Thursday, April 24, 2014

Book Review Learning to Walk in the Dark

Last Spring after Easter I tried an experiment. While walking one evening on the road behind our house I decided to close my eyes and "see" would happen. Just for a few minutes of course. It was strange. The road is more or less straight except for a sharp bend at one point and there are few cars that drive on it so I knew I'd be safe. I walked close to the edge of the road so as not to walk in the middle. It was surreal. Every twenty paces or so I opened my eyes just to see where I was on the road. I was also tempted to put my hands in front of me as if I were trying to feel my way through a room, talking about dumb! I tried to walk with my eyes closed to "see" what it might feel like being blind. Of course I am not blind and could never fully identify like that, but I was planning my sermon on the story of the man born blind in John chapter 9 and I wanted to have a similar experience. I wanted to see how it feels like to walk and not know what if anything is in front of you. I wanted to walk trying to figure out where I was headed. I noticed that I heard more birds and heard the wind rush through the Spring wheat. I felt the breeze on my skin and felt the warmth of the sun on my face. My other senses kicked in even though I couldn't see in front of me. Walking in the dark, not so easy. After my mini-experiment I was very grateful for my eyesight even though I now have to use reading glasses, a mandatory purchase after you turn forty I guess!

Dark and darkness is the theme for Barbara Brown Taylor's new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark (Harper One, 2014). I fell in love with Taylor's previous books especially her early sermon collections as well as her recent best-sellers Leaving Church and An Altar in the World. She has such a wonderful writing style, informative and conservational yet provides enough information for the reader to ponder and wonder about long after the first reading. When reading Taylor's books you feel like she is right in the room with you, guiding and leading you along with the material. As a pastor, preacher, and teacher Taylor is certainly using her gifts to share her well earned knowledge with the rest of us. I certainly will use some of her stories and examples in future sermons, maybe even when I return to the man born blind again later this year.

Learning to Walk in the Dark is an exploration of the theme of darkness. Her main thesis is that for many Christians darkness and "the dark" is associated with bad things; the "secular world" (darkness) vs. the Kingdom of God (light), or good (light) vs. bad/evil (darkness), as well as other examples. She says, very funnily I should add, that many Christians live in what she terms "full solar Christianity" which translates as just pray and you'll be fine as well as other self-righteous sayings and behaviors. I never had a full solar Christian experience. My entire life from college to seminary to graduate school to full time parish ministry has been one long walk in the dark. I was comforted reading the Thomas Merton poem that ends the book since someone gave me a copy of that poem long ago and I refer to it often. I do not know what tomorrow will bring or the day after so I must take each day as it comes, the good, the bad, and often the ugly. I am unsure about so many things and even after all these years of parish ministry I have more questions than answers. Taylor reminds her readers that this is perfectly normal. Walking in darkness is not a bad thing, it embraces the mystery of life.

The book is divided into nine chapters each dealing with a particular theme such as dark emotions, walking in a cave, the famous dark night of the soul of John of the Cross, as well as experiencing how the blind feel and act. Perhaps the most scary chapter for me was reading about her experience exploring a cave. I've been on large caverns before on tours but never explored a real cave with water, small rooms, and totally dark. The caves that I have been to were all tourist attractions. I cannot imagine trying to squeeze through those tiny crevices and duck down through those holes. Not only that but Taylor and her guide were talking in the dark expect for their flashlights and head lamps. This was certainly an act of faith on her part.

This is a short book but one that has to be read again and again to get the full effect. I found myself reading quickly and then stopping to re-read the chapter. Learning to Walk in the Dark would also be a good read for a parish book club or adult education class

For more information about Learning to Walk in the Dark click here 

For more information about Barbara Brown Taylor and her other books click here