Have you ever come across this book? What My Dog Taught Me About God by Fran Wood.
I have to be honest; I was very sceptical whenever I first came across this book. I haven’t even graced it with a cursory read yet – the title alone was more than enough to put me off. The idea of getting our theology from animals was something that as a Bible College student set me on edge.
It seems that this learning theology from animals has become something of a trend. I tried a quick google search around the theme of dogs/animals teaching us about God and there were millions of results, with thousands being blogposts on the theme.
To my shock and surprise I am going to add to this trend.
A little over a week ago I came across a film, based on a true story, called Dolphin Tale. The story is about a dolphin named Winter. As a wild dolphin she got tangled in a crab net. Due to the injuries sustained she needed to have her tail amputated. This amputation hampered Winter’s ability to swim properly, and so she must be fitted with a prosthetic tail before she does irreparable damage to her spine.
All along there is a subplot. The reserve where Winter is cared for has run out of money and so is selling up (with the buyer planning to close the reserve and build a hotel). As a result, those who work at the reserve and who rescued Winter begin to fundraise. One of the ways that they fundraise is to have an open day and invite people to come visit Winter.
This is the bit where I caught a glimpse of a biblical truth. Overwhelmingly, the people who came to visit Winter were people who were amputees. Children, young people and adults with prosthetic limbs came to see the dolphin who was the same as them.
As I watched the film I thought about the church.
So many churches are sitting scratching their heads wondering why people don’t want to come and ‘see’ them. Congregations are dwindling, communities are hostile and Christians are becoming lonelier. What are we doing wrong? Why are people losing interest in church? These are the questions that churches are left asking.
I found an answer in Dolphin Tale. I believe that part of the problem is that we in the church present ourselves as different. We sit inside our buildings and we praise God we are not like the heathens outside our four walls. People aren’t interested in church because they see Christians as different.
We must never forget where we came from – as Ephesians 2 reminds us we were dead. We were dead in sin, pursued the Devil and were slaves to our own desires. We are not all that different from the people around us – we are sinners, we are sick with sin.
Those outside the church do not see Christians as sinners – they see Christians as self-righteous and hypocritical. Perhaps if we were to acknowledge our sinfulness a little more we would attract people who recognise we are not all that different from them.
The other side of the coin
However, this is not the end of the matter.
Ultimately people do not want to become like people who are similar to them. Consider the celebrity/hero culture of today. We all have heroes and idols who are everything we are not. People are also attracted to something that is different, very different from themselves.
People are attracted to those who are different in the way that they want to be different.
This is the tension that we as Christians must hold. Yes we are sinners, but Ephesians 2 goes on to tell us that now we are alive. We are seated in heaven, ruling with Christ and glorifying God. We are sinners like everyone else, but we are in Jesus Christ and therefore very different.
As Ephesians 2 is careful to remind us, this is position of grace and not of our own doing. But as we display to the world the grace of God, the love of Jesus and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit people see something very different to themselves and others around them; something different that they want.
Jesus the perfect example
As in all things, Jesus is our perfect example in holding similarity and difference in perfect tension.
Perhaps no book states this better than the book of Hebrews. The author of Hebrews is very careful to remind his readers (or hearers) that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, was in every way like them.
In chapter 2 he tells them ‘Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he [Jesus] himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.’ (14-15 ESV). Again, he states, ‘Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.’ (v17 ESV).
Part of the attraction to Jesus is that he is like us – he knows what it is to suffer the loss of a close friend, to be betrayed by a closer friend and to face the fear of future events. He is like us – a human.
But, that is not enough. We don’t want a hero just like us and Jesus is not just like us – he is also very different.
The author of Hebrews instructs us again, ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.’ (4:15 ESV).
Like us but very different – without sin. Perfect, spotless, blameless, righteous, divine, innocent, irreproachable, etc.
The church as the body of Christ must maintain this great tension. We must not turn the world away by behaving like we are better than them, but we must also attract the world by showing them we are different.
I am still not impressed with the idea of drawing our theology from animals. Rather, I hope what is above is theology drawn from Scripture and illustrated by the story of Winter!