Friday, July 17, 2009

Review: Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor

Spiritual memoirs, especially Lauren Winners' Girl Meets God, have always had a large impact on how I examine my own Christian journey. So after reading Winners' review of Leaving Church, published in 2006, I have kept it at my ever-growing "to read" list.

Taylor is a preacher I have only discovered recently, but she is an impressive speaker. Women preachers often have the problem of speaking with confidence and coolness, but Taylor's style has the listener hanging on to every word, and always wanting more. She is also a phenomenal writer who knows how to immediately gain the sympathy of her readers. Therefore, I was really set up to enjoy this book.

However, there were times I loved the book, and a lot of times I was bothered by it. Taylor's "memoir of faith" is the story of how she was facing serious burn out as an assistant rector in an urban parish, and therefore sought out a small rural church. I found it difficult to relate to her at this point, not because she wanted a new life style, but because her decision to go to one particular church seemed superficial. She did well at this church, and God used her preaching to fill it to capacity for three services. Then again, she had a sort of burnout and decided to take a job teaching religion at a local college. Along the way her theology seems to morph into a kind of pluralism, where she begins to appreciate God in more ways than church, or even Christianity, could allow here.

Stanley Hauerwas has said something like "The hardest thing in the world is to be where you are." That is certainly true, and was certainly true for Taylor, who has a sort of restlessness for sitting still. She embodies well that paradox of the Christian life which calls us to have a sense and appreciation of "place" in the world, but with the same knowledge that we are "aliens" and "citizens of another world." It seems the Christian life is always sitting still and constantly wondering all at once. Taylor lives out that tension, trying to freshly find God, and not lose herself.

At times, the book was intensely personal and just fascinating, but I was always a little unsettled. It seems that she tells the story of her Christianity, her ordination, church vocations, etc. without wrestling much with Jesus. Taylor defines her faith very much in terms of an "appreciation" for God, which is well and good, but I wish she would have shown us more about the love and struggles she has had with Jesus. The God she talks about always seems distant, and that bothers me, because her preaching is much better than that.

For another positive review see Michael Spencer at Internetmonk

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