By LeRoy Lawson
Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (Orlando: Harvest, 2005).
Temple Grandin is autistic and a shatterer of stereotypes. She’s not retarded; she holds a PhD in animal science. She’s not dependent on others to take care of her. She lives alone, is one of the country’s leading consultants in animal behavior, and she’s an amazingly productive author of hundreds of articles, many books, and dozens of lectures a year.
So much for stereotypes.
I wish I could have read her Animals in Translation years ago. Her descriptions of the similarities between autistic and animal thinking and behaving produced several aha! moments for me.
Our autistic grandson has puzzled and often frustrated us. He’s simply not wired the way we are, and I have made serious mistakes in trying to cope with the differences. While aware of his skills in certain areas, I was ignorant of how he processes information and deals with reality, of his sometimes inexplicable reactions to sensory overload and dramatic changes in his surroundings, and of his preference for his solitude and obsessions.
Grandin is convinced that autistic persons learn the way animals do, very specifically, concretely, and nonconceptually. They see details where we see generalities. They can learn a great deal, but must learn in their way, not ours.
Her gentleness with animals reminded me of another favorite, Monty Roberts’s The Man Who Listens to Horses. Both authors hate cruelty and believe it’s unnecessary (you don’t have to “break” a horse). Both advocate listening to animals, learning their language, seeing what they see, and hearing what they hear.
Grandin goes further, applying the latest scientific research to understand how dolphins and prairie dogs and other animals communicate with one another, how parrots can master the rudiments of human speech, how dogs can sense dropping blood sugar levels in humans, and so on in example after captivating example.
She is most famous for her invention of the humane squeeze chutes used to guide cows in meat plants—and her adaptation of the invention for herself. She realized that the squeezing sensation calms animals’ fears, because “deep pressure is a calming sensation for just about everyone.” As she watched cattle relax, she wanted a squeeze chute of her own. So she made herself one, which she uses to this day.
This book, the author writes, “is different from any other book I’ve read about animals, mostly because I’m different from every other professional who works with animals. Autistic people can think the way animals think. Of course, we also think the way people think—we aren’t that different from normal humans. Autism is a kind of way station on the road from animals to humans, which puts autistic people like me in a perfect position to translate ‘animal talk’ into English. I can tell people why their animals are doing the things they do.”
Along the way, she tells us why autistic people do what they do—and quite a bit about the doings of the rest of us.
Garry Wills, Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America (New York: Penguin Books, 2007).
Garry Wills is another author passionate about his subject. He cares about religion in America. In Head and Heart, he traces the impact of Evangelicalism from the founding Puritans to the Bush White House and Enlightenment from the deistic architects of the Constitution to today’s religious “liberals.” America’s religious history reads like an ongoing tug-of-war between two strong combatants, now one and then the other dominating, but neither able to win a decisive victory.
You won’t agree with everything—probably won’t even like his hard-hitting critiques (especially of the blurring of state-church lines in recent decades)—but you won’t be bored. One of Wills’s theses is “that Enlightened religion was a blessing to this country—that it was a necessary corrective to the pre-Enlightenment religion [read Evangelical] that hanged Mary Dyer, condemned Anne Hutchinson, and banished Roger Williams.
“That does not mean we must approve everything connected with Enlightenment religion or condemn everything connected with Evangelical religion. Both have had their flaws.” To the Evangelicals’ flaws (witch-hunting, intolerance) he adds the Enlightenment’s anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism.
He strives for balance, believing it necessary for “each pole of the religious tradition to call on the other.” He finds that mutual dependence clearly exhibited in America’s civil rights movement. “It was the energy and raw Evangelical eloquence of the black preachers that fired and uplifted the more cerebral [Enlightened] theologians of the North. . . . The framework of the movement was Enlightened. The power of it was Evangelical. The protesters marched to hymns and spirituals.”
On the ongoing debate between church and state, Wills claims Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom “gives the lie to what is commonly said of Jefferson, that he was trying to protect the state from religion.” The longest section in this statute, he notes, “is dedicated to the preservation of the freedom, purity, and vigor of the church.” His compatriot James Madison also “spoke for the freedom of religion, not the freedom from religion.”
Wills offers new insight (at least for me) on the Southern preachers’ fierce defense of slavery. They were slaveholders. Their personal wealth was at stake. Wills quotes a study by Brooks Holifield that “found that Southern clergymen’s average wealth was $20,000, at a time when the average for a free adult white male in America was $2,500.”
And much of their wealth was human. In some places up to 50 percent of the pastors owned slaves. Eight pastors in Macon, for example, owned a total of 49 slaves. The preachers were just protecting their investments, but at what a cost.
The North was not all innocence, however. Another surprise was to learn that at Oberlin College in Ohio, the president, renowned evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, did not let free blacks sit with whites at his revivals. It turns out that Oberlin was antislavery, but Finney diluted its stand out of deference, Wills believes, to rich patrons. Those pesky investments, again.
I enjoyed reading about the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, an antisaloon movement that was still active when I was young. Antisaloon became a misnomer, though, when Frances Willard became the Union’s president. She broadened its mandate to include women’s suffrage, the kindergarten movement, prison reform, the eight-hour workday, federal aid to education, and other reforms.
There are many other tales of the fascinating events and characters that shaped American religion. Whatever certainties you carry to the reading of Head and Heart, I promise you Wills will challenge them.
LeRoy Lawson, international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International, is a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and a member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee. His column appears at least monthly.