No Beef

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Burger franchises aren’t always the best option for vegetarians. When you’re traveling, however, choices can be slim. My wife and I recently pulled into a Burger King. They do have a veggie burger, although it is clear that those who prepare them seldom eat them. They must be frozen because they inevitably have that tough edge that comes from microwaving them just a little too long. Anyway, we were sitting down to have a bite, or chew, when a group of three gentlemen in the corner booth caught our attention. They were arguing, in a friendly way, over Christianity. Among the topics of conversation was the age of the earth. (Ten thousand years, at the outside.) Overhearing the conversation, I started to get nervous. I noticed the guy at the table next to them glancing curiously their way.

I glanced around. Other people having conversations about mundane things. Perhaps this is what we’re taught to do. Speak of things that have little depth. We are in a public place. We don’t discuss religion or politics here. But then I reconsidered the situation. If I were to join their discussion I’m sure we would have found little in the way of common ground, but I realized that conversations around religion do have depth. These guys, despite the media’s incessant message that religion is for non-intellectuals, were thinking deeply about topics of ultimate concern. When’s the last time I talked with a colleague about what really matters over lunch?

A blurb in a recent Christian Century mentioned Bob Dylan. It suggested that in a recent interview that he’d intimated that if he hadn’t gone into music, he would likely have studied theology. Likewise, I recalled an interview many years ago with Bruce Springsteen that suggested he might have made a good priest. Listening to the lyrics of many of the songs of these two icons will reveal that depth and public religious discourse many not be so rare as this incident in Burger King seemed to suggest. Maybe the words aren’t always direct. Maybe we speak in metaphors and with guarded asides. Maybe we speak with our actions instead of our words. Many of the most profound conversations we have, when viewed in that light, are like those of three men in a Burger King.

Holy Food

One of the undisputed benefits of working for a publisher of a wide variety of academic books is the opportunity to learn about different topics that might otherwise I might never have considered. For example, given the recent popularity of food studies (and this is probably fodder for its own post) authors have been producing micro-histories of specific comestibles. One that was recently featured in a YouTube short is peanut butter. One of the saddest food allergies, to my way of thinking, is that of the peanut. Peanut butter is such a singular symbol of childhood that it is a shame it is also such a potent poison for many. I grew up thinking that George Washington Carver invented peanut butter, but although he certainly was an innovator of peanut cultivation and disseminator of recipes, he was not the inventor. Peanut butter has been around for a long, long time. The modern food product is probably attributed to Marcellus Gilmore Edson, a Canadian who milled roasted peanuts into a kind of semi-liquid and received a patent for it.

What makes peanut butter a fit topic for a blog on religion is the work of John Harvey Kellogg. Kellogg was awarded a patent for a processing technique that led to the peanut butter we recognize today. Kellogg, whose name is more often associated with breakfast cereals, was an early vegetarian. Much of the impetus for his food experimentation goes back to the fact that he was a devout Seventh Day Adventist. The Adventists, biblical literalists, believed in promoting health through eating wholesome foods. Peanuts, a great source of non-animal protein, were seized upon by Kellogg as an alternative to butter, as well as a theologically satisfying food. Not only a food producer, he was also a promoter, and we eat breakfast cereal today largely through his efforts. For many, the day begins with a biblically inspired food.

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On kicks of nostalgia, or when I forget to buy a vegetarian alternative, I still take peanut butter sandwiches to work for lunch. I never considered this a religious activity, although my own vegetarianism likely has religious, as well as humanitarian, roots. In this post-religious age that we inhabit we sometimes forget that many of our most basic behaviors go back to religious beliefs. Sure, the promoter of peanut butter may have stumbled upon it without having fallen under the spell of Ellen G. White’s teachings, but the fact remains that Kellogg’s religion and his commitment to health were deeply intertwined. And the next time I reach for the Skippy or Jif or Peter Pan, I’ll be, in my own way, acknowledging the power of a religion I don’t even believe.

Holy Cows

Back in the days when a book was a luxury item, great care was taken in its production and protection. Having your investment lying around with flimsy paper covers that would begin to grow blunt and roll back even before you finished reading would have seemed irresponsible. To shield the vital contents from the weather and other dangers, leather was used as a kind of skin—come to think of it, it really is skin—and safely the words were housed. Many of these volumes were, naturally, Bibles. Leather and the good book became synonymous for some—even with onionskin paper a book’s not a Bible with just a printed case hardcover. Paperback? How can you take that seriously? To make a Bible authoritative, it seems, cattle must be harvested. After all, sacrifice is at the center of it all.

Being a long-time vegetarian, this often gives me pause. My belt and watch-band are made of canvas, and I try my best to avoid leather shoes (although this is often difficult). I’m pretty sure that my leather Bibles are faux skin. Even though my family respected the Bible to the point of bibliolatry at times, we really couldn’t afford genuine cowhide. Now I take a more circumspect look at the cost of appearances. We’ve outlived the need for animal-bound Bibles. It has become more of an expectation than a necessity. An affectation. There is, however, still a big business in leather Bibles, and Italian leather seems the best fit for a Semitic savior.

What troubles me the most is the idea that animals—deemed not conscious by the very religion that allows their slaughter—are made to pay the cost for human foibles. The whole sacrificial system is built around a radical inequality. Humans domesticated cattle for their own exploitation, and their skins, when no longer needed by their hosts, came to clothe holy books of their masters. In any shade or hue of the rainbow. We can make it less grim by dying it a cheerful color and declaring its progenitor had no thoughts in its vacuous head. It lived a life of servitude and when it paid the ultimate price, it received the martyr’s gift of becoming part of the Bible. The end result? We should feel less qualms about our peccadillos and atrocities. We’ve wired their brains to trust us—we are not the predators to fear. Try not to take it personally. It’s just what our religion demands of us, for we too are a domesticated herd.

From the herd of purple cows...

From the herd of purple cows…

Inhumane Society

AnimalsMatter“I’m a member of PETA,” I’ve had more than one wag say, quoting bumper sticker wisdom as if it were profound, upon learning I’m a vegetarian. “People Eating Tasty Animals,” they then spell out with a smirk. I stopped eating animals at about the turn of the millennium, and since then I’ve discovered more and more reasons that it was the correct decision. I’ve just read Marc Bekoff’s Animals Matter: A Biologist Explains Why We Should Treat Animals with Compassion and Respect. It saddens me that in our world where nothing escapes being posted on Facebook, people still tend not to notice the suffering we impose upon animals as a matter of course. I’ve always been inclined to look closely at things, including animals. Watching them, it is clear that humans are indeed animals only differently evolved. Our mannerisms, our emotions, even our expressions, can be found among our animated kin. We share a planet on which we all evolved together, so why do we find it so easy to exploit other creatures?

One of the reasons Bekoff notes, without being judgmental, is that some religions inform us that people alone are special because we bear the image of God. Although God is supposed to be altruistic, we don’t wish to share that exalted status with any other species, apparently. Even in the twenty-first century many otherwise intelligent people still claim that animals feel no pain. Can’t reason. Are mere machines. We’ve been taught to distrust common sense that informs us that if an animal in distress acts like a human in distress that it experiences the same anxiety. The more we study animals the more human they become. The theology of Genesis has much for which it will be called to answer.

It seems, however, that the Bible is used as a mere excuse here. We exploit other animals because we can. We have taught bovines and ovines to trust us so that we may more easily slaughter them. Perhaps this is an exercise in divine image bearing, but somehow I doubt it. Reading Animals Matter in many ways felt like listening to a scientist who has taken the message of the Lorax to heart. We treat animals the way we do because we don’t understand their language, but we are morally obligated to speak for those who have no tongues. Although accessible to younger readers, Animals Matter is nevertheless a profoundly disturbing book. What does it say about the highly evolved when they exploit their relatives who’ve not learned the language of humans? Or, more accurately, who’ve not learned to vocalize like humans. Other animals speak, just like people sometimes, if we would only translate their actions into words.