For The Someday Book

Book Review: An Altar in the World

Posted on: February 8, 2011

Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Harper Collins, 2009, 216 pp.

Barbara Brown Taylor never disappoints with the beauty of her language and the connections she makes about the movements of God in her spirit and her world. My book is full of notes and underlines to which I hope to return to borrow a gem for a future sermon. An Altar in the World describes her spiritual life outside of the church, since she left parish ministry several years ago.

Each chapter of the book describes a spiritual practice that can be done by anyone, in any place. They are deeply grounded Christian practices, although she moves beyond the classic list of prayer, study, Sabbath, service and more. Taylor carefully grounds each one in Christian tradition, even as she assigns them contemporary names free of all “churchiness.” Reverence becomes “the practice of paying attention.” Wilderness becomes “the practice of getting lost.” Prayer becomes “the practice of being present to God.” The prayer chapter was one of my favorites, because she talks about her life as a failure in prayer, if prayer is the art of constant conversation with God. She returns us to Brother Lawrence (whom I love), who models prayer as practicing God’s presence in every action and every moment, opening oneself to God at every turn.

While this book is certainly beautifully written, it did not grab me with the compelling power her previous works held over me. I wonder if it is because my own spirituality is so deeply connected to church, that church’s conspicuous absence made me feel absent too. It could also simply have been the wrong time in my life for this book—it just didn’t speak to my heart at this moment. I did not find anything in An Altar in the World that was new, as it seemed to rehearse similar territory to Dorothy Bass’ Practicing Our Faith and Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us, singing the same song in a different key. I love the two Bass books, and the whole movement around them to prioritize Christian faith practices. Taylor’s book belongs to that genre, so I appreciate it even if it was not my favorite among them. It would probably be a great book for someone on the edges of Christianity and church, but intrigued by a Christian way of life.

This whole movement speaks as a challenge and a call to renewal for the heady, wordy nature of mainline worship. Taylor points out that, in all the discussions of the decline of mainline churches, no one talks about the “intellectualization of the faith, which strikes me as a far greater danger than anything else on the list.” I have been thinking a lot about this lately in our own church. I want to move people to experience God, and I’m not sure our current worship service is the best means for doing so. We need ways to move beyond saying words, listening to words and singing wordy songs as our only corporate expressions of worship. Taylor continues:

In an age of information overload … the last thing any of us needs is more information about God. We need the practice of incarnation, by which God saves the lives of those whose intellectual assent has turned dry as dust, who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life, who are dying to know more God in their bodies. Not more about God. More God. (45)

How can we stop telling people about God and actually bring them into God’s presence? Vital worship that involves bodies and senses and motion. Spiritual practices that shape our bodies into God’s bodies serving the world. Engaged faith that inspires people to make altars everywhere in the world.

3 Responses to "Book Review: An Altar in the World"

When I told a friend about stumbling onto Christianity for the Rest of Us and Practicing our Faith a friend assured me the Spirit has purposely laid them in my path. I’ve learned to allow there can be a bit of prophet in Amazon recommendations.

We mainliners spend a lot of time analyzing Scripture instead of engaging it. We could profit from encountering more Scripture through practices like Lectio Divina or Ignatian Reading instead of our usual analysis. One of the beauties of Lectio Divina is it teaches us to hear and respond to the Spirit. No doubt, last week mainline groups pondering Jesus’ story about salt discussed what salt meant 2,000 years ago and that the word ‘salary’ comes from salt, etc.

What if in a Lectio Divina reading the Spirit spoke to someone in the word ‘restored’ like it did me? Instead of intellectualizing, I engage with the Spirit about restoration. What does restoration mean to me? What does restoration mean to God? In what ways might I need restored? In what ways could/should I be an agent of restoration around me? In the process I learn about listening for the Holy speaking to me.


Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, Sam. I love the idea of the Spirit working through Amazon recommendations!

Lectio is a great tool, and definitely tries to move from the intellect to the heart. However, it’s still all about words and meditations on words. I think I still want more–to engage in something more physical, less still, more sensory, less ethereal. And to bring that to church, somehow. Come, Holy Spirit!

As a former Pentecostal I know a thing or two about encountering the Holy beyond words, or where words don’t matter. It’s fascinating that non-Pentecostals are pursuing almost Pentecostal-like encounters with the Holy, albeit in a more liturgical form.


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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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