Typically, I don't buy my books in gas stations. But waiting to pay for my pit stop in rural Pennsylvania recently, one book on the register rack leapt out at me-"With God on a Deer Hunt," by Steve Chapman. In my suburb, we have a "deer problem." Letters in the local papers complain about these "rodents" eating our shrubs and blocking our streets. Loosening residential hunting laws is often proposed as the best solution for curbing the rogue deer's numbers. Others argue that killing enough deer to make a difference would mean turning my burb into a war zone.

"With God on a Deer Hunt" looked like it might have some answers. As a rule, I try not to kill animals. I brake for chipmunks, and I slow down if I spot a deer even near the road. If I find a spider in my house, I release it outside. Hell, why not? Opening the door and setting a spider on a bush is just not as inconvenient as it may sound. Could there be Biblical justification for killing the deer?

I've since learned that this isn't a crazy notion. According to "Should We Hunt?" on the Christian Bowhunters' website, God clearly permits hunting in Genesis 27:3 and Leviticus 17:13. We may hunt animals, the bowhunters argue further, because animals are not "rational, moral, eternal bound beings." Those who disagree are "fully given over to the oriental religions and have sealed their fate to hell by the denial of sinful man, a holy, justice seeking God, a condescending Savior, a resurrected Christ and life with Jesus forever."

When heads are cooler, the Christian Bowhunters concede that, unlike as in ancient days, we no longer need to hunt in order to survive. Survival, however, is defined in many ways: in suburbia, the mandate to develop more malls is akin to survival.

Steve Chapman's book, it turned out, is not about controlling the deer population. Nor, unlike many of my neighbors, does Chapman dismiss deer as "varmints." If anything, he reveres the animal for its grace, beauty, and intelligence. At the mere sight of a deer, he says, "my nerves tend to turn into a bowl of shaky Jello."

Nevertheless, he doesn't address what we might think about killing deer. Each chapter offers scripture and a brief hunting anecdote which, according to the back cover, celebrates "the excitement of matching wits with the elusive whitetail and the breathtaking joy of entering God's presence." It hadn't occurred to me that dressing up in camouflage and chasing God's creation through the woods with a high-powered rifle could serve as a way of "drawing near to the Lord."

Strictly speaking, Chapman doesn't draw near the Lord just by killing. In fact, he doesn't spend a lot of his time in the woods actually shooting deer. Most of his time is consumed sitting in trees waiting to kill deer. It's during these long, lonely stretches that he does the bulk of his theological musing. For example, in chapter three, "The Slap," he recalls a day he sat in a tree swatting mosquitoes. He got so mad at the insects that he hauled off and smashed one against his face. He killed the bug, all right, but "I also managed to seriously rattle my own cage." The pain evoked his wife's story about a guy who bullied her in high school. One day she smacked her provocateur across the face. "The sound of the hand-on-cheek explosion was deafening," he writes. "The sudden noise of teeth banging violently against one another was excruciating to hear. The deed was done." The result of which was that the bully never bothered her again.

Chapman's point? His wife's slap illustrates Psalm 3:7--"Arise, O Lord; save me, O my God! For you have smitten all my enemies on the cheek; You have shattered the teeth of the wicked."

In fact, Chapman kills many more mosquitoes while hunting than he does deer. In chapter 25, "Attacked!" he recalls how he was once so beset by "pesky, pistol-packin' skeeters" that he raced back to camp to don his "armor"-an extra shirt, a second pair of pants, two pairs of gloves, and an additional face mask. Though he felt "like I was hunting in a sleeping bag inside a sauna," he managed to shoot a mule deer. "It was some of the best meat I've ever eaten," he writes, "because I won the `war'" against the mosquitoes. This tale sheds new light on Ephesians 6:11: "Put on the full armor of God."

Other spiritual lessons Chapman gleaned while hunting:

  • The apples he uses to entice deer into shooting range deposit seeds in the soil that will bring forth more apple trees (Genesis 1:12)
  • Gazing intently in the woods for deer is similar to the way we should examine scripture for God's truths (James 1:25)
  • If your tree stand is too comfortable, you might drift off to sleep and fall out of the tree. Similarly, God does not want us to grow complacent (Deuteronomy 8:11-14)
  • Even if you have a terrible voice, no one will hear you sing in your treestand except God, whose "concern is `our hearts.not the Billboard charts.'" (Psalm 13:6)
  • Just as we paralyze deer with the headlights of our car, so does God shine the light of his countenance upon us (Psalm 4:6)
  • For all of Chapman's preaching, he never addresses whether actually killing the deer would bother God. As a moral guide, Chapman is on a par with Ted Nugent, the rock star, NRA board member, and outdoorsman extraordinaire. In his New York Times' bestseller, "God, Guns, & Rock 'N' Roll," Nugent makes it clear that killing animals is for him a deeply religious experience. "As the arrow comes back," he writes, "I slowly repeat, `In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,' then, as my eyes lock on his pump-station entrance rib, the arrow is gone at `Amen!'"

    There are no lessons for us here, beyond the unambiguous spiritual rapture of killing itself. In the section, "The Ballistics of Spirituality--You Can't Grill It 'Til You Kill It," Nugent explains: "Those of us who are driven to participate in as many predator dawns as possible are baptized over and over, again and again, by the hand of God and His stunning, mystical creation." Hunting is "a spiritual orgasm." And it's legal.

    God's endorsement of hunting is incontrovertible in Nugent's mind. In the chapter, "My Son, the Pigkiller--How Proud Can a Dad Get?" he reasons: "If God didn't want us to eat pork why would He have put all that meat on pigs and dealt with their stinking porcine misbehavior on Noah's ark?" One could counter that just because God put meat on Nugent's bones, that doesn't necessarily mean God wants us to flamebroil "Ol' Hunka Ted." Then again, who knows? One of the epigrams Nuge selected for his book is Genesis 9:3: "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you."

    Half the pleasure of Nugent's book is its flat-out, unabashed celebration of guns--"I love guns. The more, the better. The more ammo, the better" he gushes--and hunting--"There are more than four million whitetail deer in Texas, and I'm out to find 'em all." But for all his goofy bravado, Nugent does what Chapman never does, and slips in some introspection about hunting--or at least he pauses to dismiss it: "We are the only predators," he says, "who hit the hay each night with our bubbling conscience."

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