My Unpopular Opinion About A Very Popular Writer – reflections on Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Leaving Church”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

Blending Beliefs

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.

***

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43 Responses to My Unpopular Opinion About A Very Popular Writer – reflections on Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Leaving Church”

  1. Pastor Bob says:

    WOW! Well written, reflecting careful thinking on your part.
    Blessings!

  2. janehinrichs says:

    Good words Tim. Thanks.

  3. govpappy says:

    On the other extreme, maybe you’d love to address Ed Stetzer’s recent CT post on Church membership sometime.

  4. I have heard of Barbara Brown Taylor before in positive light. She was on my (admittedly very long) list of authors/books to get to. Too bad to hear that the substance isn’t quite right with this one though.

    • keriwyattkent says:

      On the other hand, might there be value in reading authors you disagree with, because it helps you articulate the subtle differences in theology? If the author’s view “isn’t quite right,” meaning it doesn’t exactly mirror your own, is that a reason to simply not read it? What if reading it would provide a mental and spiritual workout which would ultimately strengthen your faith and discernment? Not trying to be difficult, just throwing out a question –and not only to you, Jeremy, but to the community here.

      • Tim says:

        You make me think of 1 John 4:1 “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” and Romans 12:9 “Cling to what is good”. These are instructions I try to keep in mind when I read what people have to say about God.

      • I agree with you. I don’t have problems with reading people who don’t mirror my own thoughts. Honestly, no writer probably mirrors my views exactly. I’ve written about this before if you are interested, http://anintermediatefaith.com/?p=1897.

        I was more expressing disappointment than anything else I guess. That the author I had heard some good things about may have some serious flaws. This isn’t to say I won’t ever read her or that there is no value in reading her, just that it was a disappointment. It could be a very useful book for the reasons you say, but at the same time still be a bit disappointing. I hope this makes sense.

  5. keriwyattkent says:

    I have to say it’s been a few years since I read Taylor’s book–but I remember loving it. Of course, beautiful prose is on a par with chocolate for me, as well. But I think what resonates with so many readers, especially women (including me) is her articulation of the difficulties women in the church, particularly women clergy, encounter. I think she found a subtle but insidious sexism which frustrated her, and again, that resonated with readers, as did her observations that the restrictions and administrative tasks of ministry sometimes get in the way of actually caring for people. While I don’t exactly share Taylor’s universalist leanings, I also could relate to her frustration with Christians who think their particular denomination has the corner on truth (and tend to defend their position to the point of making questions like “baptism: infant or adult?” or “hymnal or choruses on the screen?” a deal breaker for who’s in and who’s out). I do think people who explore other faiths may find in them, eventually, a path to Jesus (even if they don’t realize it at first). I’m not saying all religions lead directly to God. I’m saying spiritual explorations may lead people to Jesus, who is indeed The Way to God. You may not have intended to, but you made me want to re-read Leaving Church. 🙂

    • Tim says:

      I’ve considered a re-read too, Keri. It’s so well written.

      When I’ve mentioned the universalism/syncretism problems in the book with others, every single person has said they missed it entirely. I think it might be because of the other issues you list, and how those are experiences many have faced in trying to minister in particular congregations or denominations. When I started reading her book I thought it would focus on how her faith met those matters. Then she said the object of faith is fungible, and that gave me new insight on where her struggles might really find their cause.

  6. Jeannie says:

    I haven’t read this book, Tim — the only one of BBT’s that I’ve read is An Altar in the World. I love a well-written memoir because even if I don’t agree with the conclusions the person has come to, I always like to see how life circumstances, personal questions, etc. shape a person’s life path. Recently I read a memoir by the singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn, who professed Christianity for many years and who now sees Jesus (whom he still loves and tries to emulate) as “portal to the cosmos” (the kind of phrase that makes me roll my eyes a bit). On one hand I’m saddened by what seems to be a diluted faith and by some of his personal decisions that he insists were led by God. But on the other hand I realize some people are by nature constant seekers who “still haven’t found what they’re looking for” (to paraphrase another musician!). I find myself stretched by these people’s words. I may not agree with where they end up, but I enjoy following them on the journey.

  7. Greg Hahn says:

    Tim, this is very well done and echoes my own heart. I love you!

  8. caramac54 says:

    Just reading this now, and for the most part, I agree with everything you’ve said. But this, I think, is the key difference: I read (present tense) and have read (past tense) BBT’s writings not as devotional or memoir seeking to point me to Christ. She is a spiritual memoirist to me, in the finest sense of the word – which doesn’t necessarily equate to having or holding the same spiritual beliefs. There’s a clear delineation in her writing from when she served in full-time parish ministry to now, but I appreciate both, because it’s her story and her experience. So for me, when I read Leaving Church, I didn’t read it as a guide to faith, but I did at times read it as a counterpart to my own journey in leaving ministry. When I looked at it that way, I felt like she spoke my language; she’d been where I’d been, even if we’re not now still in the same place or on the same journey. It also then made those “truly” Jesus parts of the book that much sweeter. I’ll continue to read – and throw cheers in the air – for BBT, one of my favorite (spiritual, yada yada yada) memoirists.

    • Tim says:

      I agree that what you get from her is what is valuable in her writing. I’ve read others on blogs who say they read her and love her expression of faith, saying this in a way that leads me to think they see her as an example to follow in following Jesus. That’s where the cautionary tale comes in for me.

  9. Is it really an accurate assessment that “Jesus is not her foundation”? Could that be a bit impulsive a conclusion, or do you feel confident in it?

    • Tim says:

      I wouldn’t say it’s impulsive, since i read the book a while back and have thought about this and talked about it with others. Am I confident in it? Yes, in that if she looks to other faiths as being just as valid as faith in Jesus then her foundation is not on Jesus. If someone argues it can be both, I suggest the verses above don’t support that.

      • As I see it, Jesus is all in all. There is no other god but God. I know that everyone has error in their ideas about God, and our conclusions often change throughout our lifetimes. Does someone have to articulate a specific view of God in order to be accepted as God’s child, or do one’s words determine whether or not they are truly disciples? That seems unfair and a very insignificant insight into who a person is. That’s why I find your criticism of this author as unsupported.

        • Tim says:

          I am not saying she doesn’t belong to Jesus. I am saying that she writes of things that are not firmly grounded upon faith in Jesus. Saying one can find God as easily through any other religion rejects what the Bible says about Jesus. When she does that, she builds on shifting sand rather than on Jesus as the foundation of her writing.

      • Thanks for the dialogue brother Tim. I understand your opinion better now. I think where I disagree with you is how we interpret “following” or “knowing” Jesus. I’m not persuaded that a person who never had exposure to Scripture could not live a life grounded upon Jesus as foundation and King. I’m not persuaded that because one’s religion may not be what I associate with Christianity, that it is not still living out the Kingdom of God here on Earth. Because, what really matters to God?

        • Greg Hahn says:

          @mixmastermerks – I think what you are saying is a fairly common belief, but it doesn’t make any sense to me. As Tim notes in the article, this fails to account for the Great Commission- the mandate to preach the gospel to all the earth, beginning in Jerusalem- to a people who had a quite fine religion already. If that was good enough, why upset the apple cart? In fact, why did Jesus have to die at all?

  10. Aimee Byrd says:

    Thanks for bringing up this important point of discernment, Tim. It’s good that you had a chance to talk to your friend about it as well.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Aimee. I’m glad I read the book because of its wonderful writing. I am mostly concerned that so many Christian bloggers I’ve read are recommending BBT without any comment on her loose Christology.

  11. cottonandquills says:

    Thanks for this article. I completely agree with everything you have to say in it. I was a student at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta when BBT was brought in as the Spirituality Chair. Her approach even then to the Godhead was eclectic to say the least, and whilst her interest in Native American Spiritually was fascinating (being 1/8 Cherokee myself I enjoyed learning about it), I myself was massively concerned about the absence of Christ in her teaching. That being said she is an incredibly gifted storyteller and teacher. I just wish she would speak more about the greatest story ever to be told, namely that God loves us so much that he actually chose to walk amongst us.

    • Tim says:

      She’s a gifted communicator, that’s for sure. Can you imagine how powerfully she could communicate the sound doctrine of Jesus as Son of God if she put her mind to it?

  12. Susan Furst says:

    I bought and started to read Barbara Brown Taylor’s newest book. I did not finish because I sensed that she did not believe that Jesus was the only way to the Father, and that in fact He is God. I chose not to finish the book because frankly this upsets me, and I see no useful purpose for myself to read about other opinions. I know the genuine article and it is the Bible the living word of God, and so even though I couldn’t identify exactly what was wrong I knew something was amiss.Your article explained it nicely. Thank you. It took me awhile to find anyone that felt the way I did on this matter. I was feeling rather alone. That is a danger for some Christians who may not be as discerning.

    • Tim says:

      Your sense that something was off is probably another way of saying you were exercising discernment. We can’t always articulate these well, but we know them when they come along. A friend of mine calls it the ooch factor. If something is making your gut say ooch, then there’s an issue you need to wrestle with.

      • Susan says:

        When you get a job at a bank they give you an authentic dollar bill, the real thing, to examine so that you can determine the counterfeit. So in order to develop your discernment you must study the Bible. In that way you will protect yourself from false beliefs that water down the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. And at this time in our history we are rife with false teachings and religions that masquerade as Christianity. The Bible is the Word of God, it never changes, and is without error. God is the Same Yesterday Today and Forever.

  13. NJ says:

    “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.”

    Um, yeah. I don’t care how skilled she is with the prose. This person is not a Christian, and I would not waste my time reading anything of hers. If I want to read something extrabiblical in the religious category, I’ll go for Lewis or Chesterton.

    • Tim says:

      I read a lot of non-Christian writers, but not for spiritual guidance. Lewis, Chesterton and other Christian writers have given me much guidance in my walk with Jesus, though. I have a post on Lewis’ influence on my early faith coming up next Wednesday.

  14. Julie Walsh says:

    Hi Tim. I’m glad to hear your thoughts on BBT. I actually haven’t read her writings but did kind of have this same impression of a certain genre of “Christian” spirituality writings that I believed her writing to fall into. I’ve called it “Eat Pray Love” spirituality. Here’s an interesting section of a Christian Wiman poem that I read today by Mark Bauerlein on First Things that I think nails this type of “spirituality” ( http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2015/10/the-craft-of-christian-wiman ):

    His little religion
    of common things
    uncommonly loved
    served him well.
    Especially in hell.

    Then Bauerlein says about this section:

    “This specimen of Wiman’s poetry comes from a larger poem, “Little Religion,” which appears near the end of the volume. It plays a trick on the unwary reader. The first three lines identify a habit, one that at first does not seem particularly improper. To make a “little religion / of common things” sounds like the act of a sensitive soul, one who appreciates the presence of God in small and ordinary matters. While the rest of us, too busy to notice, pass over the trinkets on a shelf and the morning ritual of coffee and fruit, he gives them their spiritual due. Indeed, he loves them, uncommonly. That’s the sign of an open heart, and while we may feel a twinge of excessiveness as Wiman identifies his habit, we’re willing to go along with such a quaint kind of worship.”

    “(Then) It’s a concise moral reversal. Wiman converts a benign sentimental disposition into an outlook that belongs with the damned. We read that last line and return to the previous ones with finer scruples. Of course, we think. Common things should not be uncommonly loved. To make a religion of them is idolatry. And it isn’t just an innocent mistake, either. A vice motivates it–—vanity.”

  15. cath says:

    I have read this blog and related comments with interest not least because my husband is on a similar journey as this author. Whilst I cannot agree with his eclectic, more universal stance, I am learning that I have to let him be on this journey and I am only responsible for where I am with God and remaining true to my identity in Christ. It is hard but I am learning to find peace in it and to trust that God has hold of him in the process.

    • Tim says:

      It would be quite hard, Cath, to see that happen in the family. I am praying for him to see God’s path in this, and for you to have God’s wisdom as you go through this with him.

  16. storydivamg says:

    I’m glad you reshared this on FB so I had a chance to catch it. If I may provide a slightly differing point of view, I’d like to remind you of C.S. Lewis’ warning of the harm that comes from atonement-only theology. While I haven’t read the particular book in question here, your post strikes a chord for me in an area that has been of deep contemplation for me over the past 5 years. Like Lewis, I am and always have been a follower of Jesus of Nazareth–professing my faith in the congregation of the faithful at least weekly–but I find my faith greatly enriched and even informed by the faith of people who do not see G-D the way I do.

    Unlike the author you critique here, I personally haven’t come to any firm decisions beyond the deep conviction that G-D loves ALL of humanity regardless of creed. I do listen woth extreme caution to anyone who claims to know exactly what G-D thinks, is, knows or desires. (Seriously, if you have the deity figured out, what keeps you from becoming a god in your own right?) And as behavioural psycholigists have been able to predict human actions with at least 80% accuracy for decades now, it seems unlikely that a deity who “is not willing that any should perish” would set out a means of salvation that a mere 1/8th of our existing population follows.

    Anywho . . . that’s more than enough from me. Thanks for opening the conversation.

    All my best,
    MG

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