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Barbara Brown Taylor tells Christians to embrace darkness

Barbara Brown Taylor, named one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world, says Christians need to embrace darkness. - Image courtesy of HarperOne
Barbara Brown Taylor, named one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world, says Christians need to embrace darkness. - Image courtesy of HarperOne

Barbara Brown Taylor, named one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English-speaking world, is on a mission to redeem the darkness. – Image courtesy of HarperOne

She’s been called a heretic by some and a prophet by others. Baylor University even named her one of the 12 most effective speakers in the English-speaking world.  Her name is Barbara Brown Taylor, and she is on a mission to redeem the darkness.

“Christianity has never has anything nice to say about darkness,” says the 62-year-old Episcopal priest in her new book, Learning to Walk in The Dark.  Taylor charges churches with propagating a “full solar spirituality” that “focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock.” But she says the faithful need to discover a “lunar spirituality,” which recognizes that humans need both darkness and the divine light .

It’s fitting that Taylor’s book should release before Holy Week, a time when Jesus entered what many Christians would call one of the darkest periods in his own life.  Was Christ’s dark period a positive thing overall? I imagine most Christians would say “yes.” Yet, some of those same Christians resist embracing darkness in their lives.

In the first part of my interview, Taylor and I discuss her message about darkness and why she thinks Christians need it. In part two, which will be posted tomorrow, we explore hot topics such as what she believes makes one Christian, if she believes in a literal devil, and whether she is afraid of dying.

Book cover image courtesy of HarperOne

Book cover image courtesy of HarperOne

RNS: How do you think modern Christians have misunderstood darkness, both in scripture and in life?

BBT: Once you start listening to how people use the words dark or darkness, it doesn’t take long to realize that the references are 99% negative. I don’t know how that happened in every day speech. Maybe it’s a linguistic fossil leftover from our days in caves or maybe it is a predictable association for people who’ve become addicted to light.

Where scripture is concerned, I don’t think Christians have misunderstood much of anything. From Genesis to Revelation, darkness is used a synonym for ignorance and sin and evil and death. But there are also narrative passages that form an easily missed minority report.

RNS: You also talk about the positive use of darkness Isaiah 45 (“I will give you hidden treasures in the darkness”). You obviously think we have misunderstood something, no?

BBT: When I say we haven’t misunderstood anything, that’s if you go through a concordance and look up the words. If you look up “dark” and “darkness,” scripture is unanimous. But if you look up the stories, it’s a whole different thing.

In Genesis, darkness existed before God even got to work as a primal substance. Everything was made by God from dark. In Exodus, God promises to come to Moses on Mount Sinai in a dense or dark cloud. Here, darkness is divine and where God dwells. Abraham meets God in the darkness, Jacob wrestles an angel in the middle of the night, and angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds at night. There’s so much that happens in the dark that is essential to the Christian story.

Linguistically, it’s the pits. Narratively, it is a different story.

RNS: What’s your working definition of darkness?

BBT: Darkness is everything I do not know, cannot control, and am often afraid of. But that’s just the beginner’s definition. If I am a believer in God, then darkness is also where God dwells. God may also be frightening and uncontrollable and largely unknown to me, yet I decide to trust God anyway.

RNS: You say “many old-time Christians are looking into the dark right now.” How might your message help them?

BBT: I mean “mainline” Christians. It only takes about a minute in any news source to notice in decline in everything from membership to budgets to congregations combining and buildings going up for sale. Sometimes when I visit these embattled churches, I feel almost like I’m working for hospice visiting churches that are just scared to death they’re dying. You can almost smell the sweat in the room as they fret about what in the world they’re going to do.

But if you really work for hospice you learn to work with what is left. The remaining time, resources, relationships. Even for mainline Christians who are looking into the dark, there is reconciliation and healing and intimacy and community that can take place in the dark. There’s also a lot of humility in the dark, which might be a great curative for a religious tradition that’s been on top for a long time.

RNS: You critique many some churches for having a “full solar spirituality.” But don’t people—those wrestling with depression and fear, for example–want and need hope?

BBT: First, you equate full solar spirituality with hope. But there’s plenty of hope in the dark too. And you also equate darkness with depression and fear. But there’s a lot of healing and liberation in the dark. So you’re using those speech patters that I’ve noticed more and more.

There is a lot of what happens these days that I would call “spiritual bypassing,” where one offers a religious formula to will help you stay on top. But I cannot sell out the Christian message, which at its heart says that when the bottom drops out and you’re screaming your guts out at God, there’s more. It says that if you are willing to enter the cloud of unknowing and meet God in the dark—maybe even the dark of a tomb—you might be in for a surprise.

The great hope in the Christian message is not that you will be rescued from the dark but if you are able to trust God all the way into the dark, you may be surprised.

About the author

Jonathan Merritt

Jonathan Merritt is senior columnist for Religion News Service and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He has published more than 2500 articles in outlets like USA Today, The Week, Buzzfeed and National Journal. Jonathan is author of "Jesus is Better Than You Imagined" and "A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars." He resides in Brooklyn, NY.


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  • This can help many people see their sin, Many today only want to talk
    about gay marriage and/or abortion so they don’t have to face their
    own sin like gettin drunk,gossip,gambling,bein mean,coveting/jealousy.
    Many in church are still in the dark/not walking in the light because their
    sin is never confronted. Christians today seem to forget Jesus said many
    willl say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven so people in church need
    to wake up/take a look at themselves and not just point the finger at the
    world. The Bible is very clear that Repentance is required for everyone!

  • Once again Jonathan Merritt gives me a different way of seeing things. Thank you, I look forward to tomorrow’s post.

  • “lunar spirituality”?

    This is mumbo jumbo.
    Concepts like this need to be put in their place. I see nothing wrong with poetic speculations about feelings, emotions and philosophies – just don’t tell me it is God if that is all you have.

    There is no reason to claim any of this is supernatural.

  • I guess it all depends on which definition of darkness you’re using. Paul says believers should have nothing to do with darkness in 2 Corinthians 6:14 but he’s obviously talking of spiritual matters, not physical darkness. I can’t tell which type of darkness the author here means, but apparently it is darkness in a more poetic sense than the spiritual reality Paul spoke of.


  • Agreed. It would seem that ‘darkness’ is being used as a metaphor for difficulty, struggle or hardship in life. If that is the case, it would seem she is forcing a concept into a word that is unnecessary and complicates the matter.

  • I would say that if you can’t understand her use of the word darkness perhaps you’ve never suffered from depression or even deep grief. Darkness is the only word I have to describe those times in my life. And, yes, I have been surprised by God in those times of darkness.

  • Darkness:
    A theory of life which leads to either Hell or Heaven depending on how much gullibility you can stomach. THAT is the emptiest, darkest nonsense ever invented by mankind 🙁

  • Dan, I’ve suffered. My mom died when I was a kid, my wife and I have suffered a miscarriage, plus many other horrible events, so I don’t think a lack of experience is the reason I ask about her definition of the word. I’m just wondering what it is, that’s all.

  • Yep, that’s hope of Christianity and the gospel that turned the world upside down alright. “Peter replied, ‘trust god into the dark, every one of you, and you might be surprised.” – Acts 2, verse 38ish.

  • Tim, Please forgive me. I came across rather arrogant in my comment, did not intend to but I did. Blessings

  • Dan, I didn’t take it as arrogant at all, just an honest suggestion that experience informs understanding. I totally agree with you there.

    Blessings back atcha, Brother!

  • Traditional Churches are dying and will continue to at a rapid pace as a result of complete denial about there need to evolve their communication practices. I sat in an episcopal church this past weekend and it took everything in me to not fall asleep. There was no relevance to the lives and times we are all living. Now to compare that with my recent attendance at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and Kenton Beshore’s Mariners Church in Southern California which both have vibrant and growing congregations in the 1000’s, they were like dark and light. 🙂

  • darkness has many disguises, when I hold the hand of one that’s dying or when I talk to someone in hospice and when I am going through what I call my desert time I am in darkness, but do you know what it’s there that I find God in the lightness

  • @James,
    “The fire that needs to be frequently fanned is a poor flame to get warmed by.” – Robert Green Ingersoll

    What are you really saying, James? Why are you so certain that motivational speakers are the answer? What does that say for those who seek the truth?

    A better sales pitch doesn’t make the snake oil work better.

  • It’s not about a sales pitch. Saddleback and others like New Spring/other growing churches still pitch what Jesus did; that is He loves each and every one of us. He met people where their needs were, still does today and that is what these churches are doing. It’s not about beating people down, it’s more about lifting them up.

  • @Rhett,
    The idea that Jesus loves everyone is very sweet. But if it is true – and IF He was God – why did he leave us with problems like this to interpret:

    “…bring to me those enemies of mine who would not have me as their king…EXECUTE THEM in front of me.” – Jesus (Luke 19:27)

    Yes, it is from his parable of the 12 Minas. That is the context.
    Yet it appears to have been Hitler’s favorite parable – the Jews are clearly those who ‘would not have me as their king’.

    Does Jesus Lord who knows all things then not bear some responsibility for the Holocaust? If He was God he would have HAD to know how his words would be understood. He had to know that millions innocents would be slaughtered because of his words.

    If Jesus loves us all you say – but why doesn’t that include the victims of Treblinka or Auschwitz?

  • @Rhett,
    And if Jesus’ love does not extend to those who ‘would not have’ Him as ‘King’ why would he love me?
    I am certainly not more innocent than those children who died in the Holocaust. Shall a Holocaust come to all non-Lutherans or non-Catholics? Though Jesus loves them? What is the value of such a ‘love’?

  • The “King” in the parable is a fictional character in Jesus’ story. He does not literally represent Jesus, or God. Parables are like riddles; you have to figure out their meaning. The point of this one seems to be that people should make the most of what they’ve been given (their talents, their opportunities, their spiritual gifts), and not waste them. Will God literally punish those who don’t? Or will life naturally be less favorable to those who don’t make an effort? One can debate the meaning. But to assume the harsh and violent king in the story was meant to represent Jesus himself is an interpretive leap that doesn’t make sense, in that it’s the total opposite of Jesus’ personality and character.

  • @Max: If you are an atheist as your name suggests, wouldn’t it make more sense to lay responsibility for the Holocaust entirely upon the humanity that made it happen rather than on your understanding of a deity you say does not exist? I am a member of a Native American tribe, and my people suffered at least as much as the Holocaust victims, probably more, over a longer period of time, and were murdered and victimized by our own government, which is still in charge here in the USA. There are monsters among us, and they are seen as the good guys. The “sweet” belief (as you put it) that God loves us and has not lost faith in us in spite of it all is what keeps us going. For indigenous tribes, it is all we have left.

  • @Maya – I am not the author of the parable in question. Jesus said “Execute them”, not me. I cannot believe a loving, all-knowing God would ever utter such a lesson in ANY context as it is certain to be misused by those very humans He supposedly knows so well!
    So, God is nonsense to me.

    @Bradley – No, I don’t believe in God but remember that the Bible was used to justify Indian massacres as necessary to ‘tame savages’ and bring Jesus to their souls as a missionary project. Just as Hitler used the Bible to justify his disgust of Jews:

    “….the personification of the devil as the symbol of all evil assumes the living shape of the Jew.”
- Adolf Hitler (following the
 position of Martin Luther), Mein Kampf, Vol. 1 Chapter 11


”Hence today I believe that I am 
acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself
 against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.” -Adolf Hitler
(Mein Kampf)

    It is a bleak state of affairs to realize that the Bible is always out to get us:

    Jesus says “eat of my body” and “Be baptized and believe” or “Be condemned to Hell” (John 6:53-54)(Mark 16:16).

    Believe it if you wish.
    Or love life and treasure the people in your life regardless of the Bible.
    I have found that Love is good and it is enough. It needs no gods.

  • would you agree:
    The presence of Jesus Christ is in both places ?
    This makes all the difference, does’nt it?
    Did’nt you take Him in both places? ‘Put you to sleep in one and kept you awake in the other ?

  • I loved this article. As a person going into ministry now, at a time that we might be considered post church, the question of what’s possible with what’s left is important to me.

  • This week’s issue of TIme magazine has a cover story on Barbara Brown Taylor. Here she seems to waffle a bit when describing herself as a Christian. The Time article made her seem far more eclectic in her spirituality. Still, finding God in the dark is not a new idea for Christians. There is much to be gained in rediscovery of it, I think. I really enjoyed Susan Pitchford’s book, “God in the Dark: Suffering and Desire in the Spiritual Life” and I highly recommend it for Christians.

  • If you read her book “Leaving Church” which she mentioned in this interview, you’ll see that she’s not just eclectic in her faith but syncretistic.

  • @ Atheist Max, Native Americans were massacred primarily as a result of The Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny and the systematic policies of the US Government (the latter being entirely secular in nature), which we all continue to support to this day. You missed my point entirely. The problem is humanity and our misuse of religion as well as other philosophies and worldviews. Wake up sir, look in the mirror and realize that the enemy is you and all of us.

  • Christendom is divided. Shocking, I know. The great divide of today, is, as ever, between those who believe Christianity wholesale without reservation and those who don’t. I know, I know, logically, those who don’t believe the Bible literally oughtn’t to be considered a part of Christendom. However, just as we embrace anti-American Americans, we’ve made a practice of embracing misochristian Christians. Clearly, these anti-Christian Christians are in vogue today, as they always are with the pro-progressivism/anti-traditionalism zeitgeist of the Lame Stream. Anytime an avowed theologian or pastor makes it to the limelight in a favorable light (or in this case, a favorable shadow) it’s because that person denies the narrative of Christianity as it was written and believed by the vast majority of Christians throughout the ages. In fact, it’s universally because that person, in this case, this Taylor woman, has made a career of denying, refuting, and all too often denigrating and mocking that side of Christendom that does take Christ at his word and the Scriptures as divinely inspired the way they were written, not the they were deconstructed and “demythologized” twenty or so centuries after Christ. There’s really nothing at all novel or interesting about Taylor’s approach. It’s been fundamentally done before. The only reason she’s of any interest is obviously her skill as a communicator and the fact that she is useful and therefore palatable to the hard core theophobes and misochristians in the Lame Stream editorial offices.

  • Bro. Eli Soriano calls her a false pastor>>
    If Taylor is reading her Bible, she will know that there is not a single verse in the entire scriptures that says that darkness is better than light in any given time since the creation of light. On these premises, let us put under the light of the scriptures the darkness created by the thinking of Taylor and illuminate the thinking of those who believed in the fallacy being spread by her, a false pastor. I mark my points.<<

  • This woman is certainly against the words of God…

    EPHESIANS 5:11 (KJV)
    And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.

    THE ROMANS 13:12 (KJV)
    The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light.

    Inventions and additions beyond what is written in the Bible are things we should take care not to indulge ourselves in

  • Max,
    Much of modern Christianity is built on what scholars now know was not Jesus’s thinking. Jesus showed us how to live best, how to have a full meaningful life. He was all about relationships and being in the moment. As a Jew he would not have believed in life after death except as the Jews thought, continued life thru their children…
    As far as victins of auschwitz, et al, God loved them and still does.
    Jesus never said he was God. There’s a book titled something like The Q Gospel that makes a lot of good points. Christianity is far removed from what it was meant to be. Jesus never even called himself nor his followers Christians. ..
    The bad things in this world are either nature or nature’s response to how we’ve messed up. The promise is there is more than that; good can always come from the bad. God (whatever the definition) is & will always be with us.