One of the most profound experiences of my life was attending a small retreat for pastors and scientists in 2010 on a tiny island in British Columbia. The intersection of science and faith rocked my world in the best possible way. Already a nature lover, I felt as if I’d been given permission, or more strongly, exhortation, to look for the fingerprints of God everywhere, from the structure and behavior of the atom to the vastness of black holes. My curiosity about all things was gloriously affirmed, and new adventures of seeing how Christ affects everything, began.
Somewhere in between the micro of the atom and macro of the universe, reside the flora and fauna we encounter on a regular basis in our daily living. They comprise our ecosystem and its increasingly clear that our Creator has called us to both feast on creation and care for it. Mark Wallace’s new book, “When God was a Bird” magnifies this invitation with stunning clarity and significant weight. His thesis might be controversial in evangelical circles because of how close it comes to “animism”. I surely didn’t agree with every word he writes either, but here’s the thing: profound truths often reside right near the edges of error, and our fear of error often prevents journey to those needed edges- and we’re all the poorer for having let this fear control us. “When God was a Bird” was, for me, a book at the edge. He posits, for example, that when the Holy Spirit shows up as a dove at Christ’s baptism, God is showing us that God animates and empowers ALL life, not just humans. You can argue about it amongst yourselves. For my part, I’ll note that a standard evangelical teaching is that, though humans are God’s image bearers, only humans are failing to display God’s glory. The rest of creation is essentially doing fine! (Psalm 19, Psalm 104). So I’m fine believing that God’s spirit is omnipresent in creation, expressing glory through the myriad interactions of sun, rock, stars, moon, elk, bird, bee, pollen, spider, squirrel, seed, and ….. unfolding of each day. Creation, in fact, is waiting for us to get our act together so that the universe can be healed! (Romans 8)
This book is mostly about feasting, receiving, worshipping, through creation – about learning to see God in all creation, to see that God is animating all life, and that all life is therefore, beautiful, ordered, and worthy of reverent preservation.
Using a different bird as his foundation for each chapter, Wallace examines God’s relationship to creation through a prism, revealing various facets of creation theology that instill, in me at least, greater sense of seeing and reverence. I read, and then look out the window at the forest in which I’m blessed to live. Long ago I realized that this forest wasn’t simply a stage on which my life was playing out, any more than your place, or any place, is simply stage. My place is also my teacher. Through the silence of winter snow, the song of the Varied Thrush in spring as I walk through the forest during after supper dusk, the chattering of squirrels in the summer, and the diminuendo of voices in the vibrant colors of fall. All are pointing to God as the source of beauty, provision, delight. Wallace simply takes it a step further, seeking to show us that the delight we feel when we pay attention to creation IS a delight in God. Argue the semantics of animism if you wish. But the larger point is clear: quit treating creation as either a stage for the play of humanity, or a store of harvesting by humanity. God’s in all of it, and we ignore or abuse at our peril.
Anyone looking for a deeper relationship with God through paying attention to the book of creation would be well served to consider the claims of the book, even if you don’t agree with everything. The only warning I’ll offer is that the book is academic. It will, for most of us, require an expansion of vocabulary. Coupled with interweaving of theology with ecology, it was, for me, a slow read. Slow, though, is often worthwhile, and that was surely true for me in this case. The wisdom and thought provoking revelation offered in this book will prove helpful in some emerging programs of a wilderness ministry our church offers for people in the greater Seattle Area.
note: I was given a free copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review