by Barbara Brown Taylor.
HarperSanFrancisco. 224 pp. $23.95.
There are really two books here. One is a pastoral memoir about Taylor’s falling out with her parish and the resulting shift in her vocation. The other is a critical reassessment of Christianity as such. The first book is a reminder of why Taylor is an exemplary homiletician. The other book, however, is a disappointment, especially for those who appreciate the author of the first book.
I remember not a few Sundays as a preacher in which Taylor bailed me out”not with a cheat-sheet for me to copy, but with the offer of new eyes with which to see a biblical text’s particularity. Naturally I am not alone in this. She was included on a Baylor University list of twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world ten years ago, and so featured in Newsweek . Taylor’s eye for the particular is on display in her new book, as she describes Grace-Calvary Church in Clarkesville, Georgia, the church she pastored for five and half years: I put my hands flat on the side of the church. Was this what happened to wood that soaked up a hundred and fifty years’ worth of prayers? Did all of that devotion seep into the grain like incense so that any passerby could catch a whiff of it?
Fellow presiders over the eucharist will recognize her description of distributing the elements: When our hands met on the silver cup, there was a charged moment in which we became one body, less in theory than in fact . . . .I focused on people’s hands instead of their faces. An unguarded face is a deep well; you don’t go there casually, without ropes or lamps. So I practiced what some religious orders still call ?custody of the eyes.’
Any pastor will smile knowingly at the odd bits of knowledge one picks up on this job. Like most clergy, I know how to post bond, lead an intervention, commit someone to a mental-health-care facility, hide a woman from her violent husband, visit an inmate on death row, and close the eyes of a dead body. And they will laugh out loud remembering experiences like Taylor’s, when a perpetually needy woman telephoned her and announced, `Martha is on sitting on the toilet and we are out of toilet paper. If I come over right now, could you write me a check to the grocery store so she can get up?’
Such prose might suggest the book is merely decorative or pretty”but let us remember its title: Leaving Church. The book describes in detail the process of disenchantment from parish ministry. Taylor went to seminary in the first place less out of a sense of call to ordination and more from a desire to draw as close to God as she could. But her efforts to excel in her parish actually worked against that original purpose, to the point that her pastoral work became a betrayal of her calling. Instead of deep prayer or communion with God in creation Taylor merely pecked God on the cheek the same way I did [her husband] Ed, drying up inside for want of making love.
Like many successful pastors she came to see her own efforts as indispensable to God’s work in Clarkesville. Also like many other pastors, the petty cruelty of the most needy of her parishioners took a toll. During a discussion about whether to build an addition to the church to accommodate its great growth in membership, one man stood up and announced that the church would not go into debt to build you a preaching emporium. Not surprisingly, Taylor beat a hasty departure from ministry to teach world religions at a nearby college.
Had her book ended there, with this first incident of leaving the church, I would have had no hesitation in buying it for my many minister friends. But Taylor proceeds to blame not only herself or her church for the burnout in Clarkesville, but Christianity as such. Why is Jesus the model for priesthood”she frequently wonders”he who never turned anyone away, whom we cannot but fail to emulate? And while we’re questioning things”why was she never told about the manifold historical problems in the Bible or of church history? Did no one think to tell her that the Greek etymology for heresy was the verb, to choose? (She credits Elaine Pagels for this revelation.) No wonder the church has felt threatened by change ever since. And why did mother church feel the need to protect her from playing with children of other faiths, when in fact members of those faiths are often much more likely to do justice and love kindness than those of her own household? Why was she taught that creation is inert and less important than heaven, when, say, Native American faiths tell a greater truth, of its liveliness and danger and suffusion with divine presence?
This second episode of leaving the church seems to be the one from which the book takes its title. Yet she will not leave entirely”she will stay on the margins, ministering to others who also find the church too threatened by such honest questioning as hers. Her vocation now is to teach Piedmont College’s undergraduates to be as tolerant toward other religions as she has become.
What confuses me about these parting criticisms of the church Taylor long served is not their trenchancy”they have been raised in every generation of the church’s life. It is Taylor’s own historical narrative. I could understand her feeling cheated if she had studied at some backwoods school on the way to serving a know-nothing church, but Taylor studied at Emory University and Yale Divinity School in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then she has lectured or preached at scores of major colleges, seminaries, and divinity schools around the world. Precisely who failed to tell her of Christianity’s various scriptural and historical problems? Taylor is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church (USA)”an institution hardly fearful of questions or criticisms from the left. Her paeans of praise to other religions are hardly edgy. Christian tradition has always held that God has promised to work among his covenant people, but is not thereby unable to work elsewhere”vestiges of truth remain wherever there are creatures created in God’s image.
Not only can Taylor’s criticisms be met with less difficulty than she imagines. They can actually be met in Taylor’s own earlier work. In fact, the criticisms are frequently answered here- as when she quotes, say, Julian of Norwich or Meister Eckhart or Bonhoeffer against the Church. In one place she names the company she will keep with her on the margins, including Martin Luther, Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Peter Abelard, John Scotus Erigena, Tertullian, Origen, and Jesus. Precisely who is trying to keep these risky figures off seminary syllabi and out of sermons? Taylor’s critiques feel like the proverbial battering ram through the open door.
For those of us a generation younger than Taylor it seems apparent that for any interesting rebellion we have to leave off the deconstructive work and re-embrace historic Christian doctrine and practice. I’m glad Taylor helped teach me what a joy that embrace can be”before she herself left the Church.
Jason Byassee is assistant director of the Christian Century and adjunct professor of theology at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.