life on earth has been doing for millions of years. Fact: we spend our lives dining on flora and fauna and thus flora and fauna will dine on us when we die. To step out of the realm of religion for a moment and examine this from a purely secular point-of-view, you’ll see similar conclusions though…
    The issue resides in the fact that the current process of the meat getting from the pasture (even before the livestock reaches the pasture – GMO) to our dinner tables is what should be questioned. The John Berkman quote at the end hits it on the head – and one needs also to expand on the notion of oppression. The quote talks about migrant workers and under-paid farmers. Is this not also oppression which most definitely exists in vegetable and fruit production? Absolutely, so if one decides to go vegetarian because of the broken system of factory farms, one also needs to look at the same issues which exist in non-meat food production.
    The only way to get around this is to eat locally, and know your food producers. Something that is gaining momentum for all the right reasons…

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