We have had to wait a long time for a new book by Barbara Brown Taylor, and I'm happy to say, her new book is worth the wait. Learning to Walk in the Dark explores the ways that Christianity, and much of modern life, has prioritized the light and demonized the dark. In this book, Brown explores the dark.
Brown refers to the literature that through the years has told us that the light is better, but this book is not a work of literary scholarship. Brown looks at her own life history, as well as the history of the universe. I loved the parts of the book where she explains astronomy and the passage of light through space and time. She utilizes other sciences to explain how our bodies respond to light, but her work is not focused exclusively on humans. There's a poignant story about a stranded sea turtle, for example.
She also seeks out experiences that will plunge her into darkness. I found her exploration of a cave to be quite evocative. On this trip, she finds a wonderful stone, a stone that looks ordinary in broad daylight, but quite magical in the darkness of the cave.
From this experience comes one of the central lessons of the book: "While I am looking for something large, bright, and unmistakably holy, God slips something small, dark, and apparently negligible in my pocket. How many other treasures have I walked right by because they did not meet my standards? At least one of the day's lessons is about learning to let go of my bright ideas about God so that my eyes are open to the God who is" (p. 131).
Many of her experiences lead her away from organized religion, and if you've read her other works, this direction will not come as a surprise. She says, "I do not believe I am describing a loss of faith in God here. Instead, I believe I am describing a loss of faith in the system that promised to help me grasp God not only by setting my feet on the right track but also by giving me the right language, concepts, and tolls to get a hook in the Real Thing when I found it" (p. 140).
I like her commentary on this loss: "There is no permanently safe place to settle. I will always be at sea, steering by the stars. Yet as dark as this sounds it provides great relief, because it now sounds truer than anything that came before" (p. 140). Like her, I find this vision oddly comforting.
She has already described a sort of sunshine Christianity that so often fails believers when the truly devastating life events fall on our heads. She gives an alternate view early in the book: "Meanwhile, here is some good news you can use: even when light fades and darkness falls--as it does every single day, in every single life--God does not turn the world over to some other deity. Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. There is a divine presences that transcends all your ideas about it, along with all your language for calling it to your aid . . . " (pp. 15-16).
If you are drawn to spiritual memoirs, I predict you'll find much to love in this book. It's a great book for writers, as she approaches the subject of darkness from many angles. A caveat: if you're the kind of reader who cannot abide any reference to God, this book is not for you. It's firmly rooted in the spiritual realm, but it's a spirituality that most of us will not find difficult to dwell within/beside as we read the book.
My thoughts have returned to this book many times as I was reading it and since I finished. It's a wonderful book, in that you can dip in and out of it without losing the thread, and I suspect it will reward those of us who return to it through the years. We're not in a dark time of the year, in terms of the season and the sun, but go ahead and add this one to your summer reading list.
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