Got a love-hate relationship with organized religion? Finding more fear than faith in your daily life? Let Barbara Brown Taylor, one of America’s most popular inspirational writers, be your guide in Learning to Walk in the Dark.
A new book from Barbara is big news—an occasion for a cover story in the April 28 issue of TIME magazine! Readers nationwide love and continue to read her earlier memoirs about rediscovering faith in troubling times. But, many of her loyal readers were wondering if she had … well, vanished. Book buyers last spotted her Leaving Church (2007) and then building An Altar in the World (2009). Then, there were no more books for five years.
Taylor chuckles at the suggestion she has fallen silent. “I envy the writers who can turn out a book every year, but I teach full time, my husband and I live on a working farm, I travel a lot to speak. And, honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”
Undergraduates at Piedmont College have no trouble finding her. She paused for the following interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm in the midst of grading student papers and a busy schedule of end-of-term events. In her endowed chair as Butman Professor of Religion she teaches a wide range of classes on the Bible, creative writing and world religions.
Attendees at many conferences and special occasions, coast to coast, hear her preaching and talking and reading from her books. She maintains a robust schedule of public events.
But when a new book arrives, this is an occasion for individual reading, small group discussion, quoting from Barbara in Sunday sermons and homilies. And for the editors at TIME: It’s a national news event. ReadTheSpirit magazine agrees and we present our own …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH
BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR ON
‘LEARNING TO WALK IN THE DARK’
DAVID: The first thing we should tell readers: This really is a book about walking in the dark. You tell vivid stories about your experiences in dark caves, walking along dark shorelines, looking at stars. You open the book by describing to readers how you hauled an air mattress out into the back yard, flopped down on your back—and watched the whole symphony of day turning to night. This isn’t just a theological metaphor. This is an invitation to look at the night sky.
BARBARA: Yes, I did go out and actually experience the darkness. I felt I had to do some of that to rescue this book from abstraction. Talking about darkness is like opening up a Rorschach inkblot and inviting all kinds of associations to unfold. I felt that I had to put some bodily heft into this exploration. I did start with a lot of reading. I read every book that came my way with darkness or night in the title. My reading carried me from visits to observatories to concerns about light pollution to lots of stories about dark emotions—and, then of course, to the “dark night of the soul” and into theology—plus books by people like Karen Armstrong, Phyllis Tickle and Harvey Cox looking at the future of faith in dark times. I read a lot and thought about all of these perspectives—so it seemed very important to engage the concept of darkness in as many physical ways as I could. And, yes, I walked out into the dark myself.
DAVID: There’s a family story in the book that I’m sure will touch everyone who cares about children. You and your husband Ed live on a working farm in northern Georgia. You raise chickens and, one day, a young relative was visiting with you—and you thought you would teach her something delightful about the night. But—it didn’t unfold as you had hoped.
BARBARA: She was about 7 years old when she came to visit. She had been born and raised in the city and had been given all of the good safe guidelines parents give children about the dark. She also had suffered from a sleep disruption, night terrors, so she had some scary experiences of darkness.
When she came to visit, I thought a good thing to do was to invite her to walk with me out to the chicken house at night.
DAVID: You write in the book that the chickens are more docile at night and they sound like they are “chuckling” to one another when you go into the chicken house. The idea sounds delightful.
BARBARA: It wasn’t far from the house, about 50 yards down the hill from our garage across the grass. The moon was bright that night so we really didn’t need a flashlight, but I took one anyway to be sure we could see where we were going. I was walking along, figuring she was behind me, talking to her as I went.
Then, I realized she wasn’t answering any more. I realized she had stopped somewhere behind me. I could hear her crying. I realized that my definition of safety didn’t have anything to do with her definition of safety. I tell that story in the book to show that not everyone has the same experience of darkness and the night. I’m not telling readers that everyone should go out, charge into the shadows and explore everything in the night. But I am encouraging readers to explore the things we’ve been taught about the dark and see for ourselves if they’re really true. If we try this, we will be surprised.
DAVID: I don’t think it’s a “spoiler” to tell readers: By the end of this book, you’ve touched on a lot of our fears and anxieties—and our deep desires as well—as we live through these turbulent times. The book closes with a very strong message of reassurance. You’re telling us, to borrow a line we read so many times in the Bible: Do not be afraid. It’s in Genesis, repeatedly in fact, and Moses repeats it in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. It’s in the era of the kings, the prophets and the Psalms; Isaiah repeats it. Then, in the New Testament, angels repeat, “Do not be afraid!” Of course, Jesus says the same thing.
HARD LIVES & SIMPLE GRAVES / DARKNESS & LIGHT
DAVID: By the end of this book, at least some of your readers may learn not to be so afraid of the dark. But you also point out that countless men and women around the world long for light to improve their impoverished lives.
In America, there was a major campaign for rural electrification and many parts of the world don’t have lighting at night, to this day. There’s a very poignant scene in your book in which you describe the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans traveling through the rural South in the 1930s. They happened upon a graveyard used by the poorest of farming families in which loved ones placed symbols of great hopes on the graves.
BARBARA: Reading Agee and Evans, once again, reinvigorated my imagination of that era of rural electrification. I live in a part of the rural South where we now take artificial light for granted. But, not too many years ago, our farm would have been off the grid—not by choice but by economics. As I wrote this book, I kept in mind that—while I am writing about a longing for darkness—there are so many people who long for light.
In re-reading Agee and Evans, there is a passage where they describe this burial ground for poor tenant farmers in Alabama. On top of the graves, their families had placed things people treasured. On top of some graves were dinner plates and pieces of milk glass. They also found lightbulbs screwed into the red clay covering some graves and blue-green glass insulators, too. This reminds us of the economics of darkness, as well, and in many parts of the world, it’s only the relatively wealthy who have the privilege of longing for darkness—because most people are poor and they live in darkness every night.
There are so many ways to think about this. Here’s another: The darkest places in the world are the places where we can see the most stars.
DANGER IN THE DARK
DAVID: There are dangers in the dark, as well. I’m a life-long fan of Larry McMurtry and, in one of his Western novels, a cowboy is far out on the range when he wakes up one night and becomes convinced that he must ride off to someone’s aid. His companions beg him not to do so, because there’s no moon overhead. He does so anyway—and rides right off a cliff and dies.
You tell about hitting a drop off yourself! You walked, in the dark, along a wooden dock that you didn’t realize had been damaged by a hurricane. You didn’t know that part of the dock was missing and you fell about 13 feet, right?
BARBARA: I did! And it hurt! And when I managed to walk back there in daylight I realized that I had fallen very close to a board with nails sticking out. It could have been so much worse.
But I don’t want to dwell on the dangers in the dark. Sure, you can bump into things in the night. But I found so many positive stories that I didn’t expect of people’s experiences in the darkness. For example, most of us may think that it’s dangerous to go out in the dark in a big city. And, I was giving a talk about this book when a young woman stood up at a microphone and she said that she grew up in New York City. And I thought: “Oh, here it comes! Another story about dangers at night in a big city.” But, she surprised me. She said that she loves her memories of going out with her father to look at the night sky between the tall buildings. And she recalled how much she loved it when her father would take her to an observatory in the city.
And remember, there are so many people who have to be out at night. They work at night. I was fascinated by a book about midwives in England who, of course, often had to go out at night. I read about various methods people developed to keep track of where they were going even on the darkest nights.
DARKNESS ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE
DAVID: This is a book about faith as much as it is about the real world of sunlight and darkness. And, when you turned to the Bible, your first glance over the material was pretty bleak, right?
BARBARA: There are about 100 references to darkness in the Bible and if you focus just on the word searches, the verdict is unanimous: Darkness is bad news.
DAVID: But you went deeper into the text, of course.
BARBARA: Yes, I started with word searches because there are so many easy ways to do that now. At the linguistic level, darkness is almost uniformly negative from the beginning to the end of the Bible. But when I dug deeper and began to pay attention to narratives that took place at night or under cover of darkness, the whole focus changed from negative to positive. Think of God telling Abraham to look up at the stars in the night sky. Or think of what happened to Jacob at night: wrestling with an angel.
DAVID: And the vision of the stairway to heaven, which came at night, produced the famous line: “Surely God was in this place—and I did not know it.”
BARBARA: These are moments of huge transformation at night. In the Nativity story, think of the shepherds looking up into a sky that is exploding with angels. Think of Magi following a star through the night. Now darkness becomes much more interesting!
‘THE BLIND HERO OF THE RESISTANCE’
DAVID: Among the spiritual mysteries readers will discover in your book is Jacques Lusseyran, often called “the blind hero of the French Resistance.” He also was an amazing mystical writer. His most easily available book these days is And There Was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II. But you actually quote from a specific portion of his writings: Against the Pollution of the I. Readers might be able to get that through their libraries, after meeting Lusseyran in your book.
BARBARA: He was compelling to me, first of all, because three different people recommended him to me. When I hear one or two people suggest something, I can ignore it, but not when three people recommend something. When I opened up his works, his language was so remarkable! From childhood, he was blind. He typed on a Braille typewriter, which was how he expressed himself in written word. And his language? He was able to capture mystical experiences because he wrote like an angel. He’s unparalleled in my reading—telling us unbelievable things and yet they become so believable in the way he tells them.
DAVID: He writes about how he experiences light and darkness and the mystical connection he makes is in his connection of love to inner light. Here’s one of his lines: “There was only one way to see the inner light, and that was to love.” Your readers meet Lusseyran in just a couple of pages of your book—but he’s a good example of the unusual people readers will discover here. Learning to Walk in the Dark will take you many places you never expected to go.
And, in the end, one of the places you’re taking us is back into “the church,” to organized religion. You’re an ordained Episcopal priest.
BARBARA: Yes, and I’m proud to be celebrating my 30th anniversary as a priest this year.
DISCOVERING ‘NEW GUIDES’
DAVID: Much of this book is about fearlessly exploring the world in new ways. But there’s a clear message here: You hope that all of those fearful men and women inside organized religion can find new hope. I was surprised on Easter Sunday, just a few weeks ago, to be attending the church where my daughter is the pastor. She got up and preached her sermon from the Gospel stories of resurrection—combined with illustrations from your new book. I was so pleased to hear that sermon!
BARBARA: And I love hearing you tell that story!
I get invited to a lot of churches and events with church leaders. When I walk into some churches, these days, it feels like a hospice. I can smell the anxious sweat in the air. The first questions people ask me are: What can we do to reverse the tide? What can we do about losing members? How can we—well—they’re really asking: How can we not die?
It seems to me that it’s time to stop all of that worrying. All that hand wringing is only convincing people that they don’t want to come inside here with you. It’s time to say: Let’s take inventory and see what is here and see what is life giving. It’s time to decide to be alive in a new way.
Now, I can’t say that without adding: I also visit lots of vibrant churches celebrating what is truly life giving. But, I think anyone who has ever loved a community of faith has—at some point or other—been disappointed by that community. In writing this book, I discovered a lot of new guides—men and women—who calmed me down, consoled me and got me ready for whatever is next.
DAVID: I’m going to jump way back to the beginning of your book and point to a line that I’ll bet is going to be quoted in countless church bulletins and sermons in coming months: “Step 1 of learning to walk in the dark is to give up running the show. Next you sign a waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first.”
BARBARA: That’s the story of this book. And that’s the living definition of what it means to have faith: I’m not assured that everything’s going to be safe and all right—but I am assured because of all the others who have walked this way before. Their walking before me—and around me—convinces me that this is the way of life.
CARE TO READ MORE?
Links to several of Barbara Brown Taylor’s earlier books are at the top of this story. You can order her book from Amazon by clicking on the book cover, at top.