Learning to Walk in the Dark (Barbara Brown Taylor) -- Review

LEARNING TO WALK IN THE DARK.  By Barbara Brown Taylor.  San Francisco:  HarperOne, 2014.  200 pages.

                I have preached many a sermon invoking the light of God shining in the darkness.  That has been a staple of Christian theology – God is Love and God is Light.  Besides this affirmation of light, we’ve also been taught that we are lights that must shine forth in the darkness that is the world – and not keep the light hidden under a bushel basket.  And for those of us who are Star Wars fans, we know that the pathway to the dark side of the Force is rooted in anger and hatred.  So could there be spiritual blessings to be found by learning to walk in the dark?

                Barbara Brown Taylor is a well known figure, especially among preachers.  Her many books of sermons and her contributions to reference works such as Feasting on the Word have nourished our spirits and our preaching.  Her fame as a preacher has been both a blessing and a bane to her own ministry – in fact, as the recent Time Magazine cover story reminds us, it was her fame as a preacher that helped lead to her departure from her ministry in a small Episcopal Church in Georgia.  Her decision to leave the church in search of her own spiritual survival outside the church is told in her book Leaving Church, a book that should be troubling for those of us in the ministry.  In this book, the third in a trilogy that began with Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (I’ve not read the middle book – Altar in the World, An: A Geography of Faith), continues the story of her journey of faith outside the confines of traditional Christianity.  She hasn't rejected her faith, but she isn't sure that what she once believed now makes sense to her.

                There are treasures to be found in the darkness, though we are often told – from childhood – to come in from the darkness to the safety of our lighted houses.  Of course it wasn’t always like this.  But today, true darkness is difficult to find.  Living as I do in an urban area, the stars are difficult to see, and the Milky Way is completely absent.  I’ve spent time far from any urban area, just me and the sky above at an elevation of 7000 feet.  The stars seemed so close, so vivid, but we don’t see that living amongst the lights that shine day and night in our communities.  Now, there is need for light, especially in cities, but Taylor wants us to consider what we’re missing.  But before she takes us on a journey down a pathway in the darkness, she must address both our fear of the dark and our theological distance from these often missed treasures to be found in the darkness. 

She shares her concern, as a Christian, that Christianity has had little good to say about darkness.  Our theologies often pit light against darkness, “identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time.”  She calls this “full solar spirituality.”  She writes:  “you can usually recognize a full solar church by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer” (p. 7).  But what happens when your life doesn’t fit this scenario?  When your life moves into darkness – loss of job, end of marriage, or death in the family – you may not find that the residents of this full solar church will be comfortable with your realities.  Just have faith and the darkness will leave – if it doesn’t then maybe something is wrong with you.  Near the end of the book, she acknowledges that this book is really a book about experiencing loss.  It’s about experiencing a sense of absence.  But rather than flee it, she seeks to understand its spiritual value.

So she begins with our fear of things in the dark, as well as our fear of God.  At the same time, she reminds us that it is often at night that people in the biblical story encounter God.  In fact, it is often in the midst of dreams that one encounters God.  Consider Jacob’s vision of the ladder or his wrestling match – they happen at night.  But, we are often hampered by the brilliance of the light around us – and that is unhealthy.  She shares with us that darkness is essential to physical being.  We’re designed to sleep at night – in the darkness – but when does the darkness come? 

Then there are the dark emotions – depression, for instance.  These are all part of human existence.  But a focus on light often means that those persons who experience the dark emotions don’t feel welcome.  Their gifts are shunned. 

From here we explore the stories of darkness – like looking at life through the eyes of the blind, experiencing life through the other senses besides sight.  She explores the darkness of a cave – having explored caves I had some understanding of what it is like to be deep underground, turning off all forms of artificial light, and experiencing total darkness.  Taylor reminds us of the many spiritual connections to caves, from Muhammad’s visions to Jesus’ birthplace to the tomb.  Beyond blindness and explorations of caves, there is the dark night of the soul, described in some detail by St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, and engaged here in the book.  In the dark night of the soul, there is the sense of divine absence and the exploration of what God is not – the realization that one does not have adequate language for faith.  For Taylor there has been a period of letting go of articles of belief that had defined her faith – we might call this a sense of deconstruction (my words not hers).   As a pastor and as a teacher, I must admit that I struggle with what to do with Taylor’s letting go of the tenets of the faith.  I want to help people make sense of their struggles, but Taylor wants us to let go of this need.  But then, I find a word of guidance in her confession:  “I think I can even live inside this cloudy evening of the soul for a while longer, where even my sense of God’s absence can be a token of God’s presence if I let it” (p. 148).  There is a continual interplay, it seems to me of deconstruction and reconstruction – dying and rising, and Taylor helps us grapple with this reality.

It is in the chapter “Working with Darkness” that she begins moving toward reconstructing the faith.  She invites us to put ourselves in position to experience the profoundness of being in the darkness.  She reminds us that some of the most creative people had trouble sleeping – so maybe we can work with our erratic sleep cycles to move in and out of sleep so as to let the creativeness be free. 

In laying out this journey in the darkness, Taylor does not reject the importance of light.  What she wants us to understand is that darkness is important.  It is important for our physical health, but it is also important to our spiritual health.  If we live without ever acknowledging our sense of divine absence, we are likely covering over deep realities.  We put on a happy face, even when we are dying inside.  So, along with the sunrise, we can watch the moon rise.  We can embrace not only heaven, but creation as well.  She also points out something I’d never thought about before – darkness precedes creation.  God doesn’t create the night; God separates out the light, the day, from the darkness.  We must, it seems, come into the light through darkness of night.  They are not opposites – they are interconnected.  We need them both if we’re to truly enter into relationship with God.  We needn’t deny our loss, but recognize that we live with loss.  Taylor points out that our culture finds it difficult to live with loss. We want to either deny it or manage it.  But, maybe we need to live with it.   If we insist, so says the author, on living always in the light, then we tell those who cannot buy that form of the faith that there is something wrong with them.  She wondered what was wrong with her.  How often do we send that message to those who we encounter – if you’re happy and you know it you’re welcome, if not – find someplace else to be. 

Taylor doesn’t see this book as a how-to-manual for spiritual life, but she does encourage us to explore our own sense of darkness.  She asks: 
“What can you fear about your fear of it by staying with it for a moment before turning on the lights?  Where can you feel the fear in your body?  When have you felt that way before? . . . What have you learned in the dark that you could never have learned in the light?  (p. 185).
That is the question that we all must struggle with – what can we learn only be recognizing the importance of walking in the dark – or acknowledging the moon as well as the sun.  This isn’t a form of syncretism or polytheism – it is recognition of the full-orbed nature of the spiritual path.

           As a Christian pastor, I struggled with some of the message, but then I'm in a different place in my relationship to traditional Christianity.  Still, I found the book spiritually provocative in a positive way.  I am thankful that Barbara Brown Taylor has told this part of her story.  For one thing, it makes better sense of why she left the church.  For another, she has "brought to light" the need to spend some time in the dark -- and learn to walk in it without fear.  In response to the book, I pray for myself that I will be able to learn from my own journeys in darkness.  I needn’t fear the darkness – I just need to let the other senses free to do their job.  We can give thanks for this book, for it will be an important contribution to the spiritual journeys of many.



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