By Bruce Jeffries
As a participant in the 2013 Festival of Homiletics, I heard a lecture by Barbara Brown Taylor as she shared some of the research and reflections she had engaged in preparing to write Learning to Walk in the Dark. The Bible, as it comes to us, uses the light/dark metaphor as a way to differentiate between good and evil, enlightenment and stagnation, wisdom and ignorance, which leaves us with the desire to always strive for the light. Subconsciously, we may have been taught to fear the dark.
Taylor calls this “full solar spirituality”1, and manifestations of this get reflected in both individuals and churches who hold to this belief and practice in surety of God’s presence to always answer prayers through a strong faith that seems apparent. By itself, this may not be a bad way to operate. But what happens when faithful people experience dark times, when the surety of belief is undermined by a loss of job, a marital separation or divorce, and when prayers don’t seem to be answered?
Barbara Brown Taylor proposes a hypothesis that when we participate in a theology of dichotomies one is led to believe that one direction puts us in closer proximity to God and the other keeps God far away, we miss a very important reality that is lifted so very rarely in Scripture: God does not depart from his faithful ones, God’s presence can be engaged as much in the darkness as it can be in the light. Learning to Walk in the Dark is Taylor’s way of helping us negotiate through the various degrees of darkness. In the creation story of Genesis 1, God creates light first and calls it good, but God does not destroy the darkness, but creates an opportunity for all of creation to experience both day and night. Psalm 139:11-12 also counteracts a sense of “full solar spirituality”. Just think of all the Biblical characters who receive instructions, dreams, or visions in the night-time.
Darkness, like light, has varying degrees. Barbara Brown Taylor gives the reader cues in each chapter, not only by the chapter titles, but also in the icons of the moon that grace every page of a chapter. The quotes from a variety of authors begin each chapter, which confirms for me the deep reading and research that Taylor has engaged in writing this book. Most of all, Barbara Brown Taylor has articulated a new understanding of the dark, and I have shared my copy with a person that was clinically depressed, who expressed great gratitude to me. Sharing this book with persons who are experiencing “dark” times in their lives might be very beneficial, precisely if we feel free to discuss it with them. In this case, it could be a great way of using it as an evangelism tool for people outside the church, and as a pastoral care tool for folks in the church in a variety of struggles.
Barbara Brown Taylor ends the main part of the book with a prayer written by 20th Century mystic, Thomas Merton, which brings us all to the essence of what it means to learn how to walk in the dark: My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always through I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.