Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, Part II

Barbara Kingsolver ranks high on my list of authors with whom I would love to have a lengthy chat (along with Diana Abu Jaber and Khaled Hosseini). Besides the fact that I admire her literary artistry, I am intrigued by Kingsolver’s spiritual and religious views. I tend, for example, to think Nathan Price in The Poisonwood Bible so deranged that Kingsolver could not have intended anyone to take him seriously as representative of evangelical missionaries. … But does this character suggest Kingsolver perceives missionaries or evangelicals generally in a negative light?

In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle Kingsolver frequently references her rural childhood and observes that many of the small farmers she writes about are probably church-goers (though she mentions appreciatively that they keep their religion to themselves) (204-05). I assume Kingsolver, having grown up in such an environment herself, had a fair amount of exposure to Christian spirituality, if not from her family, at least from her neighbors. Regardless, she is now an evangelist for evolution, with a graduate degree in evolutionary biology.

Kingsolver does seem to espouse a type of spirituality; it seems to be centered on community (an admirable value in itself) and nature, rather than a specific deity. In the final chapter of AVM, Kingsolver refers to the Beautiful Mystery. When she explains it to her daughter, the Mystery entails things like millions and millions of years of evolution, natural selection, and so forth. Life is a mystery, however you look at it. But I wonder whether Kingsolver feels it is a mystery we will someday solve with science (provided we don’t destroy ourselves in the meantime) or a Mystery that transcends human comprehension. Is it a mystery because we haven’t yet plumbed its depths or because it is entirely unfathomable?

Similarly, to what does the “Miracle” of the title pertain? Kingsolver comments in a section about the family’s Amish friends David and Elsie that their community thrives on a local food culture and economy but that there are no miracles there. Anyone can do this (166). Presumably, then, the miracle Kingsolver has in mind is the intricate interaction of the natural order–and indeed, it is remarkable. But it seems Kingsolver must regard this is as sort of “natural miracle,” given her evolutionary bent. Nowhere in the book does Kingsolver specifically rule out the existence of a divinity, but unless she believes in theistic evolution, that is the practical outcome of her position. Thus I am surprised at Kingsolver’s description of Thanksgiving as “a day off work just to praise Creation…Praise harvest, a pause and sigh on the breath of immortality” (284). Why praise “creation” rather than “nature” or “the earth,” since Creation implies a Creator? And for that matter, what is the nature of the immortality mentioned here?

Kingsolver’s discussion of Thanksgiving raises a further question. She acknowledges that Thanksgiving traditions originally expressed appreciation to the North American Indians for their role in helping the settlers survive but writes that the relationship between the descendants of Europeans and the Native Americans has been so muddied in the ensuing centuries that she prefers to leave that out of her celebrations. However, I wonder if it is through intentional omission or simply oversight that she fails to mention these first immigrants, above all else, were thanking the Creator, not just Creation, for his blessings.

This, in fact, points up the basic difference between Kingsolver’s perspective and mine. Kingsolver’s position (as I understand it) is that we should fulfill our place as an integrated part of the evolved natural order and respect all life forms, including those who will follow us. A good perspective, but not the whole story, as I see it. I believe God wants us to enjoy his Creation and turn to him in gratitude, rather than continually pursuing self gratification–more now. We should respect the earth because it is God’s gift to us to enjoy and care for, not to exploit for the satisfaction of our insatiable desires.

Likewise, our fellow humans are worthy of regard because they also are God’s beloved creation. Kingsolver writes that all humans are equal and that the rules that govern natural selection that set apart some traits as superior to others do not apply to our species (334, 354). But I would like to hear her expand on what sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, if we are merely the end product of an evolutionary chain.

I also have to differ with Kingsolver’s assessment that the “disconnection from natural processes may be at the heart of our country’s shift away from believing in evolution. In the past, principles of natural selection and change over time made sense to kids who’d watched it all unfold” (11). Such a statement seems to disregard agricultural communities all over the world throughout history that have attributed natural processes to divine origin. Granted, they didn’t have the benefit of modern science to enlighten them, but it doesn’t follow for me that acquaintance with nature logically leads one away from belief in a Creator.

What intrigues me is that although Kingsolver and I start with very different basic assumptions, we appear to share similar values and views regarding, for example, family, responsible consumption, resistance to materialism and caring participation in one’s community … not to mention the art of good food made from scratch. So I wonder, does this result from Kingsolver’s upbringing in a conservative rural environment, or do our differing basic beliefs somehow work themselves out into similar value systems?

Kingsolver’s assertion that a local food mindset requires patience and restraint (see previous post) certainly concurs with biblical principles. Pastor and author John Piper has coined the term “Christian hedonism” (in Desiring God, for example). He argues that humans were designed to desire and enjoy God above all else. The inner longing we seek to satisfy through material (or other) means can ultimately be fulfilled only by God. When we seek to fill it with anything other than God, we limit our capacity to experience the ultimate joy available only through communion with him. This idea did not originate with Piper, though among contemporary theologians he has written about it most prolifically. C.S. Lewis described it thus: We are like “an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea” (from “The Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, Macmillan, 1949, 3-4). In AVM terms, this might translate as, “We are like North American suburbanites who go on eating mushy pink fruit from Peru because we cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a homegrown tomato.”

In sum, this is what I would ask Kingsolver: How do your thoughts on spirituality–mystery and miracle–intersect with your naturalistic ideas about human origins? And I would thank her for prodding me to take my own convictions more seriously–and demonstrating acting on such convictions is realistic.

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