The Ostrich and the Snake

This is the text of a talk I gave several years ago, in response to a talk by Rev. Michael Battle, whom we had invited to campus at a time when we were thinking about the place of religion in the academy generally, and at Sewanee generally. I thought of it for a few reasons–because it touches on the curricular matters we have recently dealt with, because I just finished teaching the Book of Job in Humanities, and because there will be some of my friends for whom Job is especially relevant after the election.

After Michael Battle’s stimulating talk yesterday, I went home and read a few chapters of Reconciliation, his equally stimulating book on Desmond Tutu’s ubuntu theology. As will happen with any good book, it put me in mind of passages from two other books, one which I teach often in our Humanities program here–the Book of Job,–and the other, one I read often to my boys at bedtime called Deadly Snakes.  Let me turn to each in turn, and then come back to Michael’s talk, and then to the issue of religion in the academy, an issue which we have as an institution set ourselves to face this semester.  As an Episcopalian institution, we could hardly have done better than to have Reverend Battle speak with us.

This audience won’t need much introduction from me about Job, whose sufferings elicit a good deal of wrongheaded theologizing from his comforters, and who finally gets a response out of the whirlwind from God. In what has always struck me as a blistering display of sarcasm, the Lord does not answer Job but instead overwhelms him with a catalogue of rhetorical questions whether he can explain the workings of Creation.

The Lord is in bad humor when he talks to Job, and confronts the poor man with enormous, mind-boggling queries like, where were you “when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:7), from there going on to rehearse His Greatest Hits.  The Lord then asks Job about some of his smaller wonders, such as wild asses and wild oxen, and other decidedly less impressive members of the animal kingdom.

The real turkey in the bunch is the ostrich, which the Lord asks after in the King James Version thus (Job 39: 13-18):

13Gavest thou … wings and feathers unto the ostrich?
14Which leaveth her eggs in the earth, and warmeth them in dust,
15And forgetteth that the foot may crush them, or that the wild beast may break them.
16She is hardened against her young ones, as though they were not hers: her labour is in vain without fear;
17Because God hath deprived her of wisdom, neither hath he imparted to her understanding.
18What time she lifteth up herself on high, she scorneth the horse and his rider.

What I find telling here is that, in this sketch of a world that is ultimately orderly though sometimes foolish and cruel, the ostrich is a proud and even haughty beast who looks down its nose (do ostriches have noses? never mind), looks down his nose at those symbols of nobility, the horse and rider.  The parallel with humanity is evident enough:  in our intellectual pride, we cannot see how foolish or cruel we are, and before the things which should overawe us with our own insignificance, we instead, ostrich-like, lifteth ourselves up and scorneth.  It’s a humbling comparison.

As I said, Battle’s work made me think about Job, but it also reminded me of another book, Deadly Snakes, a book my boys like a lot, because, as the title suggests, it’s mainly about deadly snakes.  Did you know that cobras use their tongues to gather the scent of their prey, that black mambas can travel much faster than you can run, that some varieties of anaconda can unlock their jaws so as to eat a creature as large as a leopard?  Well, you would if you read Deadly Snakes. I have to say that this book, despite its colorful drawings, gives me a full-scale case of the willies. The last few pages, in which author Lisa McCourt attempts to exonerate the deadly snakes is especially cold comfort.  Cold (cold-blooded?) but real comfort, nonetheless. Yes, snakes eat mice, and well, I guess mice would run rampant otherwise, and yes, mice would eat all the crops in the field otherwise, and yes, I guess I do like to eat bread and rice and vegetables.  Oh OK, Lisa McCourt, you win, when you write in your triumphant conclusion, “Snakes are an important part of our world.”

The grand vision elaborated in Deadly Snakes and the Book of Job is one of a thorough-going interdependence between all parts of the world.  It’s this concept of things fitting together that I find compelling– a theological version of biological diversity, a scheme of integration that honors the integrity of its components.  In this scheme, there is a necessity to every part of Creation (if you like) or Nature (if you prefer).  In such a scheme, Job’s ostrich hardly understands its place, though whether its unjustified pride is pathetic or amusing is hard to say.  The deadly snakes of Deadly Snakes are a reproof to me that even the most discomforting parts of the natural world are in fact part of a real and necessary order which I– like the ostrich whom “God hath deprived of wisdom”– only sort of understand, but upon which I certainly depend.

In Reconciliation, Michael Battle’s discussion of Desmond Tutu’s ubuntu theology explicates a similar vision of the world, one where all things connect within a whole, without entirely knowing it.  The extent of the whole can hardly be comprehended, but the place of individuals, their “particularity,” is not effaced but affirmed by its harmony.  One of the archbishops more striking illustrations of this principle involves members of a symphony orchestra:

They are all dolled up and beautiful with their magnificent instruments, cellos, violins, etc. Sometimes, dolled up as the rest, is a chap at the back carrying a triangle. Now and again the conductor will point to him and he will play ‘ting.’ That might seem so insignificant but in the conception of the composer something irreplaceable would be lost to the total beauty of the symphony if that ‘ting’ did not happen.

That is a very charming description, it seems to me, of the imagery St. Paul had employed in 1st Corinthians, likening the cosmos to the Body of Christ, in which “The body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor 12:14).  It is an idea of diversity-in-unity that the ostrich never understands, but which Deadly Snakes confirms for me each night.   Snakes are nasty, my son always says as we stare at the anaconda swallowing a gazelle. Yes, I reply, but snakes are an important part of our world.

And what does this mean for us here at the University of the South, as we begin to grapple with questions of curriculum?  Well, as with Job, we are confronted by questions rather than answers, asked in a pointed and humbling way, which indicate to us not the range of our knowledge but the vastness of ignorance. The bewildering scope of what lies beyond our wisdom and understanding is overwhelming but, oddly enough, comforting, because it can never be comprehended:  if religion in the academy reminds us only of this, it serves an integral function.  To know all, to be like God, is the old lie of the serpent in Genesis, after all.  If you want to avoid trouble, you would do better to consider the lessons of Reconciliation and Deadly Snakes.


Postscript, January 2015. Without realizing it, I have probably been influenced in my thinking about the interconnected necessity of things in Nature by Aldo Leopold’s wonderful sketch, “Thinking Like a Mountain.”

About Uncomely and Broken

I am a classicist in Sewanee, Tennessee.
This entry was posted in Bible, Birds, Education, Family, Sewanee. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Ostrich and the Snake

  1. corax says:

    ***** [that is, five-star — once again]

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