From Three of My Favorite Female Authors

By LeRoy Lawson

 

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals
Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
Boston and New York: Mariner Books (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), 2009, 2010

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
Barbara Brown Taylor
New York: HarperCollins e-books, 2009 (HarperOne)

Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life
Kathleen Norris
New York: Riverhead Books (Penguin Group), 2008

 

This month’s books are by three favorite female writers. Each has earned respect by life well-lived and books well-written.

33305_animals_book_JN2The first is Temple Grandin’s Animals Make Us Human, perhaps a surprising choice since I’m not exactly an animal person. We don’t have a dog, I’m allergic to cats, we can’t afford a horse, and birds are messy.

So why would I read another Grandin book about animals? To begin with, the title. I like it because, as she says, treating animals right is the humane (read human) thing to do; doing so makes us better.

Second, the author, Dr. Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, is autistic. She is also one of the world’s leading authorities on both autism and animal behavior. She believes animals and autistic human beings function alike, so her “disability” gives her rare insight into how animals think and feel.

In this volume she concentrates on dogs, cats, cows, horses, pigs, chickens and other poultry, and wildlife. Practically every page offers insights that I, at least, did not previously have. This one, though, I already knew: “Dogs serve people, but people serve cats.” No surprise here.

She explains that four core emotions govern animals: seeking, rage, fear, and panic. She also notes the three other lesser-known ones that deserve attention: lust, care, and play.

Because of Grandin, I will never again consider animals—any animals—as nonthinking, nonfeeling, noncommunicative beings. We easily recognize a dog or cow’s physical pain; what I have been insensitive to is their emotional pain. I am not alone. Look at what we do to lions and polar bears and elephants and, and, and . . . when we trap them and cage them in zoos and isolate them from their kind. Horses should not be stabled away from their fellows; dogs should not be cooped up all day when the owner is away at work; pigs suffer from boredom. All this I did not know. (Chickens need someplace to hide when laying their eggs. I did know that.)

I read Animals Make Us Human on a farm back in my hometown, Tillamook, Oregon (home of that world-famous cheese). Just down the hill, cows were grazing—contentedly. These Tillamook farmers understand Grandin’s principles. They care about their herds; more than that, they care about their individual cows. So they listen, they protect, they don’t punish or frighten; they treat them as good humans should.

And, in return, their cows produce.

 

Doing with the Whole Person

My indebtedness to women of faith is huge. I am in the Christian church because of my mother. A woman minister (yes, minister!) in my home church was one of the defining influences of my life. Throughout my years of ministry, I have relied heavily, and with good reason, on the expertise of female colleagues. It should not surprise you, then, that I turn to some women authors when seeking spiritual insights that often elude us men.

Barbara Brown Taylor never lets me down. I may not always agree with her (a fact) in An Altar in the World, I may question her orthodoxy (another fact), I may even wonder about her choice of spiritual exercises (blessing the grass of the fields and the trees of the forest?), but she never fails to challenge me to more conscientious faith.

Her candor is refreshing. She has trouble with her prayer life, she says—yet gives good advice for improving it. She had trouble accepting her 5-foot 10-inch body (would that I had such a problem!). She couldn’t hold her first marriage together. She’s human. But she sees the holy in everything. Unnervingly so. Her kind of holiness isn’t just about the spirit (or the Spirit), but includes, indeed requires, the physical, even one’s unflattering and embarrassing bodily functions. (Bless the whole house, even the bathroom.)

This book on spirituality is not about believing with the mind or confessing with the lips, but doing with the whole person, from little things like making eye contact with the store clerk, to potentially big things like really observing the Sabbath (at least for me it would be a big thing to do nothing, nothing!, on the Sabbath).

If you are experiencing a little dryness in your daily walk with God, try this book. The lady is anything but dry.

 

Living Beyond Melancholy

Another favorite Christian writer is the poet Kathleen Norris, whose Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, explores how her life was enriched by her 30-year marriage, her association with a monastery near her South Dakota home, and the disciplines and disappointments attending her writing career.

I confess that when I saw Acedia on a discounted book table, I almost didn’t buy it. The title was a turnoff. Why would I want to read a depressing book about, well, depression? I’m glad I bought it, if only to be taught that acedia isn’t exactly depression. The word acedia is Latin for the condition ancient Greeks called black gall, fourth-century monks knew as the temptation to despair, and Petrarch named the nameless woe. Dante thought it a sin, Renaissance writers referred to it as melancholy, and others as spleen, ennui, and the noonday demon.

Choose whatever synonym you want. It’s still not exactly an alluring subject, is it?

But in Norris’s able hands, it’s one worth studying. The writer, whose undergraduate days were marked by profligacy and rebellion, has spent her postcollege days exploring what it actually means to be Christian, to walk humbly and deeply with our God. Though a Protestant, she set out to learn the contemplative life, to her great benefit. Each of her later books probes the spiritual meaning of her own life, marriage, and writing. Life, even in a small Midwestern town, must be more than daily.

There is much autobiography here, dominated by her husband’s many illnesses and eventual death, and the acedia that dogged her steps as she took over the chores for both of them.

She quotes Fred Craddock’s illuminating definition of sloth. What could be dismissed as mere laziness, he says, is “the ability to look at a starving child . . . with a swollen stomach and say, ‘Well, it’s not my kid.’” She is offended by “that capacity of the human spirit to look out upon the world and everything God made and say, I don’t care.”

“Dante . . . discerns in the sin of sloth a refusal to do what love requires. Acedia renders us unable to live committed to another person and to the changes the relationship with that person demands of us when it no longer offers the enticements of a new romance but has been scarred by pain, loss, and the passage of time.”

I love what she says about psychoanalysis, quoting Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: “Psychoanalysis is good at explaining things but it is not an efficient way to change them. . . . When I hear of psychoanalysis being used to ameliorate depression, I think of someone standing on a sandbar and firing a machine gun at the incoming tide.”

The final section consists of quotations from many cultures and centuries. Here are just three of the thought-provoking samples:

Karl Menninger: “Let it stand that there is a sin of not doing, of not knowing, of not finding out what one must do—in short, of not caring. This is the literal meaning of acedia.”

Dorothy Sayers: “[Sloth] is the sin that believes nothing, cares to know nothing, seeks to know nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing . . . and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”

Vaclav Havel: “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”

Worth pondering, don’t you think?

 

LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.

 

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