December 2007

Barbara J. King


Books, Bonobos, and Bison: A Field Trip to the American Academy of Religion

Any academic conference’s pedestrian aorta leads right into the Exhibit Hall, a place clogged with publishers’ book booths. Last month, I immersed myself in the clamorous annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) -- Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in San Diego, and thus was able to graze in the mother of all Exhibit Halls. As one of 9,000-plus attendees, I joined other book lovers in walking up one aisle and down the next, refusing to miss a back corner or hidden grotto and thus a possible gem. (And there’s always hope for a new book on William James; you can’t write for Jessa for years and remain indifferent to James).

This year’s convening marked the final fusion of the AAR and the SBL: the two groups are divorcing and, from 2008 on, will convene separately. I attended for the AAR, to participate in sessions on Science, Technology, and Religion, and Animals and Religion, some of which really push the envelope on scholarly study of religion (more on this below). The SBL by contrast is, well, pretty attached to the Bible. Its absence at the AAR meeting next year will likely mean I won’t approach a booth selling software for Biblical research only to find a sign: “The BibleWorks booth is closed in observance of the Lord’s Day. Please come back and see us tomorrow.”

Perhaps I’ll miss out too on books like these two from Zondervan: The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching: A Comprehensive Resource for Today’s Communicators by Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson, and, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. According to the book jacket, Gagging’s author D. A. Carson “affirms the deep need for the gospel’s exclusive message in today’s pluralistic global community.” Exclusive religious messages: let’s gift each other this holiday season by rejecting these.

I lingered over books that promised new worlds of thought. The University of California Press’s Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination by Susan Ashbrook Harvey conjured for me faint whiffs of incense, holy oils, and the role of smell in religious ritual. Random House’s Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists by Michael Hamilton Morgan made me want to read about brilliant astronomers in the early Muslim world. And I felt a wave of Karuna (compassion) coming over me right then and there at the sight of Snow Lion Press’s Buddhism with an Attitude, by B. Alan Wallace.

Exhibit Halls these days adopt a beyond-the-book, multi-sensory approach: dotting the aisles were TVs playing videotaped interviews with interesting personages, and one booth even sold excursions to Turkey: “Tuiki Tours -- Turkey -- Where Bible Comes Alive! Sites visited by Paul…”

Most relevantly for me, many publishers resort to the sugar lure: deep bowls of candy offer to Hall hikers the promise of sustenance, and to publishers, a person willing to slow, stop, and munch right in front of their best titles. In this regard I must recognize St. Mary’s Press, which offered the highest quality bait in the whole place: small wrapped Dove chocolates. Perhaps St. Mary’s did this because, stuck in the Hall’s back row, they feared reduced foot traffic. They needn’t have worried. Their Love, Reason, and God’s Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics by David Clostier grabbed attention on its own.

As I inhaled sugar and plotted a path past the Doubleday booth to see if my own book was selling, I spotted a pattern in the Hall: lots of books on sexuality and gender issues. Humor is hidden in this theme I am sure (and no monopoly on Catholic jokes, either), but I mean to be serious. Some of this work is cutting edge, significant stuff. The Pilgrim Press devoted a big chunk of its real estate to books like God Comes Out: A Queer Homiletic by Olive Elaine Hinnant and an updated edition of Virginia Ramey Mollenkott’s Omni-gender: A Trans-religious Approach. It’s not just alternative presses, either. Jonathan Kirsch’s book The Harlot by the Side of the Road is blurbed hotly by Random House: “The stories you are about to read are some of the most violent and sexually explicit in all of western literature.” Hype aside. Karen Armstrong notes that Kirsch’s volume offers “an important reminder that God cannot always be identified with respectable middle-class morality.”

I admired Margaret R. Miles’s A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750 (University of California Press) and Nicola Denzey’s The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women (Beacon Press), but only at the booth run by the Union for Reform Judaism Books and Music did my heart beat faster. There sat a fat advance copy of Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss’s The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary.

Cohn and Weiss’s book is due out any day, and buzz is in the air. “They both ate the forbidden fruit, but Eve got the blame,” announces the book’s flyer… “Until Now.” Prediction: this one will make a media splash. It promises “a fresh look at the Torah” that brings “women’s voices to the forefront.” I sense a mitzvah in the making.                 

I left the Hall book-laden and candy-sated, and two days later, attended the paper session for which I had flown cross-country. Here, the theme of inclusion that I’d bonded with back at the Exhibit Hall -- inclusion of all people and all perspectives -- was radicalized by serious reflection on links between bonobos, the female-empowered, sexy great apes of Africa, and the sacred.

At first, I had thought it was kind of wild, being asked to speak in a session called “In Whose Image: Bonobos, Sin, and Transcendence,” co-sponsored by AAR’s Science, Technology, and Religion Group and the Animals and Religion Consultation. My job was to act as first responder: that is, as discussant, the scientist brought to AAR from ApeWorld to respond to papers about bonobos by a trio of theologians, smart and savvy thinkers who knew their science as well as their religion. The theme stretched my mind. If, as many scientists including me think, bonobos (and other great apes) are self-conscious, express empathy and a kind of moral awareness in their social groups, what implications exist for a notion of the Imago Dei, humans created in God’s image? What relationship exists between bonobos and God?

All I can say is, it was fun. I’m no Imago Deist, so I brought in questions from my own perspective on animal-human relating. Deeply affected by a summer visit to Yellowstone National Park, I ventured beyond our closest-living-relatives, the apes, to consider also the American bison. Bison (buffalo) are mammals who form social bonds and are capable of considerable learning. They are of paramount spiritual importance to many Native American groups. Yet no one would consider the bison as the animal world’s heavyweights when it comes to emotional or cognitive complexity.

And so my questions: What happens when we expand beyond a litmus test of self-consciousness and moral awareness to ask about a whole range of other animals in relation to God? May transcendence inhere not so much in linking animals to God but in thinking about how all animals open up our human hearts to empathy, to connection beyond the self with the natural world and, sometimes, with the sacred?

OK, maybe it was wild.

Now I’m back home, and writing. My bonobos-bison-and-beyond book about animals, humans, and religion will debut at an AAR Exhibit Hall in two years or so. Here’s hoping my publisher will spring for a bottomless bowl of chocolates.

-- Barbara J. King thanks her local paper The Daily Press for supporting her book with a new story.