A Faith Embracing All Creatures

Byron Borger of Hearts & Minds Books has an excellent review of what sounds like a very good new book–A Faith Embracing All Creatures–at the Humane Society website.

Byron talking about my book at the Jubilee Conference.
Byron talking about my book at the Jubilee Conference.

I was surprised and delighted to see my new book mentioned as “the essential ‘go-to’ entry level, must-read book on the subject” of faith and eating.

Byron writes:

In the last decades there have been academic (and often arcane) theological writings about animal welfare, but few widely-available, easily accessible books for traditional religious readers. Gladly, there have been many voices deconstructing the rather traditional but quite wrong-headed assumptions and attitudes revealing human hubris in “taking dominion” over the creation. Nearly every major Christian publishing house, especially evangelical ones, have done fabulous books about creation care, Christian environmentalism, and Bible-based ruminations on the beauty and duty of caring well for God’s good world.

Few of them, however, until recently, have mentioned much about animals, let alone animal welfare. This is changing, and it is wonderful to see lovely titles like “All God’s Creatures: The Blessing of Animal Companions” by Debra Farrington (Paraclete Press), “Will I See My Dog in Heaven?” by Jack Wintz (Paraclete) and “The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals” by Laura Hobgood-Oster (Baylor University Press).

More generally, there are books coming out about faith perspectives on eating sustainably. “Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating” by Norman Wirzba (Cambridge University Press) is serious but wonderful; “The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting Toward God” is a truly beautifully-written anthology, and the fabulous, new “Eat with Joy: Redeeming God’s Gift of Food” by Rachel Marie Stone (IVP) is the essential “go-to” entry level, must-read book on the subject. Each offers faith-shaped insight about land, creation-care, animals, and the ethical dimensions of our embodied human tasks such as farming, shopping, and eating.

Read the rest of this review here.

Second Generation, Part Two

While I’m away, I’ve been posting essays, reviews, and articles that have either appeared elsewhere on the Web or else have never before been seen! This one originally appeared in Catapult, but was written more than three years ago…still, the story’s worth telling, I think…

{Part Two}

A recently-published book that presents itself as a guide to raising a “green” baby seems to suggest that “green” parenting is all about purchasing the right products: the organic sleepers, the low-VOC nursery paints and the petrochemical-free baby wash. Though consumption of these products probably has a place, I want to think that we can do more for our children than simply teach them which products to buy. Certainly, I don’t want to use a toxic baby shampoo on my newborn. And, on balance, I do think that diapering with cloth is better for his health and for that of the planet. But if I am concerned about the future — of the earth and of my sons as they make their way upon it — I need a vision of sustainable parenting that goes beyond yet another consumer choice.

I think sustainable parenting should begin with the Creation narrative — that God created the world and declared it “good” should call us to affirm its goodness with respect and thanksgiving.  As we teach our children about God, we should not neglect teaching them about God’s Creation.  From there, it’s important, I think, to combat what Richard Louv has called “nature deficit disorder.” Even if you live in the city, it’s possible to help your children enjoy the outdoors: take them to the park or playground and point out plants, flowers, and birds. They may surprise you with what they can learn and remember.  My toddler can distinguish several species of bird, for example, and knows the names of a few flowers. Providing books with quality illustrations of animals and landscapes can also help instill a sense of wonder, as can carefully selected nature documentaries, such as the BBC’s Planet Earth series. If we want our children to care for and protect God’s creation, we must teach them both about God and his creation. They won’t be able to love either without first knowing something about each.

As we meet our children’s basic physical needs — food, clothing and shelter — we can build upon their understanding of God and his creation, and teach them to recognize the effects our consumption have upon the earth. If you can take your child to the farmer’s market or to a farm, she will learn that food comes from the earth before it comes to the supermarket. Even better, grow a garden with her, even if it’s just an indoor herb garden. That’s all we have the space for right now, and my toddler gets a kick out of seeing freshly plucked leaves of basil go into his pasta sauce. Eating locally helps develops a sense of connection to and dependence upon the earth, and eating seasonally helps develop a sense for the rhythm of the year — it’s strawberry time, it’s pumpkin time, and so on. Also, it teaches our children (and us!) the virtue of patience as we wait for the strawberries and for the lettuce. In her advocacy for local and seasonal eating, Barbara Kingsolver pokes fun at the parent who insists that his child save sex for marriage yet can’t himself “wait for the right time to eat a tomato.”

When it comes to clothing and shelter and other kinds of consumption, instilling the virtue of voluntary simplicity will be easier if we ourselves have learned to be content with what we have. And although we should be careful not to burden young children with guilt, exploring together how other children around the world live — and that the planet cannot support all of us living as most Westerners do — can be a way to help curb consumptive desire. UNICEF has a beautifully illustrated book for children ages nine to 12 called A Life Like Mine that provides a positive, though sobering, perspective on children’s lives around the world. Mick Inkpen and Nick Butterworth’s Wonderful Earth! is a funny, sobering, and hopeful meditation on the wonder of God’s handiwork and the need to care for creation. Books and stories that value simplicity, creativity and thrift, like the Little House series, can also help a child to value these things over unnecessary consumption.

But again, I think our teaching must be mostly without words.  We must embody the values we wish our children to embody. But it’s equally important, I think, to enjoy the things we wish our children to embody — and the things we want them to enjoy! It’s one thing to tell a child how important it is to eat local food; it’s entirely another to explore a farmer’s market together, and then to give thanks to God for a delicious shared local meal. Let them see your genuine joy as you choose simplicity, as you seek out earth-friendly alternatives and as you reduce your consumption generally. Perhaps the best way to teach our children to care for the earth is simply to demonstrate our love for God, our love for our neighbors and our love and respect for the creation. We should love our children enough to love these things; by loving them, we will teach them. My children helped me to begin to care for God’s creation; it’s my turn to help them do likewise.

Author’s Note: I wrote this piece over three years ago, when my children were really small. As I read back over what I’ve written here, I realize how much they’ve continued to teach me. Aidan, now an inquisitive six-year-old, routinely asks me things like, “Do motorcycles make carbon dioxide?” and, “When will it be cucumber time?”  I’m so grateful to see how even some of my puniest efforts to live more lightly — sewing and repairing clothes, canning my own jam and growing a huge veggie garden — have inspired my boys to adopt a “can-do,” DIY spirit, a spirit that sends them outdoors to design imaginary gardens and rescue worms (“We need them for the soil!”) and to cardboard boxes, tape and string instead of to the toy store. I’m grateful that they have the freedom to create and delight in Creation, and I hope that in 30 years, they’ll be living in such a way so as to help bring a similar kind of freedom to the millions of children who don’t yet have it.

Second Generation, Part One

While I’m away, I’ve been posting essays, reviews, and articles that have either appeared elsewhere on the Web or else have never before been seen! This one originally appeared in Catapult, but was written more than three years ago…still, the story’s worth telling, I think…

Before I had my first child, I thought that people who brought their own bags to the grocery store were weird, that recycling was a waste of time and organic food a waste of money. But now Aidan’s nearly three, and last week during a meal of vegetables from our organic CSA share, he declared, “This kohlrabi is delicious!” He reminds me to take the “green bags” before we leave to go shopping, and he helps to sort the recycling. He plays with a small wooden toy recycling truck; he’s been brought up (mostly) in cloth diapers, and now he loves to dig in the garden with his child-sized spade while I hang his newborn brother’s diapers on the clothesline.

What happened?

You’ve probably heard of the Great Law of the Iroquois (there’s a company that has taken their name from it); it states that every tribal decision must consider the impact that decision will have on the next seven generations. Unfortunately, I wasn’t mindful of the effects my actions had upon the Earth until I actually looked the next generation in the face. As I threw away diaper after diaper in those early months, I began to feel uneasy. Where did they go once they left our trashcan? And as I nursed Aidan day after day (and came across an article on pesticide residues in human milk, and one on the beef industry) I began to think that maybe I shouldn’t be eating a 16oz steak every Friday night. When I put him in the bathtub, I began wondering about the potentially toxic residues from cleaning products.

As I slowly began to learn about all things “green,” and to make gradual changes in our household (drastically cutting our meat consumption, eating organic vegetables, using cloth diapers and reusable grocery bags), I became ashamed of my complacency toward the Earth, and began to strive to learn more, and to do better — and I’m still striving. It’s not only that I worry about the kind of world my sons are going to grow up to inherit (though it makes me terribly sad to think of the ever-growing piles of trash they’ll receive, and the glorious biodiversity that they won’t); I want them to grow up to be good stewards of the earth, to serve and guard it, to cultivate and keep it, as God commanded Adam to keep Eden.

My friend Nicki is an Episcopal priest and a homeschooling mother of three. Not long ago, she organized a series of lectures to coincide with the Harvest Festival, to address questions related to Christianity and the environment. Most impressive to me were the questions and ideas raised by her eight year old son, Teddy. When we sat gathered to share thoughts and resources for “greener” living, though many adults remained quiet, Teddy contributed thoughtfully several times. It was clear that Nicki and her husband had not only taught Teddy to care about the Earth, but also, to think and act creatively in response to our present environmental crisis.

Some time later, I asked Nicki about her philosophy of ‘green’ parenting.  Incidentally, she’d stopped by to give me a bag of hand-me-down cloth diapers outgrown by her son Henry. She looked over at our sons, who were playing together on Aidan’s dilapidated ride-on car, something we’d inherited from a fellow graduate student family, shrugged her shoulders, and began talking about how Teddy is in charge of checking the country of origin labeling on apples (we live in the UK where country of origin labeling is the law; thankfully, “C.O.O.L.” will soon be law in the USA) and makes sure that they don’t buy anything grown outside the UK. Teddy also knows about the benefits of getting around by bicycle rather than car; she told me that often, it’s he that insists they cycle rather than drive.

As I talked with Nicki, I recognized afresh that children do what their parents do, and, to some extent, care about what their parents care about. Nicki herself is committed to the “Fife diet” (Fife is the kingdom, or county, where we live), even to the point of denying herself foods that she loves. She regularly meets with friends to swap clothing and other things that she no longer needs, and, let’s not forget — she came to my house that day to bring me secondhand cloth diapers for my new baby! She seems, to me, to do her best to live responsibly and authentically before her watching children. And they have certainly learned from her.


WE LIKE MEAT! (& The Food Matters Cookbook)

{Yes, I’m still away! This review of Mark Bittman’s Food Matters Cookbook originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Flourish magazine.}

My family and I love meat. If the answer to “what’s for dinner?” is remotely carnivorous, my sons and husband are thrilled, and, I must say, I am too. During each of my pregnancies, I craved nothing so much as meat, especially red meat. But I’m also a little wary of meat, for lots of reasons—namely, the environmental destruction caused by factory farming, the treatment of meatpacking workers that isn’t any better today than it was when Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, the health risks that are associated with eating too much meat—particularly the factory farmed kind—as well as the more acute risk of E coli O157:H7.

Both on my own and with my family, I’ve had extended periods of de facto vegetarianism—but I still love meat. And I think that there are some good reasons for continuing to eat it, although I try only to eat meat from animals that have been raised and slaughtered in ways that are responsible and humane. Of course, the price of this kind of meat accurately reflects its value, so we eat much less of it. Cooking and eating this way makes sense to us, and it’s making sense to more and more people—“flexitarians”—who choose to consciously limit their intake of meat while not foregoing it altogether.

Vegetarian cookbooks are of value to flexitarian types, in large part because they invite you to reconsider what a good meal looks like. For many Americans, a meal without meat seems incomplete, because meat is so often cooked and served as the “main” dish, while veggies and starches are “side dishes.” Mashed potatoes and broccoli seem lonely without a slab of animal protein to keep them company; sometimes people turning toward vegetarianism look to commercially produced meat substitutes to fill that gap. But those products are not always so healthy, they can be expensive, and as anyone who has eaten Quorn can tell you, they’re not guaranteed to be incredibly appetizing.

That’s where vegetarian cookbooks like Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone or Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian come in—showing you that great meals don’t have to center around meat or meat substitutes. But what about those of us who don’t want to be vegetarian, but simply to eat more fruits, veggies, and whole grains and eat meat in moderation?

Bittman’s newest offering, The Food Matters Cookbook, does just that; it’s a treasury of more than 500 less-meat (but not meatless!) recipes following up on his 2009 book Food Matters, which told the story of Bittman’s own culinary conversion. Despite having been a professional food writer for nearly 30 years, despite even having written a vegetarian cookbook, at age 57, Bittman was 35 pounds overweight with high cholesterol, high blood sugar, sleep apnea, and serious knee problems. His doctor told him to go vegan, and go vegan he did: for breakfast and lunch. He still eats like an omnivore for dinner, but he’s changed the overall way he eats—many more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, much less meat, dairy, sugar, and anything that isn’t “real food.” At the same time, Bittman became aware of the multiple environmental concerns surrounding meat production and processed food (producing one can of calorie-free diet soda consumes 2,200 calories of energy.) Happily, on his new way of eating, Bittman saw his health improve—and those of us who watched his weekly videos at nytimes.com were able to see him grow much thinner and younger-looking in a relatively short span of time. Now, we can enjoy many of the recipes that helped him get there.

The best thing about Bittman’s recipes in general—and this book in particular—is that he teaches you how to substitute things to suit your tastes and what you may have on hand, and how to use one technique in various ways: One recipe, not three, shows you how to make baked tortilla chips, pita chips, and croutons. (“I think these might change my life,” my dad said of the tortilla chips. They were delicious.)

In this book he also offers guidance on choosing and substituting seasonally and locally available produce and tells you when you can substitute frozen vegetables, which is handy, since frozen vegetables can actually be a tastier, healthier, and more sustainable option in the winter months. Sweet Potato and Corn Fritters with Thai Dipping Sauce made with frozen corn brought a bit of sunshine into our winter meals, and we’ve eaten more variations on the whole-grain Sweet Potato Muffins than I can remember—carrot and spice, blueberry (from frozen blueberries), and coconut are just a few among them. Bittman also explains how to omit or include small amounts of meat or fish in many dishes.

While culinary professionals and purists sometimes criticize Bittman for supposed sloppiness, one of the things I value highly in this cookbook is the effort he has put into making wholesome home cooking accessible, easy, and fun: The Chipotle Black Bean Quinoa, for example, takes only a little while to put together and is healthy, delicious, and economical; Chickpea Tagine with Bulgur and Chicken was similarly simple and unusually tasty. And it’s hard not to love recipes like Vegetables au Vin with Coq, Chili con poco Carne, and the TLB: Tomato, Lettuce, and Bacon Sandwiches—recipes that take old favorites and retool them for those who, like me, want to continue to enjoy meat—but for the sake of creation, humanity, and health—not too much of it.

The Death of a Great Woman

Have you ever heard of Wangari Maathai? She was a pretty awesome woman, and she died on Sunday night.

Wangari Maathai was born in a small village in Kenya and went on to become

“environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, [!] human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977.”

(New York Times)

Dr. Maathai paid people--mostly women--a few pennies per tree that they planted and that lived.

She was educated in the US at Mount St. Scholastica and the University of Pittsburg, and she earned a doctorate in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi–the first woman in East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

She was also the very first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” (She knew that ecological crises are often at the root of conflicts and wars.)

She was an elected member of Kenyan Parliament and served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources between January 2003 and November 2005.

And she also had personal and political problems like crazy.

Her husband thought she was too headstrong for a woman–and too difficult to control–and divorced her. She stood up to the corrupt Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, losing her university job in the process. She oversaw the planting of 30 million trees to fight creeping desertification. She was imprisoned and maligned for her activism. And yet she remained unbowed.

Wangari Maathai's memoir. Definitely worth reading.

She embodied a bold kind of beauty. She was brave and principled. She had a reverence for Creation:

“So these observations [of environmental degradation in her native Kenya] for me aroused an interest that there must be something that is happening that is bad, but it wasn’t the faith [that made me realize the ecological crisis.] And I wish it was, because it should have been. I should have been reading the book of Genesis a little more closely.

And she will be missed. Thank you, Wangari, for the inspiration!

{You can listen to an interview with Wangari Maathai here. In it she talks about how she’s encouraged that faith-based groups are beginning to take conservation seriously, and how her own faith was shaped. Definitely worth a listen!}