Almost a year ago I published a blog post called Same Difference. As an introduction to this post I commented on the title of the book I review today. I wrote:
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 blog posts on the theme.
This was simply a passing remark on the preposition held in the title of this book. Nonetheless, the author, Fran Wood, came across my post and contacted me with a legitimate concern that I had passed comment on something I had, admittedly, not read. In personal correspondence Fran offered me a free copy and in return I offered to read and review the book.
The book is a series of short chapters which each contain short stories about either Fran’s dog Bandit, her relationship with her husband or the passing of her late parents and step-father. Throughout these short stories there are snippets of Scripture and theological reflection offered.
With regard to the writing style, it is winsome, lucid and therefore easy to read.
I was pleasantly surprised that some of my initial scepticism was eased as I opened the pages of What my dog taught me about God. There were four elements to this book which I appreciated.
First, the overarching preposition, although not theologically robust, is simply an illustration. Indeed, the entire book is simply an extended illustration with a very admirable aim. Speaking about her relationship with Bandit, Wood writes ‘I fancy that my relationship with God is in some way analogous’ (pg. iii). She proceeds to recount bringing Bandit home for the first time:
I chose the puppy, I brought him unto myself – even though he reeked – and then I cleaned him up. He was dirty and smelly, and I washed him clean. My Heavenly Father chose me out of the cage of sin that enslaved me, and I came to Him all dirty from sin and with the odors and cares of this world all over me. He gently took me, held me close – in spite of the stench – and then carefully washed me clean. (pg. 4-5)
Taking everyday experiences, such as a dog owner’s love for their dog, and showing how that illustrates biblical truth (albeit in a limited fashion) is a good thing.
Secondly, and importantly (as we will see with the book’s weaknesses), Wood offers a number of qualifying statements. This is good because it acknowledges the limitations of the illustration. For example, ‘not that human love could ever compare with the sheer enormity of God’s love’ (pg. 26) and ‘No matter how much I love a little dog, it cannot even begin to compare to the vast love that God has for me…my love for Bandit gives me a tiny, infinitesimal glimpse of what God’s love for me must be like’ (pg. 83).
Thirdly, there are flashes of ‘enlightenment’. Every now and again there is a very tweetable quote which summarises some great theological truths and offers some very wise advice. Again allow me to quote two examples:
Terrible things entered our sphere with Adam and Eve’s original sin in the Garden of Eden (pg. 180)
Now ask the Lord to show you a church where you can worship and serve and fellowship with other believers. Get into God’s Word, the Bible, and listen to what He has to say to you through His Word. (pg. 190)
The final strength of this book is undoubtedly the best. Periodically Wood points her reader very explicitly to God’s Word; praise God for anyone who points people to His Word! I noted four places in particular in which this takes place (pg. 34-35, 55, 133, 168). There is a very good paragraph about God’s Word as a guide (pg. 35); an assertion that God’s Word should trump feeling and sight (pg. 55); an acknowledgement that when God’s Word is exposited that the hearer is spiritually fed (pg. 133); and finally a confession that God’s Word did indeed triumph over feeling in the end in the author’s life (pg. 168).
Unfortunately, many of these strengths are eclipsed by a lengthy list of weaknesses which are prevalent throughout the book.
First, Wood misappropriates God’s chosen revelation. Even though Wood periodically points her reader to Scripture, this is overshadowed (and hidden from the inattentive reader) by her misappropriation of God’s revelation through a dog. The claim is that God is teaching her through a dog (pg. iii, 111-112, 156). It may be possible that she sees illustrated in her relationship with Bandit the things God is teaching her, but as she herself admits elsewhere God speaks/teaches through his Word (pg. 190).
Secondly, I find Wood’s use of Scripture to be weak. Careful attention has not been paid to the context in which the verses she is quoting are found. On page one there is a verse from Psalm 22 quoted, it seems, simply because it has the word dog in it. There is also questionable historical work as Wood seeks to justify the position she has afforded Bandit in her life (pg. 75; more on this below). Psalm 103 is also taken out of context on page 127 – God does not remove our ‘problems’ from us as far as the east is from the west, he removes our sin.
Thirdly, animals are repeatedly anthropomorphised in the book. I admit that this is something of a pet peeve, but I would also claim that my pet peeve has groundings in the creation order set out in Genesis 1. Animals are to be ruled (not cruelly I would add) by humans. But in this book we read of a garage being a cruel environment for a dog (pg. 4); a dog repenting (pg. 42), which I don’t think is possible; an admission that Bandit is treated like a person (pg. 56); and the likening of the dog to a child (pg. 59, 75). There is an unhealthy humanising of an animal in the pages of this book.
Fourthly, feelings triumph over reality and truth. I do not mean to denigrate feelings; they most definitely need to be taken into consideration. However, Wood repeatedly makes statements about God, which are simply untrue, because that is how she feels. For example, ‘God let me down’ (pg. 19; see also pg. 23). God did not let anyone down, he never has and he never will – but it may have felt like he let you down. This is a subtle but vital distinction to make. Wood later goes on to write ‘I didn’t want to be a Bible student today; I wanted to let my mind play with the idea that there just might be all types of [Christmas] decorating going on in heaven at this very moment’ (pg. 143). This is an unhealthy approach to what we know about God through his appointed revelation, Scripture.
Fifthly, there is one significant section in which Wood entertains dangerous speculation that offers empty hope to people in the midst of deep distress. I include the quote in full:
Some of you may have a loved one in critical condition or in a coma right now, and you may be struggling to deal with it. Perhaps it will help to think about the Lord of Heaven and earth whispering words of love into the ear of your ‘sleeping’ beloved. I have wept bitter tears because my mother died all alone in a nursing home. I truly believe that the Lord brought Mother to mind today as I review this chapter. I think He wanted me to know that she most definitely was not alone. Up until her last few months on earth, my mother had always led a very active life. She was continually busy with something – work, children, grandchildren, cooking, cleaning, looking after my father, and later on my stepfather. She was not still for very long.
Perhaps, just perhaps, the Lord had some things He wanted to say to her to prepare her for the journey before He took her home, and perhaps the only way He would keep her attention long enough to do so was if she were asleep. If you have a loved one in such a state, perhaps the Lord has things to say to him or her as well. (pg.60-61)
This is pure speculation which takes advantage of people in desperate situations offering a false hope.
Sixthly, and finally, Wood betrays a particularly small picture of God at some points in her book. There is theological weakness here, when for example, she speaks of God winding up the world and sitting back to watch how it unfolds – ‘God can, but does not often, intervene in the natural processes of this fallen world’ (pg. 180). I understand Scripture to paint the picture of a God who is intimately involved with his world ensuring the natural processes of this world function in the way they should (Col. 1:17). Moreover, Wood’s small picture of God is exemplified in the following passage:
I lead a busy life and I’m absorbed with lots of stuff that really doesn’t involve Bandit, or maybe as in the case in point, I’m trying to rest or attend to some other need of my own, or Jim’s, or a friend’s, or a son’s, or a grandchild’s or a multitude of others – all vying for my attention. It’s not that I don’t care about Bandit’s needs, but it just may be that there are other pressing matters ahead of his needs at the moment.
Perhaps we don’t like to think that God is not at our beck and call. But, after all, He is the Creator of the heavens (everything out there!) and earth. And He keeps it all running in perfect precision. So He just might have a few other things to do when start our growling and whimpering. Romans 8:34 assures us that the Son sits at the right hand of the Father to make intercession for us. But, hey, there are LOTS of us! Maybe we need to persist so that our particular concern gets its proper place in the queue. (pg. 76-77)
This is a frighteningly small picture of God.
To conclude this lengthy review I have to admit that there was more I agreed with and appreciated within the covers of this book than I expected. Nonetheless, sadly I cannot recommend this book. Its theology is shallow and driven by feelings and emotions. Its use of Scripture is suspect on many occasions. Its comfort is more often than not speculative. I cannot encourage you to read it; as Wood herself confesses, ‘I have absolutely no scriptural basis for this’ (pg. 59) – regrettably I have to agree with her.
Note: The author Fran Wood has requested that the following be noted with respect to the above review:
Thank you for taking the time to read and review my book. I appreciate your assessment, and, of course, I particularly appreciate your positive comments. As I mentioned previously, I didn’t write the book for strong Christians who have a solid foundation in the faith. And I didn’t write it for theologians. I wrote it in the hope of reaching the lost—those who might never read a book with “in your face” theology as its forte.