Coyote America

Coyote America

In the Latino communities of the American southwest, there is a saying:

            The only thing smarter than a coyote is God.

And while we car-driving, blog-writing humans may take issue with this claim, just ask yourself this question:

How many coyotes have you seen holding fidget spinners?

I sat rapt recently as I listened to the nature historian Dan Flores talk about his recent book: Coyote America. 

It is essentially a biography of America’s most adaptive underdog.

And it is also a strange topic for a blog on faith and culture.

So we should probably address that weirdness.


You may not know it, but coyotes are not exactly “click-generators” in the world of social media. They do not wear bikinis; they have no thoughts on Donald Trump; and (unlike cats) they do not appear on Youtube playing the piano. (I checked.)

So why write about them?

Two words: unexpected awe.

While there are many problems in the modern world, among the least acknowledged may be our loss of wonder.  Despite all our technological marvels, most of us are far too rarely dazzled.

So while we are awash with entertainment, we have a deficit of awe.

And from this evil cannot deliver us.

This state of disenchantment presents a problem for the church, because a capacity for wonder may be a prerequisite for what Calvin called the sensus divinitatis—our sense of the divine.


In the Bible, such awe comes often out-of-doors–though not exclusively.

It presents itself in burning bushes; in stars that mark descendants; and in a grappling angel by a brook.

In such wild places, our sense of wonder is refreshed.

And this brings us back to the coyote.


While Flores’ book starts in prehistoric times, its most interesting parts reveal how the coyote flourished while other species were decimated by the settling of the American West–a period that brought perhaps the swiftest destruction of wildlife in world history.

Yet despite an all-out war on coyotes starting around 1915, the only noticeable result has been that they continue to spread like wildfire.

While first inhabiting only a portion of North America, the animals now stretch from beyond the arctic circle down into South America.  And what’s more, they now inhabit every major city in the United States.

The reason for their flourishing has something to do with what the apostle Paul identified as “power perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12.9).

Because coyotes adapted as the smaller, frailer cousin of the wolf, they could not rely on brute force to stay alive.  Instead, they had to lean into their wits and learn to leverage weakness.

Case in point: their use of howls and hormones.


According to Flores, when the female coyote howls (or yips) each night, one purpose is to take the roll of the respective mates within her group.

If a male does not respond—say, because he was trapped or shot or mauled—it triggers a chemical reaction within the alpha female that does two things, both of which are awe-inducing:

First, it sends her prematurely into heat; and second, it causes the ensuing litter to be larger than normal.

You might want to read that again. The mere absence of an answering “yip” both triggers heat and makes the litter larger than they would be otherwise.

Most likely, this adaptation emerged from a history of weakness and inferiority in the face of larger predators. Yet somehow, this tendency to get killed-off by bigger animals coincided with a freakish adaptation that gave coyotes an advantage.

Example number two:


While wolves tend to stay almost perpetually in tight-knit groups, coyotes are what Flores calls a “fragile pack” animal. This means that when they face pressure from their enemies, they tend to splinter into smaller groups and then cast about in search of new territory.

Because grey wolves group more rigidly, the killing of a single wolf often leads to the killing of the entire pack—sometimes aided by the use of the original hide as a way to lure others to an ambush. For such reasons, wolves were almost eliminated from the American West, while coyotes spread rapidly in all directions.

“They tried to scatter us,” you can almost hear them howling, “They didn’t realize we were seeds” (cf. D. Christianopoulos).


Okay, okay… so coyotes have some crazy adaptations that have led to flourishing – but what do we do with this?

The tendency, for preachers like myself, would be a move to application: something like, The Coyote Principle (Now available for $12.99!).

After all, the book of Proverbs tells us to “Consider the ant” in order to be wise. And if Solomon were relocated to the Sierra Madres, perhaps the text would read “Consider the coyote.”

To be sure, there are lessons to be gained from such creaturely longevity.

For instance:

  1. Weakness does not have to be a weakness. And:
  2. Scattering can be a form of conquest.

Yet the too-quick drive to application can be a fault of teachers like myself. And in some cases it borders on a sacrilege–what Kierkegaard called “pillaging the holy.”

Because while we may benefit from life-lessons, sometimes we have a deeper need to marvel merely at the wonders made by the Creator.

As Donald Miller writes in Through Painted Deserts:

I sometimes look into the endless heavens, the cosmos of which we can’t find the edge, and ask God what it means. Did You really do all this to dazzle us? 

In sum: application is no substitute for awe.


A related point is made beautifully in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath.

In one scene, two ragged “okie” boys slide into a roadside gas station as their family migrates west in search of food and better fortunes. In patched overalls and dirt-streaked faces, the children halt suddenly before the candy case. There they stared

not with craving or with hope or even with desire but just with a kind of wonder that such things should be.

Perhaps this tells us something of how Christians ought to look at nature, at coyotes, at oceans, at eclipses, and even at our fellow man—not with craving or with quests for application, but with naked wonder that such things should be.

The LORD was (not) in the storm

The LORD was (not) in the storm

It can seem a cruel twist that hurricanes are called “acts of God.”

Yet it is crueler still when the label is confirmed by careless statements from both televangelists and secular celebrities alike (This sentence may contain redundancies).

Recently, the actress Jennifer Lawrence remarked (omnisciently) that the devastating hurricanes assailing Texas and Florida are Mother Nature’s “wrath” toward a nation that elected Donald Trump.

And while conservatives rightly decried the “word of knowledge,” it bears reminding that certain fundamentalists have long been making similar pronouncements. Pat Robertson blamed Haiti’s earthquake on their “pact with the devil”; Jerry Falwell attributed 9/11 to “gays and lesbians”; and John Hagee blamed Hurricane Katrina on the wickedness of New Orleans.

Why do people do this?

The problem, it seems, is not exclusively a liberal or a conservative one, but a tendency of human nature.

Despite our talk of grace, we often find karma more appealing.

There is something comforting about rendering disaster meaningful as retribution.  Retribution implies simplistic telos—and telos gives us consolation.  After all, it is always “the other side” that is to blame.


Jesus faced this fallacy as well.

In Luke 13, Christ is approached by the ideological ancestors of “Katniss,” Hagee, and Robertson.  A tower had fallen in Siloam and there were casualties.  The natural assumption was therefore that the event was God’s judgment on the victims’ egregious sins.

But Jesus isn’t buying it.

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!” (Lk. 13.2–3).

The problem, it seems, is not with the notion that God sometimes judges sin dramatically; scripture says he does. Rather, the fault lies in the presumption that one can easily peer behind the veil to parse out when and how this happens.

When we do this, our statements usually become a kind “Rorschach test for prophets”—telling a lot about the speaker, but virtually nothing about Ultimate Reality.

When this happens, whether with J-Law or Pat Robertson, we often end up with a “God” who conveniently hates all the people we do.  And this move manages (impressively) to break both the first and second commandments simultaneously: we kick God off the throne of judgment (#1), and we remake him in our camera-ready image (#2).

For such reasons, the majority of Christians–not to mention past Hunger Games champions–resist the urge to openly attribute hurricanes to divine anger at specific targets.


Yet this hardly quells the questions posed by such disasters.

Especially to theists.

Case in point:

A few years ago, I was introduced to a new colleague of mine, named Mark. In telling me about his life and family, he mentioned that his boy had been struck and killed by lightning.

While the conversation continued, I did not.  I had recently become a first-time father myself; and my question was a blunt one:

Could I be Christian after that?


Are such terrible events really, as the insurance papers tell us, “Acts of God”?

One strand of Christianity says “Yes.”

While “Deism” views God as entirely detached from earthly affairs, “divine determinism” claims that every creaturely occurrence has as its cause God’s active will.

As David Bentley Hart explains it, in his excellent response to the southeast Asian tsunami (The Doors of the Sea):

Some theologians – Calvin, for instance – have denied that the distinction between what God wills and what he permits has any meaning at all.

Yet Hart finds this “unhealthy fascination” with God’s “dread sovereignty” unacceptable.

Thus he resists the urge to attribute every lightning strike on a suburban soccer field, every Indonesian child drowned in a tsunami, and every flattened Caribbean village to a simplistic “act of God.”

As he concludes:

It is a strange thing to seek peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome.

What though is the alternative?


Between Deism and determinism lies the majority Christian position—and it is one that I share as a Wesleyan theologian.

God sometimes permits terrible disasters. We don’t know why entirely. (Perhaps grasping for the “knowledge of good and evil” is as troublesome now as it was in Eden.) Yet we trust that God is present in the suffering. Jesus proves this.

The claim here is that while the LORD is in the storm, he is not there as a sadistic force of retribution against the afflicted—much less his people.

Hart says it this way:

I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean [or elsewhere] and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred.

For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy.


The point here is that Christians should resist naming horrific natural disasters as “acts of God,” just as we should resist the urge to blame them on whatever persons we find disagreeable.

When we fall victim to such errors we are more likely to be distracted from the final way that God is in the storm—not as a vindictive force of carnage, but as a healing presence in the hands and feet of his people.

In the end, the LORD is in the storm most palpably when we stop blaming long enough to pray and give and help.

For those interested in giving to those affected by Harvey and Irma, here is an organization that I trust (World Hope – Texas/Harvey). (World Hope – Irma Relief).