We’ve sequestered death, pushed it off to arm’s length. […] Hunting has changed that for me in a way that religion never did. Deciding with my brothers and mother to remove life support and let my father die was not like ringing the neck of a duck or firing a bullet through the lungs of a whitetail deer. But it wasn’t totally unlike it, either. ~Tony Jones, The God of Wild Places

I understand if you need to take a beat and re-read that. It took a minute to set in for me. Author, speaker, former preacher, and avid hunter Tony Jones has never been as open or vulnerable in his work as he is in his new book, The God of Wild Places: Rediscovering the Divine in the Untamed Outdoors (Rowman & Littlefield, 2024). Like his podcast, Reverend Hunter, his latest book is something of a mashup, part hunting travelogue, part natural theology, and part faith memoir. Like a gourmet dish, these elements combine to create a brilliant, accessible book that will inspire and challenge a wide audience from hunters to vegans and everyone in between.

I’m not alone in speculating (fearing) that our species might have out-kicked our coverage when it comes to technology, particularly that related to social media. When the founders of these companies and networks refuse to allow their own children to use or participate in them, we all might want to take a deep breath and step back. I’m also not alone in drifting away from the faith tradition in which I was both raised and (in some version of it) spent much of my adult life. In fact, I’m part of a growing trend. Part of the disillusionment with organized religion has been its tendency to both demystify God and to elevate out of or separate human beings from the rest of nature.

Like the Nones (individuals who no longer claim any religious affiliation), Jones drifted away from organized religion, although that verb doesn’t do justice to his experience. Picture a man on a small boat being dashed by waves and finally drifting up on an island and you might have a better idea of his experience. His move away from religion was a result of events and forces both within and outside of his control. Hunting became an event that guided him through the tumult and an act in which he now finds peace, purpose, and meaning.

So it’s not the move away from institutionalized religion that is important or even interesting here. This is one of a handful of recently published books that deal with this reality. Rather, it is what he steps into, the wilderness, that is utterly, transcendentally captivating. One doesn’t get the sense that Jones went there, initially, looking for answers. Reading his book as a non-hunter, I quickly see the appeal in ways that I didn’t growing up in rural Mississippi, where killing your first deer was/is a right of passage that I never undertook. Never really an avid hunter either, my father was seriously injured in a car accident when I was five, which ruled out any father/son hunting excursions. Nevertheless, Jones makes a convincing argument for it: the thrill of the hunt, the risk of the journey, the orientation of our place in the cosmos, the camaraderie of fellow hunters and travelers, and, yes, the sustenance that a successful outing can bring.

Our increasingly isolated lives are devoid of much of these experiences. Jones shows us just how regrettable this is, or can be, by illuminating the lessons (truths) he has learned through hunting and simply spending more time in the wilderness. Each chapter is structured around a particular theme: place, companionship, risk, death, failure, etc. He deftly weaves stories of his life, particularly the traumatic divorce from his first wife and its aftermath, with accounts of various hunting trips across the United States. While Jones is never gun-shy about sharing his own thoughts or leveling criticism where it is due, readers are left to draw out much of their own conclusions through these reflections. That is, until the final chapter, when it feels as if he is forced to conclude with a chapter on God, in which he asserts a handful of statements about God revealed through his experiences in the wild (I know…it’s in the title). However, these are thankfully laced with his more personal introspection that makes the book such an emotionally gripping and, ultimately, spiritually satisfying read.

I must confess that Tony and I share a bit of a bond, but it’s not a unique one. We both lost our fathers within a few months of each other in 2018. This is a book I wish I could have shared with my dad. Like I did, he would have loved it.

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