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In the dark with a shoebox of beliefs

21 November 2014

John Young wonders whether this author travels too light

Learning to Walk in the Dark
Barbara Brown Taylor
Canterbury Press £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £12 (Use code CT318 )

BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR has written several books and has an enthusiastic following. I can see why: she writes fluently and imaginatively. Her latest book contains a series of reflections on darkness, often based on experience. She takes us into a nightclub, a hospital at night, and a deep cave. She spends a night alone in an uncongenial cabin. She shares insights from living on a farm. She reflects on St John of the Cross and the dark night of the soul.

The author points out the difficulties inherent in biblical contrasts such as darkness and light, blindness and sight. Readers of the Church Times will already be alert to these sensitive issues through articles by Professor John Hull (whom I knew before he lost his sight).

Like all writers and preachers, Brown Taylor is hoping to shed fresh light (how difficult it is to avoid such terms) on the old, old story. What this amounts to here is an attempt to release us from the bondage of received Christianity into "emerging Christianity". This is where my unease begins.

Brown Taylor seems to have joined the growing number of Christian leaders who see the Church as an unsatisfactory sideshow, and encourage us to embark on a personal spiritual journey. Very often, this means replacing "we" with "me" and reducing the size of our suitcase of beliefs - in her case, to that of a shoebox.

The author raises important questions. Is "solar Christianity" unrealistically optimistic - and therefore escapist? Is active church membership optional for Christians? Will her brave new approach lead to radical discipleship - or is it self-indulgence with a spiritual veneer? And can we dispense with ancient Christian vocabulary? Terms that she finds dispensable - sin, salvation, repentance, and grace - others see as vital (the Archbishop of Canterbury, for example, has said, "'Grace' is my favourite word in the English language").

In her later years, the novelist Fay Weldon embraced the Christian faith. She asserted: "I do approve of religion. I think everybody should try church before they try therapy. It's extremely healthy for you to spend an hour a week thinking not about what a victim you are, but how wicked you are."

Some recent words of Canon Giles Fraser are also worth pondering: "If churches have a future, it's in addressing our existential darkness: sin and death."

Who is right?

Canon John Young has written several books, including Christianity: An introduction in the Hodder Teach Yourself series and Lord . . . Help My Unbelief (BRF, 2011).

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