Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Q&A: Theologian coming to Charlotte to talk about treasures of darkness

Barbara Brown Taylor -- theologian, Episcopal priest, college professor -- lives on a organic vegetable farm in the Georgia foothills of the Appalachians.

It’s a perfect place to experience the natural seesaw between the light and the dark– and to ponder the metaphorical and theological aspects of both. Taylor, 63, writes about these things in her latest book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” which was the subject of a Time magazine cover story this year.

Taylor, named one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world by Baylor University, will speak this weekend at Charlotte’s Myers Park Baptist Church. The Observer talked with her Tuesday. Here’s the full transcript.

Q. In your writings, you have pointed out that the word “darkness” has become shorthand for every bad thing out there. But you also point out that many of the most important stories in the Bible occurred in the dark. Give me one or two. And what does that say about God’s supposed preference for the light?

A. The one I’m working on right this minute is Jacob wrestling an angel by the River Jabbok.  Not in the middle of the night, but all night long. And it changes his life. God gives him a wound and a blessing and a new name.

I don’t know anything about God’s preference . . .

Q. I'm referring to God saying in Genesis, “Let there be light.” And Christians like to talk about Jesus as the Light.

A. Yeah, that’s cause we like light. We want God to be the way we like. But Exodus 19 has God saying to Moses, “I will come to you in a dark cloud.” So God doesn’t seem beholden to our fondness for light. I think anyone who professes faith in one God professes faith in a God of the dark and the light, of the night and the day, who put the sun and the moon in the sky. So a lot of what I’m up to in my writing and in my talks in Charlotte this weekend is doing my best to retrieve the wholeness of the vision of God and how God works.

Q. Clearly, many churches and religious books today are selling certainty and a sunny spirituality. But there is this rich contemplative tradition in Christianity that says the darkness is where the soul will find God. Is that how you see darkness as well?

A. Yes, but let’s keep both in there. Because what I find is that (because) I travel with a book called “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” people think I’m setting up a new opposition. I’m keeping the same old battle between dark and light; I’m just switching sides. And I don’t want to be in a battle at all. I want to talk about the cloud of unknowing and the drive to know God. I want to talk about the dark night of the soul. And I want to talk about the bright light in the morning and embrace all of those as parts of our whole life. I’ll talk about learning to walk in the dark as learning to walk the way of unknowing, a sacred way of unknowing, but there’s a sacred way of knowing as well. I’m trying hard not to play into a new opposition, but to do my best to hang on to the full package.

Q. How does living on a farm shape your spirituality and your befriending of the darkness?

A. I think there’s a lot less protection here from the elements. From darkness. From hawks that swoop down out of the sky and take your favorite chicken. And a horse that falls in a hole and breaks its leg. It’s not more exposing than living in a battlefield or a refugee camp, but there are certainly ways that living on a farm leaves me open to a lot more grief and joy than living a more protected city life.

Q. We live in polarized times where everybody wants to cloak their side in the light and cast those on the other side as purveyors of darkness. Is this the way to truth or just to more rancor?

A. We all like to be right, don’t we? If we want to be right, we’ll go to the biggest symbols and totems for rightness we can find – light and sun and God and nation. It’s real hard to be a human being who wants to be right without all those things. So, sure, I think we recruit them for our side and then, if anything, what we’re living through now is the consequences of that. We’re mired in opposition.

Q. You live on a farm and teach at small Piedmont College. Yet this year Time magazine turned its national spotlight on you and your work. Does that feel like being bathed in the light or blinded by the light?

A. Yeah, blinded by the light is a good metaphor. I live here on purpose, I teach at Piedmont on purpose. And as grateful as I am for Time’s (exposure), I like living a human-size life. So I’m happy for the attention and really happy that people have a short attention span.

Want to go?

Barbara Brown Taylor will speak this weekend (Oct. 17-19) at Myers Park Baptist Church, 1900 Queens Road. There's limited space for her $60 Saturday (Oct. 18) workshop on “Lunar Spirituality” (call church phone number below). She’ll also be speaking:

-- Friday (Oct. 17) at 7 p.m. in the sanctuary. Topic: “The Wedding of Heaven and Earth.” Will include a Q&A. Free.

-- Sunday (Oct. 19) at 9:30 a.m. (free) in Heaton Hall and at the 11 a.m. service in the sanctuary. Sermon topic: “The Treasures of Darkness.”

Details:; 704-334-7232, ext. 15.

-- Tim Funk