A Gospel for the King Penguin

This is how providence works. The same morning that I finish an article by Jonathan Franzen on his trip to Antarctica (and birding), I finish an interview that Ken Myers did with Norman Wirzba. The latter is trying to help Christians think wholistically about creation and has written a book about (in part) about the language we use. If we call the world out there “creation” instead of “nature,” will we think about it differently, more in relation to the creator? And then, what happens if we remember that Jesus is not merely savior but also creator? Doesn’t that invite thinking of Jesus as savior of creation? At one point, Wirzba even spoke of a gospel for non-human creatures.

That’s when the jaws clenched and the pace (of the constitutional) quickened. I understand the appeal of thinking about creation in broader terms so that Christians might care about the environment. Heck, I’ve read and still admire Wendell Berry and believe that I should try to live in a way that shows some respect for the created order. But that prevents me from venerating or sacralizing it, the classic way that pietists try to make something more important or permanent than it really is. If we can turn a cause into something holy or sacred or redemptive, then we must support it. If it is great instead of merely good, then not to support it is wrong, wicked, undesirable.

Here’s where Franzen came in as the conversation partner Myers and Wirzba need to have. The birds he adores, king penguins, survive by eating krill:

Krill are pinkie-size, pinkie-colored crustaceans. Estimating the total amount of them in the Antarctic is difficult, but a frequently cited figure, five hundred million metric tons, could make the species the world’s largest repository of animal biomass. Unfortunately for penguins, many countries consider krill good eating, both for humans (the taste is said to be acquirable) and especially for farm fish and livestock. Currently, the total reported annual take of krill is less than half a million tons, with Norway leading the list of harvesters. China, however, has announced its intention to increase its harvest to as much as two million tons a year, and has begun building the ships needed to do it. As the chairman of China’s National Agricultural Development Group has explained, “Krill provides very good quality protein that can be processed into food and medicine. The Antarctic is a treasure house for all human beings, and China should go there and share.”

So what would Wirzba propose as the gospel for krill? How does Jesus or his followers “save” krill?

One way that Franzen suggests is by humans being less fertile (which poses a few problems for Christians — Roman and Protestant — who believe the chief function of marriage is reproduction):

It’s true that the most effective single action that most human beings can take, not only to combat climate change but to preserve a world of biodiversity, is to not have children. It may also be true that nothing can stop the logic of human priority: if people want meat and there are krill for the taking, krill will be taken. It may even be true that penguins, in their resemblance to children, offer the most promising bridge to a better way of thinking about species endangered by the human logic: They, too, are our children. They, too, deserve our care.

And yet to imagine a world without young people is to imagine living on a Lindblad ship forever. My godmother had had a life like that, after her only child was killed. I remember the half-mad smile with which she once confided to me the dollar value of her Wedgwood china. But Fran had been nutty even before Gail died; she’d been obsessed with a biological replica of herself. Life is precarious, and you can crush it by holding on too tightly, or you can love it the way my godfather did. Walt lost his daughter, his war buddies, his wife, and my mother, but he never stopped improvising. I see him at a piano in South Florida, flashing his big smile while he banged out old show tunes and the widows at his complex danced. Even in a world of dying, new loves continue to be born.

The article makes perfect sense of the references to Franzen’s uncle here, a person who left the author enough money to splurge on a cruise to the South Pole and endure a long trip with very few young people (as the slide show on the last night of the cruise revealed).

The article also makes sense of a tragic dimension to creation that Wirzba’s inspiration neglects altogether. What if Darwin was right? What if nature is red in tooth and claw? And what if God created and sustained the world to run that way, not in a theistic evolution way, but in a way where critters survive on other critters? Even in a vegetarian world, plants die, humans cut down trees for warmth, and carnivores still eat critters. A gospel of creation does not fix that fundamental problem of survival. Granted, I’ve not read Wirzba’s books (reviews are here and here). But once again I am struck by the way people in the name of Christ blur fundamental distinctions (ecclesiastical-civil, sacred-secular, human-natural, redemption-creation) seemingly to transcend the very creatureliness they recommend.

11 thoughts on “A Gospel for the King Penguin

  1. Speaking of raising the stakes:

    Trump is a threat to the unity of the church.

    All of this is to say nothing of Trump’s racism and misogyny. As a person of color, I have to tell you that Trump gives me reason to fear for life and safety – for myself, for my mixed-race family, and for our immigrant parents – in a way that no political candidate ever has before. I hope that our conservative evangelical leaders, particularly those who are white, understand this: your stand against Trump, in solidarity with the people he hopes to marginalize, is critical to preventing that marginalization. If the movement against Trump is seen to be mostly a movement of people of color, then it will feed into the very narrative of white grievance that he thrives on.

    I cannot speak for all believers of color, but I believe that many of us are remembering the evangelical church’s history on matters of race, looking to our leaders today, and hoping that this disappointing history does not repeat itself. Your actions to stop Trump should be so clear, so unequivocal, that you guarantee yourself a spot on Trump’s “enemies” list if he were to be elected president. Otherwise, the temptation to accommodate or to reconcile with a President Trump will be too strong for some of you in the aftermath of his election, and the church’s unity will suffer as a result.


  2. What shade must I be to attain “believer of color” status? I’m kind of a linen color, pretty far from bone.


  3. CW, well, come to think of it, please be in prayer for Cordelia. She’s still not comfortable with the addition of Kabbigail and Barney.


  4. The King’s instruction about caring for the king penguin:

    -from the beginning :rule over the fish,birds, cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth -fill the earth, subdue it; and rule it Gen 1:26-31

    -then finally: the Lord God will illumine them and they will reign forever and ever. Rev 22:5

    -in between: let the one who is righteous, keep practicing in the smaller matters of this life Rev 22:11;1 Cor 6:2-3
    ps: don’t forget to stop and marvel :
    for even penguins have value-not one falls to the ground apart from your Father; let them declare to you, for who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind; with Him are wisdom and might; to Him belong counsel and understanding. Matt 19:29; Job

    “The King Penguin is the second largest of the species. Full grown, they can be up to three feet tall and weigh up to 35 pounds. There is no denying the overall beauty of this particular penguin. Their tall and slender build gives them a type of posture and movement that you usually don’t see with other penguins.”


  5. Darryl, is it necessarily problematic for salvation and creation to be interrelated acts of God? The Lutheran classicist, Thorleif Boman, has this insight:

    “The creation of the world, the deliverance at the Red Sea, and the repatriation of the exiles from Babylon are one and the same creative act of Javeh; the same three moments of the work of creation are juxtaposed several times by this poet (Ps 44.24,26; 45.9-13 ;51.9,12-14 ; 54.5). In the 104th Psalm, creation and preservation pass imperceptibly into one another, just as in Deutero-Isaiah creation and election are also intimately related concepts (54.5-10; 44.1).”


  6. Darryl,

    I thought Wirzba was talking about a gospel meant to include a restoration of creation, not one that divinized it. Surely that’s not objectionable. Did my previous comment suggest pantheism to you? One thing being saved by something else requires a distinction between the two things. If nature needs saving, then Someone Else has to save it.

    I would think a more troubling stance would be your suggestion that God intended nature to always and only be red in tooth and claw. Eschatological imagery within Scripture seems to suggest otherwise. Although that tragic element within creation is what kept a great and sensitive poet like Czeslaw Miloscz from Christianity for so long, so I have no desire to treat it as a non-issue theologically speaking.

    Granted, Wirzba does sound like a crazy person (the suppression of human reproduction) but I don’t think the identification of Christ as both Savior and Creator is a mistake. Isn’t the best way to combat insane eco-theology to respond with a substantively orthodox doctrine of creation and its eschatological destiny?


  7. Andrew, I’m not denying that Christ is creator and redeemer. I am distinguishing creation from redemption (as does Scripture and the Reformed confessions). Sure, Scripture says the lion will lie down with the lamb. But something is going to be on the menu for the marriage feast of the Lamb.


  8. Jesus Christ, God the Son, is both creator and redeemer.

    Redeemer of some sinners, creator of all sinners, but why should we need to listen to Jesus about the nation-state because whatever Jesus said it’s never about killing by the collective secular public….

    All of us–even the spiritual parts–not only our physical bodies—are depraved, but we are only bound with regard to things above , because with regard to things below we can do whatever the majority (that wins elections) decides to do.. Because Jesus is not Moses. And neither Moses nor Jesus tell us what to do with regard to things below. ..


    “Luther’s Reformation didn’t simply undermine the church’s particularly exploitative practices; it also envisioned a rift between heaven and earth that, in Catholic thought, wasn’t nearly as wide or intractable. The “inner man should have faith in God,” Roper writes of Luther’s theology, “and we cannot arrive at faith through works of the outer man.” Each person, then, is a kind of self in a shell: One’s body is immersed in the profane and mundane grind of daily life, but one’s innermost soul is withdrawn and can be focused on heaven.

    This distinction had immense consequences for how Christians in Luther’s tradition would go on to engage the world around them. For Luther, Ryrie writes, there was “an earthly kingdom: the kingdom of secular politics, a place of law, justice, and punishment”; and then there was, “existing alongside it, and far more important than it…the kingdom of heaven, whose only king is Christ…. And this is where Christians’ hearts should be set, not on the lumpen business of human politics.

    For Protestants, this represented an important remonstration against the corruption and violence of various church-state interactions, as well as a renewed image of God as the ruler of a kingdom purer and better than the one we can experience corporeally. It was an essentially spiritual call to arms against the Vatican’s perceived materialism. But for many, the rupture of heaven and earth also opened up a different vista: that of secularism and of a world emptied of religious meaning. Luther emphasized that human works made no difference to one’s salvation; doing good was right, of course, but only God’s grace—and one’s faith—could decide the destiny of one’s soul. This liberated Christianity from some of its worldly constraints, but it also meant coming to view the private and religious spheres as divided from the public and secular ones.”


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