I am a Christian and an academic. I am also a hunter. At first blush, this might seem peculiar, given that members of first two circles I inhabit aren’t always hospitable toward members of the third.
Two stories—one actual, the other apocryphal—give a sense of the prevailing attitudes toward hunting that I’ve encountered.
The first occurred on a Sunday after Thanksgiving at the church in the small Western Pennsylvania town where I grew up. The new pastor, just arrived from the east coast, gathered the children on the steps at the front of the sanctuary and asked, “Girls and boys, we’re about to enter a special season. Do any of you know what season it is?” Before the pastor could call on anyone, one little boy blurted out, “Deer season! And I get to go to huntin’ camp with my dad and granddad, and when we get a buck…” He then proceeded to describe in graphic detail how he helped to field dress a deer.
The pastor’s mouth gaped open in stunned silence. He had been prepared to counter the expected answer of “Christmas” with an explanation of Advent, but he was unaware that the first Monday after Thanksgiving, the opening day of deer season in Pennsylvania for generations, was a far holier day to many in my community than the beginning of the liturgical year.
The second story is a variant of the proverbial interview at the pearly gates with St. Peter after a person dies. When a group of three new arrivals shows up, Peter announces: “Before you can proceed, I just need to make sure that everything is in order in your files. One of the things we check is your IQ, so I’ll be asking you a question to confirm that your test results are accurate.”
When the first person steps up, Peter says, “I see that you supposedly have an IQ of 160, so here’s your question: Is light a wave or a particle?” After hearing an unquestionably brilliant answer, Peter waves the first person through. When the second person steps up, Peter says, “I see that you supposedly have an IQ of 120, so here’s your question: Is the economy better measured by money supply or GDP?” After hearing a reasonably intelligent answer, Peter waves the second person through. When the third person steps up, Peter says, “I see that you supposedly have an IQ of 80, so here’s your question: Get yer deer yet?”
For a refreshing change of pace from the pervasive Elmer Fudd stereotypes, one might consult God, Nimrod, and the World: Exploring Christian Perspectives on Sport Hunting, a collection of essays edited by Bracy V. Hill II and John B. White, two scholars affiliated with Baylor University. Hill and White have produced substantial work featuring over 18 contributors that engages readers intellectually and spiritually at the highest levels.
The first half of God, Nimrod, and the World is descriptive, reflecting the reality that despite ongoing reservations from some in the community, Christians have hunted throughout history and continue to hunt today. A chapter on the use of hunting metaphors in the Bible suggests that this practice was familiar to its original authors and readers. Sometimes hunting was referenced positively in reference to God pursuing his goals as patiently and persistently as a hunter pursues game (Jer. 16:16). Other times the point of view was more negative, representing the perspective of the prey (Ps. 35:7–8).
Over the centuries, attitudes toward Nimrod (“a mighty hunter before the Lord,” according to Genesis 10:9) have swung from highly positive to highly negative and then back again, reflecting continued ambivalence among Christians about hunting. My own research of Scottish evangelicals in the first half of the 19th century uncovered similar differences of opinion, including two ministers who shared a commitment to mission and Bible societies disagreeing, one close colleague lamenting the other’s continued pursuits as “fisher and fowler.”
One strength of the descriptive section of God, Nimrod, and the World is how it gives voice to little-known Christian hunters. Despite being a church historian, I had never heard of Naucratius, a brother of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. He was the first to follow the call of their influential sister, Macrina, to pursue an ascetic life. As the book states, he played “a significant role in the birth of monasticism, and that is because of, not in spite of, his passion for hunting.” Not only did his hunting provide meat for the poor, but the time spent in the wilderness, learning solitude and self-control, also provided depth for Naucratius’s soul. Other chapters relate contemporary family and individual narratives of unsuspected hunting traditions among Christian African-Americans, Hispanics, and women. There is even a chapter of case studies about hunting ministries: Think Young Life for camo-clad adults.
Many of the chapters in the descriptive section include explanations from Christian hunters about why they believe this practice is legitimate for believers. Some common observations are that hunters eat what they kill and follow ethical “fair chase” practices. Other comments reflect on how hunting provides an immediate experience of how life comes from death. Such experiences can bring hunters closer to creation and the Creator, and ultimately into a deeper appreciation of a salvation accomplished through the shedding of blood.
The second section of God, Nimrod, and the World moves from the descriptive to the prescriptive, taking a more explicitly academic tone. Christians have been (and continue to be) involved in hunting, and some may even give reasons for what they do, but in the end, are they ethically and theologically justified? To frame the question even more sharply: How can the followers of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, kill his creatures and eat them essentially for fun, as in the hobby of “sport” hunting? Maybe you could justify subsistence hunting if there were no other way to survive, but haven’t we advanced beyond such primitive practices?
As the admittedly “open-ended” conclusion suggests, Hill and White do not provide a definitive answer. Chapters include a variety of arguments for and against sport hunting as a legitimate activity for faithful Christians. Titles like “Killing What You Love” and “A Damnable Pleasure” attest to the ambivalent attitudes that even proponents of hunting bring to their favored pastime.
The overall message delivered to both sides of the debate is to listen attentively to the other side, think critically, and reflect deeply about your own position. If you hunt, then you need a better rationale than that you grew up hunting or you like the taste of wild game, at least if you also claim to be a Christian. You also need to consider how you go about killing God’s creatures if you are ultimately accountable to the Creator. If you oppose hunting as a Christian, then you need to recognize that others oppose it because they do not think that human beings are any different from animals. Might such arguments have the unintended consequence of blurring the very distinction that forms the basis for rejecting slavery and murder?
Hunting in Heaven?
As a hunter and a Christian academic, I found myself pondering my approach to hunting in ways I had never done before, even beyond the arguments in the book. In considering the proverbial question, “Will there be hunting in heaven?”—or, to be more theologically precise, “in the new heavens and new earth”—the seemingly obvious answer is, “Of course not!” For exegetical support, many would turn to Isaiah 11:6–9 (“The wolf will live with the lamb …. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain”). Various chapters in God, Nimrod, and the World refer to this these verses, though without extensive exegetical analysis.
One can make a compelling case that this passage doesn’t have any immediate implications for the animal world, since the predators listed are symbolic of the predatory nations (like Egypt and Assyria) that threatened Israel in Isaiah’s time. Even so, this passage may suggest that hunting is a gracious intermediate institution that fulfills God’s good purposes in a fallen world even though it will not continue in a fully redeemed world. Similar intermediate institutions would include marriage (Matt. 22:30), medicine, or law enforcement.
Regardless of whether you are convinced by my arguments or by those in the book, God, Nimrod, and the World will help hunters, non-hunters, and anti-hunters from the church and from the academy better understand one another. As with any multiauthor work, readers will find some chapters more or less compelling than others, but as a whole, Christians will discover much serious scholarship to enlighten and many faithful examples to inform their reflections about this often controversial and misunderstood topic.
David A. Currie is professor of pastoral theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he is dean of the doctor of ministry program and the Ockenga Institute. He is the author of The Big Idea of Biblical Worship: The Development and Leadership of Expository Sermons (Hendrickson).