Friday, January 16, 2009

Faith Works 1-17-09
Jeff Gill

Naturally Religious or Theologically Un-natural

So, apparently, US Airways just ruthlessly killed two innocent Canada Geese.

That would be one way of putting things, anyhow.

Most of you probably heard that an amazing pilot and a well trained crew saved all 155 lives in New York’s Hudson River by putting their jet airliner down ever so gently on the water, and meeting just about every ferryboat and tour ship in Manhattan.

As advanced as our flight technology becomes, and on the ground, where cars continue to become more reliable, more safe, and more sophisticated, the fact is that when your car calls 911 for you, it’s likely to be because you ran into an animal.

It’s like the world is full of animals, or something.

Paving and building and landscaping may extend our sense of control pretty far out into nature, but the fact is that we humans still live in ecosystems and as part of nature ourselves. We work to create some of this distance, indoor couch potato-y folk that we can be, but even those seeking to protect nature can be part of the problem.

When we talk about the harm people do to the environment, when the debates focus on how humanity is a burden threatening to break global climate systems, there are often subtle, persistent cues to make people think that this all means there is “Nature” and there is “Us.”

Such as the “Voluntary Human Extinction Movement,” whose interesting proposition can be seen in detail at I read carefully to see if anyone was making reference to Jonathan Swift, but apparently this group has a serious irony deficiency.

This is the kind of thing I mean; they seem sincere if humorless, wanting to speak up for nature and the living world. But their position reaffirms the false idea that humans are something separate from or different from their environment. The fact is, when we dump toxic chemicals into a waterway, we are impacting the environment, we are participating in it – and we, as living creatures will be impacted ourselves by what we did.

For people of faith, the question of how our beliefs relate to the natural world is a tricky one. For much of early Judeo-Christian theology, discussion of “the land” and “the people” was common, but so closely connected to a particular piece of land and place that today we read most of those passages politically.

Many of those scriptural statements can be productively re-read from an environmental perspective, but the real complication comes from the question of what it means, Biblically, to be human. The Psalm says we are created “a little lower than the angels,” and goes on to talk in Proverbs about how we don’t want “to be like the dumb beasts,” but from that hierarchy (angels, men, animals) a sort of sloppy biology came out that said we are “the Crown of Creation.”

Then came Charles Darwin. “On the Origin of Species” was published in 1859, hinting that we puny humans might not only be a little lower than the angels, but we might rub shoulders with our cousins the ape and gorilla. Is this a problem? For the established church of his day, it was, and once belief in human separateness from the animal kingdom was made a part of official faith, that reaction spurred Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s chief advocate of the late 19th century, to also create a new word – “agnostic.”

In a few weeks, both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln celebrate the 200th anniversary of their birth, on February 12, 1809. I think both men’s stories have much to say to people of faith, and you’ll be reading more about them over the next few weeks here. I hope the discussion will be supportive of faith, and also open to looking at what belief guides us to see about our place in creation.

Could I also add this reading suggestion for anyone interested in advance of Feb. 12 about Darwin and what he was and wasn’t trying to do? There are some recent, magisterial biographies that are very illuminative about the faith that moved and motivated Darwin right through to the end of his earthly days, but there is also an amazing book, that is not in print but easy to find on-line used, that pulls together science, beliefs, culture, and the man.

“Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt – if you can find a copy, grab it, because I think it’s one of the best books of any sort I’ve read in the last ten years.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ricardo Montalban, RIP (aka Khan)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Notes From My Knapsack 1-15-09 Granville Sentinel
Jeff Gill

Twin Sons of Different Mothers

Less than a month from now a significant event in world history reaches its 200th anniversary.

This singular event has two particular people tied to the same birthdate, Feb. 12, 1809. On that day, Charles Darwin was born in England, and Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky.

Arguably these two men stood at the intersection of dramatic times, but in two different places, never meeting. Even so they both shaped the world we live in today, and their roles continue to inspire and provoke passionate debate.

And, they generate books by the truckload (and articles, and dissertations, and essays, and, um, columns).

If you’re wanting to be up to speed on these two epoch-makers by their joint bicentennial, what should you read? First, read some of their own words. Books about them are piled high, but each is a prose stylist with much to commend about their writing, even though they are as different a pair of authors as the circumstances of their births.

The Library of America series is always stellar in quality of binding and organization, and their two volume “Lincoln: Speeches & Writings” is divided between 1832-1858 and 1859-1865. They can be a bit pricey, and if you need to just get one, you’ll go for volume two.

The presidential proclamations, the speeches you’ve never heard of, and the “fragments,” particularly “Meditation on the Divine Will,” are something you’d want to have on your shelves.

The Second Inaugural Address is almost the paragon of brevity and eloquence that the Gettysburg Address is known for, and along with the letters and drafts leading up to both that the Library of America volume provides, I’d recommend Ronald White’s “Lincoln’s Greatest Speech,” available in paperback. Gettysburg has overshadowed the Second Inaugural, but I hope someone has slid a copy of that majestic speech onto President-elect Obama’s desk before Jan. 20. Garry Wills’ “Lincoln at Gettysburg” takes the story back to the Revolution and down to the present day, but White’s book immerses you in the perilous days of 1865 that led to Lincoln’s last and I think greatest speech.

Not to break the hearts of my good bookseller friends, but for the massive and extensive writings of Charles Darwin, your best source is, where literally every printed word of Darwin’s can be read for free, and much of it is also available as audiobook downloads that you can simply listen two.

I will admit that the Victorianism of Darwin’s prose is an acquired taste, but my favorite of all his books (well, behind his notebookss on the voyage of the Beagle) is also the most accessible: “The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms.” The quiet scientist of Downe Cottage had endless patience and curiosity for all of life, and his last book looked at the absolutely crucial role of the lowly earthworm. Gardeners, you will love this one.

The revolutionary work, whether Darwin intended it or not, of “On the origin of species by means of natural selection,” which is usually just called “On the Origin of Species,” is found here in all six editions, the ones that Darwin painstakingly refined and rewrote himself.

But for the non-scholarly reader, may I recommend a book I will speak of more later – “Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. This is, quite candidly, one of the best books of any sort, for any reason, that I’ve read in the last ten years. It came out in 2006, and not enough readers have found it yet.

Love Darwin or hate him, but read this book and you will understand him ever so much better, and what it was he was trying to do. You may even find you come to a greater appreciation for the work that is left to us to keep pursuing on our pilgrim way, 200 years later.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at