Outside my window is the last sparkle of ruby-throated hummingbirds darting in and out of my flame-colored honeysuckles. They are fueling up for fall migration, when they will travel from my house in Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico and on into Central America. There, they'll siesta until spring, when they'll sail back on winds to make the long trip north, once again appearing to sip nectar from my flowers and feeders.
For me, the hummers are just another part of my backyard's colorful kaleidoscope. For renowned theologian, pastor, and avid birdwatcher John R. W. Stott, however, hummingbirds — indeed, all birds — reveal something more. In the newly issued collector's edition of The Birds Our Teachers: Lessons from a Lifelong Birdwatcher (Baker), Stott finds myriad metaphors for our relationship with God and our faith in the wide world of birds. Call it orni-theology, if you will. Stott does.
From the Old Testament (think of Noah releasing the dove) to the New Testament (the sparrows in the parables of Jesus), the Bible abounds with aviary imagery. By taking another look at this imagery and helping us understand bird life better, Stott wants readers to gain a richer experience of what God might be saying to us through them. Stott fans who are not birders will enjoy this book for its accessible theological musings; birders who know nothing of theology will appreciate the lush photos and accounts of Stott's global birdwatching trips.
For his love of birds, Stott credits his father, who loved natural history, taking his son on walks in the countryside while telling him to "shut my mouth and open my eyes and ears" to observe the wildlife around him. In his 87 years, Stott has traveled extensively and birded wherever he's gone, logging an amazing 2,500 species on his "life list" (birding jargon for a record of sightings). Although the record for most birds seen is 8,000-plus, Stott notes that the real record holder is God, who "must know not only every species of bird but every individual species as well."
As you would expect of an evangelical theologian, Stott pulls liberally from Scripture to support his points. "It was Jesus Christ himself in the Sermon on the Mount who told us to be birdwatchers!" Stott insists, quoting Matthew 6:26 (REB): "Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow and reap and store in barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth more than the birds?" He insists that Scripture bids us go beyond birds and include in our attention and care all facets of God's creation: "Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them" (Psalm 111:2, NRSV).
Non-birders, or those with only a passing acquaintance with birds, will find this a fascinating glimpse into their world. Stott drops bird factoids like an oak tree drops acorns. The largest flying bird in the world? The wandering albatross, Stott tells us; its wingspan averages about 12 feet. The fastest? Perhaps the peregrine falcon, which can drop from the sky at speeds well over 100 miles per hour. Lifetime traveler? Likely the European swift, which can cover three million miles in just six years.
Stott brings a teacherly manner to his chapters and a pastoral bent to his prose. The biblical account of the feeding of the ravens becomes an opportunity to talk about God's protection and provision for family. A section on the eagle is a chance to explore the biblical vision of freedom. Even pigeons, with their unusual way of drinking, provide metaphors for gratitude. The sparrow: our self-esteem, and God's love for each individual. What might have been metaphorical stretches in less-capable hands are charming and thought provoking in Stott's.
Yet Stott quickly nixes any temptation to anthropomorphize. When comparing birds' breeding and parenting habits to those of humans, he notes, "Human love is unique, because it is a reflection … of the eternal, selfless love of God himself, revealed on the cross, affirming the worth of its human objects, and leading to the 'steadfast love' of his covenant pledge to his people. So far from elevating bird behaviour by the use of extravagant anthropomorphic language, we should feel rebuked when they appear superficially to outshine us. The real mystery is not that birds can behave like humans, but that humans can behave like God."
The Birds Our Teachers is an unusual mix of theology and ornithology. Stott pulls together quotes from Martin Luther, G. K. Chesterton, C. H. Spurgeon, and scenes from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, mixing them with mentions of famous birdwatchers Roger Tory Peterson and John James Audubon, Woody Allen's movie Manhattan, and pop novels such as Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Where else could you see photos of pioneer missionary Hudson Taylor mixing with the comic puffins, or of All Souls Church (where Stott is rector emeritus) across from facts about the osprey? Or Bishop John Jewel of Salisbury a page away from a photo spread of cotton-candy-pink flamingoes? It's all quite intriguing. And the sumptuous, full-color photo spreads, mostly taken by Stott himself, serve as beautiful companions to the text. The only revision in the special collector's edition is the inclusion of a DVD with Stott's self-narrated, folksy travelogue of his 70th-birthday birding trip to the Falkland Islands, plus an audio book on the same disk.
Stott's passion for God's creation is clear as he pleads with Christians to pay attention to and care for the natural world: "It seems to me that nature study and Bible study should go together," Stott says, adding, "Many Christians have a good doctrine of redemption, but need a better doctrine of creation." He warns us that we would do well to reflect on Jeremiah's warning of a possible return to pre-creation chaos, darkness, and devastation: "So let's resolve to do all we can to protect and preserve our unique God-given environment, and so continue to enjoy its God-given biodiversity, not least its fascinating birds." Although The Birds Our Teachers isn't a devotional as such, it could be read well this way. Readers will gain a fresh appreciation of Scripture through increased knowledge of the colorful winged ones that give our world its stunning, varied, and joyful soundtrack.
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An excerpt of the book accompanies this review.
The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a Lifelong Bird Watcher is available at ChristianBook.com and other book retailers.
Cindy Crosby also wrote the following bird book reviews for Books & Culture:
For the Birds | What are we looking for? (March/April 2008)
Chuckleheads and Timberdoodles? | A bird book you need to add to your shelves. (March 26, 2007)
Other book reviews are in our books section.