WHAT IF God is less like an eagle—and more like a … vulture?
What if the Spirit of God is less like a dove—and more like a … pigeon?
These are just a couple of the startling questions explored by the innovative Minnesota pastor Debbie Blue in her new book, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. You may have discovered Debbie Blue before today’s interview. You might have heard one of the popular podcasts she posts from her congregation: House of Mercy, in St. Paul, Minnesota. You may have heard this line that often is used to describe Debbie: “She approaches scripture like a farm wife handles a chicken, carefully but not delicately, thoroughly but not exactly cautiously.” House of Mercy often is called: “a pretty great church.” If this is sounding like a story by Garrison Kiellor, then you’re not far off the mark. Debbie and her congregation have been featured on Minnesota Public Radio.
And, just like listening to Garrison Kiellor, you may not agree with every story Debbie tells. But, you will think about the world a little differently after the encounter. You’ll definitely think about the Bible in new ways.
WITH DEBBIE BLUE
ON ‘CONSIDER THE BIRDS’
DAVID: Your church is in St. Paul but you really are a farmer, right?
DEBBIE: My family and I live on about 80 acres with four other families. We share the land together and, yes, we do some farming—but mostly we have what you would call gardens. We’ve been doing the House of Mercy for 18 years, so we’ve been at this for a while. I have a son who just went off to college for the first time and a daughter who is 13.
DAVID: It’s not what we would call a “commune,” though. For example, you’re not like a Bruderhoff Community with a shared kitchen and evening meals together. Your living situation is looser than that.
DEBBIE: We all have our own dwellings here. Our community has been going on for 18 years and I think it works because we’re not that intense of a community. We’re good friends who share the land. We do have occasional meals together.
DAVID: And it’s relevant to this book that you know what you’re talking about on a very practical level when you write about the natural world and our relationship with animals and birds. Or, as readers think about that promotional line comparing your qualities to a “farm wife”—well, the truth is, you do know something about farming.
DEBBIE: Yes, but the way I got interested in writing this new book actually was through my interest in medieval bestiaries.
DAVID: These were a bit like centuries-old encyclopedias of life on earth without the science. These medieval versions were created to draw Christian lessons from the animals.
DEBBIE: There had been a Christian tradition of trying to divide “man” from “beast” and the natural world from supernatural truth. But the medieval bestiaries took a different tack. In Job, it says: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you. Ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.”
The creators of these bestiaries believed that every animal, every plant, every rock—every created thing—possessed a truth of God. Often, the bestiaries were illuminated prayer books or Psalters that included these images of wild creatures. The thought was that these images could teach us something about God.
Yes, these medieval versions were full of pre-scientific ideas and some of the morality in these books was quite different than what we would teach today. But I think of my book as a contemporary version of a bestiary—looking for truth in things that are not of human construction.
The creators of the bestiaries paid such careful attention to these creatures, assuming that they might unlock windows for us that we normally keep closed. So, I love being part of that tradition. This really goes back to Jesus himself, who said: “Consider the birds.”
Then, I want to bring up another great selling point for your book: Millions of Americans love birds! The latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey says there are nearly 50 million American bird watchers—the most intense kind of bird lovers. If you add in all the people who have bird feeders, who love birds in comic strips and animated movies, who sing about birds in popular songs—well, this is a very crowd-pleasing idea! It’s great for individual reading, for small group discussion and imagine preaching a sermon series on Consider the Birds? People would flock to church.
Are you a birder with a Life List?
THE ROMANCE OF BIRDS
DEBBIE: I’m not as serious about birding as I once was—as I explain in the book. Back when I was courting my husband, I was pretty serious about birding and he taught me how to identify warblers. I was totally smitten with that idea. We paid a lot of attention to birds for a while, then we had kids and I started a church and it didn’t seem feasible to tromp through fields and woods with binoculars for hours, anymore.
Birding does give you this attentive space, though, that I wanted to experience again. One reason I wanted to write this book was that it required me to go outside again and spend time being attentive to birds. In the discipline of birding you come to appreciate waiting—using your body and mind as you pay careful attention. As in any devotional practice, birding creates a space in our lives that our culture desperately needs.
DAVID: Let me read a little passage from your book’s Introduction. You write: “Falling in love and identifying birds have similar effects. Normal life is altered; every experience heightened; what was mundane begins to explode with meaning. You think birds are just birds—undifferentiated fluttering, then you find one magnified in your lens. You recognize its unique markings, lines and color. Your heart pounds. It is a cerulean warbler. It is your new mate. I believe both things have equal power to change your life. I’m not kidding. Jim and I spent our courtship looking for birds. We drove to Nebraska to see the cranes do their mating dances.”
But I should quickly add that, while this book is about appreciating the birds in the Bible in surprisingly new ways—this isn’t a book about bird watching per se. Here are the 10 birds to which you’ve devoted 10 chapters: Pigeon, Pelican, Quail, Vulture, Eagle, Ostrich, Sparrow, Cock, Hen and Raven.
IS GOD LIKE A VULTURE? (AND OTHER WINGED QUESTIONS)
DAVID: Like your beloved bestiaries, you play with the bird images in this book. So, let’s talk about two specific sections that certainly caught my eye and are likely to prompt a whole wave of sermons and group discussions coast to coast. I can just see the sermon titles out on the roadside sign boards—and curious folks showing up to see whether their local pastor has gone a little nutty.
Let’s start with your chapters on the Vulture and the Eagle. There are so many thought-provoking ideas, so much historical information and so many spiritual insights in these 40 pages that my copy of your book now has the corners of many of these pages bent down—lots of notes in the margins, too. I won’t try to explain everything you cover in these two chapters, except this:
You open our eyes to a whole new interpretation of the Hebrew term “nesher.” You write, “The Hebrew word nesher is often translated in our English versions of the Bible as ‘eagle,’ but most scholars agree that ‘griffon vulture’ is at least an alternative …”
Now, I’ve checked with rabbis on this point, because it is such a striking idea: God may be like a vulture. And I would say the consensus I’ve heard—not being a Hebrew scholar myself—is that you’re onto something here. While most would agree with the usual “eagle” translation of this term, the fact is: “Nesher” means a bird that tears with its beak and references in ancient scriptures do claim that this bird was the highest-flying of all birds.
The griffon vulture was one of the ancient birds known to the Jewish people—and flies far higher than eagles. In fact, one type of griffon vulture is confirmed to have flown more than 36,000 feet. We know that because it was ingested into the jet of an airliner over the Ivory Coast at that altitude. You’ve also got a pretty good ally in Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who writes for Zoo Torah.
DEBBIE: I like that you’re hearing this is a possible translation from the people you’ve consulted. At this point, though, I understand why Westerners can’t seem to bring themselves to more commonly translate nesher as vulture. Our culture regards vultures as horrific. We don’t like them. They eat dead bodies. I understand this. In Minnesota, we have mostly turkey vultures and it’s hard to appreciate them as physically beautiful. Their red faces look like they’ve had their skin pulled off.
So we may not be too eager, at first, to translate God telling Moses that God bore the Israelites on vulture’s wings or to translate Isaiah as saying we will rise up on vultures’ wings. Eagles are such powerful birds and we’ve come to respect them.
But think about this for a moment. Eagles are known for killing. Vultures hardly ever kill or hurt a living thing—they eat what’s already dead. Vultures are remarkable purifying machines. They take care of rotting remains that otherwise might spread disease. They have these crazy-strong digestive juices that kill bacteria. The Mayans refer to vultures as “death eaters.” That begins to make sense to me: We need something to rid death of its toxicity in our world. Vultures stare death in the face—and death passes right through their bodies, rendered harmless. I like this idea that God can take anything in and make it clean.
And vultures do fly higher than other birds—tens of thousands of feet in the air! I love the idea of a slowly waiting God who is soaring and ever-patient. Have you ever watched vultures soar? It makes me cry to see it. It’s really gorgeous.
And I also like the way that talking about this bird imagery in new ways questions some of the symbols we associate with nationalism and patriotism. The symbol of the eagle now is almost hopelessly laden with images of massive power, fierce patriotism, killer instinct. I think it’s time to rethink this.
THE PIGEON-DOVE QUESTION
DAVID: Well, compared with the Eagle-Vulture discussion, the Pigeon-Dove issue is crystal clear. They’re the same, really—all Columbidae. The point you raise in this part of the book is that the dove, as a symbol, has become boring from over-use. You write, “Maybe because it is such a familiar scene or because I’ve seen too many bad illustrations of it, or because the white dove has been overused as a symbol in commercial Christianity.” So, instead, you suggest that readers consider the possibility that dove references in Christianity might apply to pigeons in general.
DEBBIE: The dove is probably the most familiar bird in Christian symbolism. In each of the four gospels the Spirit appears at Jesus’s baptism as a dove. In the popular imagination, this has always been a snow white dove. But this story changes a lot when you realize that the bird at the baptism was probably more like a rock dove, which we might more commonly call a pigeon.The dove now is totally bland, but what happens when we think of the Holy Spirit as a pigeon? We tend to think of pigeons as dirty; we call them “rats with wings.” I love it that the symbol of the Holy Spirit might be a hair’s breadth away from human trashiness.
Yet, think of pigeons for a moment. They are everywhere! They leave droppings on our sidewalks and our window sills. What if the Holy Spirit is like the pigeon? What if the Spirit is always underfoot to the point that we almost hate the constant presence—always leaving signs of the Spirit’s presence—everywhere!
When we think of the Spirit as something rare and pure as driven snow, then we forget that the Spirit of God is far more complex than that—fuller, messier, everywhere in life. We can get hung up on purity. But, remember, when we say God created all life, everything was teeming and multiplying and swarming. Maybe the Spirit is more creative than pure. Maybe we need to rethink what holy truly is.
DAVID: What I like about this section of your book is the realization that you don’t have to travel all the way to St. Peter’s at the Vatican and pray in front of the snow-white-dove stained glass window there. You might have just as full of an experience of God’s presence on a park bench in New York City, feeding the pigeons.
DEBBIE: That’s my hope. I hope we can experience God everywhere and find that grace everywhere, not just in rarefied settings.
DAVID: If you could talk to readers finishing your book, what would you tell them to do next? How do you hope your book will affect people?
DEBBIE: I hope people will start paying attention to what’s around them everyday—the birds and the bushes and the grace of God around us all the time. Emily Dickinson wrote: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers …” and, if that is true, I hope we can increase people’s passion for keeping the world as beautiful as it is, now. I hope we’ll see more people working against climate change.
I hope people think about this: Hell would be a place without birds.
And I hope that I can help people to read the Bible in new ways—especially those who just can’t engage with the Bible now. I’m saying: There are layers and layers of meaning you can discover in the Bible. You can turn it—and turn it again—and look at it in new ways. There’s so much here, if we just look!
CARE TO READ MORE? OR HEAR MORE?
GET THE MUSIC! Debbie Blue’s House of Mercy also is a haven for musicians. Here is the overall House of Mercy music site. For the release of her new book, Debbie and her friends compiled a musical companion for readers who may be immersing themselves in the creative possibilities of birds for the first time. Visit this CD webpage for Bird Music, which describes the 15 tracks this way: The collection ranges from the old-time country sound of “The Great Speckled Bird” to the folk-pop of “Awake” to the jazzy cover of “Early Bird.” Tucked in-between these diverse styles is the gorgeous a cappella version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” that slows down and draws the listener in.
GET THE BOOK! Amazon offers Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible in paperback and Kindle editions.
ENJOY MORE ON READ THE SPIRIT: One of our own popular books is Conversations with My Old Dog, by Rob Pasick. You’ll also enjoy our interview with Marc Bekoff on The Animal Manifesto and Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster on The Friends We Keep. We also highly recommend the Faith Outreach department of the U.S. Humane Society. If you are interested in the spiritual values of farm life, you’ll enjoy our recent interview with Mennonite author Shirley Showalter. And—new this week—FaithGoesPop writer Jane Wells tells us about a record-setting discovery about one amazing kind of bird.