Friday, June 26, 2009

Leaving Church; Home by Another Way

Leaving Church: a memoir of faith
Barbara Brown Taylor (2006, HarperCollins)

Home by Another Way
Barbara Brown Taylor (1999, Cowley Publications)

     Barbara Brown Taylor had a brilliant career as an Episcopal priest; she worked for ten years in a downtown Atlanta church, and for five as rector of a small-town church in North Georgia; she built a wide reputation as a preacher, and published several books of sermons.
     But Taylor's parish ministry was the victim of its own success. At Grace-Calvary Church in Clarkesville, she presided over booming church growth. The small church building was full for three services, then four, resulting in a catastrophic increase in demands on the rector's time and energy. Though partly self-imposed, the stress was crushing: "If I spent enough time at the nursing home then I neglected to return telephone calls, and if I put enough thought into the vestry meeting then I was less likely to catch mistakes in the Sunday bulletin."
     In 1998, depressed and exhausted, Taylor left the rectorship of Grace-Calvary. She was offered a position teaching religion at Piedmont College,which turned out to be just the life raft she needed. Leaving Church describes the remaking of Taylor's priesthood on the ashes of its previous form. No more collar, robes, ecclesiastical furniture, solicitous altar guild; no more saintly displays of patience, special status in the community, eight-day weeks. No more demanding parishioners; no more central role in the sacraments of the church. 
     Instead, Taylor goes into the wild darkness outside the warm lights of the church, to find that "faith in God has both a center and an edge and that each is necessary for the soul's health....While the center may be the place where the stories of the faith are preserved, the edge is the place where the best of them happened." She recaptures the meaning and practice of the Sabbath: "Today I will take a break from trying to save the world and enjoy my blessed swath of it instead."
     Taylor is a good writer and compelling storyteller, so I picked up a volume of her sermons as well. Home by Another Way covers an ecclesiastical year shortly before her career crisis, and I was interested to see that she was able to name her own condition, if not yet ready to hear the message. In a sermon about Jesus calling the fishermen to follow him, she talks about how we try to seize control of our own salvation. "If we will just work hard enough, we tell ourselves, if we pray enough and help enough and give enough, then God will claim us in the end....It is a form of idolatry..." She adds that our own call from Jesus might take a form particular to his relationship with us, including the possibility of doing less, and setting aside some of our busyness.
     By God's grace, as I think we must say, Taylor was offered a blessed respite from her clerical adrenaline jag. Accepting a softer sense of her own vocation, she makes room for a wider sense of God's presence in the world. Her authority to pray does not, it turns out, derive from the collar and surplice, but from the humanity she shares with everybody she meets. "If some of us do not 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."
     Amen! and Alleluia.

By way of bonus for my electronic readers--a longish Fresh Air interview with Barbara Brown Taylor. I'm not a fan of Terry Gross, but BBT has some interesting things to say, and it's pleasant to hear her. (Thanks to Katharine for the tip.)
Streaming audio from this site:

September 2006

Monday, June 22, 2009

So You Think You're Not Religious? & From Literal to Literary

So You Think You're Not Religious?: A Thinking Person's Guide to Church
James R. Adams (1989, Cowley Publications)

From Literal to Literary: the Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors
James R. Adams (2005, Rising Star Press)

     James Adams is one smart man; he is deeply acquainted with Hebrew, Greek, and centuries of religious history. He wrote So You Think You're Not Religious? as a message of evangelism to other smart people, specifically people whose honest skepticism stands in the way of a relationship with religious matters. Skeptics, in his experience as in mine, can be too scrupulous about what they might have to believe if they want to express their longing for the divine in their life. They stumble over ideas like the Resurrection of the Dead and the Virgin Birth, as though by willpower they could accept those things as True, if only they could turn off their minds. Not being able to, they deprive themselves of what the church can offer in the way of community, ritual, and a meaningful life. But maybe there's a better way--

     In the first place, Adams says we could usefully recall that when, in reciting the Nicene Creed, we say "I believe", the Latin original is not "opinor", belief as one would believe that two plus two make four, but "credo", literally, to set one's heart on. It's the kind of faith one has in a spouse, or in the Constitution, compounded of longing, hope, and commitment. Within such faith, there's plenty of room for doubt, because finding out what's true by testing it against our experience can only bring us closer to what is trustworthy.

     In the second place, the form of religion often comes before the content. We submit to rituals that seem the best way to mark transitions, and gradually live our way into the realities these things represent. Perfect congruence between word and behavior is a rarity at the best of times, and sometimes the words come first. As for faith itself, maybe we're not naturally cut out for it. Adams cites First Corinthians thus: "If faith is a gift that not everybody receives, then nobody has a reason for feeling guilty about not having faith and nobody can be blamed for not having faith."

     And, in the third place, I was happy to learn, the idea of treating the Bible as a source of literal historical and scientific truth is a very recent development, little more than a century old. The strain of Christianity we know as Fundamentalism actually arose as a reaction to critical studies of the Bible, which in the eighteenth century began to unpack the linguistic and editorial history of ancient writings. We are inevitably working from imperfect translations, of works that originated in languages and cultures very different from our own.

     In his latest book, From Literal to Literary, Adams gives us some tools for delving back into the metaphors and images of biblical language; he also keeps an eye on the interests and prejudices of the recent translators whose work we actually have in our hands. Different occurrences of a single English word may conflate a handful of different ideas from the original language; it also happens that the translators get carried away with elegant variation, so that we lose the thread carried by a single original word. The evidence is compelling: Adams cites chapter and verse, and provides ample cross-referencing, and several useful indexes.

     Erudition aside, he is also still at his work of softening our tendency to get stuck in literalizing what were meant to be metaphors. "You can be a follower of Jesus without thinking that 'heaven' is a place, that a 'son' has to be a biological relative, or that 'dead' necessarily refers to the condition you're in when the undertaker comes for you." It is a happy paradox that introducing intellectual distance of this kind can bring us closer to the good news we can set our hearts on.

Voices, November 2006

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Between, Georgia

Between, Georgia
Joshilyn Jackson (2006, Warner Books)

A year or so ago, I raved about gods in Alabama, Jackson's first book, and I loved this one too. She has a great gift for storytelling, and for characterising both people and places.
'Between' is a tiny Georgia town, so called because it is halfway between Athens and Atlanta. It's a pretty little place, with a town square full of shops and offices, the kind of place where two sixty-five-year-old ladies can nurse a cordial dislike that goes back sixty years or so. Our narrator and heroine, Nonny Frett is the adopted niece of one of these ladies, and the natural granddaughter of the other, so she knows their battleground intimately.
Eustacia Frett, the mother who claimed Nonny from the foyer floor where she was born, was herself born deaf, and became blind in middle age, as a consequence of Usher's syndrome. Her sweet but intensely neurotic sister Eugenia lives with her, serving as her eyes and ears, and the two of them make old-fashioned porcelain dolls. Their older sister Bernese lives next door with her husband and children, and manages the doll business.
The Fretts are proud tee-total Baptists; Nonny was born to the teenage daughter of their neighbor Ona Crabtree, who drinks to excess and keeps vicious dogs. "The Fretts were meticulous, order incarnate. The Crabtrees lived in unimaginable squalor. The Fretts lived within convention and tradition, while the Crabtrees spread like kudzu, generating chaos and more Crabtrees, generally without benefit of marriage."
At the time of the novel, Nonny is working as a sign language interpreter in Athens, and waffling about dissolving a ten-year marriage to the sexy, but feckless and unfaithful, Jonno. A rise in temperature between the Fretts and the Crabtrees back home in Between proves a powerful distraction, and the story takes off from there.
Jackson shows great narrative skill, telling us things through Nonny's eyes that she can't quite see herself, so that the story unfolds in a way that rewards a second reading. She also shows how Nonny manages to integrate the two sides of her heritage--a task that falls to most people at some point, but not always out of such apparently diverse material. What the two tribes have in common, in the end, is a fierce dedication to defending their own; that's how feuds go on for so long, isn't it, but it also points the way to Nonny's heart's desire.
Happy reading--