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Interview: Barbara Brown Taylor, priest, author, professor of religion

26 June 2015

'People expect the person at the microphone to have solutions. I don't have solutions'

kenny simmons

My working life at the moment is a mostly pleasing jumble of teaching undergraduates, writing things for other people to read, and leaving my comfort zone to do public speaking in a variety of settings on the small number of things I know anything about. I also spend far too much time at the computer answering email from people I do and do not know.

 

I love teaching undergraduates - getting to know them, trying to capture their attention with questions that matter, listening closely to their answers, and then figuring out how to help them express themselves even better.

 

The public speaking away from home is the hardest thing I do. In troubled times, people expect the person at the microphone to have solutions. I don't have solutions.

 

Where teaching is concerned, I'm always exploring how I can do it better. In almost every way that matters, the content of a course is less important than the pedagogy. If I can't figure out how to teach it in a compelling way, then it will be completely forgettable.

 

In my writing life, I'm exploring how to write a book on living with religious difference.

 

My forthcoming trip to the UK is courtesy of Canterbury Press, which has just issued the paperback edition of Learning to Walk in the Dark. So, I will be speaking about the themes in that book. But what I am most looking forward to is getting into some back-and-forth dialogue with readers.

 

It will be my third trip to Britain, and my fifth to the UK. My DNA loves this place! When I travel, I do so with as few expectations as possible. That way I am wide open to whatever happens. So we'll see what happens.

 

Advice for parish clergy? When things are operating properly, the work itself provides comfort and inspiration - sometimes just enough to keep going, and other times so much that it takes the breath away. I think it helps to focus on the parts of the work that feed your soul, and make sure you do those parts more than the other parts.

 

As often as I have asked for the gift of panoramic vision, I have never received it. So I read other people to see what sense they make of what is happening in the world today. Where Churches are concerned, I am both saddened by the loss of old structures, and excited by the new forms that are emerging. I like to think of this as the Holy Spirit at work, bringing life out of death once again.

 

I expect that my first experience of God, if I had possessed the consciousness or language to describe it as such,would have been feeding from my mother's breast. My first conscious experience of the numinous was in a field of high grass behind my house in the Midwest: bright sun, high-flying geese, black earth, sweet-smelling grass full of living things. I belonged to that field and I knew it.

 

I have lots of conceptual language to go with that experience now, most of which serves only to distance me from it. But direct experience is still available - not only in fields but also in markets, barns, kitchens, classrooms, hospitals - in all the places where life happens, which makes them sacred places for me.

 

There are only sacred places and desecrated places. Some people have more transcendent experiences of God. Mine are all pretty immanent.

 

My father was a graduate student in psychology when I was born. My mother dropped out of nursing school to have me when she was 23 years old. When she woke up from the anaesthesia, my father was standing there with a pair of tiny red shoes for me. Two sisters followed.

 

We moved a lot as my dad climbed the professional ladder. We finally settled in Atlanta, Georgia - my mother's home town - where I attended high school and college. My father died in 2002.

 

My mother is a happy octogenarian, and my two sisters both live within easy driving distance. Each of them had a son, so I'm grooming my two nephews to take care of me when I'm old.

 

My husband, Ed, and I made an intentional decision to leave the city in 1992, in order to live closer to the land. It took us a couple of years to find the land - 160 acres of pasture and woodland in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. There are a couple of springs on the farm that feed beautiful flowing streams. The only truly level places are right by those streams; so that's where the garden is: three acres dedicated to growing organic vegetables for home and market. It is my heaven on earth.

 

I am happiest on the front porch of my house, doing absolutely nothing but watching the birds fly and the clouds change shape.

 

My favourite sound is the first bird I hear singing outside my window in the morning. However long the night has been, and however poorly I have slept, I know that sound is coming, and it always lifts my heart.

 

I used to love adventure travel, which included hiking in faraway places like Ethiopia and Bhutan. Now, my idea of the perfect vacation is renting a bungalow in southwest Ireland or Nova Scotia, and using that as a base for long walks, with the promise of a cold pint at the end.

 

I am always hoping to care less about achieving things. I still hope to experience more liberation from the kind of busyness that deadens the soul.

 

Since my anger is usually a cover-up for terrible sadness, the last thing that made me so sad/angry that I didn't think I could remain standing was the news that nine people had been shot dead while worshipping in a church in Charleston, South Carolina.

 

Like everyone else I have a list of heroes, but in the end I wonder if they have influenced me as much as the people who troubled or challenged me in ways I did not welcome at the time. They are the ones who forced me to grow a larger spirit, or at least to discover a better method of forgiving both them, and myself, and moving on.

 

When I use set prayers, I give myself over to the concerns that have preoccupied people of faith for millennia: peace, health, purpose, unity, fruitfulness. When I pray without a script, I simply listen. Twenty minutes of that usually sets me straighter than anything I could think of to say.

 

Since I am on my way to Britain, my companion in a locked church would have to be Brigid. I'd like to hear what she has to say about being locked inside the four walls of a church. But if she's busy, then Teresa of Avila - but only if she promises to bring her castanets.

 

The Revd Professor Barbara Brown Taylor was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

 

Her tour begins on 2 July in Edinburgh, and takes in Winchester (5 July), Salisbury (6 July, sold out), Oxford (7 July), Durham (8 July), London (9 July), and Truro 11-12 July). For, full details, visit www.canterburypress.co.uk/news.

Learning to Walk in the Dark (Canterbury Press, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).

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