The Preaching Life by Barbara Brown Taylor

     I have a wonderful book to tell you about this month, a book I have been itching to describe for you. It is written by a new acquaintance, a woman whose collections of sermons are receiving remarkable note in sophisticated mainline circles. She is also one of the nicest people I have met in recent years.

     Barbara Brown Taylor has been, until recently when she took a college teaching gig, a parish priest within the Episcopal church. Although loyal to her congregation and her people, nestled in the hills of Georgia in what Bruce Cockburn has called “the southland of the heart,” she has traveled, published and lectured widely. Indeed, by most counts, she is one of the best preachers in America. If you are a part of a mainline denomination, mention her name to your pastor and watch his or her eyes light up. She is known as a gracious person, an eloquent speaker and a thoughtful, practical theologian. That she is an advocate of finding God in the warp and woof of ordi-nary life and a cheerleader for Christians serving God in the marketplace makes her a delightful ally for our work and vision on campus. She writes that-the Bible’s great good news is that God is a palpable God, whose presence can be sniffed and glimpsed in every corner of creation. There are no yellow and black striped lines in the Bible separating sacred territory from secular. “Remove your sandals from your feet,” God tells Moses in the middle of nowhere, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

     Barbara has several collections of sermons, most of which wisely straddle the ancient text and the modern hearer’s context (one is called Gospel Medicine and another is Bread of Angels, and her newest is a collection on teaching about suffering entitled God in Pain). It is her earlier book, The Preaching Life, that I most want to review. For months I’ve been thinking that this is fast becoming one of my favorite books!

     The title, she admits, is a bold-faced bit of thievery; Annie Dillard’s wonderful book, The Writing Life, maintains that to be a good writer one must first keep one’s eyes open. Likewise the preacher, says Taylor. As he or she attends to God’s work in the world (naming things small and large as they really are) listeners will trust the preacher’s authenticity and ability to help them discover God’s presence in their own life story. If you discern shades of Buechner here and there, you would not be far off…

     And so she sets out to tell her story, her childhood conversion, her family’s struggle to find a church of integrity in the deep South, her collegiate years of doubt and excitement (studying religion for the first time), the unfolding of her sense of calling and vocation. I highly recommend these marvelously written memoirs, capturing as they do the thoughts and feelings, theology and expressions of grace that pervade the journey we all are making. I am confident that many of you will resonate with her sense of God’s guidance, amidst her acute realization that not too much is wrapped up in neat packages.

     A chapter which will be enjoyable, and most likely helpful to many of us (and some of our students) is the one entitled “Bible.” As one whose doctrine seems perhaps less rigidly orthodox than many of us would prefer, her fellow-travelers would be Madeleine LEngle, Frederick Buechner, Kathleen Norris or sundry Jewish mystics rather than R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, Chuck Colson or the Puritan divines, my heart raced as I began the chapter (“Please, Lord, dont let her say the Bible isn’t true!”). What great relief I felt as I read for the first time her wonderful essay! She hits head on, with down-home Southern charm and practicality, the complexities of the story (not to mention the particular texts). She is certain about the significant role of the Bible in our lives, and describes her own as “a marriage, not a romance,” meaning that she has to regularly work at it. She shines, with a vivid commitment to the authority of Scripture and without any abstract argument about historical accuracy, etc.

     Some of that chapter holds up the idea which we in CCO have heard a lot of lately, from my worldview class rant on Romans 12:1-2 to the “prophetic imagination” of Walter Brueggemann, from the call to be “shaped by the Bible” offered by Will Willimon to the “transforming vision” of Walsh and Middleton. The stories of our culture, the images and values and assumptions of our society, conspire to shape our lives in such a way as to deny our worth (except perhaps as consumers). The Scriptures, she beautifully maintains, are a counter story, a narrative that gives us new images and values and assumptions, which means we see differently.

     How do I know that? Because the Bible tells me so. The Bible tells me that God can make a human being out of a pile of dirt, that God can make a barren old couple the proud parents of a chosen people, that God can heal the sick and feed the hungry and raise the dead. If I believe that, then I cannot also believe myself or anyone else to be a lost cause. Nor can I believe only what my culture tells me about myself. The Bible gives me another authority to consult.

     A few pages later, she continues, Biblical faith gives believers a particular pattern by which to judge the truth of their own experience. We see that service may be the way to greatness, poverty may be the key to freedom, weakness may be the path to strength, death may be the gate to life. The Bible confirms all these suspicions, and while it may not make them easier for us to act upon, at least it gives us courage to go on when everything seems stacked against us. For those rooted in Christian memory and fed by Christian hope, nothing in life is simply as it seems. Equipped with these paradoxical images and stories of our historic faith, we see things differently than we would without them.

     I do not believe it is too poetic to state, as truth, that: “The Bible is my birth certificate and my family tree, but it is more: it is the living vein that connects me to my maker, pumping me the stories I need to know about who we have been to one another from the beginning of time, and who we are now, and who we shall be when time is no more.”

     Talk about worldview formation! My, my, this is rich stuff. I was strangely moved by her bittersweet chapter on imagination (she starts it with the sentence A friend of mine clearly remembers the summer he lost his imagination). The chapter on worship is illuminating, with an ending metaphor that worked so well it brought tears to my eyes. Her candid discussion of good sermons, the work needed to prepare them, and the mystery of how God consents to be present in the middle of even poorly done ones will be helpful to any of us who do public speaking. Throughout, she couches her theological musings in memoir and autobiography and they ever so gently become proclamation. While this is largely a book about her faith journey, it is clearly a strong book about the gospel. (Without really saying why, she states in the preface that the imaginative task of preachers (calling people to belief) is more important now and harder than ever before.) She is a consummate storyteller and a subtle but solid apologist for the reality of the faith. Her reflections are so reassuring and free from cant and frenzy that they seem to become a caring hand to hold as we take our next steps towards the Kingdom. And who among us doesn’t need a hand to hold along the way?

     Let me commend all of her well-done books to you; let me suggest you share them with the pastors in your life. Read the chapters Call” and “Vocation” in The Preaching Life, especially with your younger students as they struggle to find a church home, make a decision to join the faith community or dis-cern Gods call to a career. Be aware that she has a forthcoming book which were the prestigious Beecher lectures at Yale Divinity School on preaching amidst the silence of God. That she is so sensitive to those who suffer illustrates her own pastoral, caring sensibilities; it also speaks volumes of her apologetic in a postmodern world, an idea about which Richard Middleton spoke so clearly to us last winter. Early in the book, she reminds us that we serve a “difficult and glorious God” and are called to proclaim Christ in a disillusioned world. “It is a world that claims to have left us behind, along with dragons and maps of a flat earth, but meanwhile the human heart continues to hunt its true home.” Much of this book chronicles her heart’s hunt so that others, too, may find the Shepherd who continues to call us home.