by Barbara Brown Taylor. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. ISBN 0060771747. Hb., 256 pp. $23.95.
Without a doubt, my very favorite of all images used to describe the task and privilege of preaching comes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, The Preaching Life, and likens the preacher to a modern-day Cyrano de Bergerac. Barbara Taylor imagines herself there in the pulpit “passing messages between two would-be lovers who want to get together but do not know how. The words are my own but I do not speak for myself. Down in the bushes with a congregation who have elected me to speak for them, I try to put their longing into words, addressing the holy vision that appears on the moonlit balcony above our heads. Then the vision replies, and it is my job to repeat what I have heard, bringing the message back to the bushes for a response. As a preacher I am less a principal player than a go-between, a courier who serves both partners in an ancient courtship.”1
Among all of Taylor’s words–and I have devoured them appreciatively one book after another–none of them, for me, have had the force of those words. They have often escorted me into the pulpit, sometimes they have picked me up when I have doubted my own effectiveness; and they have always reminded me of my role in the exchange between God and God’s people–would-be lovers in need of a go-between.
So the first and, I suppose biggest, disappointment in Taylor’s latest book Leaving Church is the prospect of her no longer playing–at least, as an installed pastor responsible for a specific parish setting–the role of a courier in the service of an ancient courtship.
To be sure, Leaving Church is also satisfying and inspiring and thus vintage Taylor. She traces winsomely her pilgrimage into the faith, then into ministry first in a large multi-staff church in Atlanta and later in a small North Georgia mountain parish, and finally out of parish ministry altogether and into teaching at a local college. Her account of the three seasons of faith she has experienced across the twenty-plus years since her ordination–those of finding life, losing life, and finding life again–resonates deeply with any thoughtful pastor’s sense of the mixed bag of churchly rhythms and ministerial vocation. It would be hard to read of both the heroic and petty sides of any parish, as described by a caring pastor with her own admitted contributions to such heroism and pettiness, without being reminded that what we pastors are about is proclaiming and embodying a treasure that, for God’s own mystifying reasons, is found in earthen vessels.
Moreover, as Taylor courageously and wisely points out, in our time there has been “a definite hardening taking place” with respect to “the presenting issue” of human sexuality. Other divisive issues she mentions include such things as the inspiration of Scripture, the uniqueness of Jesus, the salvation of non-Christians, abortion, gun control, capital punishment and the like. Her description of how such issues as these seeped into the life of her bucolic Episcopal parish in Clarksville, Georgia, rings true with the experience of many contemporary pastors. “What I noticed at Grace-Calvary is the same thing I notice whenever people aim to solve their conflicts with one another by turning to the Bible: defending the dried ink marks on the page becomes more vital than defending the neighbor. As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God.”2
Taylor challenges this deep-seated reflex in our culture in her brilliant distinction between ink and blood. “If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. … I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink. … For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.”3
There is more vintage Taylor in the distinctions she draws between believing and beholding (“The parts of the Christian story that had drawn me into the Church were not the believing parts but the beholding parts: ‘Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy;’ ‘Behold the Lamb of God;’ ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock…'”) and between jurists and poets. She observes the drifting away from church of what she describes as “poets” at precisely the same time that the church seems awash in “jurists.” “I began to feel like a defense attorney for those who could not square their love of God and neighbor with the terms of the Nicene Creed,” she laments, “while my flagging attempt to be all things to all people was turning into a bad case of amnesia about my own Christian identity. … I wanted out of the believing business and back into the beholding business.”4
Presumably, the distance from organized religion that Taylor now enjoys makes the beholding business more possible. Though she maintains her ordination, and still finds her way into various pews–and sometimes pulpits–on Sunday mornings, she is sustained by college teaching and the gentle seasons of life on her and her husband’s farm, and sees herself now as a priest tied not to any one particular community but to the “far larger congregation of humankind.”5 As her title suggests, though she has left the church she is in fact keeping the faith: “in God,” she says, “in God’s faith in me, and in all the companions whom God has given me to help see the world as God sees it–so that together we may find a way to realize the divine vision. If some of us do not yet know who we are going to be tomorrow, then it is enough for us to give thanks for today while we treat each other as well as we know how.”6
People who have struggled with the all-too-human flaws and squabbles of the institutional church will be “priested” by this book. People who have been ushered to the margins of relevance by the contemporary whims and fears and fiats of the institutional church will feel addressed by this book. People who at times have wished to God to be able to do anything else except the calling sealed by the huge vows of their ordination will feel that, in this book, Barbara Taylor has been reading their mail.
But people, like myself, who were brought into the faith by this admittedly flawed Church, and who have virtually no understanding of what it means to encounter Christ apart from the witness given to him for centuries by his gathered community, warts and all, may wish for more evidence of a thoughtful ecclesiology in this book. They may wonder if Taylor’s depiction of the Church is finally too small, too rooted in our culture’s near-religion of individualism; and they may suspect that the blemishes and cracks of that age-old earthen vessel, in which there still resides a splendid and ageless treasure, are practically caricatured as if to please a predictably skeptical generation that seems comfortable searching for Christ in any place but the Church.
This, though, is not my biggest disappointment. As I said earlier, my biggest disappointment is that the Church will not have Barbara Taylor’s voice proclaiming the word of God with her characteristic honesty, theological curiosity, and eloquence from the pulpit of one particular earthen vessel–Grace-Calvary Church in Clarksville, Georgia. She has been in our time one of the best and most able couriers in the service of an ancient courtship, and her voice will be deeply missed.
Theodore J. Wardlaw is president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
1 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 78.
2 Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church (HarperSanFrancisco: 2006), p. 106.
3 Ibid., p. 109.
4 Ibid., p. 111.
5 Ibid., p. 164.
6 Ibid., p. 230.