Beliefs Jonathan Merritt: On Faith and Culture Opinion

Barbara Brown Taylor on the devil, death, and the definition of ‘Christian’

Barbara Brown Taylor is a theologian, priest, and  New York Times bestseller of many books, including her most recent "Learning to Walk in the Dark." - Image courtesy of author

Barbara Brown Taylor is a theologian, priest, and New York Times bestseller of many books, including her most recent “Learning to Walk in the Dark.” – Image courtesy of author

Yesterday, I published the first part of my interview with Episcopal priest and New York Times bestselling author Barbara Brown Taylor. In it, we explored her new book Learning to Walk in the Dark and how she wants to help Christians explore what she calls “lunar spirituality.”  Below is the second part, in which Taylor and I discuss personal topics such as what she believes makes one Christian, if she believes in a literal devil, and whether she is afraid of dying.

RNS: You’ve talked a lot about your journey out of the church world. What do you consider yourself now? Christian or Episcopalian or something else?

BBT: It’s true that a wrote a book called Leaving Church  in which I detail leaving parish ministry, but I’m still very much involved in the church world. I end up speaking and lecturing in church settings at least twice a month. So I haven’t journeyed out of the church at all as far as I can tell. I’d say I consider myself a practicing Christian and in April I’ll celebrate my 30th anniversary as a priest in the Episcopal church. So I’m an active and practicing Christian, though I’m as bad at it as most of us are.

RNS: So if you’re a Christians and other who have very different beliefs and practices than you are too, what makes a person a Christian exactly?

BBT: I can call myself a Christian, and there are bodies of Christians who could disagree with me based on their own criteria about what makes a real Christian. But I think a lot of us are rethinking what it means to be Christian. And a lot of us are rejecting other people’s rejection of us as Christians. At this point in my life, I am pretty willing to let people tell me whether or not they are Christian rather than imposing my own definitions of it on them. My base definition is “here she says, here she is a Christian.”

What I don’t think is working so well–except perhaps for very tightly enclosed communities themselves–is defintions of what makes one truly Christian or not. That may be why we have more than 900 denominations in this country.

Book cover image courtesy of HarperOne

Book cover image courtesy of HarperOne

RNS: In your new book, you point out that Christian teaching thrives on dividing reality into opposed pairs: good vs. evil, church vs. world, flesh vs. spirit, light vs. dark. How do you think we’ve gotten this wrong?

BBT: I learn a lot about how people conceive of reality by listening to the way they talk. I’ve talked Christian for a really long time, and I think Christians are so used to dividing reality into opposed pairs that a lot of us don’t even hear the opposition anymore. The divisions are there in our scripture, in our prayers, in our worship services, in our hymns.

I don’t know that we’ve gotten it wrong exactly. These may be useful ways to focus on the virtues we want more of and the vices we want to avoid. But I’m struck by the ways in which this kind of language can lead to “enemy thinking.” If you use it long enough without thinking about what you’re saying, you can regard the body, the world, the darkness as spiritual enemies. And I think that goes against some of the central affirmations of Christianity. That God made human beings in God’s own image. That God so loved the world. That God is the God of darkness and of light.

To continue to divide reality into opposed pairs, I think, requires another God for that other reality. Needless to say, once you’ve gone there you’ve lost the central Christian narrative, which is, there is only one God.

RNS: In your theology, is “the Devil” a literal person? Is it someone who lives in the darkness or something we Christians have invented? 

BBT: I find the Devil absent in the Hebrew Bible except for the book of Job where the Devil works for God as God’s prosecuting attorney. Actually, it is “Satan” here. So it is very curious to me how the Devil gets such a big role in the New Testament.

But for me, when I look at addiction or sex slavery or murder or all the wretched things people can do, and when I talk to people who commit those things, I find people talk as if they were in the grip of something beyond their control. I can only imagine that there is a strong force for death that goes along with a strong force for life. But I’m not willing to oppose that to God. I may be one of the few Christians who just wants to hold out that there is one God, and if there is anything like a fallen angel named Satan, we still have within us enough of the divine to continue to choose life. I’m not ready to give power to a devil who can beat God.

RNS: You’re a part of mainline Protestantism, which has been in sharp decline for some time. A lot of evangelicals say that this decline in mainline Protestantism is due to liberalism. What say you?

BBT: I don’t know. I cut my teeth in the evangelical church. That’s how I came into Christianity in college. So I think I know both movements fairly well. I gravitated toward a more liberal Protestantism because of its wider embrace, its reluctance to hold people to certain standards of what it meant to be Christian. For some, that feels soft. It doesn’t feel very faithful to be friendly towards people of other faiths, for example. I tend to think there is less impetus to become part of a group that is pretty happy to let anybody in. It doesn’t feel as strong or righteous or as hard in drawing boundaries.

But I’m but I’m happy to be part of a little dwindling minority. I think a lot might happen once we’ve lost some buildings and some power.

RNS: There are several references in the book to your age in your book. How much are you thinking about aging these days?

BBT: A lot, clearly. I’m 62, but I’m a happy 62. I don’t wish to be 61 or even 60. But I am very aware that I have less time left than I have already spent. By the epilogue of this book I think I realize that life is a lot about loss. That doesn’t have to be associated with age necessarily. That’s just part of being alive. There is nothing abnormal or punishing about it. To live is to lose.

It seems to me that it makes a better life with God and in the spirit to live with the presence of that. It requires perhaps even better spiritual skills to live with loss than it does to beat back loss. Age is a great help in that regard.

RNS: Tell me, 62-year-old Barbara Brown Taylor, are you afraid of dying?

BBT: I’m afraid of dying but I don’t think I’m afraid of being dead. Since I was an adolescent, I’ve been preternaturally aware of my mortality. It even may have something to do with why I chose ministry and have remained a priest all of these years. Because you deal a lot with people who are in the last stages of their lives, either at three months old or 93-years-old. I’ve sat with people through that whole gamut. It’s impossible to be clergy and not deal with the reality of death.

Death is now closer for me. But life becomes more precious as life becomes more limited. Like anyone else my age, I hope I keep my brain and I hope I keep my mobility. But even if the worst comes then I hope to fall into that darkness with some kind of trust in the divine.

RNS: Whenever that day of death comes for you, how do you hope people will remember Barbara Brown Taylor?

BBT: I don’t expect to be remembered. Maybe for 10 years. And that seems right. You’re active in your own time. Only a few people become immortal, but not because they plan to. The rest of us just go back to the dust. I would like to be remembered as someone who said and wrote things that all of us think but aren’t willing to write. That would be a good legacy.

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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  • A Christian is anyone who calls herself or himself a Christian? That’s a definition shared by many. It’s not shared by Jesus though. He said a lot of people will claim to belong to him but they don’t. (Matthew 7:21.)


  • Right. In Matthew 7 Jesus talks about those who think they belong to him but don’t. If Christian means something other than belonging to Jesus, then it means whatever the speaker thinks it means. That’s not in line with the rest of the New Testament (see Acts 11:26 for the first use of the word) but it squares soundly with Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

    So sure, anyone can be a Christian as long as they’re defining the word for themselves. I think I’ll call myself an astronaut. Never been to space, never been trained, never been hired by a space agency, but that won’t stop me. I’m as much an astronaut as Neil Armstrong and no one can say I’m not.

    Works for me!


  • So are there human gatekeepers that get to determine who are and are not Christian, or is that solely left up to God to decide? There are a lot of denominations that claim to be the “One True Church” and that all other denominations of Christianity are false because of the wording in Matthew 7, claiming that Christians that don’t belong to their specific sect are wrong and thus not real Christians.

    This is a serious question, and I would like a serious response. I want to know your opinion on this.

  • Solely up to God. One of the ways a person can tell if they belong to God are in the first part of John 15 – bearing fruit for Christ. But the Bible never says that anyone on earth has the ability to say this person is in and that person is out. Then again, not everyone who claims to be a Christian is one either.

  • So… she won’t even say that a Christian at minimum is someone who believes in the death and resurrection of Jesus? That’s about the most basic threshold you can get. If she won’t go there, I’m wary of the rest of her theology (or lack thereof).

  • Definitions are tricky things, and I’m troubled by BBT’s attempt to NOT frame things in black and white, or rather to somehow embrace both sides of the question; seems Manichean to me. Or am I reading her wrong? As to the ‘World;’ “For God so loved the world,” yet at the same time,”Be not conformed to this present world.” Probably two different forms of the Greek word. Jesus also spoke plainly of the Devil (Satan) as a personal adversary, I’m prepared to take Him at His word. As one eminent philosopher has declared, ‘The Devil’s greatest success has lain in the fact that he has been able to convince people that he doesn’t exist.’ BBT’s Christianity may not wholly measure mine, but I’m certainly prepared to live and let live, at least on the basis of this interview.

  • I agree with Tim that it is solely up to God. As far as denominations go, it isn’t that “these denominations are in and these are out.” Rather, within every denomination there are some that have an authentic relationship with God and others that don’t, and we as humans cannot tell by looking on the externals.

    I suspect that having an authentic faith is less about having the correct checklist of theological beliefs (i.e., is not denomination dependent) and more about having a soul that readily submits to God’s call. Which gets back to the “man looks at the external, while God looks at the heart” idea.

    I think it’s very appropriate that Jesus started Matt 7 with “do not judge or you too will be judged” right before he tells everyone that “not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord….’ will enter the kingdom.” On the one hand, Jesus wants to examine ourselves to make sure that we have an authentic relationship with him, but at the same time, he doesn’t want us looking at others and making assumptions.

    So, going back to the way that Barbara addressed the question — “If she says she is a Christian, I believe she is a Christian” — assuming the best about each other is probably the best way to approach each other in love. However, we need to recognize, some people may be lying to themselves, having refused to actually submit themselves to God and having no real relationship. It’s not my job to distinguish which is which, but it is my job to help disciple/help those in the body to grow, whether their relationship with God is authentic or not.

  • Tim, you keep assuming that “Christian” means ” someone who truly knows and follows Jesus.” Those of us who use the term differently aren’t making words mean whatever we want. On the contrary, we’re using “Christian” in a sense that can be objectively verified: a person who professes certain beliefs, identifies himself/herself with a particular religious tradition, etc. Your use of “Christian” is really useless for anyone except Jesus Himself. Only the Lord knows for sure who are truly following Him and who aren’t. Much better, then, for us mere mortals to stick to a humbler use of the word to mean public profession.

  • Public profession in what, though, Edwin? I think your suggestion that there is a commonality (“certain beliefs”, etc.) goes along with my original point. Being a Christian is not utterly indefinable, even for us mere mortals. 😉


  • I am enjoying this discussion. For my part, I absolutely love that in the questions are at least and sometimes more important than the answers. As we continue to seek the truth, we grow.

  • John 3:16. And yes, that’s a serious answer. Doesn’t get any more serious.

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

  • I enjoyed this interview and article.

    Thank you for writing it.

    I will check out your book too.

    I hope your Holy Week and Easter are blessed times for you and those you love.


  • WOW, this lady’s thoughts hit me where I live! I had never even heard of her. I’m going to buy her book.

  • A Christian is someone who follows Christ…Period! If people say they
    love Jesus and then don’t follow the Bible/religion no Truth is in them!
    Jesus said many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven! Only
    if a person continues in the teachings of Christ are they are Christian!
    Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk and 1 Corinthians 6:10 says that
    drunkards go to hell so people who get drunk are not Christian yet we
    have a whole nation of people who get drunk. The wine Jesus made
    was new wine/diluted and the Bible says don’t get drunk on strong wine
    so people who get drunk with wine are also wrong! The Bible says if
    you have a sharp tongue your religion is worthless yet we have people
    in church who are mean/gossip/don’t bridle their tongue because these
    sins never get confronted along with sins like gambling,coveting/jealousy.

  • Actually Jesus didn’t use the word Christian, because that word was not known in Jesus’s time.Jesus was born a Jew and he died a Jew. It took a long time after his death before the concept of Christianity became a religion separate from Judaism.

  • Acts 11:26
    and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

  • i find that Babara’s way of thinking is in line with New Age and against the teachings of The Bible where it clearly says that darkness is not of GOD. Yes GOD did make humans in his own (Spiritual) image but we (Fell) accepted darkness rather than HIS light and so became the Spiritually Darkened humans that we are without YESHUWA and HE HIMSELF said that if we know and understand THE LIGHT and yet reject it, then the darkness in us is great (Matthew 6:23) and Isaiah 5:20 warns people not to substitute darkness for light. May U close by saying that for someone to say that the devil is not mentioned in the old testament is incredulous as he is there in the garden, there in Isaiah, there in Job, there from when mankind is created and even though the actually name “the devil” may not be there, his workings and influence is and he’s there in the shadows and the darkness and GOD says that we cannot sit on the fence about anything…we are either for HIM or we’re against HIM, which by definition makes us FOR the devil. Thank you for reading.