Beliefs Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Consider the Birds: My Favorite Spirituality Book So Far This Year

Even though I'm not a bird lover, I'm crowing about Debbie Blue's new book.
Even though I'm not a bird lover, I'm crowing about Debbie Blue's new book.

Even though I’m not a bird lover, I’m crowing about Debbie Blue’s new book.

I don’t do “best of the year” lists anymore on my blog because it’s such a crap shoot: I can’t claim to have read all the books coming down the pike with anything approaching comprehensiveness. There are plenty of good books that pass me by, that I either don’t have time to read or don’t make time to read.

But here’s a new one that I love: Consider the Birds by Debbie Blue. Now, I don’t know jack squat about birds except that they fly and mate and seem to enjoy crapping on my superannuated car. I certainly don’t know much about birds and religion, which Debbie Blue has spent a lot of time thinking about; the book’s subtitle suggests that it is a “provocative guide to birds of the Bible.”

Provocative, indeed. I read it a couple of months ago and am still thinking about it. It’s not a field guide so much as a theology manifesto about how the don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-them references to birds in the Bible can teach us some surprising things about God.

What if, for example, the Isaiah translation that many of us are used to hearing — that we shall mount up on wings like eagles — turns out to be wrong, and a closer translation would be “vultures”? (Isa. 40:31)

We are repelled by vultures but gravitate toward eagles, which we see as strong and noble and fiercely independent. We want to be like eagles, flapping our own powerful wings to propel us ever upward. Vultures, by contrast, fly very differently; they ride the wind currents, carried along by pockets of rising warm air. There is trust there.

If Blue is right about the translation of Isaiah 40:31, this vulture could be you.

If Blue is right about the translation of Isaiah 40:31, this vulture could be you.

What would it mean if God is telling us to soar like vultures rather than drive ourselves like eagles?

Moreover, vultures are consumers of death. They eat the dead. We don’t like to think about that, not one bit, and we certainly don’t want to think of ourselves as vultures, circling around the dead. But Christians believe in a God who eats death, who triumphs over it and takes its sting away. Could it be that in mounting like vultures, that is our calling too?

There’s also an interesting chapter about doves in the Bible. Did you know that a dove and a pigeon are basically the same bird? What changes about our theology if the New Testament suggests the Holy Spirit came in the form of a pigeon rather than a dove? We hate pigeons. Blue writes:

“Pigeons want to be close to us. They are where we are—in some of the worst places we have made (our neglected projects and abandoned buildings) and some of the best (art museums, parks, Rome’s piazzas). They won’t leave us alone. Yet there’s hardly a bird that people are more likely to want to shoot and exterminate . . . . What if the Spirit of God descends like a pigeon, somehow—always underfoot, routinely ignored, often despised?”

Maybe the Holy Spirit is more like a quotidian pigeon than an elegant dove. And maybe you are starting to understand why I dig this book. Even if you’re not a bird-lover, take a look at it.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.


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