Learning to Walk in the Dark
by Barbara Brown Taylor
“This is not a how-to book, but if it were, the only instruction would be to become more curious about your own darkness.” (185)
I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book as a Holy Saturday experience, for obvious reasons, and it has stuck closely with me even through Easter celebration. Liturgically this has helped me embrace one of her central points, that we need and can learn from the dark at least as much as the light. After all, Holy Saturday has been as accurate a description of my life and faith recently as has Easter Sunday, and Taylor’s new book not only met me there but gave me new language and references for my semi-permanent residency.
Taylor, a proponent of what she calls ‘lunar spirituality,’ has given us a gift in this new book, a modern spiritual classic belonging next to Teresa, Hildegard, and St. John. Urgently contemporary – experiential and memior-ish instead of the more classical rumination on ascetic experience – Taylor invites us to join her as she turns into the dark, into that realm of things which she (along with the rest of us) has grown and been trained and socialized to avoid.
By darkness Taylor doesn’t merely mean those things which are off limits or shunned but rather those things which she has feared, resisted, and avoided at all costs. This might be uncertainty about her health and her future, but it might also be about how she experiences the absence of God and those tendencies within herself she’s spent her life running from. This book is largely about trying to grow into a faith that comes after what she calls ‘full solar spirituality,’ that sort which either belittles tragedy and trauma or chalks them up to a lack of faith. Like many of us, Taylor finds this sort of thinking thin, often dishonest, unfulfilling, and incongruous with her experience.
Taylor’s reflections are courageous but her writing is never overly confessional or forced. The book thankfully never slips into voyeuristic tell-all, and she keeps many of her darkest things to herself. She also never settles for a simply dichotomous view of the dark, and she spends ample time dismissing the unfortunate binaries which have equated darkness with evil. Her nuanced take offers the dark as a fact of life, a reality that cannot and should not be avoided.
Amidst the dystopian hyper-realism of our day – when Breaking Bad, The Hunger Games, and The Wire saturate our popular consciousness – I dare say that this sort of book, this sort of spirituality, is the only sort that many of us find compelling and legitimate. That said, Taylor is here an interesting alternative to the edgier Peter Rollins and his brand of religious atheism. More honest than analytic, Brown refreshingly looks inward when talking about these issues. She walks us through her study of the dark, of mythology, biblical stories, her own adventures, the science of sleep cycles, and moon-rises. This is a meditation on the night, literal and otherwise. Like Rollins she presents a compelling approach which embraces profound doubt and uncertainty without ever trying to explain away the experience of the absence of God. But unlike Rollins she does so as a part of her life of faith.
Ultimately Taylor might say, or perhaps more properly I might say after reading and reflecting, that we might actually learn more from the dark than we do from the light. Or perhaps better put, what we learn from the dark are profound things the light never offers. Yet this isn’t about trying to champion the dark. Nobody can live in darkness alone, but probably nobody can live in pure light. And I think this is her point: if we might be more honest about our darkness, with our darkness, we might learn more about ourselves and in fact become more faithful and loving; we might become better people. One thing, for Taylor, is sure. We cannot go on denying our darkness. For those of you who occupy a lunar spirituality like Taylor and me, or even some sort of semi-solar one, I urge you to read this book and read it slowly. Here Taylor reveals the kind of robust faith we can hold onto honestly, one that lasts, and one that might make us better humans in the end.
Manager, Christian Theological Seminary Bookstore
Master of Theological Studies ’14