Wednesday, August 12, 2015

review of Barbara Brown Taylor's "Learning to Walk in the Dark"

Barbara Brown Taylor opens the first chapter of Learning to Walk in the Dark with a reference to Isaiah 45:3's "treasures of darkness" (NASB), fitting since she's trying to mine the concept of darkness-- and our largely negative reactions to it. We often fear darkness-- physically and metaphorically. But how much of that is justified-- biblically and practically? 

In a provocative, practical, easy-to-read book, BBT argues that it's not nearly as justified as we think-- and often causes a lot of damage.  

In her house, growing up, as is common, she was taught to fear the dark: "come in from the dark"; adorn the house with "night lights"; leave a light on in your bedroom when you're sleeping. "The dangerousness of the dark was like the law of gravity. No one could say exactly how it worked, but everyone agreed...The idea that it might be friendly was absurd." (2) As she lay in bed, "all the loose darkness in that room started to collect in the closet and under the bed, pulling itself together with such magnetic malevolence..." (3) How to deal with it? "The only strategy I had ever been taught for dealing with my fear of the dark was to turn on the lights and yell for help." (3) The response was to turn on a light, wanting a "quick fix" to the "problem" (4).

For BBT, darkness is "shorthand for anything that scares" her (4). She'd be tempted to eliminate it if she could. And monsters attacked her in her room and the metaphorical darkness of life events has not killed her. In fact, "I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life." Her conclusion: "I need darkness as much as a I need light." (5)

Although these themes are presumably universal (or at least common), BBT focuses on Christianity's largely-negative approach to the theme (6, 10). Darkness is "a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness and death" (6). While useful and appropriate at some level, "this language creates all sorts of problems": "It divides every day in two...It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God [only] with the sunny part." (6) It also "offers people of faith a giant closet in which they can store everything that threatens or frightens them without thinking too much about those things." (6) 

BBT refers to a "full solar church": an over-arching emphasis on certainty in matters of faith; prosperity in circumstances; and keeping [young] people out of "places of darkness". Downsides? First, as with its cousin, the "Prosperity Gospel", any significant struggles facilely indicate a lack of faith (7). Second, "their sunny spirituality had not given them many skills for operating in the dark" (7). Third, she was thankful for the strategy's ability to help keep her on the straight and narrow as a child, but it "also saddled me with a kind of darkness disability that would haunt me for years." (42)

BBT asks: "What would my life with God look like if I trusted this rhythm instead of opposing it? What was I afraid of, exactly, and how much was I missing by reaching reflexively for the lights?" (9) In this, I'm reminded of Lewis' reference to "rats in the cellar"-- that by turning on the lights quickly in our cellars, we often get to see the rats. (If we make a bunch of noise-- warning them-- then they disappear before we can see them...fooling us into thinking they're not really there.) Lewis' point is similar: when you have the opportunity to see darkness in your own heart, don't make excuses and don't flee, but address the darkness that has been (graciously) revealed to you-- and can be dealt with through the blood of Jesus, His cross, and the Spirit.

Instead, BBT argues for a "lunar spirituality" that "waxes and wanes with the season." (8). Her conclusion is that "darkness is not darkness to God; the night is as bright as the day" (16). Perhaps this is part of what Revelation 21-22 implies with "no more night". 

BBT questions the extent to which darkness is bad, but she also provides examples where it is a good. It's apparently far easier to move chickens in the dark (34). And it's important for sleep and our body's health (61). She also attends the Biblical record to note that the metaphor is more complicated than is often sold. The metaphorical uses are nearly unanimous (43-44). But God makes a promise to Abram through the stars (44). God visits Jacob on his way out of town in a famous dream and wrestles with him on his way back home (44-45). Joseph has his dreams too (45). And a biggie: the major events of Exodus: Passover, parting the Red Sea, and the manna are all at night (45). 

Moreover, "darkness"-- biblically/experientially-- is not merely a night-time phenomenon. When God visits Moses at Mt. Sinai, it's daytime, but it's profound darkness in the cloud that veils and represents God's presence (45-48, 57). "It is an entirely unnatural darkness-- both dangerous and divine-- that contains the presence of" God (47). BBT quotes Gregory of Nyssa who observes that Moses' vision began with light, but as his walk with God progressed, he saw God in the darkness (48). Or from Genesis 32, she asks: "Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel all night long if there were any chance of escape?...Someone in deep need of blessing; someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound." (85)

Early-on, BBT asks if we could "benefit from learning to walk in the dark" (13) and provides potential examples: someone in deep need of faith; someone whose dreams have died (hard); someone who has lost his landmarks and sense of self (14). Life can be tough; God sends rain on the just and the unjust. How are we to get through this life-- faith-fully? 

Here, BBT distinguishes between the "translation" and "transformation" functions of religion (87). The former seeks to turn circumstances from curse to blessing. The best news of this approach is its effort to "redeem" circumstances. The bad news is that it often leads to avoidance or surface "solutions". The latter seeks to transform character-- "not to comfort the self but to dismantle it". In this case, the "redemption" is of our souls-- direct progress in the on-going work of sanctification. 

So, "how do we develop the courage to walk in the dark if we are never asked to practice?" (37) This points us to the role of spiritual disciplines-- their strategic approach, their rigors, their value, etc. Much of it is clearly mental a la Romans 12;1-2. As such, BBT outlines a process: "Give up running the show. Next you sign the waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first. Finally, you ask [God] to teach you what you need to know." 

In this, I'm reminded of Daniel 3. Daniel's three friends are being tested by the fires of Nebuchadnezzar. They've decided and declared that they think they'll be saved by God-- but even if not, they're not bowing to the king. They don't so much pray to get out of the trial-- as to go through the trial in a way that honors God. Their first priority is not fear and escape, but obedience and faith. I've often suggested to people that they alter their prayers-- from God changing their circumstances to God keeping them *in* their circumstances, but strengthening them to glorify God in their difficulties. Or as the old prayer goes: "Lord, give me a stronger back not a lighter load."

BBT also other pieces of (childhood) advice in navigating the dark: "Have fun...Be careful...Call on God for help" (38) There are certainly trade-offs, but BBT quotes Brox in asking whether we are "hampered more by brilliance than our ancestors were by the dark." (71)

A few miscellaneous things: 

1.) BBT lays out three "official" levels of darkness/twilight (22-24): "civil" (time for headlights so others can see you); "nautical" (enough stars to navigate; time for your headlights-- for you); and "astronomical" (all stars visible). 

2.) BBT connects the importance of darkness to the value of sleep (69 and ch. 8-- esp. 150-152). Included in this is her spine-tingling experiment to have total darkness in the middle of nowhere (152-163). She endures a scary event, but then provocatively wonders whether it was God or something sinister trying to address her-- noting that she'll (now) never know. For those interested, also check out my review of David Randall's Dreamland, a layperson's guide to sleep research. 

3.) BBT also experiences utter darkness of sight and sound by exploring a cave in chapter 6 (121-122). There are a number of excellent nuggets in this chapter: a.) the need to look back as you go, since "nothing looks the same coming out as it did going in" (126); b.) a reminder a la Chesterton that Jesus was conceived in a cave (womb), born in a cave (where the manger would have been), and was buried and rose from a cave (128); and c.) picking up a stone that glittered with fire while in the cave but looked like gravel outside the cave (130-131), 

4.) Finally, here's more on BBT in Time and a related article in The Atlantic 


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