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Kill Prey, Love: A Review of The God of Wild Places by Tony Jones

Butchering a freshly killed caribou was not part of my plan that fateful Alaskan morning. Thankfully, I had my pocket knife on me. The visual of clear membranes and placenta became imprinted in my memory; this was a pregnant caribou. The man with me (we’ll call him George) had shot the animal from a fixed location as I herded the beast on my snowmobile across the snow-swept tundra. We tied the gutted game to the trailer and brought it to George’s yard near his six dogs, where they would eat most of the caribou meat.

Stories like this don’t typically make it into my Sabbath school lessons. But in Tony Jones’ new book, The God of Wild Places, the reader is immersed in similar visceral stories. I really like that about his book. Tony strikes me as honest and straightforward in his portrayal of messy American Christian lives. Sometimes it feels as though he purposely tries to shock the innocent reader with stories of foul language, drinking, and killing creatures he says are part of the cycle of prey and predator. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be drawn into his book, but found myself resonating with much of his writing. 

Educated at Dartmouth, Fuller Theological Seminary, and Princeton Theological Seminary, in 2008 Tony Jones wrote The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. With books like that, and 2011’s The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement, Jones was seen by many evangelical, and other Christians, as an intellectual leader in what was called the Emerging Church Movement. The book is as much a spiritual autobiography as it is a hunting narrative. Jones places the reader front and center to life’s messy realities when he details his divorce and killing animals with his bare hands. I get the impression the book was therapeutic to write. And while he is vulnerable, he does not explore the anger he must have felt upon the collapse of his earlier life.  

Pastoral Trauma

By grade seven, Tony Jones knew he wanted to be a minister. He felt the calling even in his pre-teen years and did all the right things to make it happen. But life ended up being messier than he thought. His fairytale turned into a horror story as his clergy colleagues walked away from him, confident his calling was false. Meanwhile, his hunting buddies walked with him in the fields of prey. Perhaps his hunting helped him find God again, being outside the church where he grew up.

I doubt most North American Adventists understand how many former pastors there are amongst us. I’m currently drafting this review while attending the memorial service of a dear friend with whom I went to seminary. While chatting with old friends, I couldn’t help but notice they include a disproportionate number of former pastors. Every story is different, but in his book, Jones makes it clear that the post-pastor trauma is present and abiding, typically made worse by the congregations and administrations they leave or are forced out of. You would think the opposite would prevail in a religion that touts the grace of a heavenly Father. Jones even hints at the idea that he (and most pastors?) have an inherent narcissistic streak. No doubt, preaching the truth to a captive audience is rather dramatic. Makes me wonder if there is such a thing as corporate narcissism embodied in Christian denominations that condemn non-believers to hell. 

The Nature of Death

Life rarely turns out the way we want. The cliché equation of prayer and devotion clearly isn’t a magic potion. Like in Jones’ story with his church, our Adventist churches don’t do anyone a favor by casting pollyanna-like visions about marriage and ministry for our young people. Jones goes beyond messy, saying life is bloody and our part in the cycle of prey and predator is inexorable. Humans are simultaneously predator and prey and the conventional lives we attempt to create are a fiction. No one escapes death and Jones would have us embrace that reality. For Jones, hunting helps mitigate his own fears of death. He writes, “Reflecting on the inevitability of my own death, I’ve made the conscious choice to cause death. Anyone who eats meat causes death, but it’s usually outsourced to people who work at kill plants. I’ve chosen to actively participate in the death of my fellow creatures, to end their lives and take their flesh into my body as food” (142). Choosing that existential quest is part of his choice to kill. 

The chapter titles create a therapeutic frame for the book: vestments, peace, place, companions, predator, failure, risk, meat, death, and God. The pacing is good and he doesn’t romanticize nature. Too often books focused on wilderness experiences paint a picture of warm beauty that draws us in, seeking to wrap us in comforting arms. It’s common to hear from someone fresh from a weekend away gushing with joy at having been totally refreshed by nature. I suppose that’s nice but that’s not my experience. The wilderness of Alaska, where I live, will kill you if you aren’t prepared for the brutality that awaits you. However, the harsh reality doesn’t take away from the possibility of refreshment. 

Nature is dangerous and presents a very real risk. Jones acknowledges this reality. In his chapter “Risk,” he says that we are enlivened by the uncertainty of the wilderness which is “disorderly and chaotic, even violent” (37). It’s worth exploring what it means to expose ourselves to nature, each other, God, and the risks that go with them. As Jones portrays it, risk should be embraced and may help us find peace. What danger is there of being found by a God full of grace?

Peace in Companionship and Place

Spiritual spaces get rethought as Jones rediscovers the divine in the untamed outdoors. While locations like Jerusalem, Mecca, Salt Lake City, and the Vatican are important to millions of faithful people, he thinks we all have places “known only to us” which “have an even stronger spiritual hold on us” (55). Once again, Jones takes the opportunity to dive deeper. 

The important place he refers to in his own spiritual experience turns out to be a tangled mess with roots and stumps that trip him up. He can’t walk through it without thorns drawing some blood. “But now I can stand in the middle of this forest and recognize its beauty. My life is scrubby and thorny, but it’s also verdurous, beautiful in its own way. New life shoots up, rooted in the tangled mess that lies beneath the dirt. Not always visible, but I know it’s there. I feel it under my feet” (56).

In his chapter on peace, Jones writes about being on a hunt with a friend when he realizes it must be “the most physical peril” he’s ever been in (30). Even so, he felt at peace trusting his friend Doug who provided calm and warmth. “Everything I’d ever wanted from Jesus,” writes Jones, “was actuated with Doug” (31). Here he makes one of his most important points. The God we speak of in church isn’t always found there. Rather, in the failures of our messy realities we find Christ. In the broken lives of our friends and neighbors we find things we’ve wanted from Jesus. Jones writes that Christianity ought to do more preparing people for the inescapable failures of life. 

Questioning Dualism 

I appreciate his frankness in describing the harsh reality of the wilderness we know to be sacred. I do wish the title of the book wasn’t ruined by the subtitle: Rediscovering the Divine in the Untamed Outdoors. I hope the decision was a publishing house sales tactic. If the use of the word untamed is to retain its meaning in our language, it shouldn’t be used to describe the geography of states like Minnesota or Colorado as shown in the book’s map.

I have a few lingering questions as I finish Jones’ engaging book. What was the point in including the final chapter on God? An engaged reader doesn’t really need it. It’s as if Jones thought his largely Christian audience needed this bit of coaching. 

I wonder if it’s possible to escape the either/or framing of American Christianity and Adventism. Whether someone is sitting in church or roaming through a thorny wilderness, the dualism inherent in a religion that asserts uncompromising categories like lost/saved, male/female, predator/prey feels like poison. Jones makes it clear that he hasn’t found a both/and space where he can find God in church and the wilderness. Perhaps because I am an ethicist, I can’t help but think it is possible to find God both in and out of the church. 

Theologically, I find it impossible to conceive dualism at the beginning with God or at our end in God. In the book, we are introduced to Seth, a person who has rejected the stereotypical dualisms of our time. Seth moved beyond them, asserting their identity as queer, polyamorous, and thoroughly spiritual without strict boundaries of religion. “It’s not that binaries don’t exist—male and female, teacher and student, plant and animal, success and failure, life and death—it’s that she no longer sees them standing in opposition to one another. It’s why she sits down next to a nettle and asks, ‘Can I harvest you?’ Because that nettle exists on a continuum that also includes Seth” (101).

I appreciate the effort to move beyond the simple notions of American culture war dualisms. What I wonder is if the dualisms are authentic to my religion or a culturally skewed vestige meant to prop up our fragile egos. My bet is on the latter. But I, like Jones, am tired of arguing. 

Let’s give him the final word. “Some, I suppose, will say I’ve lost my faith, that I’ve forsaken the Christianity in which I was reared, that I’ve become a pantheist. In past days, I have defended myself, arguing about the difference between panentheism and pantheism, debating the merits of natural theology versus revealed theology. But the truth is, I’m tired of arguing. As Thomas Merton wrote, ‘If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn.’ So be it” (152).

The God of Wild Places: Rediscovering the Divine in the Untamed Outdoors  is available here: The Reverand Hunter.

I wish to recognize and appreciate my reading and review partners in this project; Clark and Melissa Bassham, Warren Libby, Chris Schmiedeskamp, and Justin Libby. To a person they have experienced the full range of risks, both physical and spiritual, that most of us dare not approach or embrace. 

About the author

Mark F. Carr, MDiv, PhD, is the Senior Director of Ethics for the Providence healthcare system in Alaska. He earend his doctorate in Religious Ethics at the University of Virginia and spent sixteen years to Loma Linda University’s School of Religion where he led the MA program in biomedical and clinical ethics and was the co-director for the Center for Christian Bioethics. He lives in Alaska—the land of his birth and baptism—where he enjoys his job, family, flying, fishing, and fat tire bike riding in the winter. More from Mark Carr.
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