Book Review: Learning to Walk in the Dark
Posted January 13, 2015on:
Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, HarperOne,2014, 200 pp.
This book was not what I expected. As always, because it is Barbara Brown Taylor, it was beautifully written, with deep observations and insights, God-tinged at every turn. However, I expected darkness in this book to be far more metaphorical. Taylor’s previous two books, Leaving Church and An Altar in the World, were about her journey into a new and unexpected future outside of traditional ministry and church. I expected this to be an exploration of that new and unknown reality. However, Taylor–ever ready to surprise–responds to her quest with an engagement in real, physical darkness. She literally walks in the dark, in a variety of ways, and then reflects on what she has learned.
One important note (which probably would be more fitting at the end of this review, but preoccupied me and might preoccupy you, so I’ll address it first): How does Taylor address the historic dualism between light and dark, which expands to divide white and black, male and female, good and evil, with one side of the duality always paired with good and the other evil? That equation of darkness with evil has deep implications in the systemic racism, fear and distrust of people of color throughout the world. To neglect addressing it would be to perpetuate it. Taylor does address it, and quickly. While I would have liked more depth in her examination of that painful history in metaphor and reality, she does not ignore it and handles it enough to make me continue reading without a feeling that something important was unacknowledged. More, though, the whole book itself turns out to be a reclaiming of the dark as a place of beauty, a place of God. The fundamental trajectory of the book is her insistence that God is not only light, God is also dark. God dwells in the darkness, not just to illuminate it, but because darkness is also of God and a path to God. So, in the end, her book contributes helpfully to overcoming that anti-darkness legacy, even though I still would have welcomed a more explicit unpacking of that particular part of history.
Taylor begins by identifying darkness as “anything that scares me,” which seems problematic given the issues I just raised, and, again, I do not thing she adequately addresses it. However, she goes on to name the problem almost immediately after, and then to offer her critique of “full solar spirituality:”
…a kind of spirituality that deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention. I call it “full solar spirituality,” since it focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith. (7)
The danger of this “full solar spirituality” is that darkness or sorrow or trouble in your life becomes a symptom of weak faith. Taylor contrasts this with “lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the seasons.” (9) This book then asks,
What would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it? What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights? Did I have faith enough to explore the dark instead of using faith to bar all my doors? (9)
The first chapter invites the reader to consider his or her own personal history of the dark, hearkening back to childhood relationships and fears of the dark. It contains one of the most insightful lines of the book, quoted from James Bremmer:
Courage, which is no more than the management of fear, must be practiced. For this, children need a widespread, easily obtained, cheap, renewable source of something scary but not actually dangerous. (37)
Darkness is the perfect source.
The subsequent chapters look at the scriptures for important events that take place in the night (there are many–think of how much God speaks through dreams); at the ways we are “hampered by brilliance” and need the darkness of night to thrive; and the so-called “dark emotions.” She explores the work of psychiatrist Miriam Greenspan, who sorts out the differences between depression and “dark emotions.” The problem is not the emotions themselves; it is our inability to tolerate them.
When we cannot tolerate the dark, we try all kinds of artificial lights… There are no dark emotions, Greenspan says–just unskillful ways of coping with emotions we cannot bear. The emotions themselves are conduits of pure energy that want something from us: to wake us up, to tell us something we need to know, to break the ice around our hearts, to move us to act. (78)
Later in the chapter, she discussed the work of Ken Wilber, who talks about the different functions of religion as translation (helping people understand and find hope in their hardships to strengthen their selves) and transformation (dismantling the self and dislocating comfort). In American culture, “translation is being marketed as transformation, which is why those who try to live on the spiritual equivalent of fast food have to keep going back for more and more.” (88) I have found this to be a key part of my own ministry. I am often the only person in situations of grief or tragedy that is comfortable sitting with the person in their sorrow, not attempting to fix anything or even hurrying them through or making things easier, better, comforting. As Christians who follow a God who died on a cross, I think we should be far more skilled at being present to discomfort and suffering than we are.
Taylor then moves into more physical experiences of darkness, such as a “blind restaurant” exhibit and a spelunking adventure, before turning to St. John of the Cross, the via negativa and the “dark night of the soul.” She discovers herself moving away from all she thought she grasped about God, toward a mysterious trust in the presence of God even when she feels only the absence of God.
When we can no longer see the path we are on, we can no longer read the maps we have brought with us or sense anything in the dark that might tell us where we are, then and only then are we vulnerable to God’s protection. (147)
Learning to Walk in the Dark is a book about loss, but it manages to avoid being heavy or weighty. Sometimes, I even longed for it to feel a little more hefty. Instead, loss becomes a companion, like darkness, that we need not fear or carry as a burden, but journey with along life’s way. This book is full of all the richness Taylor provides, but without much of the depth of scripture study we have seen in her “churchier” works. It would find an easy home among the “spiritual but not religious,” while also opening new spiritual paths for those of us who stay within traditional religious life. I found wisdom, insight and joy in its pages.