"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.