"When God Was a Bird" - a review

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“When God was a Bird: Christianity, Animism, and the Re-Enchantment of the World” by Mark I. Wallace. New York: Fordham University Press, 2019.

The older I get the less certain I am about language related to God. God is neither this, nor that as well as both this and that. I also have difficulties with God and prepositions: I/we/everything am in/with/through God; God is in/with/through me/us/everything.

And into that blurry language Mark Wallace brings an engaging book with a fascinating premise: God is a bird. The book is his case for a biblically based Christian animism, but it’s his particular emphasis on the avian-God that grabbed my attention. He’s taking some of the bird language in the bible, grabbing hold of it, and running with it. This curious and specific claim of an avian God is why I chose to read this book.

Essentially, this book is Wallace’s argument for a historical biblical animist faith which he feels is needed today as a response to our world’s ongoing ecological crisis. That, and the Holy Spirit is a bird. The format of the book is “an exercise in theology, philosophy, nature writing, and personal anecdote” (x) which provides the reader an nice blending of voices.

Is that through which we encounter God, of God? Is it God? Is venerating something as sacred, the equivalent to calling it God? Is there a real difference between “is God” and “as God”? These questions kept churning in my mind as I read the book. Wallace seemed to be quick to say that encountering God through the natural world tells us that God is the natural world. But while he makes a plea for God is a bird, he also does not claim a pantheistic belief that nature is God. While at times his language about God feels very specific and concrete, he will also make seemingly contradictory statements which tells me that his understanding of God is not simplistic.

Wallace extends God’s incarnation to the animal world. He advocates for “animotheism – the belief that all beings, including nonhuman animals, are imbued with divine presence.” (2) He occasionally extends it to the rest of the natural world, but his interest is primarily animalian. In his trinity the Father represents the otherness of God, Son is the Humanness of God, and the Holy Spirit is the animality of God.

Wallace clearly states what his book is about, or what he is trying to accomplish, “My book’s thesis: Christianity, at its core, is a carnal-minded, fleshly, earthy, animalistic system of belief just insofar as its understanding of the human Jesus (Christology) and the avian Spirit (pneumatology) is rooted in its divinization of human and nonhuman creatures (animality). In this telling of the Christian story as animocentric, God is an animal, without denying the difference between God and animals, because the primary Trinitarian grammar of biblical religion centers on the double enfleshment of God in human and avian modes of being the Son and the Spirit respectively.” (14)

I found his engagement with the biblical text endlessly fascinating, even when I wouldn’t go along with his interpretations. He helped me look at some biblical themes and texts in new ways and for this I am very grateful. Wallace made me stop and reconsider biblical language for God. Is a metaphor such as God brooding over her chicks always just a metaphor, or can it reveal something deeper about God and birds. It may be too easy for us to gloss over the language of “spiritual things” like the Holy Spirit descending as a dove. That being said, I feel like Wallace was very quick to jump from Jesus referenced some animal to Jesus considered it sacred.

I’m not as convinced of a historical biblical animist faith as Wallace is, however, I’m not sure that matters very much; at least to me. The lessons of encountering God in/though/with the natural world and it’s reshaping of our current beliefs, decisions, and activities still resonates.

One thing I try to always be attentive to in reading a book of nonfiction is to be aware of who the author sets up as the enemy. It seems that we often create convenient bogeyman to act as foils against which we can make our claims. (And please note my intentional “we” in the previous sentence. I am as guilty of this as anyone.) Wallace argues against “Central strains of classical Christian opinion” (p. 21) which is admittedly a broad brush. “Classical Christianity” is also filled with voices who take very seriously the place of animals in our spiritual lives.

In the second half of the book he highlights the animist beliefs of Hildegard of Bingen and John Muir as examples of Christianimism. I was surprised that other indigenous and Celtic examples did not figure more prominently. Wallace spends quite a bit of time considering John Muir. While he acknowledges some of the challenges with Muir’s thought, I find the fact that Muir’s ideal wilderness was one where the indigenous people have been removed is more substantially troubling. If the wilderness through which you encounter God is a wilderness that reflects you, as Muir may be guilty of, then have you have potentially created wilderness and God in your own image?

The chapter on Muir also raised concerns for me about historical context. What the natural world meant to civilizations 2000 years ago is very different than what it means to modern, western folk. We are very protected from the vicissitudes of nature. We observe nature as this detached thing over there that only in rare occasions has life or death control over us. Does this protection from the natural world lend itself to our romanticizing or fetishizing the natural world.

Mark Wallace has given his readers a fascinating book. In these kinds of exercises in drawing the boundaries or portraits of God all our definitions fall short. All our descriptions of God are not God. And yet, they are still valuable and teach us of God. Whether one is convinced by Wallace’s biblical interpretation or not is not as urgent is recognizing with Wallace that we encounter God through the natural world and our destruction of the natural world limits our experience of God.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

"Invitation to Retreat" by Ruth Haley Barton

Invitation to Retreat: The Gift and Necessity of Time Away with God by Ruth Haley Barton. IVP Books, 2018

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Ruth Haley Barton and her work with Transforming Center has built a strong collection of resources aimed at tending to the spiritual lives of pastors and Christian leaders. Her volume “Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership” published in 2008 with a second edition published in 2018 laid the foundation of much of her following work. Through workshops, retreats, podcasts, and further books Barton has shown that the work of Christian leadership is soul work. Her work follows a similar path to that of Richard Foster in teaching a largely evangelical audience the wisdom ancient spiritual practices have for modern busy leaders.

Her latest book explores the spiritual practice of retreat.

As every Christian book about retreat should do, she grounds her invitation to retreat in the example of Jesus and his own practice of retreating to a quiet place to pray, as well as his calling his disciples come away to a deserted place and rest a while. (Mk 6:30-31) Since that time, people in the church have recognized the importance of balancing their active life of work, with a time of retreat to give deeper attention to their relationship with God. “Retreat in the context of the spiritual life is an extended time apart for the purpose of being with God and giving God our full and undivided attention.” (P. 4)

Retreat often has two phases. The first phase is a retreat away from something. Barton uses the military phrase of strategic withdrawal from those places where we might be in danger. These dangers include distractions, trying too hard, exhaustion, poor boundaries, and feeling as if everything depends on you.

At The Hermitage, a retreat center in southwest Michigan where I am on staff, we will encourage retreatants to begin their time of retreat simply with relaxing and not doing anything. People need time to let go. Sometimes, that is all that can be, or needs to be accomplished on a retreat; simply letting go.

Once you have retreated away from something, the next phase is to retreat into something – and Barton describes that something as the rhythm of your retreat. She takes a few chapters to discuss moving into a different rhythm, one based largely on fixed-hour prayer. She sees fixed hour prayer as an important way to reset one’s mode of being. In an appendix she provides an order of prayer for praying four times a day during one’s retreat.

At the Hermitage we often talk about the rhythms of the Hermitage with daily morning prayer, including Eucharist on Wednesdays and centering prayer on Saturdays. Communal meals eaten in silence also help to live into the rhythm of daily life. These rhythms provide a structure, or a framework upon which the retreatants, and the staff, can shape and guide their day and give space to their intentions.

After the initial getting away to a retreat, Barton acknowledges that the retreatant can move into an experience of a deeper letting go and relinquishing. Letting go of control – you may have planned to read a few books, or write a paper, but on retreat you realize the Spirit is calling you to something completely different. Barton relates that retreatants may also experience a relinquishing of false-selves, and a letting go of identity.

In the next chapters Barton discusses the creative possibilities that can happen on retreat. Retreats can become productive times of discernment, recalibration, and finding spiritual freedom. It is important not to rush to these more productive experiences of retreat too quickly without giving enough time to let go and enter into the rhythm of the retreat.

Her final two chapters discuss the very important topic of returning from retreat. The retreat is not an end in itself. “The purpose of retreat is twofold: to become more deeply grounded in God as the ultimate orienting reality of our lives, and to return to the life God has given us with renewed strength, vitality, and clarity about how we are called to be in God for the world.” (p. 115) It is not uncommon for people to want to remain in the heightened experience they had on retreat – I have felt that way too – but returning from retreat is important.

On the driveway exiting the Hermitage departing retreatants see the sign “Return slowly.” This is not an indication that we don’t want to see them again, but it is a reminder that a retreat should serve the purpose of return. People returning to a time of retreat too quickly and too often may actually be escaping rather than retreating.

Barton has an easy going and approachable writing style. This short book is built on a strong foundation which Barton translates into practical suggestions and guidance. The format is especially geared to novice for whom retreat might only conjure up sleepless nights on rowdy church youth retreats or extended boring corporate meetings filled with activities nobody wants to do.

With all that Barton and Transforming Center accomplishes, it is hard to imagine when she finds the time to heed the invitation to retreat, but her book demonstrates she speaks with the wisdom of thoughtful experience.

In my work at The Hermitage, I feel fortunate that I get to extend the invitation to retreat, and provide the rhythms and structures which foster attentiveness to God.

For those who are interested in exploring spaces for retreat, some resources include Retreat Finder and Find the Divine. Your are also always welcome to pay me a visit at The Hermitage.

Farewell to Preservation

Preservation has been very, very good to me.

A week ago I tossed all my notes from my Intro to Conservation course into recycling. (I kept my very marked up copy of a Michele Cloonan article.) I’ve taught this class a few times, but will no more. It was just another step in my ongoing farewell to the world of library preservation.

Being engaged with the issues of preservation was my life for a number of years. It was a great adventure. It was a chance to explore, to learn, to experiment, and to meet and engage with people who are deeply passionate about their work.

But, my center of gravity has been shifting over the last year or so. Preservation topics just don’t enliven my spirit anymore. Some of this is due to a growing inner dissatisfaction with the current model of understanding preservation. And some of it is the shifts in inner life and perspective that can happen as one heads deeper into mid-life.

Ten years ago, as I was toying with the idea of a career change a wise person asked me “Are you done with your work?” After some reflection I realized “No, I have more I want to do with my library/preservation work.” Today, I’d answer that question with a resounding “Yes.”

In a little more than a month I officially leave my job, my library career, and the rewarding work of preservation for new adventures. I am deeply grateful for the experiences I’ve had and especially for the wonderful people I’ve learned to know along the way.

Change is constant and beneficial.

Blessings,

Kevin.

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