Interview with Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster on Rethinking Relationships with ‘The Friends We Keep’

How Good News about Animal Friends Changes Our Culture

Today, we’re recommending a very useful new book that can help your congregation rethink our relationships to “non-human animals.” That effort ranges from rediscovering the animals in the lives of saints and other historic religious figures—to exploring the spiritual connection with our “companion animals.”

But, first, as a ReadTheSpirit reader, you can join us in celebrating how “we”—our magazine and you as a reader—have already made a difference in American culture.

In mid-October 2009, we published this news story: “LA Church Starts People and Pets Service.” The story focused on Canines at Covenant, a groundbreaking program at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles that invites people to worship each Sunday with their companion animals. Because of readers like you, the story went viral—and Associated Press noticed the idea.

In November 2009, California-based Associated Press reporter Gillian Flaccus reported a fresh version of the story headlined, “Gone to the Dogs: LA Church Starts Pet Service.” As the independent expert for her story, Gillian quoted Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster, a religion professor at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. In that story, Laura said that many people would be drawn to this kind of idea these days. “It’s the changing family structure, where pets are really central and religious communities are starting to recognize that people need various kinds of rituals that include their pets,” she said. “More and more people in mainline Christianity are considering them to have some kind of soul.”

In August 2010, during our ReadTheSpirit 40-day reporting trip around America, we visited Covenant and published another, fresh story about these weekly worship services, headlined: “O When the Dogs Go Marching in!” That story again echoed across the U.S. through the Gannett wire service. The photo, above, was taken by David Crumm and was part of our 2010 wire story.

Then, in the autumn of 2010, “The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals,” by Laura Hobgood-Oster was published by Baylor University Press. The first page of the book describes Canines at Convenant as a cultural watershed. Laura writes, “The congregation decided to try this for several reasons, including the shifting family structure in the United States and the prevalence of pets as important companions particularly for single or older adults. Dogs have lived with humans for at least 15,000 years; we have evolved in many ways together, shaping each others’ lives and deaths. Including dogs in our religious lives simpy makes sense.”

How to Get a Copy of “Friends We Keep”

“The Friends We Keep” is a 250-page overview of all the major issues congregations are rethinking as they come to terms with their members’ love of animals. It also includes a discussion guide and specific ideas for individuals, families, congregations and communities. (Amazon has the book at a discount now.)And now, here are …

Highlights of our Interview with Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster
Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christian Compassion for Animals

DAVID: You have extensively researched the history, theology and science related to animals—but this book is personal, too, isn’t it?

LAURA: I grew up in church. My father is a minister and I write some about growing up in the church in this book. We always had animals around us. They were part of my image of Christianity. Our church youth group would camp out on Assateague Island with wild horses running around us. We saw that as part of our overall view of God and God’s creation—so it didn’t hit me until I was older that animals aren’t necessarily a part of everybody’s image of Christianity. And, I didn’t realize that in the last couple of centuries animals have been disappearing from our Christian tradition. I began studying images and stories from before the Reformation, from before the Enlightenment, and animals were everywhere! I wondered: Where have they all gone?

DAVID: And your work, now?

LAURA: My work combines my personal interest and advocacy with professional research and teaching. I’ve been on the faculty at Southwestern for 13 years in the religion department and, shortly after I got here, we started an environmental-studies major. I bridge those two disciplines and teach in both areas. I’m also an activist and I’m very involved with dog rescue and animal issues on a global scale.

DAVID: There are other books available about animals in art or animals as symbols, but your book is aimed at helping people actually connect with real animals.

LAURA: That’s right. Often animals have been used as religious symbols down through history. There’s the symbol of the dog as loyal, the snake as evil. Many of the saints are associated with animals. But it’s important for us to realize that there are real living beings around us.


DAVID: I would describe your book as a toolbox for congregations. It’s practical and it’s written for general readers in such a way that it’s sure to spark discussion.

LAURA: I wrote a book a few years ago that was geared more to an academic audience looking at these issues historically and laying out a lot of the theory. I needed to do that work, first, but then I wanted to jump into a book that’s accessible for both church audiences—and also for broader audiences as well. I had been in conversation with the Humane Society and their Faith Outreach program. Then, Baylor wanted to publish the book.


Laura Hobgood-Oster and a friend.DAVID: Over the past three years, ReadTheSpirit has published quite a few stories on these themes. You talked about the important images of nature in art through the centuries and I’m reminded of an interview we did with Matthew Fox—and also a story we published about the Green Man images in Scotland and other parts of Europe. I reported both of those stories—and it’s amazing to see the prevalence of startling imagery from nature in centuries-old churches. Once, it was a normal part of our religious lives.

LAURA: Animals are present throughout the first 1,000 or 1,500 years of our religious tradition. You’re right. Go into churches in Europe and you will find animals everywhere: in stained glass, in stonework and in other forms. They were central to the thinking of Christians, because that’s where Christians drew a lot of the stories they shared. Now, with animals gone from most of our churches, it’s urgent to start finding ways to include animals again.

DAVID: Where did they go? Or, perhaps I should ask: Why did we oust them?

LAURA: Christianity made major shifts. The Protestant movement focused on preaching and reading only from the Word. Saints and the animals associated with them began to disappear from the Protestant imagination. Then the Enlightenment and humanism started to elevate the human above all other species in a new way. Animals began fading from our everyday economic and social lives. Finally, fewer people were living everyday with animals.

DAVID: I suggest that readers involved in activism or in Christian congregations think about buying both your book and Mark Bekoff’s animal manifesto. We published an interview with Mark Bekoff in June and I think his book dovetails nicely with your own volume.

LAURA: That’s a great idea. Yes, those two books do dovetail. It’s an honor even to be mentioned in the same sentence with Mark. He has done such groundbreaking work in terms of how scientists think about animals. He’s taking the next steps that people like Jane Goodall did earlier. Mark writes in language that is accessible both to scientists and to general readers and he raises lots of questions that most of us aren’t even considering about the lives of the animals around us. I think our two books would be a wonderful pair to prepare people to talk about these issues in new ways.


DAVID: Not everyone can get as involved as Covenant Church in Los Angeles with something as elaborate as a new weekly worship service. One reason we’re strongly recommending your book is that it addresses the basic question: Where can a congregation start?

LAURA: One good starting place involves food. That’s a central issue in religion and one way education can start is with a Compassionate Potluck. It’s not that we’re trying to make everyone a vegetarian. That idea scares people and that’s not necessarily the call we should be making to people. But thinking about the impact of what we’re eating is a good starting place to think about animals. So, try hosting a Compassionate Potluck.

Also, think about opening up your parking lot or other church spaces for events related to animals. Adoption events need locations with good footage along roadways and churches have those kinds of locations. These events can showcase the kinds of animals that need human help.


DAVID: One way that Christians specifically are making more connections with animals right now is through the renewed popularity of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels. We’ve covered the latest news on the “Dawn Treader” movie and on several new Lewis books.

LAURA: C.S. Lewis did so much with animals. Once you start looking at these connections, they’re everywhere in our religious traditions. I took some students with me to Italy for a conference and I assigned them to go into churches and write about all the animals they would find. They were skeptical. After all, they said: “These are churches.”

But when they came back, they said, “The animals are everywhere!”

DAVID: It’s easy to get depressed about the status of our natural world and the treatment of animals in particular. If you read Mark Bekoff’s book, you’re always on the edge of despair. Of course, his book—like your book—holds out hope.

LAURA: I’m generally an optimistic person. We have to admit—and it’s probably that I’ve got this traditional idea of confessing our sins so deeply within me—but we do need to confess that we have wiped out forever some animal species. We should ask forgiveness for that. They’re gone. In our Christian tradition, we believe we are forgiven—but then we have to do something about that. Even as we recognize our sins in relation to animals, we have to make those relationships right again.

I am hopeful. We have seen more cage-free eggs become available in stores. More people want to know where their food comes from—that’s a real shift we’re seeing. Think about the public’s horrified reaction to news about dog fighting. There’s a helpful response to that, too—people are working to find new homes for those dogs who have been so abused.

The more we help people to open their eyes to the lives of animals all around us, the more people will want those relationships to be compassionate.

This week, we’re publishing stories about the spiritual side of our relationships with animals:

We want our international conversation to continue

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

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