Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest, teacher, and author of thirteen books, among them the memoir Leaving Church and the New York Times–bestselling Learning to Walk in the Dark. From 1998 until her retirement last year, Taylor held an endowed chair in religion and philosophy at Piedmont College. She has also served on the faculties of Columbia Theological Seminary, Candler School of Theology, McAfee School of Theology, and the theological studies certificate program at Arrendale State Prison for women. Taylor has been recognized by Baylor University as one of the most effective preachers in the English-speaking world and included on Time’s annual list of the One Hundred Most Influential People. In 2015, she was named Georgia Woman of the Year. Apart from these honors, Taylor is distinguished by an elegance of thought and depth of soul befitting a spiritual sage. For decades she has brought theology down to earth, embodying a vision that hallows the ordinary and regards the face of each person as one of the possible faces of God. Taylor is a master rhetorician whose work confirms that the simple act of bearing witness can be high art. “It is enough,” she writes, “to discern the limits of what is sayable and then to pour our energy into saying it as economically, as courteously, and as reverently as we can. When we stop talking, it is not because there is no more to be said. It is because the unsayable wishes to be said, and the only language for saying that is silence.” Taylor’s fourteenth book, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, forthcoming from HarperOne, is about the experience of teaching world religions to liberal arts students in rural Georgia. She was interviewed by Isaac Anderson.
Image: You grew up in several places in the Midwest and the South. Add to this regional in-between-ness the fact that you have spent a career crisscrossing between the church and the academy, as well as—in your move to a farm in Clarkesville, Georgia, years ago—between urban and rural settings. How has the experience of living between cultures, or belonging to many cultures at once, shaped you? To what degree has it benefited you as a preacher and writer?
Barbara Brown Taylor: My family had moved nine times by the time I was in ninth grade, so I got used to saying hello and goodbye in quick succession. The payoff for being the new kid (which is to say, the perpetual stranger) was that I became skilled at working the edges between neighborhoods, schools, climates, dialects, and politics. When my family moved from Ohio to Alabama in the 1960s, a kid in my third-grade class asked me if I had gone to a “colored” school up north. I said yes, that it was made of red brick. I had no idea what he was getting at, but it did not take long to find out. In retrospect, I learned a valuable survival skill during those years of moving around, which was to pay close attention to how people talked, whom they demeaned, how they met up on the playground, and who had the power.
Even after I gained control of my own address and stayed put for long periods of time, I liked watching things from the edges better than competing for a place in the middle. I could see more from there. In college, while other kids were running for office, I wrote about them for the school newspaper. While other girls were joining sororities, I hung out at the Jewish fraternity house. Maybe it was pure contrariness, or maybe it was a way to minimize the risks of failure. Either way, gravitating to the edges has benefited me as a preacher and writer because the edge is a creative place to be—a place from which to see the whole field—and to empathize with those who are not sure where they belong.
Image: If your childhood experience of adjusting to one new town after another taught you certain things, how have later experiences of rootedness or stability shaped you in turn?
BBT: I would like to tell you that geographical stability was a choice, but it may simply have been a reaction to the instability of my childhood. I have lived in exactly two houses over the past thirty-six years. The first was in Atlanta, where I lived with my husband Ed for the first ten years of our marriage. When we decided we wanted to live somewhere with a clearer view of the sky we moved to Clarkesville, a little town in northeast Georgia that most Georgians can’t find on a map. It took us two years to find the land we live on now, and another year to build the farmhouse, the two barns, and the split-rail fence. That was twenty-five years ago. The fence is covered with green lichen and most of the peach trees we planted outside the kitchen window have died of old age, but the place feels as fresh to me as the day we moved here.
To answer your question more directly, this experience of rootedness has taught me a great deal about faithfulness. Through every season, in all kinds of weather, from the minute the chicks hatch to the minute a hawk swoops down to carry one of them (and then another one) away, I have learned about staying true to the cycles of life and death that are impossible to ignore when you stay in one place for so long. I don’t regret my flings with all of those other places during my formative years, but I am wedded to this land. When people from the city ask if it gets lonely here, I have to stop and remember that they think human beings are the only kind of company a person can have. I never get lonely here. Even when I am alone, there is so much life on this place that I never run out of company: chicks, hawks, skunks, snakes, songbirds, spiders, a million breathing leaves. My only problem is that I have a hard time giving them all the kind of attention they deserve.
Image: You published your first book in your early forties. Did you always have an ambition to write, or did that part of your vocation unfold gradually?
BBT: Because my family moved so much, I was an avid reader. The minute I discovered what the written word could do—transport readers to other worlds, allow them to live more than one life, enlarge their sense of purpose, introduce them to friends who lived only inside books—I started writing stories. In my late twenties I became serious enough about fiction writing to spend my Christmas holidays at different writers’ colonies—Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Millay Colony for the Arts—but I wasn’t gifted enough to make it as a short story writer. I have some great rejection letters, including one from Lewis Lapham at Harper’s in which he invited me to send more work. Unfortunately, it was stapled to my original cover letter with a note from his reader at the bottom. “This is nicely written,” it said, “very nicely written—but it made me want to commit suicide.” Perhaps I had been reading too much Flannery O’Connor? More to the point, I think my themes were too melancholy and my characters too opaque. The people in my stories did interesting things and interesting things happened to them, but only I knew why. I let too much of my own introversion rub off on them. Like me, they deflected attention. They looked out but were reluctant to let anyone look in. This is cutting so close to the bone that I want to change the subject, but maybe my characters just didn’t know how depressing they were? Enough to make a reader want to commit suicide. Okay, I’m changing the subject now.
During that same time, I was serving eight or ten hours a week at a big Episcopal church in downtown Atlanta. I had a seminary degree but I was not ordained, so the rector was always thinking up new things for me to do. My first year he asked me to deliver a homily at one of the small evening services during Holy Week, which would be held in the front pews of the nearly dark church. The text was the story of Judas’s betrayal in John’s Gospel, so full of pathos that I got heart cramps while I worked on it. I also got a terrible cold, so when the night finally came I took a double dose of Robitussin DM to ward off coughing fits while I preached. When I stood up to face the little clutch of people, I was so tipsy that I had to hold on to the pew in front of me to avoid swaying. But I said what I had to say, and when it was over someone asked me for a copy of my sermon. Walking out of church that night, I realized I had just sold my first short story. So my writing life turned into a preaching life, with my love of language as the bridge.
Image: How would you describe the difference between preparing a piece of oratory and crafting an essay or book chapter, between writing for the ear and for the eye?
BBT: The most significant difference for me is the level of intimacy. Words set down on a page feel much more personal to me than words said aloud. It’s like the difference between radio and television. When I write to be read, I am writing for one person who may be awake under a reading lamp in the middle of a sleepless night. I am speaking directly into that person’s ear. I allow myself the luxury of longer sentences and more complex punctuation, knowing my reader can stop and read a passage over again whenever he or she wants. I raise all the questions I want for the same reason. When I write to be heard, I am writing for a group of people sitting upright in a well-lit public space. I work with shorter sentences and choose words with fewer syllables. I say one thing in as many different ways as I can, resisting the temptation to raise a lot of interesting questions that will cause my listeners to go off on their own tangents. An oral presentation is a fleeting thing; people either hear it or they don’t. Since I want them to stay with me, I pay as much attention to the rhythm of a sentence as I do to its content. Since they can see me, I know that what they hear will be hugely affected by how they respond to my appearance and the sound of my voice. It isn’t all about the words anymore; it’s about the whole event. The size of the crowd can affect how the words sound. So can the weather outside.
This means I cannot judge the effectiveness of oral and written communication in the same way. Though the private reading and the public event can hardly be compared, I think that my effectiveness on the page depends on how much of my meaning gets through. When people come up to me at book signings with books that have been heavily underlined, I know my meaning has gotten through. At a public event, I am much more interested in whether the words moved people or not. Afterwards they can rarely remember a single thing I said—or they’ll repeat something to me that I know I did not say. But if they were moved—if, while sitting quietly with a lot of other people, they felt something they are likely to remember—then I count that a great success, even though I cannot really take credit for it. The Spirit was at work, and I got to be a part of it.
With all of that said, I think my writing has been shaped by orality more than the other way around. People who hear me speak often say that I sound like I write.
Image: What are the joys or challenges of exploring faith for readers who belong to religious traditions not your own or who identify as nonreligious?
BBT: Most of the diversity in my audience is Christian diversity, but it’s true that I have a few Jewish readers and more than a few who do not identify as religious. Either way, I proceed on the assumption that what we have most in common is not our religion (or our spirituality) but our humanity. When we are hungry, lost, or ill, our worldviews don’t seem to matter very much. We will accept help from anyone who offers. When we come together to celebrate or mourn something that has happened in our community, it doesn’t seem to matter whether someone is wearing a hijab or a cross. One of my favorite things to do when I get home from a long flight is to stand around international arrivals watching people from all over the world come through the doors to where their loved ones are waiting to greet them. Watching their faces reminds me why I love being alive. It also reminds me that the truest thing about being human—the thing deepest down in us—is not sin but the divine image.
Happily, this truth coincides with a central Christian teaching, which is the importance of incarnation. The Christian reverence for the body—the neighbor’s body, the leper’s body, the orphan’s body, the Christ’s body—the clear charge to care for the incarnate soul gives me all the permission I need to write about being human without feeling as if I am not sounding religious enough. The nicest thing anyone has said to me lately is that he liked the way I spoke of the sacred without the usual vocabulary. At the same time, I know I have lost readers because I do not use that vocabulary often enough for them. I have also lost friends—mostly clergy friends, who are still working so hard to preserve traditional Christian language in their conversations, sermons, blogs, and books. That project once interested me very much. When I was fresh out of parish ministry, I wrote a small book called Speaking of Sin in which I, too, worked hard to redeem words such as “sin,” “repentance,” and “salvation” so that they remained lively words in the Christian vocabulary. I still think that’s important, especially for people who are still reading the Bible or still going to church. The problem is that once I left parish ministry I met a whole lot of people who were doing neither, and who heard the language of faith as insider language meant chiefly to exclude them. At that point, preserving the words became less important to me than being in relationship with people who were put off by the words, but who were still drawn to the reality behind them.
Image: It seems that leaving parish ministry freed you to write differently in this respect.
BBT: That was so long ago now that I barely remember, but yes, it must have. The hardest change for me to get used to was moving from what you might call public truth (in which I spoke on behalf of a local religious community) to private truth (in which I spoke only for myself). When I first started speaking only for myself, it was like driving on a winding mountain road with no guardrails. They had been there so recently—the texts, the liturgies, the congregational mores that had kept me on track—and then they were gone. I was scared of driving that road for a while, afraid of what I might say and where it might take me. Eventually I discovered that the absence of guardrails made me a better driver.
Once I stepped out of the pulpit, I also felt free to pursue a broader range of themes. I wrote about the goodness of the body (sensuality!), the sanctity of creation (pantheism!), and conflicts with church teachings (heresy!)—topics I might never have spoken of in church since I saw my job as supporting the apostolic faith and rarely questioning it. It was also a relief to be able to use more colorful language, since the pulpit always struck me as a PG-13 space. I was working through all of these changes during the three months between the end of my church job and the beginning of my teaching job, so they show up in a book I wrote during that time called When God Is Silent. Another significant change happened after I landed in the classroom, where all of a sudden it was my job to ask the questions instead of answering them. My authority accrued from my age, my education, and my experience, but not from a privileged relationship with God. I was as much a seeker as some of the students, and I think that was why they signed up for my classes. Academic freedom was the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. I stopped looking over my shoulder for reproof or approval and found a voice I have enjoyed using.
Image: You devoted several pages in When God Is Silent to our culture’s fraught relationship with language—the ways consumer capitalism often traffics in language meant to seduce or mislead, the ways our media-saturated environment leaves many feeling assaulted by language at every turn. That book was published in the early nineties. Twenty-five years later, would you add anything to this diagnosis?
BBT: Thank you for not mentioning the obvious, which is that I wrote a whole book on silence. If I remember correctly, none of us was walking around glued to our smartphones when that book was published. Now I feel bereft when I leave the house without mine, even as I resent being tethered to it. Why? Because there is so much information on it that I might need—or miss—which is ridiculous since I am old enough to remember a time before such devices existed. The worst thing I can admit to you is how assaulted I feel by the number of books that arrive in my mailbox every week—even the volumes of poetry. It’s the same thing with the links people send to their blogs, videos, musical recordings, articles, and photos. While I am as impressed as anyone by the accessibility of the internet, I think it has become too easy to produce words and disseminate them. I long for some of the old hurdles that one had to clear to become published—and I haven’t even mentioned the impact that the internet is having on democratic process. I wonder what will happen when there is no one left alive who remembers a “before”?
Image: I am reminded of Marilyn McEntyre’s book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies. How might a writer attempt to care for words amid so much noise?
BBT: I spend a lot of my Saturday listening to the storytelling shows on public radio: This American Life, Snap Judgment, The Moth Radio Hour. Perhaps my ear is not as tired as my eye? Or perhaps it is the warmth of the medium I am responding to. Whatever it is, those shows remind me of how powerful personal narrative can be, especially when it moves away from the mirror and speaks of things as important as love, justice, race, family, faith, death. As a writer, I am most intrigued by how these storytellers gain my trust. Why am I convinced they are telling me the truth, and how do they make that truth so compelling that I am willing to give up half my Saturday to listen to them? Clearly, humor plays a role. Most of them are able to get a laugh from their listeners early on, and the joke is usually about something dumb they did, said, or believed. Their readiness to tell the truth about themselves leads me to believe they will tell the truth about everything else as best they can. But they aren’t evangelists. I never get the feeling they are bent on converting me to their point of view. They witness to the reality of human transformation—with no specialized language, no ulterior motive—and they trust me to get it without banging me on the head with it. They tell me something that really matters to them, and by the time they finish I feel like I have a new friend. My conclusion is that I trust them because they trust me.
When I translate that to writing, it seems important to trust my reader in much the same way: never to condescend, to evangelize, to over-explain; always to tell the truth, to be transparent, to be generous. One of my worst temptations as a writer is to be snarky, and that is no way to gain a reader’s trust. In the end, caring for words in a culture of lies means caring for my reader, and trusting the words to do their work with no strong-arming from me. So much of the “truth” that reaches my ears these days is coercive. It comes at me so aggressively that it leaves me no room to respond except in self-defense. I’m committed to a different kind of truth. In Christian language, I’m sold on the kind that finds its power in powerlessness.
Image: The kind that surrenders its authority—or carries its authority differently.
BBT: Yes. This did not seem possible to me while I was in full-time parish ministry since my job description had authority built into it. Everything from my clerical collar to the framed diplomas on my wall authorized me to speak with certainty about the life of faith. The classroom conferred a different kind of authority since I was the one who signed the grade sheets, but none of that is operative on the page. I’m really on my own there. The prose either works for the reader or it doesn’t. I know publishers have to make their authors sound as impressive as possible (I flinch when I see “Dr.” or “Reverend” in front of an author’s name on a cover), but I do my best to give my cred away in the first few pages. Then if I happen to say something that sounds true to my readers, they give me double credit because I already surrendered my authority. I like the kind of relationship that creates with my readers. It feels more like we are working on something together, instead of me leaning down to give them something I have and they don’t.
I don’t have much confidence in sanctioned authorities anymore. My confidence is in relationships—between humans and humans, between humans and other creatures, between humans and the spirit world. Since those relationships are always mysterious and always in flux, it is hard to get very cocky about them, but they are the most reliable places I know to encounter God. I learned this from the Bible. Speaking of which—when it comes time to bear witness to some fundamental truth, I often rely on a story from the Bible to carry the authority for me, but I always take responsibility for my interpretation of it and remind my listeners that they have to take responsibility for theirs, too. Honestly, my lifelong experience of God leaves me no alternative. Every time I think I have something figured out, the floor drops another three feet and I have to get my bearings all over again. It’s a great cure for idolatry.
Image: That reminds me of a sentence from your book The Preaching Life: “Disillusionment is the loss of illusion—about ourselves, about the world, about God—and while it is almost always painful, it is not a bad thing to lose the lies we have mistaken for truth.” At the moment, what illusions do you suspect we as a culture—or as people of faith—might need to suffer the loss of, for our own sakes and for others’?
BBT: If I am at all representative of my culture, then the most harmful illusion is the belief that we are the global good guys, appointed by God to show the rest of the world what life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are all about. The Christian variation is that God has commissioned us to bring everyone else into our fold. There are Caucasian variations, political variations, and wealth-based variations as well, but what they all have in common is the illusion of divine favoritism: that we have gotten things right and other people have gotten them wrong, and that the world would be a better place if everyone were more like us. I have never forgotten something that Walter Brueggemann once said in my hearing: “the world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you—by the grace of God.”
Image: Like the radio programs you mentioned, your work often includes an undercurrent of humor. How deliberate are you about that? Do you think about humor instrumentally, as having a theological or rhetorical function, or do you just make room for it as it comes?
BBT: Fred Craddock, one of the great preachers of the last century, taught me the virtue of inviting people to laugh together before asking them to go deep together. Wherever he spoke, one of the first things he did was to call attention to his height—very short, for a man of his theological stature. After the laughter had died down, he proceeded to take his listeners apart limb by limb—but how could we argue? This was the same man who had just told us the truth so clearly that we had laughed out loud. Sometimes I use humor as a defense mechanism—I learned that from being the new kid in class, year after year—but more often I use it as a way of making friends with my listeners. When we laugh together, we let our defenses down for a moment. After that, it is easier to listen to each other. Recently someone came up to me after a lecture and said, “Whenever you make me laugh, I make sure my seat belt is fastened, because I know you’re about to hit me with something hard.” I took it as a compliment.
Image: You have remarked that spiritual writers often employ a gnostic, disembodied vocabulary to describe the soul. How did “writing the body” become important to you, and what gets missed when spiritual writing overlooks flesh and blood?
BBT: If spiritual writers sometimes disregard the body then I think we come by our ambivalence honestly. The New Testament is full of language that opposes the spirit and the flesh, along with language that associates sin with the body. From Paul’s clear preference for celibacy to the Puritan suspicion of physical pleasure, Protestants have a long history of keeping their distance from the body. When spiritual writers fall in line with that, they may avoid the risk of arousing unruly emotions in their readers, but they may also lose the chance to make visceral connections. The best reason I can think of to keep “writing the body” is to help readers make peace with their own flesh and blood, which may help them make more peace with the flesh and blood of their neighbors—even and especially the neighbors who do not look like them.
I also think we could all use some help understanding the difference between being physical and being sexual. Sometimes they go together, but not always. Once, on a trip to Turkey, I went to a public bath for a massage, assuming that would happen in a private cubicle. Before I knew it, the attendant had taken my clothes away and directed me to sit against the wall of a beautifully tiled room with a lot of other naked women. While I was waiting for my turn on the massage table in the middle of the room, I had a lot of time to think about my Christian discomfort with my body and the other bodies in the room, though none of us was engaged in sex.
If that is too much information, then consider the ancient Christian practice of washing feet. The last time I went to a foot-washing, the congregation was offered the option of having their hands rubbed with oil instead, since some had expressed concerns about exposing their feet. What is that about? If it is a consequence of sexual abuse then I get it, but if it is about not wanting anyone to see your feet then I have to wonder what has happened to the Christian relationship to the body. If John’s Gospel were the only one we had, then the two biblical sacraments would be baptism and foot-washing. As it is, we have decided on baptism and communion instead, but whether you count two sacraments or seven, they are all physical events. They don’t work without flesh and blood.
Image: As a religion professor, did you learn anything from your students that you might not have learned as readily as a rector in the Episcopal Church?
BBT: I am writing a whole book about that. The short version is that when I was a rector I spent my time with people who were a lot like me. Even those who were not like me shared a lot of agreements with me about the life of faith. We could say the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer together by heart. We read the Bible literarily. We ordained women and welcomed LGBTQ+ people in the name of God. As a congregational leader I could say “we” with some confidence, but all of that changed when I became a college professor. The students in my classes included Hindus, Muslims, Mormons, Wiccans, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, a broad range of evangelicals, and every kind of Baptist. They attended megachurches and no churches at all. Their religious and spiritual values were all over the place. On the first day of my first semester, my Episcopal “we” proved completely inadequate. I had to rethink Christian inclusivity all over again. As difficult as this was, it made me a Christian humanist—someone more interested in serving humans than in making them Christian—and I am very grateful for that.
Image: What did you hope to impart to your students concerning the nature of religious belief and experience?
BBT: My hopes changed through the years as the students changed, along with the worlds in which they lived. In the early years, my hope was to convince large numbers of true believers that exploring other faiths would not make them lose their own. I also hoped to persuade them that finding answers to their questions about God was of less value than learning to ask better questions. In later years, as the percentage of “nones” began to grow, my hope was to slow down their abandonment of religion by showing them what treasures they were letting go. Since you asked about both belief and experience, I should mention how important field trips were to changing students’ minds about religions other than their own. Through firsthand experience, they learned to question the stereotypes they were being fed about people of other faiths, and they also learned how many different ways there are to live out the teachings of a particular tradition. When we visited the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation in Atlanta, for instance, it was hard to convince some students that they were in a Christian church. So another thing I hoped to impart was that religion always comes bundled with culture, history, geography, and politics.
Image: Your bibliographies showcase a range of influences, from monks and desert mystics to rabbis, research psychologists, swamis, poets, novelists, and so on. Whose writing—or what type of writing—has been especially important to you the last few years and why?
BBT: As you have already deduced, I read widely and never know where I am going next. Sometimes the stack of books by my chair is related to a new course I am teaching. My course Death and Dying in the World’s Great Religions cost me a fortune in new books, as did New Religious Movements in North America. Last summer I learned more about the Apostle Peter than I ever wanted to know because I had agreed to give three talks on him. But you asked what type of writing has been especially important to me in the last few years, and the answer to that is always fiction. From Middlemarch to The Brothers Karamazov to the novels of Barbara Kingsolver and Amos Oz, fiction is key to enlarging my life—to learning how other people see the world, how they live, what they love, how they rise or fall. Since I think theologically, I read fiction as embodied theology. I never tire of tracing the line between what you might call cosmic fate and human agency. How much of what happens to us is as inevitable as gravity, and how much of what happens to us is due to our own choices? What motivates people to make choices that destroy them, and what motivates them to make choices that save everyone around them? My favorite theologians try to impose some order on questions like these, but my favorite novelists know better. They answer the questions differently every time, in ways that are always true.
Image: Acknowledging that “spiritual writing” remains a contested or porous genre, do you have any general observations about the spiritual writing currently being published? What seems worth celebrating? Does anything distress you?
BBT: It’s a troublesome name for a genre, isn’t it? What would the opposite be? “Physical writing”? Since I have already admitted my reading habits, you may have noticed that there is not much “spiritual writing” on the list. I do pay attention to titles that stay on bestseller lists for a long time, which seem to skew toward self-improvement and spiritual success. That is perfectly understandable, but it still distresses me. I also receive a lot of manuscripts from younger spiritual writers and older clergy, which all stick pretty close to traditional Christian proclamation. I keep hearing that spiritual memoir is dead, but I am very impressed with Kate Bowler (Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved). I am also crazy about the poetry of Marie Howe (Magdalene) and Christian Wiman (Hammer Is the Prayer), but I am really not a good person to ask about this. Since I am a writer in this genre I stay away from other authors so I won’t be tempted to borrow from them. I have also read so many Christian authors in my long life that I am now more interested in people who are writing from other traditions. Pema Chödrön is a great favorite, as is Jonathan Sacks. I just read a remarkable book called The Divine Mind by a Jungian analyst named Michael Gellert, in which the God portrayed in the Bible becomes his analysand, but most of the books in my stack are not what you would call spiritual books. It’s the human condition that interests me, and I don’t know how to distinguish the spiritual part from all the other parts.
Image: Earlier, you mentioned encouraging students to ask better questions. What sorts of questions continue to unsettle you in meaningful ways?
BBT: I once heard Laurie Patton, now president of Middlebury College, ask this in the best possible way. “What’s the question you’ll never know the answer to,” she said, “that you’ll never stop asking?” Isn’t that great? The question I’ll never know the answer to is whether my unshakeable sense of God’s presence is due to God’s real presence, my brain chemistry, my conditioning, or pure wishful thinking. The answer doesn’t really matter, since I can’t shake the sense of presence and don’t want to, but it does seem important to stay in a place of faith instead of certainty. Faith requires me to live with a great deal of uncertainty. Beyond that very large question, I return to others that unsettle me in meaningful ways. Who would I be if I had been born Maori in New Zealand, or a member of the royal family in Saudi Arabia? How much of my worldview—my entire encyclopedia of meaning—is due to an accident of birth? Since Christianity is part of my birthright, how do I balance my shame about the awful parts (imperial privilege, holy war, patriarchy, embedded anti-Jewishness) with my devotion to the glorious parts (wholesale love of God and neighbor, self-surrender, religious humility, divine union)? Am I really allowed to pick and choose, or does being Christian require me to own the shame along with the glory? Is part of my job as a Christian right now to do penance for other Christians who did great harm in Jesus’s name? I could fill up the rest of this page with questions that keep me awake at night. I wish they did not keep me awake, but I am glad to have them. They keep me on my toes.
Image: This journal has been devoted to the intersection of art and faith for some time now. Do you have any last thoughts about the relationship between art and faith? What about the role of creativity or imagination in spiritual seeking?
BBT: I came to Christian faith in the 1970s, affected as much by the politically radical Bread and Puppet Theater, Jesus Christ Superstar, and the music of Bob Dylan and Van Morrison as by anything I heard in church. Later it was writers such as Frederick Buechner and Annie Dillard who seeded my religious imagination, along with storytellers such as Garrison Keillor and Wendell Berry. So I have long been sustained by the relationship between art and faith. Much more recently, I have been introduced to a variety of Christian festivals that recognize art, film, theater, music, and dance as vital channels in the life of the Spirit (Greenbelt in the United Kingdom; the Wild Goose Festival and Awakening Soul in North Carolina; Gladdening Light in Florida; Wisdom Ways in Minnesota). I have served as a talking head at most of these festivals, but never without noticing how much more people seem to be transformed by the non-cerebral, left-handed ways in which the divine becomes present to them. Or maybe it’s the combination of the verbal and the nonverbal that makes the sparks fly. When worship works, it works because the liturgy engages the whole human being—the mind, the voice, the body, the passions—and that’s what happens at these festivals, too. I suppose this could be discouraging to me as a writer, but instead it reminds me to engage the whole human being in what I write. The human imagination being what it is, I can use words to touch the body and excite the passions. Maybe not in the same way that a dancer or a musician can, but I can still do it.
In my view, Jesus changed lives because he was able to change the way people imagined their lives. He dared them to imagine the stranger as neighbor, the child as teacher, the enemy as mirror, the deity as loving father. He helped them imagine lepers, women, and Roman centurions as exemplars of faith. He asked them to imagine that the most important person at the table was the waiter, and that the end of the line was the place to be. At the moment I cannot think of a single story he told that was not intended to change the way his listeners imagined the world. I believe the arts can do the same thing. They can break my heart, rekindle my courage, wreck my prejudice, give me second sight. If they can do it better than most sermons can, then that’s because they give themselves to me unconditionally. They give me the best they’ve got and then they trust me to know what to do with it. If you think about it, that amounts to having huge faith in the power of the human imagination. Of course this artistic channel is also unregulated, and that scares some Christians I know. They worry that the human imagination will cook up something evil or unorthodox, transmitting it in ways that are difficult to police. One of the great things about Image is that it provides readers with a safe-enough meeting place for faith and the arts. If it were entirely safe, it wouldn’t be a powerful place, but since it’s willing to take risks, it is.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.