Sunday, April 5, 2009

"An Altar in the World"--a Book for the Non-Theology Minded Creative Type?

I've often wondered if it's possible to write a book of theology that appeals to believers and non-believers alike. With Barbara Brown Taylor's latest book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, might be that book.

Much of what she says is useful to creative people, who are just as vulnerable to the sickness of busyness that afflicts the culture as anyone else is. Her chapter on keeping the Sabbath has valuable insights for creative people, believers and non-believers both, as does the chapter that comes before it, the one that explores the practice of living with purpose.

Taylor notes, "As much as most of us complain about having too much to do, we harbor some pride that we are in such demand" ( page 122). She advocates saying no to various commitments, to carving out a hollow space where we might encounter the Divine. She says, "I know that saying no is a more difficult spiritual practice than tithing, praying on a cold stone floor, or visiting a prisoner on death row . . . " (page 125). She muses, "It is hard to understand why so many people put 'Thou shalt not do any work' in a different category from 'Thou shalt not kill' or 'Thou shalt have no other gods before me,' especially since those teaching are all on the same list" (page 139).

She points out, "If Bible lovers paid as much attention to Leviticus 25 as to Leviticus 18, then we might discover that God is at least as interested in economics as in sex" (131). Indeed, I count about 12 Bible passages in the whole Bible that are about sex of some sort, while there are thousands of passages that discuss economic justice.

Taylor writes beautifully, poetically. She says, "Sabbath is the great equalizer, the great reminder that we do not live on this earth but in it, and that everything we do under the warming tent of this planet's atmosphere affects all who are woven into this web with us. Just because the land and the livestock cannot hire lawyers does not mean they have not been violated" (page 132). Don't you love that alliteration? I'm always such a sucker for thrilling alliteration.

I imagine that some of the chapters of this book might be off-putting for non-believers, but since the book primarily discusses discovering the Divine outside of church buildings, I thought I'd take a risk and recommend it. Taylor talks about being invited to speak at an Alabama church. When she asks what she should talk about, she's told, "Come tell us what is saving your life now" (page xv).

That might make an interesting writing assignment, an interesting vocational emphasis.

This week is one of those interesting weeks where various religious high holy days intersect (Today Palm Sunday begins the Holy Week that will culminate in Easter Sunday, and Passover starts on Thursday). For years, I wasn't much of a churchgoer, but I was in tune to these rhythms that filled me with a sort of longing (Taylor says, "No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it" page xiv-xv). I wish for all of us a chance to think in meaningful ways about bondage, escape, exile and homecoming, about redemption and salvation, about the ways these stories and our stories are still relevant in the world.

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