The God Who Can't Be Tamed

Could we be losing more than the land when we destroy it?
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In what she later called "the most transporting pleasure of my life on the farm," Isak Dinesen went flying across the unspoiled plains of Africa with her friend Denys Finch-Hatton. In the film version of Out of Africa, the character playing Denys first invited her by saying, "I want to show you the world as God sees it." Indeed, the next few minutes of cinematography come close to presenting exactly that. As the frail Moth airplane soars beyond the escarpment that marks the beginning of the Rift Valley in Kenya, the ground falls abruptly away and the zoom lens captures a glimpse of Eden in the grasslands just below.

Great herds of zebras scatter at the sound of the motor, each group wheeling in unison, as if a single mind controlled the bits of modern art dashing across the plain. Huge giraffes—they seemed so gangly and awkward when standing still—gallop away with exquisite gracefulness. Bounding gazelles, outrunning the larger animals, fill in the edge of the scene.

The world as God sees it—does that phrase merely express some foamy romantic notion, or does it contain truth? The Bible gives intriguing hints. Proverbs tells of the act of Creation, when Wisdom "was the craftsman at his [God's] side … filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presences, rejoicing in his whole world." The seraphs in Isaiah's vision who declared "the whole earth is full of his glory" could hardly have been referring to human beings—not if the rest of the Book of Isaiah is to be believed. At least God had the glory of Nature then, during that very dark time when Israel faced extinction and Judah slid toward idolatry.

God makes plain how he feels about the animal kingdom in his longest single speech, a magnificent address found at the end of Job. Look closely and you will notice a common thread in the specimens he holds up for Job's edification:

  • A lioness hunting her prey
  • A mountain goat giving birth in the wilds
  • A rogue donkey roaming the salt flats
  • An ostrich flapping her useless wings with joy
  • A stallion leaping high to paw the air
  • A hawk, an eagle, and a raven building their nests on the rocky crags

That's a mere warm up—Zoology 101 in Job's education. From there God advances to the behemoth, a hippo-like creature no one can tame, and the mighty, dragonish leviathan. "Can you make a pet of him like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls?" God asks with a touch of scorn. "The mere sight of him is overpowering. No one is fierce enough to rouse him. Who then is able to stand against me?"

Wildness is God's underlying message to Job, the one trait his menagerie all hold in common. God is celebrating those members of his created world that will never be domesticated by human beings. Wild animals bring us down a notch, reminding us of something we'd prefer to forget: our creatureliness. And they also announce to our senses the splendor of an invisible, untamable God.

Several times a week, I run among such wild animals, unmolested, for I run through Lincoln Park Zoo near downtown Chicago. I have gotten to know them well, as charming neighbors, but I always try mentally to project the animals into their natural states.

Three rock-hopper penguins neurotically pace back and forth on a piece of concrete that has been sprayed to look like ice. I envision them free, hopping from ice floe to ice floe in Antarctica among thousands of their comic-faced cousins.

An ancient elephant stands against a wall, keeping time three ways: his body sways from side to side to one beat, his tail marks a different rhythm entirely, and his trunk moves up and down to yet a third. I struggle to imagine this sluggish giant inspiring terror in an African forest.

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