I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church on the recommendation of a friend. After finishing it I asked what he thought of the book. He said he’d never read it, just that Taylor had been recommended to him and he thought he’d pass the recommendation along to me. Here’s what I told him:
- Leaving Church is a book of beautiful prose, a memoir that tells a compelling story of a journey of faith that took Taylor away from what she thought would be a life-long commitment to being a clergy-woman.
- I’d never recommend it to anyone looking for guidance in their walk with Jesus.
Based on the dozens of blog posts I’ve read, some Christians gobble up her books like I gobble up brownies. As with brownies, though, a bit of discretion is advised. Indiscriminate shoving of brownies down one’s throat tends to make one’s tummy ache. Indiscriminate reading of Leaving Church can lead to a spiritual ache as well, and not in a good way.
The problem with the book can be summed up in one word – syncretism.
Taylor starts the book with her path toward the clergy, taking orders as a minister of the gospel of Christ. By the end of the book, she has left the clergy as a formal ministry but claims to hold the core beliefs that took her there in the first place: she left church but not Jesus.
As I read the book I wondered here and there about what she truly believed about Jesus. Taylor speaks in the book about what attracted her to the ministry, but it often focuses on the church and focuses less on Jesus. In the heart of the book, the reason for this becomes clear.
Jesus is not her foundation.
Taylor claims that for her the path to God was through Jesus, but then explains that she could as easily have come to God through another belief system. She gives Native American religious practices as an example, and appears to be ready to accept other religions as well: polytheistic Hinduism, monotheistic Islam, tribal animism. As long as the beliefs are sincere, Taylor accepts them as valid for bringing someone to God.
She’s not alone in thinking this, of course. But it’s not what Jesus taught.
I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (John 14:6.)
Many people accept that statement, then say Jesus didn’t foreclose people coming to know him through other faiths. This notion fails to account for the Great Commission Jesus gave his followers just before ascending to heaven:
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20.)
He didn’t tell them to teach people to obey, but not bother telling them about Jesus. Rather, the command to teach accompanies the command to baptize people in his name.
Any faith that denies Jesus is the way is a false faith. As one of those who was with Jesus throughout his ministry and heard the Great Commission put it:
Who is the liar? It is whoever denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a person is the antichrist—denying the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also. (1 John 2:22-23.)
Anyone who says the way to God comes through faith in someone – or something – other than Jesus is denying Jesus. The way to God is through Jesus alone.
Reading Taylor, Building on Christ
Please don’t take this as a recommendation against reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s books. She is a gifted writer. But I wouldn’t look to her for guidance in my walk with Jesus. We either have Jesus as our foundation, or we fail utterly.
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matthew 7:24-27.)
It’s clear: Jesus is the solid foundation; any other place you want to build your faith is shifting sand, unsteady and ready to wash away.
Your faith should not be a blend of beliefs – a little of the solid foundation of Jesus and a little of the shifting sands of something else. Jesus said:
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. (Luke 16:13.)
It’s a matter of one or the other.
But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. (Joshua 24:15.)
So read Leaving Church for its prose – and perhaps as a cautionary tale – but don’t expect to get good advice on following Jesus.
Guidance on following Jesus is found in a much better Book.