"The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity's Compassion for Animals" - A Book Review

image from a5.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net While I dedicated a whole chapter in Year of Plenty to the topic animal dignity as it relates to faith and consumption, I am still a novice on the topic so I was grateful to recently come across Laura Hobgood-Oster's book, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals. It is a timely book on the hopeful and sometimes problematic relationship between the Christian faith and animals.

The heart of the book is three chapters on "non-human animals" as companions, in sport, and for food. Hobgood-Oster offers a compelling combination of scholarly research, historical review, and contemporary commentary on each of these topics as they relate to Christian faith and practice. While the emphasis on faith is the unique contribution of the book, I also appreciate it as a general resource of information about these topics. The sections on the evolving role of animals as companions in human history and the use of animals in blood sport in the ancient world are especially compelling.

The thesis that I took away from the book is that despite a rich history of animals involved in the unfolding good news of God in the Bible and in Church history, there is currently a troubling disconnect between Christianity and concern for the welfare of animals. Hobgood-Oster sets forth the goal of highlighting these many resources in order to "provide a foundation for contemporary Christian action and theological development" as it relates to animal welfare.

My general assessment of the book is that is delivers on this promise. It is a veritable treasure chest of stories about the role of animals in the Bible and church history. But Hobgood-Oster does more than just offer anecdotes, she takes this collection of disparate stories and passages and proposes a cohesive vision for animal welfare based on the Christian practice of hospitality in which we open ourselves up to the "the 'other,'"

Justly or not, we have, for all practical purposes, claimed the entire earth as our possession. We have taken over the homes of the many other animals who have lived here for millenia. It is in recognition of this reality that I chose the concept of hospitality as a way to consider our relationship to animals.

In a beautiful act of theological imagination she also speculates that humans are not the only ones with hospitality to offer:

If other animals are going to survive our presence, we must extend radical hospitality to them. I also wonder if we might not invert that idea as well. Might it be that for us--for humans--to survive, we must also find a way to live with other animals flourishing around us?

I love the idea of the flourishing of animals on earth offering hospitality to us humans. It adds a whole new way of understanding bees buzzing around the fruit trees and the bats swallowing up pests. For Hobgood-Oster it's not the "circle of life," rather it is a circle of hospitality with the image of the baby Jesus surrounded by animals as the icon.

Having offered an affirmative vision for the relationship of animals and humans within the Christian tradition, the author sets out in the concluding chapter to challenge the root causes of the disconnect. She argues that it can be primarily traced to overly anthropocentric understandings of Christianity that have proliferated in the western world where the earth is imagined as an incidental stage for the unfolding drama of human salvation. 

I offer my own version of explaining this disconnect in Year of Plenty, but I was very aware as I read this concluding chapter that Hobgood-Oster and I have different ways of understanding how the disconnect came to be and how people of faith might go about reweaving connections.

In a curious twist she points to central orthodox doctrines of the western church ("the Word of God" and "sacrifical atonement") as key developments in recent history that have contributed to the disconnect. Citing Karl Barth she writes of atonement theory:

This is the root of the turn to the human in Christianity. With all of God's attention focused on our story, there is little room left for any other creatures.

The references and historical background offered on these key doctrines of the Christian faith are too abbreviated and simplistic. For example I have an entire shelf of my library that is taken up by Karl Barth's Dogmatics wherein Barth lays out thousands of pages of complex theological perspectives (the joke is that not even Barth read all of Barth.) To sum up Barth's theology of the atonement in a few paragraphs and to suggest that this is a root cause of the problem is inadequate for the argument being put forth in the chapter. 

Hobgood-Oster's arguments in the concluding chapter regarding the influence of the Enlightenment on the disconnect are much more on target. The quote from Descartes regarding animals as unthinking "automata" is fascinating and informative. 

I highly recommend this book as a resource for discerning the relationship between Christian faith and animals. As someone who feels passionately that faith should inform the way we treat animals, I come away from the book feeling more deeply rooted in my conviction and more initiated in a wonderfully rich faith tradition of caring for animals.