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An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith Paperback – Deckle Edge, February 9, 2010
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“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)
From the Back Cover
In her critically acclaimed Leaving Church ("a beautiful, absorbing memoir"—The Dallas Morning News), Barbara Brown Taylor wrote about her experience leaving full-time ministryto become a professor, a decision that stretched the boundaries of her faith. Now, in her stunning follow-up, An Altar in the World, she shares how she learned to encounter God far beyond the walls of the church.
Taylor reveals meaningful ways to discover the sacred in the small things we do and see, from simple practices such as walking, working, and prayer. Something as ordinary as hanging clothes on a clothesline becomes an act of meditation if we pay attention to what we're doing and take time to notice the sights, smells, and sounds around us. Making eye contact with the cashier at the grocery store becomes a moment of true human connection. Allowing yourself to get lost leads to new discoveries. As we incorporate these practices into our daily lives, we begin to discover altars everywhere we go, in nearly everything we do. Through Taylor's expert guidance and delicate, thought-provoking prose, we learn to live with purpose, pay attention, slow down, and revere the world we live in.
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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.
I think the introduction itself is a classic, which I wish I could have read and appreciated many years ago. It begins with a discussion about the all too commonplace platitude about being "spiritual but not religious." What I like is that she explores the messiness of the word "spiritual," and how she does it. She writes about spirituality for many as a longing for "more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life." The way to find that more, she believes, is not in pilgrimages to India, mission trips to Belize, or hours of fervent prayer. That more, she affirms, is available to every one of us, and is indeed actually within us. Indeed, she writes, "The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the everyday activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives." So how do we uncover and develop this untapped resource? Through "practices." Each one of the succeeding twelve chapters is about practices.
Chapter one is about "The Practice of Waking Up to God." Taylor begins this most engaging book with a reflection on the fact, which many Christians don't seem to either know or care about, that the entire world is, to use the Jewish word that has come into common English usage, in the United States at least, "Bethel": the house of God. She asks a very disarming question here which should make all of us pause. "Do we build God a house in lieu of having God stay at ours?" That is truly a question to think long and had about. But at the same time, she points to another big problem for many Christians in our day: we attend churches that have divided our bodies from our souls and the church from the world. These divisions, whether we realize it or not, renders creation bad, which drives us inward, away from the world. Finally, the introduction points to a truth that needs to be driven home relentlessly: Wisdom is not about knowing what is right, but rather practicing what is right.
Following chapters deal with the practices of: paying attention, reverence; wearing skin, incarnation; walking on the earth, groundedness; getting lost, wilderness; encountering others, community; living with purpose, vocation; saying no, sabbath; carrying water, physical labor; feeling pain, breakthrough; being present to God, praying; and pronouncing blessings, benediction.
As I often do, I kept track of the writers Taylor cited. In addition to many of the usual suspects, she included references to Georgia O'Keefe, hymn writer Brian Wren, Rumi, Jonathan Swift, Alexis de Tocqueville, Louis L'Amour and her fellow writer-farmer Wendell Berry. Non-Christian writers cited included Rumi, Thich Nhat Hanh, Chief Rabbi of Britain Jonathan Sacks, Abraham Heschel--a usual suspect, but I encourage people to read him every chance I get--and the Bhagavad Gita, among others. But she also cited the film "My Life as a Dog," and the fictional character and novel namesake Zorba the Greek. Wisdom is found in all sorts of places.
There are so many things I could highlight here, but I will confine myself to one. Rabbi Sacks teaches her something important about community. The Hebrew Bible, he explains, commands in one verse that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. But, he points out, there are no fewer than thirty-six places that command us to love the stranger, that is, the people who are not part of "us," however we define that. There is a practice we ALL need to work on.
The last chapter, on the practice of pronouncing blessings, also deserves a special mention because it is something that most people never even thing of doing, much less do. Barbara Brown Taylor teaches us that we all can pronounce blessings, and encourages us to do it. (I have tried this with a couple of my friends who are frequently in need of encouragement, and have found it can be a very moving experience for both sides of the blessing!) In particular, among lots of wonderful tales about blessings in the lives of some of the saints and sages she writes about, Taylor makes three powerful points about blessings. First, a blessing does not confer holiness, it only acknowledges the holiness that is already there in all of us. Second, we have to get over drawing lines between what is good for us and what is bad. She tells us to pronounce a blessing not only when we win the lottery, but when we break a bone too. We don't the wisdom to know what will turn out to our good or bad. Third, we should not count on ordained ministers to pronounce blessings, we should all engage in that practice. She ends with a particularly touching story about the power of benediction that I will not spoil, but only say that it is one of the most powerful stories in the book, and it is all hers.
As it happens, and without any plan on my part, I have read Barbara Brown Taylor during a period in which I read, among other books, articles, and essays, books by Rachel Marie Stone, Sarah Bessy, Rachel Held Evans, Esther De Waal, and Christine Pohl. All of these women write about different things. But each of these amazing women, in her own way, whether directly or not, provides a powerful testimony to the importance of being present and mindful always, where we are, and with whom we are at that precise place and time. It is there and then that we can and should, if we are faithful to our baptism, carry out both of the great commandments.*An Altar in the World* happens to be a book that addresses these things quite directly. Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us in this book that we belong to a priesthood of all believers, and that we are always at the altar, no matter where we are or what else we are doing.
This books helps us to be better children of God, better neighbors--to those we know and love and to strangers too--and to be better priests too. I love having Barbara Brown Taylor for a teacher, a preacher, and a companion along the Way.