Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Review: THE FRIENDS WE KEEP – Laura Hobgood-Oster [Vol. 4, #8]

582644: The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity"s Compassion for Animals

A Review of
The Friends We Keep:
Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals

By Laura Hobgood-Oster
Paperback: Baylor University Press, 2010.

Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

Reviewed by Marilyn Matevia.

For nonhuman animals, Christian teachings might seem to be anything but “good news.” Many forms of exploitation, neglect and abuse are tolerated and even justified by followers of a faith tradition that holds compassion and justice as core virtues – because the victims are other animals and not human beings. But that has not always been the case. The modern Christian tradition, says Laura Hobgood-Oster, suffers “collective amnesia about the role of the rest of God’s creatures in religion and in life as a whole.” Hobgood-Oster is Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies at Southwestern University, and a dedicated volunteer dog and cat rescuer. In her latest book, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals, she attempts to rescue and recover the “good news” for animals from stories, teachings and texts that have been forgotten, marginalized or conveniently overlooked for several hundred years.

“The rich history of Christianity, through its texts, its rituals, its images and its practices, actually provides copious resources to instruct Christians and provide compassion for animals in today’s complicated world,” writes Hobgood-Oster. The Friends We Keep is a rich, (usually) highly readable sampling of these resources, and a guide to applying the rediscovered wisdom to mitigate animal suffering. Each chapter begins with a somewhat personal take on a problem facing animals today (e.g., homelessness, exploitation, extinction), provides some relevant history, and then returns to the present day to propose a more constructive Christian response to the problem at hand. By this structure, readers are equipped with insights from earlier teachings and traditions before they are drawn into reflection on difficult contemporary issues in animal ethics – for example, sport hunting or factory farming. Chapter 1, on animal companions, introduces a terrier named “Jazz” – left homeless by Hurricane Katrina – and describes Hobgood-Oster’s efforts to find her a new home. The chapter then outlines a brief history of pet-keeping and human-animal companionship before circling back to discuss the nationwide problem of homeless cats and dogs (6-8 million a year end up in shelters), and to sketch a Christian response based in relational theology.

Chapter 2 looks at the exploitation of animals in sports – opening vividly with the tragic story of Eight Belles, a 3-year old filly who ran an incredible race at the 2008 Kentucky Derby, but shattered both front legs and had to be euthanized on the track. The author draws parallels between some contemporary sports “entertainments” (horse racing, dog fighting, and trophy-hunting) and the blood-sports of the Roman Empire. “Watching those who are not ‘like us’ fight to the death, die at the other end of a weapon we wield, or exert themselves to a point that leads to death is in many ways reminiscent of the lives of the early Christians.” She urges us to tap into the long Christian tradition of compassion toward “others” – noting that compassion “need not stop with humans.”

Chapter 3 deals with the use of animals for food. The author begins with a story of her childhood summers on her great-grandmother’s farm, making her first connections between living animals and the dinner plate. She then reviews the historical significance of food in Christian rituals and traditions, before returning to the modern-day and decidedly un-sacramental reality of factory farms. A Christian response to these atrocities (this is a fairly graphic and important chapter) is informed by the basic Christian tenet of compassion, which Hobgood-Oster shows – through a selection of relevant scriptural passages – logically extends to our relationships with nonhuman others.

Chapter 4 briefly introduces the looming reality of mass human-caused extinctions. This chapter could include even harder, more disturbing numbers than it does – in fact, biologists estimate that 30,000 to 50,000 plant and animal species are disappearing every year. But the point is nonetheless made: human beings are practicing a particularly aggressive and tragic kind of dominion. Hobgood-Oster proposes the practice of Christian hospitality as an antidote. She briefly traces the duty hospitality tradition through biblical texts and through the stories of early saints (e.g., Jerome, Severus, Macarius) in compassionate, welcoming encounters with wildlife. (Early in the book the author makes the interesting point that one outcome of the Protestant Reformation – ending the veneration of saints – effectively cut off an important source of historical information about Christian encounters with animals.) Hobgood-Oster acknowledges a problem with this proposal: it seems to reinforce the idea that has gotten us into so much trouble already – the notion that the earth is ours to share, rather than God’s alone. But “the reality is that we are the ones taking up all the space. Most places on the earth are under human control. If other animals are going to survive our presence, we must extend radical hospitality to them.” We do this by leaving some wild places alone, and creating or restoring others as habitat or sanctuaries for other beings.


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Chapter 5 notes the near-total absence of animals from images and liturgies in our worship spaces and asks “where have all the animals gone?” Hobgood-Oster shows how human-centered interpretations of ideas like the Word, sacrificial atonement, and speciesism (as a frame through which we view our standing in creation) have shaped Christian theology into a system exclusively about God and human beings. “All other animals and parts of creation are excluded.” In fact, all other animals and parts of creation are placed in servitude to human beings in a “culture of sacrifice.” “Right Christian practice in the contemporary world, with the many suffering animals in our midst, calls us to alleviate that suffering and to extend compassion, hospitality, and mutual relationship to all God’s creatures.” This is probably the most challenging and conceptually “dense” chapter, but the author does a good job of explaining and tying together these central ideas. She closes with a verbal portrait of the annual Blessing of Animals at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. The final pages of the book include a brief group discussion guide, suggestions for individual and congregational advocacy on behalf of animals, and examples of prayers and liturgies that can be used in worship services, animal blessings, and memorials.

The author admits in her preface that she is accustomed to writing for an academic audience, and that habit does come across in a few passages. But The Friends We Keep is engaging and highly readable. Put a copy in the church library; schedule it for a discussion group (it seems tailor-made for it). It will be eye-opening and refreshing for anyone who wrestles with inherited, unchallenged platitudes and attitudes about Christianity’s regard for nonhuman animals. They will learn that the resources guiding us to more compassionate and respectful interactions are rich and plentiful.

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For nonhuman animals, Christian teachings might seem to be anything but “good news.” Many forms of exploitation, neglect and abuse are tolerated and even justified by followers of a faith tradition that holds compassion and justice as core virtues – because the victims are other animals and not human beings. But that has not always been the case. The modern Christian tradition, says Laura Hobgood-Oster, suffers “collective amnesia about the role of the rest of God’s creatures in religion and in life as a whole.” Hobgood-Oster is Professor of Religion and Environmental Studies at Southwestern University, and a dedicated volunteer dog and cat rescuer. In her latest book, The Friends We Keep: Unleashing Christianity’s Compassion for Animals, she attempts to rescue and recover the “good news” for animals from stories, teachings and texts that have been forgotten, marginalized or conveniently overlooked for several hundred years.

“The rich history of Christianity, through its texts, its rituals, its images and its practices, actually provides copious resources to instruct Christians and provide compassion for animals in today’s complicated world,” writes Hobgood-Oster. The Friends We Keep is a rich, (usually) highly readable sampling of these resources, and a guide to applying the rediscovered wisdom to mitigate animal suffering. Each chapter begins with a somewhat personal take on a problem facing animals today (e.g., homelessness, exploitation, extinction), provides some relevant history, and then returns to the present day to propose a more constructive Christian response to the problem at hand. By this structure, readers are equipped with insights from earlier teachings and traditions before they are drawn into reflection on difficult contemporary issues in animal ethics – for example, sport hunting or factory farming. Chapter 1, on animal companions, introduces a terrier named “Jazz” – left homeless by Hurricane Katrina – and describes Hobgood-Oster’s efforts to find her a new home. The chapter then outlines a brief history of pet-keeping and human-animal companionship before circling back to discuss the nationwide problem of homeless cats and dogs (6-8 million a year end up in shelters), and to sketch a Christian response based in relational theology.

Chapter 2 looks at the exploitation of animals in sports – opening vividly with the tragic story of Eight Belles, a 3-year old filly who ran an incredible race at the 2008 Kentucky Derby, but shattered both front legs and had to be euthanized on the track. The author draws parallels between some contemporary sports “entertainments” (horse racing, dog fighting, and trophy-hunting) and the blood-sports of the Roman Empire. “Watching those who are not ‘like us’ fight to the death, die at the other end of a weapon we wield, or exert themselves to a point that leads to death is in many ways reminiscent of the lives of the early Christians.” She urges us to tap into the long Christian tradition of compassion toward “others” – noting that compassion “need not stop with humans.”

Chapter 3 deals with the use of animals for food. The author begins with a story of her childhood summers on her great-grandmother’s farm, making her first connections between living animals and the dinner plate. She then reviews the historical significance of food in Christian rituals and traditions, before returning to the modern-day and decidedly un-sacramental reality of factory farms. A Christian response to these atrocities (this is a fairly graphic and important chapter) is informed by the basic Christian tenet of compassion, which Hobgood-Oster shows – through a selection of relevant scriptural passages – logically extends to our relationships with nonhuman others.

Chapter 4 briefly introduces the looming reality of mass human-caused extinctions. This chapter could include even harder, more disturbing numbers than it does – in fact, biologists estimate that 30,000 to 50,000 plant and animal species are disappearing every year. But the point is nonetheless made: human beings are practicing a particularly aggressive and tragic kind of dominion. Hobgood-Oster proposes the practice of Christian hospitality as an antidote. She briefly traces the duty hospitality tradition through biblical texts and through the stories of early saints (e.g., Jerome, Severus, Macarius) in compassionate, welcoming encounters with wildlife. (Early in the book the author makes the interesting point that one outcome of the Protestant Reformation – ending the veneration of saints – effectively cut off an important source of historical information about Christian encounters with animals.) Hobgood-Oster acknowledges a problem with this proposal: it seems to reinforce the idea that has gotten us into so much trouble already – the notion that the earth is ours to share, rather than God’s alone. But “the reality is that we are the ones taking up all the space. Most places on the earth are under human control. If other animals are going to survive our presence, we must extend radical hospitality to them.” We do this by leaving some wild places alone, and creating or restoring others as habitat or sanctuaries for other beings.

Chapter 5 notes the near-total absence of animals from images and liturgies in our worship spaces and asks “where have all the animals gone?” Hobgood-Oster shows how human-centered interpretations of ideas like the Word, sacrificial atonement, and speciesism (as a frame through which we view our standing in creation) have shaped Christian theology into a system exclusively about God and human beings. “All other animals and parts of creation are excluded.” In fact, all other animals and parts of creation are placed in servitude to human beings in a “culture of sacrifice.” “Right Christian practice in the contemporary world, with the many suffering animals in our midst, calls us to alleviate that suffering and to extend compassion, hospitality, and mutual relationship to all God’s creatures.” This is probably the most challenging and conceptually “dense” chapter, but the author does a good job of explaining and tying together these central ideas. She closes with a verbal portrait of the annual Blessing of Animals at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. The final pages of the book include a brief group discussion guide, suggestions for individual and congregational advocacy on behalf of animals, and examples of prayers and liturgies that can be used in worship services, animal blessings, and memorials.

The author admits in her preface that she is accustomed to writing for an academic audience, and that habit does come across in a few passages. But The Friends We Keep is engaging and highly readable. Put a copy in the church library; schedule it for a discussion group (it seems tailor-made for it). It will be eye-opening and refreshing for anyone who wrestles with inherited, unchallenged platitudes and attitudes about Christianity’s regard for nonhuman animals. They will learn that the resources guiding us to more compassionate and respectful interactions are rich and plentiful.

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One Comment

  1. Sounds amazing. I will be looking for the book and read it asap. I recently stopped eating any animal products, and this book sounds like the answer to all the Christians who wonder why.