Series 28: Summer Best of For the Love | Episode 01
[Summer Best of For the Love] Barbara Brown Taylor: Learning to Walk in the Dark
Ever wish you had a toolkit tailor made to get you through 2020? Us too. That’s why we pulled together a few of our favorite teachers who have graced the podcast over the years, so we can brush up on the important lessons they taught us and tools they gave us to meet this moment. First up is the matriarch of our favorite “What is saving your life right now?” question—Barbara Brown Taylor! Barbara is a New York Times bestselling author, teacher, and Episcopal priest, and she came on the show during our “For the Love of Exploring Our Faith” series in 2018. Her book Learning to Walk in the Dark was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine, and in 2014, TIME also included her on its annual list of Most Influential People (PS she also appeared on Super Soul Sunday with Oprah, so no big deal). Long a favorite author of Jen’s, Barbara has a unique way of sharing essential truths about beauty and about God, and shows us that it cannot be contained inside any walls that people build. Her view is that Jesus “placed higher value on human relationships than on religion. He never told His followers to love their religion—just their neighbors, their enemies, and God.”
Producer Laura: Hi, this is Laura, producer of the For the Love Podcast. Welcome to our Summer Best Of series. Jen and the team here at the podcast got together and went through some of our older episodes that we thought really spoke right now to what’s happening and the conversations going on in our country recently. So today’s episode is from a For the Love favorite author, Barbara Brown Taylor. Barbara’s “What is saving your life [right now]?” question is a part of every episode that we have, and we ask every guest that question. And Barbara’s recently been part of a new book compilation edited by Jen’s good friend Sarah Bessey called A Rhythm of Prayer. So please enjoy Barbara’s episode, originally aired in 2018, called “Learning to Walk in the Dark.”
Jen: Hey, everybody, it is Jen Hatmaker. I would love to welcome you to the For the Love Podcast today. We’re in the middle of a series that I am loving, and I know you are, because you’re blowing up my feed about it. It’s called “For the Love of Exploring Our Faith,” and we are hosting some of the most interesting, important spiritual voices of our time, and they’re all over the map, and they’re bringing such wisdom and grace to this podcast, and I am so thrilled to tell you about today’s guest. And you already know it because you’ve already clicked on this link but, we are so lucky to have Barbara Brown Taylor on today.
So, if you don’t know BBT, she is a New York Times best-selling author, and she’s a teacher, she’s an Episcopal priest. Her first memoir, Leaving Church, it won Author of the Year from Georgia Writer’s Association, and her last book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, in 2014, was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. Time also include Barbara in its annual list of most influential people. She’s been on Oprah Super Soul Sundays, and she’s been on faculties of all kinds of places: Piedmont College, Columbia Theological Seminary, Emery, McAfee School of Theology, it just, it goes on and on. Her credentials are really, really long and amazing.
In 2015, she was named Georgia Woman of the Year, 2016, she received the President’s Medal at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. Her work’s been translated into all these languages, and she is just, there’s nobody like her. If you don’t know her yet, you’ll find out what I mean as you listen to this interview, but there’s nobody like her. And her teaching has mattered so much to me, and meant such a great deal to me at such crucial times, and wait ‘til you hear all the bits of wisdom she drops over the course of the next 50 minutes or so. And I’ll just let you know right up front that I end it by crying, and there’s no getting around it. So I suspected that I was going to. I fought it back, but when I tried to thank her for her work, I just couldn’t. Well look, I’m doing it again.
She is so, so special, and so you’re gonna love this conversation. If you don’t already love her, you’re about to. So I’m so thrilled to welcome to the podcast, Barbara Brown Taylor.
I mean this sincerely. Welcome to the show Barbara and you are … you are absolutely and this is true, one of my favorite writers, and my favorite women, and favorite thinkers, and you have been so important to me. You’ve been one of my most important teachers. In fact, I was just talking online about this interview that we were about to start, and I said, “I think I’m probably gonna cry.” I am so, so delighted to meet you, voice to voice. Thank you for being on the show today.
Barbara: I couldn’t be happier, and I can’t wait to meet you this summer at Wild Goose.
Jen: Oh I know, oh my goodness, I’m so excited and I don’t want to be weird but I may just grab you by the hand and pull you into a corner, and hog you for at least an hour. I just want to forewarn you that I’m prepared to behave that way.
Barbara: I’ll have on a red carnation, okay?
Jen: Okay, good, yes perfect. So, I love so many things about who you are and how you lead and teach, and what your life looks like. Specifically what you’ve learned about truth, and beauty, and God, and what you’ve shown us all, but if I can just make it personal, you showed me at a really crucial moment in my faith, that all of God and His beauty, and Jesus and His ways cannot be contained inside any walls that any people built.
I needed to hear that when you said that. And I wonder if, for my listeners that are new to you, can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how—and this is not a short story obviously—but how your faith evolved outside of any constructs that maybe once existed at an earlier point in your life?
Barbara: I can, and probably the first thing to say is, there were no constructs for me growing up around faith, or religion, or God. I had wonderful parents, who were very much involved in academic life, and who’d been very stung by religion earlier, so they did their best to protect their children from religion, which meant I pretty much had to go hunting for the constructs myself. I was the oldest child, and found my first church when I was 16. I visited a lot with friends; you couldn’t help but go with friends. But at any rate, I invented most of the constructs, or absorbed them from the culture, and because I live in the deep south, that is a kind of particular take, that had a lot to do with loud preaching, and sinfulness, and fear.
So, that’s a construct that helped me a lot when I was fearful, but I got kicked out of that church early which I now count as a blessing, so.
Jen: Oh, that’s so interesting. What heinous thing did you do to get kicked out?
Barbara: I invited hippies, there were these … they kept telling me I know, that this was God’s house of prayer for all people, so I found some hippies and brought them there one Sunday night, and that was the end of that, so.
Jen: Well, you know that was a rough time to be in a southern church. They ran a pretty tight ship back then. And so, how did this all begin evolving for you?
Barbara: You know I think I backed through every door that has opened for me in my life, but I was just, I was a geeky college kid, and Vietnam was raging and there had been three assassinations, and the religion professors were the ones who canceled classes and sat out on the quadrangle with us, and drank coffee with us late into the night. So, I decided I wanted to be a religion major. And it just sort of went backwards from there. I went to seminary with no church membership, no intention to be ordained, I loved seminary. Worked as a secretary in another seminary. Just sort of kept backing into different kinds of calls.
Jen: I love that, so it obviously was not, that was not your true north, that you said, “I’m gonna sit out, and I’m gonna be ordained as an Episcopal priest.” I mean, no—so this is where you find yourself. And your work about, sort of moving from the structures and the systems of organized religion, into sort of the more, I don’t know, wide open spaces of the wilderness. At least for me, you’ve given two really important gifts to the world, which for me was language and permission. You put language around my own inner sense of longing for something different, and thinking, “Well surely, this cannot, just cannot, be the beginning and end of it.” You know, this can’t be it. And I’m a pastor’s daughter, and against all reason, I married a pastor.
So, we too have been inside the structure—sincerely, my entire life. So, when you put language around those feelings inside, I thought I was by myself. I didn’t know how many other people there were, wandering out into the great wide open wilderness, and then you gave permission to embrace that, and to find God there, and to be loved. And I mean it changed my life. I really, I really, really mean that seriously. Now listen, I don’t know if you know this or not, but you are a regular fixture on this podcast. I don’t know if my producer told you this or not.
We reference your name and something you’ve asked in every single show, so when we wrap up we ask all of our guests a now very famous question that you first posed. You were the first person that ever said it, where I heard, “What is saving your life right now?” And that’s the final question we ask every guest on this show. The answers we’ve gotten, they’re all over the place. They give us a window into their world, or maybe just into their day. And so of course, we’re gonna have to hear your answer at the end of this show.
You pose that question in one of probably my favorite book of yours, and consequently I read Things on a Border. It was the first book of yours that I read, which was An Altar in the World, you just kind of talk about your salvation journey, and in it you said … I’ve got it open here, right in front of me, and more or less, every other sentence is underlined.
So, that’s how I made my way through this book, I just decided to highlight the whole thing. But you said in there, “My life depends on ignoring all touted distinctions between the secular and the sacred, the physical and the spiritual, the body and the soul. What is saving my life now is becoming more fully human, trusting that there is no way to God, apart from real life in the real world.” I wonder if you could unpack this for those of us who maybe have been making those distinctions and have a hard time sort of unhooking those concepts from one another?
Barbara: I will, and because at this point of my life, I use religious language less and less, I do wanna point out, that’s the most dense confession I have ever made, that the sentence you just read, really to me is what Christian faith has given me. So, there are just lots of kinds of Christianity’s. I guess, because I spent an earlier part of my life in a pretty divided path, in other words, where I was encouraged to keep the sacred apart from the secular, etc. etc. etc., I guess I have a rebellious nature—that just seemed wrong to me. When I read the gospels, and not just the chapter, or last chapters, but when I read the whole gospels, who could have been more invested in physical life on earth than Jesus? I mean, I’ve been preaching lately on “consider the lilies of the field.” The way He could look around and see anything and make it part of what He was talking about.
So, to unpack it, it just seems to me unfaithful to the gospel as I received it to attend only to half of what it means to be human, which is to be an “enfleshed” spirit or a spirited body. I went to a gospel singing convention—first one in my life—a couple of weeks ago. We sang for two and a half hours, and it was all future tense, it was all about heaven. And while it was wonderful, and it was a great step into sort of Southern Christian heritage, I really missed hearing anything about my life now. So, I don’t think I unpacked that very well, but it seems to me as a student of the gospels, it is too easy to think that those are all somehow fake stories about the spirit, and the flesh is just a prop and I don’t believe that.
Jen: I don’t either, and I really appreciate your attention to that storyline, because I sort of grew up in a pretty traditional, also mostly southern church, so I’m really familiar with the constructs that you observed, and also the ones you got kicked out of. I get all of that. I know when I grew up, I was taught both overtly and covertly too, that the world was my enemy. I was to fear the world. And honestly, even my own body. Like my body, the heart is deceitful above all else. My body is some sort of lust machine apparently, to hear my leaders talk about it, and that this earth was just so temporary, that I was supposed to hate it. Yet, that wasn’t what my experience taught me. My experience delighted in the world, and found so much joy and beauty in it, and in other people.
Those were some of the earlier murmurings inside my own soul that felt … those are some of the earliest questions I had about the theology that I grew up in, and wondering if there was not also a sense of holiness in grass, and water and in bare feet. So, reading your work on that, where you just–in no uncertain terms declare it holy, and declare it sacred, and give us permission to just know God in those spaces and be loved by Him, the end, without any doing. is really, really super important.
So, speaking of moving a little bit from the “doing” parts of faith, your life has obviously shifted from working and leading at the center of the church community, to working with students of many faiths, students of no faith, and you said this—you said, “I find myself equally at home with the religious, the spiritual but not religious, the humanist, the agnostic, and the atheist, as long as they’re not combative since I’m too quick tempered to resist a fight.”
First of all, thank you for saying that. I burn pretty hot. I love this ease that you have, this comfortable, like un-self-conscious ease of getting in the middle of discussions like this that explore faith from a lot of different directions, and that aren’t gonna shake your core beliefs, or discombobulate you in a way that fear culture tells us it will. You know, that’s what we are told is, “well that’s slippery slope, ” you know, “if you open up that discussion, or is you listen to somebody else’s perspective.” I wonder if you can talk to us about moving, from working in those more familiar traditionally Christian environments, and then what it was like to work in a deeper way with people who don’t believe the same way you do?
Barbara: Yeah, I can do that, in my favorite Episcopal church on a Sunday morning, I can look left and look right and see two people who don’t believe the way I do. So, I don’t have to go very far, but I also, I don’t wanna lie here. I want first of all, to say that to have some of those conversations we’ve been warned about, really did shake my faith. Really did challenge my core beliefs, you know really did move things around. I wanna be honest about that, because it’s part of the risk I think I’m called to take, in any kind of search for truth—never mind sacred truth—that if I’m not willing to be upset, and rearranged and taken apart, then how willing am I really to be redeemed?
So, I don’t wanna lie that the difficult conversations come without risks. They come with a great deal of risk. I’ve come to think of the risk as holy as well. And that if I’m not shaken up from time to time, I’m probably not listening hard enough to what other people are telling me. And you say you run hot, I do too, and there are certain people, get me in a room with, and I’ve gotta really work on my spiritual disciplines of breathing, and listening, and loving my neighbor.
Jen: Thank you for saying that about those conversations. That’s honestly true, you’re right that exposure to our neighbor and to other people, it can shake us up, but that’s not bad. That’s not to be feared, and there can be something, just to use an old church term, really sanctifying about that, and that deeply works in our soul and begins to mold and shape our faith in wonderful ways—in amazing new ways—so, I appreciate your honesty about that.
So, I read that one of the hardest things for you, is when you were asked to do public speaking away from home. I identify with this so much. You say that during trouble, and suffering, and heartache, people often expect the person at the microphone to have the solutions. And I relate to this feeling, and I also relate to the feeling of wanting to give those solutions. Wanting to be the person with answers, and sort of a helper in the room, but you say you don’t have solutions. So, how I wonder, do you curb that tendency that so many of us have, to give, “Here’s three steps of advice I will give you, and if you do this, this, maybe you can get some sort of guaranteed outcome.” I wonder how you’ve learned to approach the microphone solution-less as it is?
Barbara: First question to you: what is your birth order in your family, Jen?
Jen: Not surprising, I’m first.
Barbara: How did I know that?
Barbara: How did I recognize a kindred soul, yeah? Yeah, I think that question came from an oldest child to an oldest child. So, I don’t know about you but I have a lot of resentful younger sisters because I was early on put in charge of them, and not only give them advice but keep them from falling out of trees, and dating boys, and a whole lot of other things. So, I think they were my good early teachers, not that I’ve learned the lesson at all, but it was disrespectful on my part to do their work for them. It was disrespectful for me to substitute my life and my wisdom for theirs, and I’m still working on that one. I moved out of a family structure into church structure, I realized how often I was being asked to pour oil on waters that I thought the Holy Spirit had ruffled, and that seemed also not a terrific thing.
So, I hope I’ve gotten more and more able to recognize people who really need a stretcher. They really need somebody to lean on, pick them up, hold them, and I hope I can tell the difference between that and hitch hikers, because there are a lot of spiritual hitch hikers out there too who want somebody else to do their work, who want to take your advice, and they’ll work it until they want something different, and then they’ll go find advice from somebody else. But often, that’s a strategy for spiritual bypassing I think. It’s a way of not getting down to the business of giving your own advice, of finding your own wisdom.
I’m always in danger of sounding too individualistic, because I get plenty of wisdom from the community, but there’s hard work nobody else can do for us, and I think the constant going from work shop to work shop, and week end to week end, and book to book is fine when you’re hurting, and limping. And I’ve gone to sleep a lot of times at night listening to a book on tape. But then, when I’m a little stronger, it’s time to do my work, and nobody else can do it for me.
Jen: Oh, I just wrote that down. That is, it’s funny, because even as I sometimes struggle as the person to whom so many people turn for that counsel, as you’re describing that, I realize that sometimes I too, I want the easy out. I want somebody else to tell me what to do, and to sort of mark my path for me, as opposed to doing the internal work, which is way harder. Way, way harder, and lonelier. And I think that’s one of its deterrents is, how many of us sincerely want to work through our own pain internally. So, I appreciate that wise counsel, and we just don’t hear that very often. I do not hear that from my teachers very often, like “this is your work.”
But going back to your story, I know in the early 90s, and of course you’ve written about this, you and your husband Ed made this super intentional decision to leave the city, in order to live closer to the land. Which you write about, as honestly, as beautifully as any writer on the face of the earth. And I’ve heard you in fact say, that the land is your heaven on earth, where you live. So, I wonder if you could tell us about that decision, and where you went, where you ended up going, and even what the whole, not just geographical change, but the lifestyle shift looked like. How did that location change ultimately affect your perspective, your teaching, all of it?
Barbara: It did. Ed is my, you know, my partner, so a lot of this had to do with him. And it happened on a walk 25 years ago around a city park where we lived, and he’s 14 years my elder, and he looked up at the sky, and we realized neither of us knew what phase the moon was in. He said, “you know, if I don’t leave here, I’m gonna die a lot sooner than I have to.” That was the beginning of, “Okay, let’s start looking for where we’re gonna move.” But we did intentionally leave. We interviewed two parts of Georgia. We both had family densely populated here, so we couldn’t, didn’t wanna leave the state.
But it has been an amazing transformation. I worked 10 years in a downtown church where my vocabulary was very much about AIDS and homelessness, and the corridors of power in Atlanta, and affordable housing. And I wanted to skip right over the suburbs and go to a small rural county and see how cows, and pig farms, farmland might change the way the gospel sounded. And maybe would change the way I sounded.
So, the shift, I thought about this question first of all to be in the presence of nature writ large over which we had very little control. So I remember the first frost when the peaches were already in bloom, and it froze outside. So, Ed went out and built fires all through the orchard, and was other there wafting warm smoke, trying to save the peaches. We’ve given up on that now. You just don’t get peaches that year.
Life and death, you know, the chickens that I raise from little hatchlings, and then a hawk just swoops down one day and carries them off. Caring for animals whose water needs to have the ice broken off of it. Elemental—I hadn’t thought of that word ‘til now. It was a move to a more elemental life, and a life more face to face with things beyond my own—where I really could tend the garden, but I couldn’t bring anything in it to fruition all by myself. So, a much greater sense of my place in the family of things. You know the wonderful poem by Mary Oliver, Wild Geese. And it ends with sort of discovering your place in the family of things. And I found that here in a different way. You know, not better than, worse than, but in a different way that I did in the city, so I’m glad I’ve had both.
Jen: Yeah, me too. I again, that just sort of circles back around to one of our earlier points which is that, the world is profoundly holy, and there is so much to be discovered in it, and our place in it, and what our limits are in it. To me, when you talk about that, it deeply challenges sort of the American Protestant work ethic that says, “With just enough hard work, we can literally pull off anything.” You know, we can control it, we can shape it, and that’s obviously not true, and leaves us with so much disappointment, both spiritual and experiential, but the earth teaches us a different story. It really does, and it’s a good one, and it’s good to feel … have a right place in the world.
To me, that’s a relief. That doesn’t make me feel small and insignificant, it makes me feel relieved, to just be this one simple part of this big wonderful story that I didn’t craft, and I didn’t start, and I’m not gonna finish. I love your teaching on that. That helped me re-center my position in a way that almost no other teaching has done.
So, the book that you wrote in 2014, Learning to Walk In the Dark, that one had quite a reach. And that book got a lot of attention from some really important people in places. I mean, Time Magazine did a cover story on it, which is no small deal. It was on the cover of Time Magazine for crying out loud. Obviously Oprah had you on, on Super Soul Sundays.
That book and your subsequent pieces that you did on it, helped us take a pretty good look at our view of darkness. Especially those of us from the church who you say, “Never have anything nice to say about darkness.” Said, “From earliest times, Christians have used darkness as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death.” Which, you’re absolutely right.
So, you assert that there’s a problem categorizing darkness as inherently bad, but rather, you talk about this really beautiful concept of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season. I found this really fresh and innovative, and refreshing teaching, as a way to view both the light and the dark times of our lives. Can you talk a little bit about this, about what you learned and what you sort of posited towards your readers and the world?
Barbara: Yes, and I learned a lot about that book, by talking to other people about it. I took it on—I think the pastor in me has never retired—so I’m always listening to what troubles people, and being lost came up a lot. You know, can’t see where I’m going, don’t know where the church is going, don’t know where my life is going. So, it seemed to me that it was time to take that on. Gosh, did I learn a lot from literally blind people, from people of color, from all kinds of people about what a sticky piece of tape the words are. Dark and darkness mean such different things to different people.
So, I took it on that way, but I learned about the moon in my front yard, that it was a much more accurate reflection of my soul, than full sun, which was frankly just a lie. That was just a pretense. To pretend to be fully solar, was just to hide out a lot, to not let people see a bunch about me. So, the idea of waxing and waning, as you said a moment ago, was just so deeply relieving. It was like when God showed Job the universe, after 37 chapters of Job’s breast beating—which he had every right—it was still a real relief to be rescued from the center of the universe. I think there’s something about the moon that comes and goes to identify with that gives me a much more realistic place to shine and go dark before God, in a good way and not a bad way.
Jen: I can hardly think of anybody else that I’ve heard teach that. A lot of our teachers will tell us to sort of, and I’m guilty of this too, just sort of hang on in the dark and we’re gonna learn a lot in the dark, but the end game there is that the sun is gonna rise again. But, I really appreciate that you sort of guide us into what I means to sit in that and to rejoice in it, honestly, and to notice the beautiful portions of what the dark looks like, instead of just always bad and evil.
Barbara: I think Christians come honestly by our view of darkness, because Christian scripture is full of it. And so’s the first testament of the Bible. So, we come by it honestly, and one thing you said, “if I learn this in my front yard,” one thing you said is exactly true. The sun does come up again. And the moon does cycle around again, so I don’t think those teachers are wrong. But I do think there’s a way to be in the darkness that’s not all gritting teeth and closing eyes, and taking Ambiens. There’s probably another way to deal with the darkness.
So, I don’t want to dispense with things we’ve been taught. It’s not a pleasant place, but to begin to go voluntarily into it, on a regular basis, is really helpful when it comes involuntarily. When it comes to visit and I didn’t choose it, I’m better equipped when I do choose, to sit there quietly. Because in many ways, God’s job with me is to break my heart and tranquilize my ego, and both where I live and do that as well as anything.
Jen: One thing that you taught through that, which it seems so obvious when I hear it, except it’s just, it’s not a way. I just follow along a very deeply entrenched path of thinking about that metaphor. The way that I’ve always sort of considered it, and been handed it, and taught it my own self, but you know in some ways, and at night, night is deeply wonderful. It’s restful. It’s our time for our bodies to rest and rejuvenate and renew, and that’s a wonderful part of the dark. And again chosen, as you mentioned, when we willingly sort of put ourselves to bed, for a season, for a cycle, I think that is also a really healthy way to think about darkness, which isn’t necessarily tinged with suffering, but tinged with rest. Something I’m terrible about, and you probably are better, but we’re first-borns, which just means I’m just accustomed to doing. That’s my way, and that’s my type. I’m learning what it means to say, “this needs to be a season of rest because nobody can be awake for six straight days. That’s unhealthy for the body.” I just think you brought a lot of nuance to that concept and allowed me to think about … I like how you called it a sticky piece of tape. That word. Because it is, it’s more than one thing. It’s not just sort of this carte blanche sense of suffering, that I think even I’ve taught darkness as.
Barbara: You took from that book and you are taking from this conversation, my grandest hope, which is that people would pull out the file folder they have labeled darkness, look at what is in it, and add some things to it. Because I don’t know about you, I’d rather kiss somebody in the dark than in the light. I dream in the dark. I hear whippoorwills in the dark, I see stars in the dark.
Jen: That’s right.
Barbara: I mean this is not relentless dark, this is not cave dark, but you just put new things in the file folders, so what more could I hope for?
Jen: Aw, I love that, thank you. Thank you Barbara Brown Taylor, for saying that wonderful thing to me.
All right, so you’re working on a new book right now. Are you finished with it?
Barbara: I’m finally finished with it.
Jen: Well glory, glory be to God. So it comes out next year, right? 2019?
Barbara: Yeah, one year. You turn it in in March, and it comes out in April of the next year. Go figure.
Jen: I know and by that time, you can hardly remember what you said. You have to go back and remember where your head was, but you’ve said that you’ve been wanting to write about living with religious difference. I cannot think of a time we need somebody to lead us in this more than right this minute in our culture. Is that, so your new book is called Holy Envy, is that still the title, did that title hold?
Barbara: It did, it was challenged and it held, and it did then, yeah it dates back to Krister Stendahl who was the dean of Harvard Divinity School for a while. And then he went back to Stockholm, his homeland, to be Bishop of the Lutheran Church there. And a Mormon temple was built in Stockholm, and the people called upon him to protest it, and instead he went to the microphone and talked about three rules for religious understanding.
And the first was, if you want to learn about a religion, ask its adherents and not its critics. His second rule was, don’t compare your best to their worst.
Jen: Oh, my goodness.
Barbara: And the third one was, learn to practice holy envy, and I was fascinated by number three. I mean number one and two are great, but number three, I have been working on that concept for a long time. It’s sort of like learning to walk in the dark, but I certainly have had a lot of opportunity to practice it, because I’ve taught world religions for 20 years. And so I experienced a lot of holy envy, teaching my tradition from a more objective standpoint than ever, and teaching … I was responsible for teaching five of the major religions of the world over 15 weeks. Graduates who might never look at it again, so it was really important to teach them more subjectively than ever before. So needless to say, that gave me a lot of material for a book called Holy Envy.
Jen: What else could we expect to hear you say in that book? What are you teaching us, what is your hope for Holy Envy, that your reader will kind of walk away with, if you were gonna sort of give it a high level thesis?
Barbara: It changed. I wanted it to be a classroom memoir. I’m gonna answer your question any minute now, but it’s very anecdotal, and so it was meant to be a very, very small window, on a very, very large subject. It is one classroom in a rural college in North East Georgia, taught by one Christian teacher, who all of the sudden encounters the great wisdom traditions of the world. So, anecdotally, I think it’ll walk you through a Christian’s reaction as she discovers that pagan, lost parts of the world, included Confucius, and Lotsu and the Buddha, and that Christians, for a long time, just colored everything brown that wasn’t really Christian.
And other religions have done that as well, but I guess what I would love for people to come out of that book thinking is, “Oh, I’ve thought that. Oh, I’ve wondered what that student wondered. I’ve thought what she did.” I also have a lot of new Christian story telling in there, that I think will help people who would like some Christian ballast for being better neighbors of people of other faiths, so I hope they can find it in this book.
Jen: I have no doubt that they will, and it comes out next April?
Barbara: Next April.
Jen: So, speaking of your students and your classroom, you obviously love working with undergraduates, and then people in their early to mid-twenties in general. So, one thing that I’ve heard you talk about and write about numerous times is—and this isn’t frankly just applied it to young adults—I see this very deeply represented in my age group too, and we’re in our 40s—I heard you talk about their intense desire to find their calling. “Their calling”, right? Which I think is something that is sort of this packaged idea that we’re handed to discover, somehow. This like tiny bullseye of our calling. I like the analogy that you gave, because you said in regards to our calling, you wrote, “I think we’d like life to be a train. You get on, pick your destination, and get off.”
But you liken it more to a sail boat ride, where the weather changes, and the current changes, and we have to work with others to navigate the fluctuating conditions, and so you impart your own experience to your students, who are trying to “train it” essentially, by saying, “I just thought I had to pick the right train. And I worked hard to pick the right train, and darned if I didn’t get off at the end of it and find out that it was just a midway station.”
That is such a great analogy and I was going through all my books of yours this morning, and to that sort of idea in An Altar In the World, you also wrote—you were talking about something different—but you said:
“One night when my whole heart was open to hearing from God and what I was supposed to do with my life.”
God said, ‘anything that pleases you.’
‘What?’ I said, resorting to words again. ‘What kind of an answer is that?
‘Do anything that pleases you,’ the voice in my head said again, ‘and belong to Me.’”
Like it makes me wanna cry my eyes out when I read it. It’s so precious but, I’m sorry, it’s so meaningful. Sorry. Can you give us your thoughts a little bit on how we can embrace a life that is more like a sail boat and less like a train, and one in which God says, “I just really want you to belong to me.”
Barbara: I think in a lot of ways, the troubles the institutional church is facing right now is a good thing, because it has woken a lot of us up to ways in which our faith may not be acted out by going into ordained ministry, or by working within those walls—which are good walls. We haven’t had a chance to talk about how much I love my local church, but we’ll get back to that later. But there is a way in we’re finding when people talk about being public theologians, now, or journalists who take a theology class, or people who go into business and wanna know how faith informs the way that they figure out employee benefits, etc.
I mean there’s a way in which the lowering profile of churches, with any luck, will also bring about a kind of flowering of faith, of Christian teachings in a lot of other places. I sure do find that with students. There are very few students who wanna go into seminary anymore. There are not a lot lining up to be ordained, but I had classes full of nurses who wanna know what they could learn about people of other faiths that will help them be better nurses. Or coaches who wanna know about the fasting traditions of other religions so they could be better coaches. I could just, I could go on and on about people, and all these majors, all these things they wanna do with their lives, who are realizing that religion could help them be better X, Ys, or Zs, and I’m not even talking now about their personal faith, but about ways that they interact with their neighbors.
Now the sailboat, train thing, I’ve actually found 20-year olds better at that than I am, because they know they’re not gonna work the same job their whole lives—they know they’re not. So their discussions have more to do with their purpose than their jobs. Have more to do with what they wanna create in this world. What they wanna be part of. They can that that might take several different forms. And a number of them are even keeping salary separate from meaning. They know they’ll do some things to make a salary, but that’s not gonna be where the meaning comes in on something.
Jen: That’s interesting. I don’t know that we were granted that permission to think like that. No ours was, at least for me, the narrative I sort of received was much more prescriptive than that. There is definitely a calling, it looks like one thing. “Good luck, I hope you figure it out, or else your life’s a waste.” I still hear people say that. I will hear this teaching come from teachers that are my peers, and say things like, “I don’t wanna get to heaven one day, and find out I left a bunch of stuff on the table that God had for me,” and that kind of teaching is freaking terrifying. I hate the idea. I actually hate that theology, that we might actually get to heaven one day and discover that it really was all about our works and behavior after all. You know, that Jesus wasn’t really enough, and come to find out God actually is disappointed. You know I just think it’s terrible theology, it’s awful.
Barbara: There was one slip in your envelope and you didn’t open it and do it.
Jen: Yes, like well I guess you’re gonna get in by the skin of your teeth, but you blew it. You know I just think, “Oh no, I don’t wanna be a Christian if that’s the God I have to face one day.” Like, I surely I cannot be that powerful, but I really appreciate the freedom that you give us as a teacher, to have some flexibility in there, and to know that God can be holy in any circumstance, in any life, in any scenario, in any career path. And rather, He just so deeply wants us to belong to Him, which is I think the end game. I would love, because you mentioned it, now that you are speaking of it, I would love to hear you talk a little bit about your local church, and what it is to you, and what you have come to love about it.
Barbara: I shouldn’t talk only about the local church, but I still—it’s funny to have written a book called-
Jen: Leaving Church, right?
Barbara: …Leaving Church, and then find out the church never left me. Keeps inviting me back which is such a merciful thing in itself. So as much as I inhabit what Richard Rohr calls, what does he call it, the “outside edge of the inside.”
Jen: I love that, I have it written down.
Barbara: Something like that. I love that.
Jen: Yes, me too.
Barbara: I know, it’s a good thing. But as much as I love being out there, there’s nothing like coming home to the center. There’s nothing like coming into a church community where, I know the hymns, and know the people, and where I live, there’s only one Episcopal Church. We’re the little bonsai boutique church, and I just wouldn’t have it not be there, and I fund it. It’s one of my duties to take the priest out on a regular basis and I hope this doesn’t offend listeners, buy him a glass of wine.
Jen: It doesn’t offend my listeners, I assure you.
Barbara: All right.
Jen: You just endeared yourself to them, is what you did.
Barbara: Well I just, I find pastors, and people who want to be pastors, some of the most remarkable people. You know, talk about people willing to take risks and have their hearts broken, and have their egos tranquilized, welcome to the ministry.
Jen: That’s right. You are speaking truth.
Barbara: This will do it for you, so I’m a great fan, though I’m no longer at the center of it. And I can be a loving critic as well, but I want my local church to be there, and I will do anything I can to make sure it is. I want it there for children, I want it there for newcomers, I want it there for visitors. I want it for the birds to come and eat berries out of the trees. I want it there, so…
Jen: I love that, that’s really beautiful, and I feel the same way. We just have a little local church, and it is so simple, and it is full of ragamuffins, including all the leadership, I will have you know. And it’s just so lovely, I just find so much Jesus there, and it’s such a tiny little outpost of hope in our community, and I just do love the local church for that. I’ve learned, the older I’ve gotten, because I’ve been in church work my whole adult life, that I am able now, just older, to absolutely celebrate churches and all their diversity, and be just as grateful that they are shining their light, in their way, in their space, even though it’s a different way than I either understand God, or come to find Him. But, thank goodness for all these little outposts of light.
Barbara: Isn’t that true?
Jen: Collectively shining. Yes, thank goodness for it, thank goodness for it. So, I know with so much going on in our world today, it’s such a weird time to be alive, you have said often that you turn to the writing, and the thoughts and teachings of other people, to make sense of everything: of faith, of faithfulness. So, I would love to know who are some of the thinkers, or the writers, or teachers, that you turn to, to learn from or when you’re wanting to make sense of the world, or sort of expand your world view?
Barbara: This is always such a dicey question, isn’t it? Because…
Jen: Sure, it sure is. And of course, when somebody asks me, I immediately forget everything I’ve ever read. I can’t think of a single person in the world, I can’t think of a single pastor, nobody. My brain goes blank.
Barbara: Yeah, I put—I have a frequently asked questions page on my website, and I try to change what are you reading now often, to remember to do that. And one reason it’s dicey is, I wanna say recognizable names, right? Because if people wanna follow up, like Wendell Berry, who can miss him, or Thomas Martin. I also have people in other traditions that I read a lot, like Pema Chodron, from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, and Johnathan Sacks, who’s an Orthodox Rabbi, and Eboo Patel, who is a young Muslim, and Howard Thurmond, who’s one of my sages. I sort of have two categories, sages who are older, and surfers who are younger. Because I have to look both ways for people to teach me about the world.
Jen: I love this, I love this.
Barbara: So my surfers include Greg Ellison, who is a student of Howard Thurmond. I mean not directly, he’s more like a grandson theologically, but he’s writing about, especially young black men in America and all people in America, but especially the young black men in America in light of what’s happened in recent years. And Eboo Patel is a young man, relative to me, who writes about how young people in particular can come together across faith and find their faith is strengthened by knowing one another instead of challenged. Kate Bowler, who teaches at Duke, is a wonderful, fresh voice. I love reading her. And Elizabeth Dias, who just became the religion reporter for the New York Times, I read her in Time Magazine for years, but she’s one of the people I also read to help me see the world through younger eyes, who make different and many ways, better sense of things. And Jen Hatmaker, did I mention her? I don’t know if I mentioned her, you know.
Jen: Obviously. I love your list. So, first of all I want my listeners to know that we will put up links on the website on the transcript of this episode to every single person Barbara just named. And I appreciate that you listed such a diverse lineup, because my tendency—and I wonder if it isn’t just a human tendency—is to reach for teachers and leaders who, more or less, already occupy the space we’re in. You know that’s sort of a homogenous voice, one that’s gonna reinforce what we already think, and stamp our world view with approval. But it is incredibly challenging and fruitful to give yourself permission to read way outside your space. Way, way outside. I mean all the way down the street even. It’s so good for us, it’s so good for our minds. And good for our hearts and our souls and our faith, and so I thank you for giving us all those names, and I’ll make sure that everybody has access to that whole list.
Barbara: That’s wonderful, thank you.
Jen: So, here we are at the end. So we’re wrapping up the show like we do. And we get the honor to ask you, a matriarch, of our question that we love so much. What is saving your life right now?
Barbara: If you could look out my back window, you would see a little garden plot that has pink bleeding hearts, and kind of salmon colored fire poker flowers, and hyacinths, and what is saving my life now, it sounds so cliché, but it is the reminder that life returns. I’ve just come through a year, I sold my mother’s house last Tuesday, and it’s been a year of moving her to assisted living, and being with her when she died, and getting her buried, and cleaning out 50 years in the basement, and that life returns is just amazing. And to have a year in which, you said earlier, the sun comes up again. When spring cycles around, I know it’s not the same as death and resurrection, but I tell you what, it reminds me that life and death are in a running cycle with each other. They co-exist, they complete each other.
So, what’s saving my life now is springtime. It’s this eruption of green, and caterpillars, and beauty right out my window, that underlines a fundamental Christian trust that death carries the seeds of life, that to be afraid of death is gonna be to be afraid of life, and that God’s faithful through that whole round, around, and around, and around. So, that’s what’s saving my life right now, and that answer changes weekly.
Jen: Oh, I love that. That made me cry. Thank you for that, I think I needed to hear that, but life does return, it does. And even after like loss that you think will just break your heart in half, even then. Even then it returns, thank you for that.
I want to thank you so much for coming on today. I appreciate not just your time but just who you are, and what an important teacher you are to my generation, and how special your voice is, and how much it’s mattered to my own life. Sorry, why am I, I’m struggling and I knew that I would, but I just appreciate you and I love you, and I want my listeners to know that everything, all your things, your books, your website, we’ll have every single link available. Because now I know that if some of my listeners have just met you for the first time, they’re positively going to want to follow you and read your work, so we’ll have all that available.
So thank you so much for being on today. I am so, so grateful.
Barbara: You know, when we meet each other this summer, we can go straight to the embrace, right?
Jen: Straight to it, I mean full frontal, full frontal.
Barbara: I can’t wait, thank you so much for inviting me.
Jen: Thank you, Barbara.
Well I think I handled that well. I love her so dearly and, I appreciate her leading us so beautifully. So guys, everything Barbara Brown Taylor related is gonna be over at my website. It’s jenhatmaker.com. And just click the podcast tab. Under it we have this whole interview transcribed, which for an interview like this, it has so many nuggets of wisdom, is actually a fabulous tool. So you don’t have to keep stopping the podcast to write down important lines, and points, and nuggets. You can just go to my website and it’s all written out for you.
Also, we have pictures of her there, and bonus material, and all kinds of extra resources. That is a fabulous, fabulous tool for you. Don’t forget to use the podcast page on my website, because we’ve just filled it with amazing things for you, and all the links to her sites and books will be there for you, too. So you can find everything you need.
So, obviously I love this series and I do not want you to miss next week. We continue to invite really provocative, and interesting, and thoughtful guests who are leading us really well through exploring faith in a way that’s not fear based, but rather really open handed and open hearted, and I think leading us toward a beautiful path within the church and our generation. So, don’t miss it. I will see you back next week. Thank you for spending your time with today. Thank you for all your amazing reviews and ratings on the podcast, that’s just so great for us, and so good for podcasts in general, so I appreciate every one of you that takes three minutes to do that. Thank you so much.
Guys, have a great week, and I’ll see you next time.