Barbara Brown Taylor Extended Interview

Read Bob Abernethy’s June 8, 2006 interview with Barbara Brown Taylor:

Q: Why did you want to be a priest?

A: I didn’t want to be a priest. I wanted to do the work that priests do, and that required becoming a priest. But I wanted to visit in hospitals, and I wanted to celebrate Communion, and I wanted to baptize babies, and one had to be a priest to do those things. So it wasn’t so much a wish for the status as it was the work.

Q: You have said that you wanted to spend the rest of your life as close to God as you could get — that was part of it?

A: That was part of it. I wanted to be as close as I could to the Really Real, and I’ll capitalize both of those R’s, because God is a word that means different things to different people, but we might all agree it’s what is most real. For me it was an effort to live the kind of life that would keep me in contact with what was most real. There’s some subjective judgment in that, but still –

Q: In those days, what was your idea about God?

A: I think my idea of God in those days was much more directive than my idea of God now, that is, a God who had one plan in mind for me, perhaps, and my job was to find out what it was and obey. So it was more a matter of trying to find the right answer among many, that was already in an envelope sealed for me.

Q: You became ordained and then you found this little church in Clarksville in northeast Georgia — Grace-Calvary Church — and it became open, and you became the rector there. Were you happy?

A: I was happy. I went to the little church in the country after ten years in the city. And part of my dream was to sit on people’s front porches with glasses of iced tea, and all that happened. I was able to send birthday cards to everyone in the parish and able to know everyone who was there on Sunday by name. And that was what I’d been looking for.

Q: And then something terrible happened. You became very depressed. You became really miserable. What were the symptoms of all that? What happened to you?

A: Part of what happened was that the church and I succeeded. Part of what happened is that the church grew, and I gained a reputation for preaching, and people came, and it was a wonderful community. But we had a building that seated 82 people, and with a congregation then approaching 400 we were up to four services on Sunday, and everyone was tired. But the only relief to our tiredness was to build a new building, and no one particularly wanted to go there. So I found myself in a maze where I’d taken the wrong turn. In my wish to do well for that congregation I wasn’t doing particularly well for myself or my friends or my family, and I even found that the work for God was taking me away from God. There was no time anymore to be quiet or still or pray. So, in many ways, that’s what led to my downward spin.

Q: And the symptoms of that were?

A: Well, because I’m a “strong person,” the symptoms hit me by surprise. It was, as I write in the book, stinging in my eyes after Sunday that I thought was an allergy, until one day I sat in the car and decided to just let my eyes tear up so that whatever was in them would come out, and what came out were tears that wouldn’t stop. It was literally a physical reaction that was my first indication there was anything wrong.

Q: And you got very depressed?

A: I did. Not clinically depressed, you know, not to the point of needing professional help. But depressed in terms of, as I say in the book, in terms of seeing the film I’d been working on for five years get stuck in the projector so that a hole burned in the film. That was the depression.

Q: In addition to tiredness and busyness, was there a part of it that had to do with your faith and your beliefs?

A: Beliefs have become unimportant to me. Faith as radical trust became even more important to me during this time. Because so many of my certainties about who I was and what I was supposed to be doing fell away, that faith was really what I had left. In following the Really Real into a parish, which seemed to me like the best place to be full-time involved in what was Really Real, I became so attentive to the souls of other people that I was not as attentive as I might have been to my own. And that’s not my predicament; that’s the predicament, I would say, of anyone in a caring profession, anyone whose duty is partly to look out for other people.

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Q: How has your faith changed? It became not so much a matter of beliefs, as you said, but it turned into putting more emphasis on relationships and trust.

A: The boundaries became constrictive in what I was doing, and if my faith grew, it was because I pressed some of the boundaries in ways I hadn’t felt comfortable or responsible doing that before. So I read more widely. I made friends more widely. I wore more red. I stayed home on Sundays. I did things that were never in the realm of possible things to do before. This is in the three months between the time that my job at Grace-Calvary ended and my job at Piedmont College had not yet begun. That was a real desert experience for me.

Q: You had taken a vow to seek and serve Christ in all people?

A: That’s a baptismal vow: “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” We say that every time we baptize a baby in the Episcopal Church. It’s one of five baptismal promises. I don’t know that that was part of the ordination service, but the primary identity for me was as a baptized person. The ordination is a secondary identity. But that was a question that is central to the way of life I’d chosen.

Q: But you found it difficult to find Jesus in all people, didn’t you?

A: Well, I found the same thing I discovered doing youth work. You can create an intimate community of about 20 or 25 people, and beyond that you’re into a different kind of relationship. So in a church of 400, that’s not much of a percentage, is it? I found myself trying to bargain God down to a smaller number of people that I could seek and serve Christ in. It wasn’t about them being cranky; it was just there were too many. Just too many. Either very near the end of my tenure at Grace-Calvary or very soon after, I’ve forgotten which, I was invited to a famous lobster-beer-swimming pool party I’d never been invited to before. And that night everyone ended up getting thrown in the pool but me, because I think I still looked waterproof to people, as I say in the book. But somebody threw me in the pool, and I got sloppy wet and my makeup ran down my face and it ended up being a second baptism for me into a common pool and it was spectacular. I was just sorry I couldn’t find a way to do that and be the leader of that community.

Q: You didn’t want to be set apart, and you realized at that time that’s what you wanted?

A: You have that right, and I should hasten to point out that being the holiest person in a congregation isn’t the church’s idea. I think I took that on. That was my own self-assignment. So I’m not blaming anybody beyond myself for some of that. But I did set out to be holy and to be “perfect exemplar” and to fulfill of my vows, baptismal and ordained. And it got tiresome, but it seemed necessary to me at the time. And there was something about being thrown in the swimming pool that night, which was the end of my parishioners’ deference for me I might add, that was just part of, you know, being in the crowd instead of being “separate from.” We speak of ordination in the Episcopal Church as being set apart. It’s part of the job. But I didn’t want to be set apart anymore.

Q: What do you live by now?

A: I live by the simplest, perhaps facile command that Jesus ever gave, which is to love God with the whole self and the neighbor as the self, and I find that’s entirely consuming. To do those two things leaves me very little time to do much else.

Q: You say that “the call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human.” What does being “fully human” mean?

A: What I mean by that, I think, is that much of religion, much of the religion I was schooled in, was about putting my self away, aside, behind me in order to become something holier and closer to God. In other words, to draw nearer to the Really Real I needed to be less me. Perhaps it was a midlife revelation or just wearing out on that that led me to a different understanding — that my humanity was God’s chief gift to me, and that if I was going to find the Really Real it was going to be within that and not separating myself from that. I don’t know if it makes sense. But it meant that the holiest thing I could be was the flawed human being God had made me to be. Let me be really clear: I know people in collars who are “fully human.” It’s not the “I couldn’t”; it’s the “I wouldn’t.” The permission was not there from myself. At the very least, [being fully human] would mean something about every day to the best of my ability resisting being a fake. Resisting the fake answer, the false front, the superficial conversation in favor of something more deeply human, more deeply connected to what really matters about being alive, whether it sounds religious or spiritual or correct or not.

Q: What would be some examples of what being fully human means to you?

A: Day to day it means engaging, encountering all the different people who cross my path. To recognize another’s humanity is a huge part of finding my own. It means to stop censoring myself so that what comes out of my mouth are only pearls and jewels and perhaps to let some slobbery stuff come out as well. It means worrying less about being perfect, and being concerned more with being authentic or real with other people, maybe in hopes of evoking some of their own realness, because a lot of us are busy pretending to be someone instead of being someone.

Q: Nature figures very prominently in there someplace, too.

A: Nature does. I wonder if I’d had babies if nature would have figured so prominently. But there’s something about the caring for this piece of earth I’ve married in northeast Georgia that feels very maternal to me. I know why Mother Earth is a “she.” I know why it’s not Father Earth. It’s Mother Earth. I guess when I give myself to these earthy things, they give so much back. It’s been a rich, rich experience of living where I know what’s going on with the moon and the trees and the sun.

Q: However you define God, you have written, you feel God very close when you’re close to nature.

A: I do, and that’s the confession of a solitary person, a person who is never lonely because I love being alone. I learned that from my father, I think, who loved his own company. And while that was sometimes irritating to his family and friends, I think it never let him down. And it was a good lesson to me — that I didn’t need a lot in order to be content; that to be still and to pay attention to where I was and whom I was with was plenty.

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Q: We talked years ago about a book that you then had out called THE LUMINOUS WEB. You had taken it upon yourself to try to understand everything that modern theoretical physics had to say about creation and the formation of the Earth, the development of life on Earth, and you tried to weave it all together. Was there something about trying to understand contemporary science that affected your faith?

A: That’s a wonderful question. I think that what I so admired as I did wide reading in a lot of areas of science was the way in which scientists are committed to the truth, whatever the truth may turn out to be, and their willingness to surrender what seemed true yesterday in light of a new discovery tomorrow was hugely inspiring to me, especially as a religious person who spent more of her time guarding the truth from encroachment, you know, from change sometimes. That’s the main thing I took away from that. And the precision of thought. The times that I would use metaphors and my scientific friends would say, “Science is not metaphorical. Science is scientific.” I learned that as well.

Q: But what was the effect on your faith?

A: On my faith, it was a willingness to see what would happen next and that if I lost what was true yesterday it would be just fine, because tomorrow today’s truth might be outdated as well. That’s what I meant earlier about faith as trust. It’s not certainty — that I’ve got a hold of something that won’t move. It’s a willingness to keep walking into the next day, open to whatever may turn out to be true that day.

Q: You wrote someplace that you wondered whether you were still a Christian. How did you come out in your answer to that question?

A: That took years. I think that soon after I left Grace-Calvary Church, I began to get notes from people saying they were sorry to hear I’d left ministry. And for a while, I halfway believed they were right, that I’d left. And then there is always some scrutiny on the part of one’s Christian friends about whether or not one is still Christian, especially if you’re surrendering truths and certainties. For a long time I listened to other people to decide whether I was still Christian or not, and I would sort of vet myself by the traditional formulae. And about, I don’t know, two years ago, the great relief was I decided I got to say whether I was Christian or not, and so I’ve relaxed enormously since then. I’m the one who gets to say that, and not someone else.

Q: And what do you say?

A: I say I am. I’m a follower of the Christ path, and that opens a huge discussion about what we even mean by words like “Christian.” But I’m a follower. I’m a follower.

Q: What do you hear from your friends and fans, especially Episcopalians, about your new book? What do they tell you?

A: My friends have, with a few notable exceptions, remained my friends. I wrote this book for my friends. But I have been so amazed by the reception of this book: Some discomfort, even hostility from places I didn’t expect it. Some huge thanks from places I didn’t expect it. Wonderful messages from people being ordained or confirmed in the church thanking me for a book on leaving church, so that clearly they found in it some affirmation of what they’re up to. In many ways, this book has been like a sermon. I put the words together, and then people have heard what they needed or wanted to hear, and the responses have been as disparate as “what a comical book,” “what a polite book,” “what a heretical book,” “what a disillusioning book.” I’ve gotten responses across the gamut.

Q: Do some people tell you they are sad? I ask that because when you were describing what you were going through at the end of your time at Grace-Calvary, all the pain that you were going through, I imagine there would be people who would say they were sorry about that. And I would also imagine that some people, especially fellow Episcopalians, would wonder whether what you had done was sort of “let down the side.”

A: I expected to hear from people who thought I’d let down the side. If anything, the reception of this book by Episcopalians has been great good news. We’re a broad tradition. What I’ve found is Episcopalians write me and say, “What an Anglican book. What an Episcopal book. The love of nature, the affirmation of humanity.” So if anything, I found out I’m in the right church.

Q: So the ministry you’re doing now as a teacher, as a frequent preacher, and especially as a writer. That’s enough?

A: That’s enough, and I have a ministry as a neighbor as well. A ministry as a friend and a ministry as an aunt and a godmother, and family is very much in the circle of my vocation right now.

Q: Would it be true to say that moving outside the church enables you to find yourself closer to God than you did when you were inside it?

A: I have worked very hard not to do “better or worse” on this. I think the central revelation of this book is what a pleasure it was for me to be in full-time parish ministry for 15 years and what a pleasure it is for me now to be teaching, and to love one does not mean I have to dissing the other. So, closer to God — you probably can’t get much closer to God than serving a congregation 24/7. At the same time, there’s a different kind of closeness in this present life I have in which I have much more freedom to come and go and to engage some of the silence and stillness and solitude that I was missing before. So they are both good, and I find the Really Real in both of them, as different as the lives are.

Q: Some, perhaps even many people in the church would say that spirituality by itself can become self-centered, vague, flabby, and that it needs to be joined with the tradition, the discipline, the rules and the community of church in order for it to really work.

A: That’s very important. The tradition piece is so embedded in me I don’t know that I can see it any more, but the community piece is one I’ve been in danger of losing. Perhaps another big revelation of this book was to play with the word “church” and what does it mean. Is that an institutional church with a name – Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church? Or is the church a body of people who may be linked together in ways that even they are not formally aware of. We pray a prayer in church on Sundays: “To those, oh God, whose faith is known to you alone.” Is that the church? Is the church a group of people who are engaged in embodying the gospel in diverse ways who recognize each other when they see one another? I suppose the community that I am moving in now — I’m itinerant in a way a United Methodist could only envy am I itinerant, in terms of moving between communities of faith. What I still lack in my life is an at home, five miles from my home, group. I have daydreamed about starting a new house church, a little circle. But with one Episcopal church in the county, that would not work very well. It would be set up as competition to what’s already in place here. But I’ve not yet found my at-home circle.

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Q: The numbers of mainline Protestants have dropped considerably over recent years. Why do you think that is?

A: The numbers have dropped over the years, I would say, because church can be extremely boring. It can be very meaningful, it can be character forming, but can be have very little fizz in it. I think in some ways some mainline churches — we have to say which one in which town led by whom, you know, with whom in the pews — there’s no such thing as a mainline church. There are churches. But I think there is, both on the clergy and the lay end, some real hunger to recover direct experience of the Really Real, and there are ways in which we’ve got a new wine in old wineskins problem. What gets lost is tradition, with heroes in it that have history behind them, like John Wesley, Samuel Wesley, Martin Luther, in my tradition Thomas Cranmer, John Calvin. To be in the mainline is to have a history and not simply to be an amalgam, a community church of who knows what that came from who knows where. Because I’m in a mainline church, I’m very aware, especially as I move through community churches and new-start churches that are making real efforts not to associate themselves with traditional denominations — very often they have no history. They have no institutional memory. And so, in my mind at least, they are in grave risk of just repeating the same old foibles that have happened so often before. The value for me being in a mainline tradition is history and memory, which is not just Christian tradition but denominational tradition, and characters, you know, with real distinct flavors of ways to be Christian.

Q: But you say someplace that the mainline churches are broken. And we all know they’re broken. What does that mean?

A: Well, clearly I’m leaving out some of the hugely successful megachurches, of which I have very little experience. I think this whole emergent church movement is beyond my present experience. I need to spend more time with that crowd. But what I mean by broken and what has interested me so much is to talk to clergy who talk about what they could do if only their congregations would. And then I talk to congregations who say what they would do if only their clergy would. So it’s as if we’re both going some place we thought the other wanted us to go, and I don’t know quite how to fix that. But it’s as if we need to take a poll and see who really wants to go in the direction we all seem to be heading, because I’m hearing a lot of dissension about that.

Q: Do you miss church ministry?

A: Thank you for putting it that way. I don’t miss the ministry, because I’m completely engaged in it. In terms of parish ministry, I miss the intimacy with a group of people. However, that was achieved with a position of power among those people, which clearly I don’t want to go back to. I miss the hot spots. I miss the hospital calls. I miss the nursing homes. I miss the really intimate human contact with other people, which I did nothing to earn.

Q: Do you really believe, as you have written, that religion seems to do more harm than good?

A: Didn’t I phrase that as a question? I think I said “in a world where religion often seems to do more harm than good.” It’s difficult for me right now to ignore how many conflicts locally and worldwide have religion tagged to them. Now I’m one of those people who doesn’t think they are religiously based. I think to get God on your side is a great way to feel powerful. But I can’t help but note that God is being useful to a lot of people trying to do harm to one another.

Q: What would it take for you to go back and be a parish minister again?

A: It would take a different configuration of church, and as far as I’ve gotten with the daydream, and don’t hold me to it, [that would be] is a circle of a small number of people, this is happening all over the place, a house church where we take turns with the proclamation of the gospel, where we take turns with the celebration of the sacraments, where the ministry is shared equally among all. And that means sometimes we get together and it’s just awful, because everybody’s boring. And other times somebody’s shot through with a spark of the Spirit and astounds everybody present. But something much closer to the ground. We would agree never to have a building and never to have a budget. But our money would go beyond us every single time, and we would as a small group be able to covenant to do things together we might not — could not — do alone. But we would do our best to avoid that institutional anchor.

Q: And between that and what exists now is there something you could see in a typical mainline church that they could work toward that would be better than what is now?

A: I think it’s already happening. I still, among the people I talk to, see that there are central church affiliations that mean a great deal to people: “I belong to St. James United Methodist.” Or “I belong to Church of the Immaculate Conception.” And underneath that larger umbrella, those in that church and beyond their smaller groups of people intimately involved in people’s lives. Some pastors are setting that up intentionally, and you can’t prevent it from happening. It’ll happen even if it’s the bird hunting group or the quilting bee. But that, to me, seems like the hopeful thing — is identification with a large body and then intimate life with a smaller body.

Q: Does “being fully human” imply that you put humanity ahead of God?

A: Humanity can be pretty stinky. I can be pretty stinky. I don’t want to just throw humanity out there. That came with my birth certificate. But to be fully human is perhaps why I’m Christian, because I see in the life of Jesus a way of being fully human. That didn’t come with anyone’s birth certificate. Does it put humanity ahead of God? Those have to be two separate things. If you’re going to make them rivals, or one instead of the other, then you’re saying that God’s not all wrapped up in humanity or that God’s not invested in humankind. So I have a really hard time right now pulling those two apart.

Q: I wasn’t thinking about pulling them apart. I was thinking about the old bedrock instruction to love God first and foremost, and love your neighbor as yourself. But the implication of that, I think, is that you put God ahead of yourself, and it could be interpreted that the implication of being fully human is to put yourself ahead of everything else.

A: If God is about putting God ahead of myself then I’ve just quit being religious, because that’s what got me into such deep trouble. I’ll put God ahead of ego. I’ll do my best to always put God and neighbor ahead of ego, but I want to find myself, and if finding myself means losing my ego self, I’ll go there. But, again, I think a toxic message in a lot of Christianity has been that the self has to be annihilated in order for God to be found. I think that has been a toxic message. I say to my nephew, “You’re looking good.” He says, “If there’s anything good in me, it’s not me. It’s God.” And that’s a wretched statement to me.

Q: And the idea of losing yourself in order to find yourself?

A: Sure. That’s the biblical quote on which my whole book is based. The structure of the book is finding, losing and keeping. Those three are a carousel, and to ride the carousel is to go through them all again, because the minute I have something to keep, it’s time to start losing it again to see what I find next. I know what you mean about self. We’ve gone from PEOPLE magazine to US to SELF. I mean, look at the titles of the magazines — I don’t mean self in that way, but I’ve just heard so much religion about x-ing out the self. I say early in the book I’m a privileged middle class white woman. When I talk about losing myself, which I did, it’s losing my idea of who I was and my idea of what I was supposed to be doing and the idea of what my value was to God. I lost all of that at least. The beauty in the losing is a loss finally of self-consciousness. There’s a gorgeous moment that can happen in all kinds of places. It can happen with people, it can happen with nature, and it can happen with my eyes shut anywhere I am. And that is the loss and sense of the self as separate from whatever it is I am encountering. The mystics call it a moment of unitive experience with the divine. That’s the best sense I can make out of losing the self — losing for a moment the sense that I am not you, different from, opposed to, must be defended from you, but that you and I — all of a sudden the division goes away for a moment and my self is lost, and there’s a chance yours is, too. We’ll return to ourselves, but we’ll be better off for that loss of self.