Jumble sales of the apocalypse: Beastly piety
Simon Jenkins on beastly piety
A parrot popped up in my Twitter feed a few days ago. He was raising his head from his own feed (a bowl of sunflower seeds) and fixing me beadily with a meaningful look. Right next to his grinning beak were the words of Psalm 34: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” This was a bit unexpected, as parrots are normally associated with: “Who’s a pretty boy then?” which is not found among the sacred words of the psalmist.
Because I’ve done a lot of time in the evangelical world, I’ve often encountered pious posters of sunsets, mountains, waterfalls and fjords, all of them with Bible texts improbably hanging in mid air. I’ve yet to find the most famous Athena poster of the 70s – showing a woman tennis player strolling away from camera – with a verse from the Song of Songs printed across, er, the net.
But it’s the pictures shared on Facebook, where cute animals endorse Bible verses, which especially deserve a place in one of the circles of Dante’s Inferno. There’s the fluffy white kitten, its paws clasped together, to illustrate “pray without ceasing”. There are two pandas fighting over a bamboo shoot for “share with those who are hungry”. There’s even a swan flapping its wings for “take away the foreskins of your hearts”. How anyone could make that particular connection is way above my theological pay grade.
The link between animals and piety is nothing new; the far-fetched stories of the saints of old also have their Narnia-like moments. St Ciarán built an Irish monastery with the help of a fox, a badger and a wolf. St Eustace, a second-century centurion, was converted by a stag carrying a lit-up cross between its antlers. St Anthony of Padua preached to a shoal of fish, who all poked their heads out of a river to catch his drift.
Possibly inspired by these touching scenes, a Southampton vicar in the 1990s hit on the great idea of introducing live animals into his church’s annual nativity play. Church often makes animals nervous, with results requiring a mop and bucket, but no one was prepared for what happened when Mary and Joseph arrived at the Bethlehem stable: “The donkey developed a huge and distracting erection,” reported the vicar. So much for “Little Donkey”.
It’s a blindingly obvious thought, but no donkey in that condition would ever make it onto a poster with a Bible verse – which, of course, is fair enough. But interestingly, neither would a shark, wasp, piranha, tarantula, python, vulture or velociraptor. They’re all God’s creatures, but their horrible tea-time habits are just a bit too jarring to match feel-good theology. That’s why scorpions and cockroaches aren’t exactly top of the bill in the evangelical zoo. Instead, the animals that make the grade are the pin-ups of the animal kingdom: majestic elephants, cute koalas, comical crabs, puppies which look like they never disgrace themselves on the shagpile rug in the living room, and the kitschiest creature of the whole internet, the kitten. Put them together with the most sanitised Bible verses known to man (or woman) and what you get is sickly sweet Christian porn.
One final creature might just provide a theological antidote, and it’s the owl. I’m not talking about the baby owl – which is basically a tiny, adorable feather duster with huge eyes – but the fearsome predator it becomes, swooping silently in the dead of night. The Welsh poet and priest RS Thomas conjures up this phantom in his poem “Raptor”, where he sees in the owl a neglected image of God:
I have heard
him scream, too, fastening
his talons in his great
adversary, or in some lesser
denizen, maybe, like you or me.
Those unsentimantal lines are a lot closer to the God of scripture and experience than a sloth endorsing: “Be still and know that I am God.” “He’s wild, you know,” says Mr Beaver in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “Not like a tame lion.” Mr Beaver is right. Except that even a lion is a bit too cute to show us God.
This article was published in the June 2016 edition of Reform.