As I’ve written before in reference to the coelacanth and the red-cockaded woodpecker, natural symbols gleaned from our study of the world around us are a kind of common grace, available to all as pointers to the Lord and His sovereignty, but more specifically to help believers think more deeply, subtly, and beautifully about the biblical witness and our lives together as followers of the risen Christ. As one such symbol, the crayfish comes to us today from an unlikely source (i.e., not from an invertebrate biologist or river ecologist) and in the midst of a longer treatise on a much more familiar image of the way the Church is and ought to be in the world—that is, the human body.
Dr. Paul Brand was both a pioneer in the treatment of patients with leprosy and a man of deep and missional faith lived out among outcasts on several continents. Over the course of decades of working to heal and restore dignity to men and women riddled with disease and crippled by injury, he came to understand that seeing the human body through the lens of modern science—including genetics and evolutionary theory—only highlighted the accuracy and insightful richness of the Apostle Paul’s central image for the Church, rather than detracting from it. In a pair of books co-authored with Philip Yancey, Brand describes how Paul’s basic assertion that parts can’t exist on their own is extended by a medical exploration of not just parts, but the various individualized kinds of cells and capabilities and systems in the body: blood, skin, and (our connection to the crayfish) bones.
Examining the various qualities and roles of bones in the human body, Brand writes, “An analogous body as advanced and active as the Body of Christ’s followers also needs a framework of hardness to give it shape, and I see the church’s doctrine as being just such a skeleton. Inside the Body lives a core of truth that never changes—the laws governing our relationships to God and to other people.”1 Brand goes on to discuss the way the moral law, especially, is hard like bone (as in unchanging), but also provides the framework for freedom when the individual “bones” (say, each of the ten commandments) work together as part of the full skeleton, allowing movement and exploration.
But just as essential as hardness to the work of bones in the body is their status as living, growing things in their own right. Without changing shape or becoming something other than what they are, bones grow and adapt to the stresses put on them, remain flexible, self-renewing and self-healing even as they give structure and security from beneath skin and muscle. Says Brand, “Bone is hard, but it is alive. If the bones of faith do not continue to grow, they will soon become dead skeletons.”2 This defining combination of a vertebrate’s bones’ strength and flexibility from within is what brings Dr. Brand (and us) to consider the alternative strategy and lifestyle of the crayfish, to whom he likens those of us Christians who “realize the importance of law and discipline [but who] unfortunately wear their skeletons on the outside. . . [whose] dogma stands out as obtrusively as does a crayfish’s shell. . . [and who] tend to retreat into our exoskeletons and define our place in the world by how different we are from the rest.”3
As he makes clear in a whole chapter (“Inside-Out”) devoted to it, Brandt sees the error of legalism in the Christian life as best represented by the crayfish’s hard, inflexible carapace, which is at least as dangerous and limiting to the crayfish as it is off-putting to those who come into contact with the chitinous shell or, more painfully, the sharp pinchers crayfish present defiantly to whomever they meet. First of all—taking into account the crayfish’s usually once-a-year molt—the exoskeleton makes growth and development an infrequent and dangerous affair. A similarly “hard-shelled” faith means the constant process of renewing, growing and becoming more Christ-like that should mark the Christian is extremely difficult, and an occasion of danger rather than promise.
But second, the shell makes a defensive, ward-off-all-comers posture all but inevitable, which Brand names as the greater concern for its negative effect on the spread of the gospel. Towards the end of the chapter he sums it up like this: “Lobsters and crayfish make unappealing pets because of their external shells. If doctrines and rules [and I will add ‘singular approaches to reading scripture’] are worn externally, as a show of pride and spiritual superiority, the exoskeleton obscures God’s grace and love, making the Christian gospel ugly and unattractive.”4 Notice, Brand is categorically not saying that Christians should not be firm in their core commitments, but that such commitments should allow flexibility and growth, and always present a warm and gentle touch to those with whom we come into contact.
Altogether, Brand’s main goal of describing the Body of Christ in terms of the human body is successful and compelling, worth reading in its entirety by scientists and non-scientists alike. But I’ll allow myself one small quibble with regards to the crayfish image. I suspect that while Dr. Brand ate many crayfish during his years at the nation’s only leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, he didn’t actually try to keep any as pets. Spending a lot of time on and in the James River as it flows near our home in Richmond, Virginia, my family has had the opportunity to keep several crayfish of different species as long or short-term guests in our home, and we can attest to the fact that they have a remarkable level of personality and capability for interaction, even given their hard exteriors.
In successive and sometimes overlapping stays, we got to know a large Louisiana red swamp crayfish named Clovis and a number of his locally-native kin, among them Claw’d (an even more massive green local variety), Crustina (a muddy-black, medium sized crayfish), and Mr. Trundles number One, Two, and Three (all small, speckly brown crayfish like the one pictured above, which may be Mr. Trundle Four). We even got to see Crustina “in berry” with a clutch of eggs and then tiny baby crayfish held under her tail, and then the small crayfish grow and explore on their own. We found them all to be remarkably endearing in their own way, but we also discovered that crayfish are more delicate than one might expect: subject to the rigors of molting, for sure, but also to having their shells cracked by almost every other creature in the river (including other crayfish), and even of drying out quickly if they leave the relative safety of the tank or river bank.
The point of these personal anecdotes is that it is entirely too easy to dismiss as “legalists” our brothers and sisters in Christ who seem to sport hard exteriors and unbending commitments to beliefs we recognize as non-essential or even hurtful to the telling of the gospel, or even just inconsistent with the way God has revealed himself in and through the natural order we investigate in the lab, in the heavens, or in our local river, stream or creek. Though we offer critique and argument against their positions, we must not make the mistake of seeing only the claws and not the more complex behavior; or, worse, of seeing only the empty shell, rather than learning to appreciate the soft interiors that are being shielded by those rigid plates. As Dr. Brand noted, a soft finger extended towards a hard, sharp claw is likely to get pinched, or even broken; but such interactions are nevertheless the stuff of science and, it seems, no less the stuff of being the Body of Christ.
1. Philip Yancy, In the Likeness of God: The Dr. Paul Brand Tribute Edition of “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made””In His Image.” Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2004: 92-93.
2. Ibid., p. 113.
3. Ibid., pp 123-124.
4. Ibid., p. 128
Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.