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An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith Paperback – Deckle Edge, February 9, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Author of an acclaimed memoir (Leaving Church) and a gifted preacher, Taylor is one of those rare people who truly can see the holy in everything. Since everyone should know such a person, those who don't can—no, must—read this book, with its friendly reminders of everyday sacred. Taylor's 12 chapters mine the potentially sacred meaning of simple daily activities and conditions, like walking, paying attention, saying no to work one Sabbath day each week. Hanging laundry is setting up a prayer flag, for God's sake. Since Taylor, an Episcopal priest, no longer pastors a church, she can "do church" everywhere: in line at the grocery store interacting with the cashier, walking a moonlit path with her husband. Her candor is another of the book's virtues: she is a failure at prayer, and cannot explain why or how it is, or isn't, answered ("I do not know any way to talk about answered prayer without sounding like a huckster or a honeymooner"). Savor this book. (Feb.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
“This is the most completely beautiful book in religion that I have read in a very long time. Gentle, humbly crafted, lyrical, and deeply wise, Altar is Barbara Brown Taylor as she was meant to be, a pastor who understands that knowing God occurs in a place beyond theology.” (Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence)
“This book is the most practical but everyday mystical book I have read on spiritual practices.” (Kate Campbell, singer-songwriter)
“Elegant, wise, and insightful, this book is also sacramental: it mediates the life it describes.” (Marcus Borg, author of Jesus)
“An Altar in the World is about how faith can be both practical and sensuous. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s hands, the old division between heaven and earth is healed and both come alive. Your mind, your body and your soul will be well fed by this wonderful book.” (Nora Gallagher, author of Things Seen and Unseen and Changing Light)
“Taylor writes fluently, with an eye and ear for the striking image and memorable phrase. Many readers, especially the vast numbers of the “unchurched” but “spiritual,” will find support and useful counsel.” (Library Journal)
“[A] lovely book. One of the best-known preachers in the country offers equal amounts of wisdom and erudition spent longing for more meaning, more feeling, more connection.” (Booklist)
“Taylor’s spiritual reflections are original, bringing fresh air to her topics because her spirituality is steeped in everyday life while illuminated by the ancient Christian spiritual tradition.” (National Catholic Reporter)
“The author seems simply incapable of writing a bad book. . . . Taylor is a great gift to the Christian church. And this volume, which focuses on spiritual practices, simply adds to her growing reputation.” (Kansas City Star)
“Taylor is one of those rare people who truly can see the holy in everything. . . . Savor this book.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“She’s deliberately exploring the turf where our feet hit the floorboards each morning - and where the day takes us into the world. Even if you’re not a Christian, you’ll find a wise friend in Barbara’s book.” (Read the Spirit)
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Her most recent writings have a very different feel to them and are more like collections of essays than the sermon collections of the past. Taylor wrote a memoir of her shift from parish ministry to teaching in a book entitled “Leaving Church,” and her latest work is “An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith.” These later works seem to target the “spiritual but not religious” segment of the reading public and are filled with the same skilled prose that marked her earlier writings.
“An Altar in the World” reviews a variety of spiritual practices with the laudable goal of showing the reader that “the treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company.” For the author, “there is no spiritual treasure to be found apart from the bodily experiences of human life on the earth.” She states, “If you have run out of breath yourself—or out of faith—then this book is for you.” Her hope for the book is that it will help the reader “recognize some of the altars in this world—ordinary looking places where human beings have met and may continue to meet up with the divine More that they sometimes call God.”
Taylor is very comfortable writing about themes in spirituality from a progressive viewpoint. In an interview given in 2000, she observed, “I am on the edge of Christianity, and I expect to get a letter telling me I’ve been kicked out any day. But my choice, at this point in my life, is to practice the religion of Jesus instead of the religion about Jesus.” And yet I perceive that by moving to what she calls the “edge” she has lost some of her distinctive voice and fallen in with the largely homogenized voices of progressive Christianity. By striving to become edgy she has become—somewhat ironically—conventional.
I think that a certain text from this work provides a litmus test of how you will feel about the book. Take a look at the following extract from the essay, “The Practice of Wearing Skin”:
“One of the most remarkable conversations I have ever had about the physics of divine love took place in a far country, where a male colleague and I were involved in a month-long service project. We were done with our work for the day. We were enjoying a good dinner over a bottle of equally good wine. After two glasses of it, the conversation turned to our physical attraction—not for each other, but for God. Sometimes, he said, when he was preaching a sermon he really cared about, he grew so aware of God’s presence that he became physically aroused. He rose to God’s presence as to the presence of the Beloved. His sense of spiritual intimacy flowed straight into his sense of physical intimacy. They were not two but one. He was not two but one. He and God were not two but one.
“Inspired by his divine audacity, I allowed as how I had experienced the same thing myself, although with different physical equipment. Sometimes when I was praying, my body could not tell the difference between that and making love. Every cell in my body rose to the occasion, so that I felt the prayer prick my breasts and warm my belly, lifting every hair on my body in full alert. Body and soul were not two but one. I was not two but one. God and I were not two but one.”
If you find this passage to be exciting and in the best tradition of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, then I think that you will like this book very much. If you are more skeptical about this bit of sharing and think it has more in common with “Eat, Pray, Love,” than with the biblical spirituality of, for example, the Song of Songs, then I recommend that you skip this book in favor of the author’s earlier work.
My goal for this review is to alert the potential reader of this book that the author is in a very different place than when we first met her in “The Preaching Life” or “When God was Silent,” and I am not yet persuaded that this represents a good change. I, for one, lament the loss of the “homiletical restraint” espoused in the author’s earlier work. I know that I am swimming upstream with this review! If you are tempted to move the cursor toward a “not helpful” vote for this review, please consider leaving a comment instead and begin a conversation with me about this author. Or do both. I frequently revise my reviews in light of reader comments and welcome the interaction.
Author Barbara Brown Taylor is an episcopal priest renowned for her preaching, with a good sense of humor, and extensive learning. Her material is not totally original, but it doesn't need to be. It draws the reader in and invites the reader to experiment with the practices. She incorporates teachings from various spiritual traditions, which appealed to this reviewer.
The book should be read slowly, a little at a time, so that the teachings can be savored, considered and tried. It is a good book for pondering, rather than for quick scanning. If you're looking for a book of spiritual teaching which is accessible, down to earth, and thoughtful, this might be just what you're looking for. I recommend it. Reviewed by Louis N. Gruber.
I'm a new fan, but a rabid one!