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.