Book Review: An Altar In the World by Barbara Brown Taylor

Aug 8, 2009
I spotted this book in, of all things, an Internet sidebar ad, and when I clicked on the ad it took me to the Harper-Collins website where I could read the prologue in PDF. Now that's how to advertise online. I put a hold on it at my local library right away; it came in last month.

The introduction made it sound like, well, the most pagan "Christian spirituality" book I've ever come across, and I'm pleased to say I wasn't wrong. Oh, it's still a very Christian book; Taylor is a former Episcopalian minister, and she writes as though to a universally lapsed-Protestant audience, supporting her ideas with Biblical scriptures and stories. But the Christianity she's advocating in An Altar In the World is not the kind of "reward in Heaven" Christianity that's chased off so many people; in fact, she's not necessarily advocating Christianity at all. (She makes clear in her introduction who her audience is -- that large population that self-defines as "spiritual not religious.") What Taylor is advocating here is love of the world, and love of God through love of the world. Pagans should be familiar with that.

Each chapter of the book focuses on a single practice that is designed to enhance what you do in the name of religion rather than what you believe -- another popular Pagan idea, but one that I've heard people advocating in all kinds of paths. The first four chapters, in fact, are exactly the practices that always appear in Paganism 101 books. These are Vision (seeing the divine in everything), Reverence (often described in Pagan books as Attention), Incarnation (seeing the divine in yourself), and Groundedness (a walking meditation). I loved reading about these in this book in a way I don't in Paganism 101 books, possibly because Taylor writes about these practices in terms of how she discovered their value, rather than writing about them because that's what you put in this part of the book. Taylor gives a wonderful sense of revelation -- she's not teaching you what to do as much as she's saying, "Look at this nifty thing I found!"

Later chapters are even more interesting, because they address issues that don't come up in the Pagan literature, or they come at them from a different way. Wilderness, for example, smacks a little of the traditional "God works in mysterious ways" line, but also addresses the importance of failure. Sabbath is a reminder of the difference between "not doing work" and "doing nothing." My favorite chapter is the second-to-last, Prayer. I'm not sure any description could do it justice; Taylor's descriptions of her prayers, candlelit, wordless, and heartfelt, are immensely powerful.

In many ways this book has helped me a lot in the project the Universe seems to have decreed for me this summer; the project of learning what orthopraxy really means. It's been a hard lesson for over-intellectual me, who spent her whole life with everyone believing she'd have a career in academia because, well, I'd just fit. I probably would. But I've been learning (slowly, but learning) that ideology is pretty cold compared to actions, and that ideas are still awesome, but they don't have a lot to do with ideology. Taylor absolutely puts that into practice here -- while she quotes Christian scripture to support her arguments, one doesn't get the sense that she's arguing that Christianity contains the best or most truthful realization of these practices, but that look, here is something many people including probably you agree is important that says this too. I aspire to one day be able to use the structures of my own religion in the same way.

I'd recommend this book to just about anyone.

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