An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor

Summary: Finding spiritual practices for those that have become dead to spiritual practices.

One of the problems for me in loving Amazon and enjoying book reviews, is that there is always five recommendations for every book that I actually read. The more I read, the more I see that I want to read. One of those authors that has been on my radar for a while is Barbara Brown Taylor. A number of my “˜reading friends’ rate her very highly.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a former Episcopal priest, turned professor. It is hard not compare her writing style and voice to Anne Lamott. They both are around the same age, female, and disgruntled with a church that they still feel drawn to and love in spite of themselves. Their memoir-y writing styles are not completely different.

An Altar in the World is semi-autobiographical, but it is less memoir than recounting what it is like to find spiritual practices outside the church that connect us with God. Parts of this were very good. But parts of it just seemed a stretch for me. I have been interested in finding God through the spiritual practices within the church, the historic ones that have not been a part of my Christian journey. Mostly this book is about finding God in the every day and ordinary.

The best parts of the book for me were those that were more focused on the body and slowing down. Regardless of the focus, these are important. We are bodies, that also have an eternal component. Not eternal souls that happened to have a body and would be better off without it. Jesus was a real physical tangible physical presences, fully human. And part of being Christian is accepting that the body is important to our Christianity, in all of its weaknesses and strengths and strangeness. And she does point out some of the strangeness of being the image of God with a body.

As I was glancing around at reviews on Goodreads, I noticed a couple of comments about how Barbara Brown Taylor speaks about poverty, but is not poor or how the sections on doing physical labor as a spiritual practice make sense for a college professor or pastor, but not for a carpenter. Both are true, this is a book that is written to middle or upper middle class educated people. We need books that are written to particular people because we are particular people. It is good to acknowledge that we are not the intended audience of some books. And good for authors to be aware of their limitations, but every book cannot be for every person. The particularity is often what makes books so important to those that are of that particular type.

Particularity is also why I have made it a spiritual practice to read books that are not written for me. I intentionally read books that are written for Catholics or Episcopals or Eastern Orthodox because I am not any of those things. I read books (although probably not enough) written by women, by people that live outside the US, by people with different levels of education or income or life experience because the difference is part of what allows me to know that “˜I am not God’. My experience is not universal in the world. The world is not a setting for a novel about me. I am a character in other people’s stories.

Barbara Brown Taylor is not revolutionary here, or at least it does not seem revolutionary to me as I am reading this. There are a number of books that are pointing out how and why we should be finding God in the everyday. And a number of books about those that have been harmed by (or just bored with) the church. The writing is good and I know many have loved this and her other books.

I commented on another book review a few days ago that we Evangelicals are good pendulum people. We like to swing back and forth between extremes. I think Barbara Brown Taylor was a good voice speaking to the extreme of only finding God through the church. She is not a “˜spiritual but religious’ advocate, but I think many that like that label would like her writing. So only 5 years after this book was originally published, it feels a bit dated to me.

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