The God-Shaped Hole!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Eagle's Restoration

The God-Shaped Hole in people's hearts makes them seek something greater than themselves, greater than this fallen world.

There is currently circulating the Internet a slideshow of dubious authority. It describes the legend of the eagle's rebirth and renewal. Here is a summary, taken from various sources. (Variations are given in parentheses.)

The Bald Eagle is the longest lived species of eagle, living up to 70 years (or 100). However, to reach this age, it must make a hard choice.

At the age of 30 (or 40, or 50), it flies to a high place, sheltered from the sun, where water is present, and there endures a harsh trial of endurance and change.

Its body has become overgrown with feathers, and its wings can't move as well as they once could. It plucks all the feathers from its body.

Its talons have grown curled and useless. It plucks its talons from its feet.

Its beak has grown too long and curled. It breaks its beak against a rock.

Defenseless, it cries out and waits. Other eagles hear its cry, and come to aid it in its time of renewal. They fly overhead, scaring off predators, and bringing food to their incapacitated friend.

For 150 days (or 40), it drinks the water (some variations omit the food and other eagles) and waits for its feathers, beak, and talons to grow back.

An oil sack grows on its chest, over its heart. When its beak and feathers have grown back, it pierces the oil sack and spreads the oil on its feathers. (This variation sometimes omit the feather-plucking, saying the oil "heals" the broken or old feathers.)

Many Bald Eagles don't survive this process, but those that do have the will to survive this time of change (trial, renewal, rebirth) fly away from the experience as young as a new eagle, with another 30 years of life (40, 50) still ahead.

The moral of the story varies with the teller. Christians who tell this story say it talks of God's plan, His love, His protection, His dislike for our tendency to find a comfort zone and stay there, or His requirement that we change or die.

I've seen examples of this story on sites as widely unrelated as a New Age blog and a high school's page about its mascot, the eagle. One website about home sales and marketing uses this story to illustrate that, as the market changes over time, the savvy marketer will shed its old marketing materials and sales pitches, and retrain with more up-to-date methods and materials! I can imagine using it as a political example of America needing to discard something (the military, the Social Security system, the income tax, class and race barriers) to become strong once more.

I've found at least one example of someone who would have lost her faith in a time of trial, had it not been for that story.

When a pastor presented this, noting at the time his uncertainty of its truth, I wondered if it was correct. Searching the Internet for the story of how the eagle breaks its beak, I found it to be almost wholly inaccurate.

The eagle's beak does continuously grow, like a fingernail, and the eagle sometimes rubs it against rocks to file down irregular growths, like an emery board. Breaking its beak would be a seriously life-threatening injury, and no evidence has been found that this occurs; however, someone in ancient times may have seen the filing down of the beak, and assumed it was breaking it. The hook on the end of the beak is a valuable and necessary tool for tearing meat, not an irregular growth to be discarded. It is never in danger of "freezing shut".

The eagle never plucks its talons from its feet. In captivity, their beaks and talons must be kept trimmed; however, wild eagles don't seem to have problems keeping them at the right length.

The Bald Eagle lives 30 years in the wild, at most 40 in captivity. It never goes to a high place for a time of renewal. However, it does like high places.

An oil sack never grows over its heart, to renew its feathers. However, it does have an oil gland which it uses to clean and waterproof its feathers. This process is called preening, and most birds preen.

It does not pluck out all its feathers at a single point in its life. It does molt a portion of its feathers over the summer, being careful not to become flightless in the process. This is called molting, and most birds molt to some degree.

I've dug a bit deeper since finding the link. It turns out that the church father Augustine presented the eagle in a commentary on Psalms 103:5. (Here is Psalm 103:1-5, ESV)

(A Psalm Of David.)
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and all that is within me, bless his holy name!
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

In his commentary on the eagle, and renewal of youth, Augustine notes:

When shall my longing be satisfied with good things?
when, do you ask? "Your youth shall be renewed as
the eagle's." Do you then ask when your soul is to
be satisfied with good things? When your youth
shall be restored.

And he adds, as an eagle's. Something here lies
hidden; what however is said of the eagle, we will
not pass over silently, since it is not foreign to
our purpose to understand it. Let this only be
impressed upon our hearts, that it is not said
without cause by the Holy Spirit. For it has
intimated unto us a sort of resurrection.

And indeed the youth of the eagle is restored, but
not into immortality, for a similitude has been
given, as far as it could be drawn from a thing
mortal to signify a thing immortal, not to
demonstrate it. The eagle is said, after it becomes
overpowered with bodily age, to be incapable of
taking food from the immoderate length of its beak,
which is always increasing. For after the upper
part of its beak, which forms a crook above the
lower part, has increased from old age to an
immoderate length, the length of this increase will
not allow of its opening its mouth, so as to form
any interval between the lower beak and the crook
above. For unless there be such an opening, it has
no power of biting like a forceps, by which to shear
off what it may put within its jaws. The upper part
therefore increasing, and being too far hooked over,
it cannot open its mouth, and take any food. This
old age does to it, it is weighed down with the
infirmity of age, and becomes too weak from want of
power to eat; two causes of infirmity assaulting it,
old age, and want.

By a natural device, therefore, in order in some
measure to restore its youth, the eagle is said to
dash and strike against a rock the upper lip of its
beak, by the too great increase of which the opening
for eating is closed: and by thus rubbing it against
the rock, it breaks off the weight of its old beak,
which impeded its taking food. It comes to its food,
and everything is restored: it will be after its old
age like a young eagle; the vigour of all its limbs
returns, the lustre of its plumage, the guidance of
its wings, it flies aloft as before, a sort of
resurrection takes place in it.

For this is the object of the similitude, like that
of the Moon, which after waning and being apparently
intercepted, again is renewed, and becomes full; and
signifies to us the resurrection; but when it is full
it does not remain so; again it wanes, that the
signification may never cease. Thus also what has
here been said of the eagle: the eagle is not restored
unto immortality, but we are unto eternal life; but
the similitude is derived from hence, that the rock
takes away from us what hinders us. Presume not
therefore on your strength: the firmness of the rock
rubs off your old age: for that Rock was Christ.

Most Christian sites that cite the eagle story also mention Psalm 103:5, the believer being renewed like the eagle. It appears this is the origin of this story. Ironically, this telling is not too inaccurate, since it only mentions the eagle filing down its beak. However, it does introduce the elements of only doing it once in its life, rather violently, with renewal afterward, and better/younger plumage.

In conclusion, eagles are one of God's amazing creations. They are pilots, maintaining their body in tip-top shape for flight. They are hunters, maintaining their hunting equipment. They are long-lived birds that soar the hights. But they are not the immortal Phoenix.

So the moral of the story is, learn to distinguish data from lore, fact-reporting from storytelling, and truth from meaning. And don't hang your faith on an email from a dear friend.

birdchick refutes eagle slideshow
bird expert on preening
Augustine on the renewal of youth as an eagle

Appendix: Preening and molting, from the middle link:

I wanted to talk about preening since we've been seeing a lot of images
showing the parents working on their feathers while they've been on the eggs.
The importance of feathers cannot be overstated as they literally mean life
and death to a bird. And so consequently, eagles spend a lot of time
maintaining their feathers, which includes cleaning them, waterproofing them,
smoothing them, etc.

An eagle will molt (shed its feathers and grow new ones) every year, although
biologists report that not all feathers get replaced in each molt. Molting is
a gradual process that occurs mostly in summer but might extend into spring
and fall. The flight feathers are not lost all at once, so the eagle is never

In order to maintain the feathers they have, an eagle will straighten and
smooth them, often by using its bill to "zip up" the feathers, so the feathers
maintain their smooth and aerodynamic appearance.

In addition, an eagle will apply oil from its preen gland (also called the
uropygial gland), which is located at the base of the tail. The bird will
squeeze the gland to extract the oil and then work the oil into its feathers.
This oil cleans and waterproofs the feathers, and also deters feather
parasites. Although our eagle parents are spending a lot of time on the eggs
-- and not fishing as much -- they still need to have waterproof feathers so
they don't get chilled when it rains or snows on them.


  • Thanks for posting this. I was sure it couldn't be true!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:00 AM  

  • Thank you for researching this so well. My father heard it at a spiritual retreat, and he thought the process was too cruel to be true. Your hard work saved us a lot of time. Thanks again.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:44 PM  

  • In this day and age of internet access, information overload and excessive amusement we need to be most careful what we take in as truth. As Jesus said,

    And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world? And Jesus answered and said unto them, "Take heed that no man deceive you" - Matthew 24:3-4

    A most excellent write-up BlueKnight. Thanks

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:20 AM  

  • Hello... thanks so much for posting this!

    It sounds as if your experience and mine with this MYTH are very similar. I too was intrigued about this when I heard a well known AG pastor preach it at a Pastor's conference a few years ago (I listened to it on a CD). I was very concerned about the lack of Scriptural support for the message, but I was intrigued by this process that an eagle supposedly goes through. So, I decided to check the internet for any further information of the actual "molting process" of an eagle, rather than the metaphorical sense for which it is currently used in sermons of this type. Like you, I was surprised to find that there is virtually no information on the internet that supports the idea that an eagle goes through this sort of a process.

    So, I decided to contact several eagle-related wildlife organizations to find more information (I think the Raptor Center was one of them). I received about 7 responses, and without exception, every single one of them told me that the "molting process" typically referred to by Christian ministries is a MYTH. Eagles in fact molt their feathers exactly the same as all other birds... a few at a time over the course of their entire life. They do not go through a period where other eagles help them out by feeding them, and they certainly don't ever lose their beak... if they did, they would not be able to eat. One of the responses was from an eagle trainer who takes his work very seriously, and he was very angry that this MYTH is being presented as fact.

    What is even more frustrating is that, for bringing this to the attention of others, you are often branded as a theological nit-picker trying to cause division. Well what is wrong with questioning theological positions (the Bible actually ENCOURAGES this... particularly in Acts 17:10,11)?

    When Al Gore shares a bunch of questionable info about Global Warming, most Christians question it harshly... but don't dare question any theological metaphors, particularly if they come from a respected member of the Christian Leadership community. Ugh! It's enough to make you want to hang up your hat and say "what's the use?... people are going to believe what they want to believe." Any advice?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:24 AM  

  • They are trapped in the tribal framework of Supporters of God Almighty versus Heretical And Wicked Adherents Of Science. Anything that goes against The Inspiring Story With Application In Our Own Lives is a False And Wicked Teaching Which Strips God Of His Glory.

    My advice? Print out this blog post, and take it to the more reasonable members who are high in the church hierarchy. Ask them (one on one) to look into it, because ==and this is the key== you do not want to base your faith on a lie. Make sure to point out how Augustine's only slightly inaccurate analogy seems to have accrued several new layers of bald-headed lies, like lime on a faucet.

    And pray. God is Truth, and He will open the eyes of those willing to see truth.

    The power of this myth comes from several ideas, all neatly wrapped up: Suffering is not a bad thing, but may be a necessary process for survival or growth; God has a higher plan than your pain; this too shall pass; etc, etc.

    In researching this, I found one blogger who said that, if she hadn't found the story, she would have lost her faith. I hope God leads her gently to truth, either here or in Heaven.

    By Blogger BlueNight, at 9:42 PM  

  • I am very grateful to you. I am starting my blog and wanted to use this power-point or its story. Sounds fascinating, but I just needed to verify the accuracy. The lack of footnoting was suspicious. So, I searched the internet and found your blog. You save me from embarasing myself. Thank you.

    By Blogger SOARING EAGLE, at 8:03 AM  

  • Thank you for the work of research. As Christians, the study of God's Word should cause us to give pause when we read that God will restore our youth as that of the eagle and, therefore, the truth of it only will lead to that restoration.....PDB, Lewisville, TX

    By Blogger pdb, at 6:38 AM  

  • Thank you for your posting. Jesus was all truth not partial truth. I did much research on the Eagle and found a little truth in the very interesting story of the eagle's restoration.

    I was taught many years ago that in a true or false test, if there is a lot of truth added to any falsehood the answer is false.

    I loved the story but myth is myth, truth is truth and they are not even distant cousins.

    Thanks for exposing this story to the truth. Jesus declared that "the truth will set you free."

    Dennis Fite, Kansas City

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:01 AM  

  • I am glad that I read this especially in light of the fact that I was about to build a theology on this based on what I was going through I was almost disappointed that it was not so but deligted to discover that I did not build a theology of life based on a myth

    By Blogger waymaker, at 3:23 AM  

  • Myth is a way of presenting the deeper truth that factual statements can't deliver.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:09 PM  

  • Even Jesus Christ spoke in parables and allegories.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:12 PM  

  • Anonymous posted:
    "Even Jesus Christ spoke in parables and allegories."
    "Myth is a way of presenting the deeper truth that factual statements can't deliver."

    I don't dispute that He did. Story is the most powerful medium for Truth; we were built to respond powerfully to Story.

    The point of this post was not to dispute the Truth that God sometimes allows times of pain so that we can grow and learn. This is clear in the Bible and in every believer's life.

    What I do dispute are the two lessons of this myth, and the biological facts it claims to be based on. The descriptions of an eagle's physical restoration are patently false, as I've described in the post; it sounds like you don't dispute the inaccuracy of the descriptions.

    The three lessons I dispute are (1) that such a process is necessary for a longer or better life, (2) it is self-inflicted, and (3) it only happens once in a lifetime.

    I have gone through a seven year period of testing; I was Nebuchanezzar'd for my pride in the mind God had given me. It has left scars that may not fully heal until Heaven. It ruined me financially and emotionally. Yet it was not a natural part of my life: God allowed my two abusers to hurt me and hurt me until all I had left in my mind and heart was His love for me. I certainly hope He never allows it to happen to me again; however, I cannot stop Him if He does.

    It was not a time of holy suffering and healing; it was a horrific time of pain and anger and fear, when God's enemies (Satan, the world, and the self) were allowed to take away my identity and leave me sobbing. I would still be in that situation if God hadn't given me a way out.

    There are better ways to tell these truths than this inaccurate story. I remember hearing that certain theologians from earlier eres used to believe gravity and levity were opposing forces influenced by emotional states, and that angels flew because they had a surplus of levity. Bad science to illustrate a good point.

    By Blogger BlueNight, at 11:28 PM  

  • Thank you for posting this and for being so diplomatic in your wording. As a Christian who also happens to work at a center for birds of prey, I have heard this story before, and it is truly absurd. My first instinct is to declare the story to be absolute hogwash, but there are folks who will benefit from the inspirational aspects of the tale, and I don't want to throw out the baby with the patently ridiculous bathwater. I think it's just a fact that human beings need something to bolster them from time to time -- but really, as many wonders as there are in this world, why must people resort to making things up?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:04 AM  

  • BlueNight, you're an excellent writer and you've clearly got an interest in promoting truth. Our Lord said, "I am the way, the truth and the life." Whatever is contrary to truth is contrary to Him. That doesn't preclude the use of myth or parable to convey important or difficult teaching, but it does preclude the use of falsehood masquerading as truth toward any end. Kudos to you for clearing up the facts around this popular fable.

    By Blogger Theophilus in Abq, at 11:45 PM  

  • How do I sign up to follow this blog? I've learned to post a blog, but never followed one!

    By Blogger Hugh Mouse, at 12:33 PM  

  • Simply awesome.......

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:38 PM  

  • Simply Awesome.....

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:38 PM  

  • It is not necessary to add anything to any message, verse or scripture God has given us. Man has a track record of thinking his infinite mind, reasoning and intelligence can help God. There is a revelation to the statement God makes in Psalm 103:5 and the preening process and the oil sack gland can be used to make it. So I do not understand why the rest had to be added. Basically God is saying examine ourselves periodically, clean up our act, stay on the Word and desire the infilling of the Holy Spirit. He already said we will have trials and tribulations in this world but they have nothing to do with the restoration process of an Eagle. As Paul told the Ephesians, in verse 1:17: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of Glory may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him. Amen, So then maybe we won't feel the need to make up our own

    By Blogger Don't Make It Hard, at 10:42 AM  

  • Thank You for posting the truth about "Molting Eagles and the Misuse of Truth"---my idea of a sermon!

    I welcome truth, want truth, worship who I believe is the Truth, Jesus Christ. I also enjoy myth, fable, parable, convey truths of the world, our universe. While I share concern over inaccurate truth, terribly irresponsible renderings of scientific fact, and the like, I understand how a woman regained her faith after listening to this "false teaching" about eagles. Even the most painstaking researchers and pastors out there, whether they believe in God or not, fundamentally operate on imperfect knowledge and utilize "faith" in their respective fields.

    I believe in the case of the woman who almost lost her faith that she read the story and gleaned her own hope and blessings out of what she thought was true...that she believed God to be good and trustworthy as well as His sons and daughters He brought by to help take care of her. Beautiful? Yes. Conveying truths about God and His love? Yes. Factually accurate regarding eagles and their lives? No.

    Some Morals of the Story Here:

    #1: Sometimes the "facts" don't matter as much as the "truths" that are meant to be received.

    #2: You can lose an audience by not getting the facts straight.

    #3: Know the truth as best as possible.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 2:46 PM  

  • Thank you for posting. After reading your post it made me wonder if David was not observing one significant renewal time in the eagles life but observing the eagles renewal processes that he was doing constantly, every day to stay alert and able. It seems like the Psalm was not about the initial salvation renewal but the constant Holy Spirit renewal that must take place every day in a Christians life. We pray, and spend time with the Lord every day and are constantly renewed. For this we bless the Lord!

    By Blogger metropolitangirl, at 10:18 AM  

  • Thanks so much for setting the record straight on the eagle story. So I wonder why God really did put that in the Psalm about our youth being renewed like the eagle's? How are the concepts of youth and eagles related?

    By Blogger "M", at 1:47 PM  

  • The page on that verse and another blog on the topic should shed more light on the subject.

    English translations imply it is the renewal, and not the strength which belongs to the eagle, but I think it's the other way around: (He will renew my youth) (with the strength of an eagle).

    It would take a scholar of Biblical Hebrew and Septuagint Greek to determine if this is the case, but I think it can be read in such a way.

    By Blogger BlueNight, at 10:59 AM  

  • Maybe in this case, the story wasn't true but either way, we can't always rely on scientific facts! Faith has nothing to do with facts or what is natural or logical, I mean, is not normal for a human being to resurrect, is it? and I think scientifically talking, impossible! But based on that, Jesus Christ would have never resurrected! The Lord has been talking to me and has told me that the problem nowadays with people is that they want to understand everything otherwise if it's not understandable or has a reasonable explanation, is not true, but Jesus said; "you are mistaken, not knowing the Scriptures not the power of God" (Matt. 22:29), when asked about a question that surpassed any logic! Now, like I said before, maybe this isn't true and all that, but we cannot base our Faith in scientific facts or any other earthly facts, because as we know, science isn't accurate about many things, the Creation, for one, or evolution, and many other things, but base our Faith in the power of God. Paul said; "set your eyes unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith"(Heb.12-2), always remembering that the power of God surpassed all understanding, otherwise if we could understand it, He wouldn't be God!
    Now, I understand people going through difficult trials wanting to understand why, I, myself. have gone through very difficult trials and at times not understanding why, and I realize that people have suffered things maybe worse than I, but one things I have tried to do, is not to question or try to explain everything, but have believe that "all things work together for good to those who love God"(Rom. 8-28), being honest, sometimes fearing worse things for me, but although it doesn't make sense to rejoice in trials, the Lord says that's the best to do, and I simply have tried to believe that and do it! At times, not so convinced, but have tried! Now, my argument, if you will, is not to say it's ok to lie or say things that are not, facts-based, true to cheer up heart broken or spiritual low people, but that we should not put our trust, or pay to much attention to facts that are based on human based knowledge, after all, we do have limits, and always remembering that "God has destroyed the wisdom of the wise, and has brought to nothing the understanding of the prudent"(1 Cor.1-19), so in conclusion; let's not believe in what's natural or in what we understand, but believe in the power of God!
    I, too, heard the "Myth", if you will, and was fascinated to think it was true and finding out that maybe it isn't, hasn't change my faith or anything less, but I, too, learned as I was reading all the comments that I also had fallen into what my Lord has been telling me, people want to know and understand, and for that, I ask Him for His forgiveness and ask Him to give me the strength and guidance to help me into not doing it again!
    For those of you who are going through difficulties; trust in the Lord and "consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us"(Rom.8-18). Don't try to understand, just believe it! May the grace, peace, and love of our great Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, be with you all!!Amen!

    By Blogger SofJC, at 5:22 AM  

  • Our teaching is no more true than the accuracy of the metaphors we use. If Jesus had said, "The Kingdom of God is like a man who divides the feathers on his back from the scales on his fins and feeds them to his unicorn," His teaching would be meaningless, even if He filled it with proveable, undeniable facts after the illustration.

    Any teaching associated with the eagle story presented here is equally vapid. I predict this story will continue to grow in absurdity over the coming years, because preachers can't settle very long for teaching someone else's story - they have to add something to it. Eventually we'll learn that the eagle actually dies in the process, but as it falls from the heights, the rush of wind brings life into its lungs. A picture of the resurrection, and of the life-giving Spirit.

    I take God too seriously to listen to tripe like the eagle story.

    By Blogger Mike B, at 3:58 PM  

  • Amen

    By Blogger FRANK JAVIER, at 2:50 AM  

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