An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, preacher and writer Barbara Brown Taylor's most recent book, uses a variety of spiritual—though not always distinctly Christian—stories to demonstrate the surprising ways the spiritual and physical worlds intersect.
Taylor's unconventional spirituality is partially rooted in her involvement with Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches before settling in for over 20 years as an Episcopal priest. From these experiences, Taylor has authored 12 books, becoming a noted voice on religion in the literary world. She currently teaches religion at Piedmont College in northeast Georgia and is an adjunct professor of spirituality at Columbia Theological Seminary.
Altar bears some similarities to Taylor's 2007 memoir, Leaving Church, which recounts her decision to leave the priesthood for teaching and delineates between loving church and loving God. Like the former, Altar finds spiritual meaning not just in concrete beliefs but also in the realm of nature. Taylor recounts a road to God that included drawing close to the "ground of all being" and the "one heart beating inside all living things," phrases borrowed from Eastern philosophy and religion more than Christianity as such.
The title of her recent book draws from the story of Jacob's dream (Gen. 28:11-19), in which a ladder falls from heaven and imbues an ordinary location with sacred meaning. This leads Jacob to recognize the stretch of wilderness, rocks, and sand as part of the house of God or "an altar in this world."
Jumping off from Jacob's Bethel experience, Taylor uses stories to suggest that God can drop a ladder anywhere, so to speak. She introduced various practices that help one notice a spiritual significance in routine moments. She starts with the practice of simply paying attention, an exercise in awareness and being fully present. Taylor links this practice to the story of Moses, who noticed the bush burning and went to investigate it. By tuning in to her surroundings, Taylor finds increased reverence for many things—including meat, which she says she's more grateful for since seeing chickens housed in a nearby barn and hauled off in a truck.
The next practice is a related lesson in appreciating our bodies—or, as Taylor calls them, the "marvelous luggage" in which our souls are tucked. She suggests praying before a mirror, naked, to recognize that "I live here. This is my soul's address." She says this candidly, acknowledging that more readers will follow her suggestion in principle than in practice.
From there Taylor moves on to find spiritual significance in local geography. For example, Taylor advises readers to consider looking down at our feet and answering, "Here, I guess, since this is where I am." This section relays several observations about place, which Taylor draws from watching others walk through a labyrinth and prostrate themselves before God. These sorts of practices, says Taylor, help us tune in to the details of our surroundings, to "consider the lilies of the field."
Taylor ends Altar by advocating a definition of prayer that extends past conventional methods to include daily activities that express the heart of prayer. Biting into a tomato with gratitude for nourishment, for example, might raise a sort of thankfulness to God, Taylor maintains.
Throughout the book, Taylor's strength is in her word choice. The attentive reader will have a hard time not appreciating her fresh vocabulary and insightful metaphors. While plenty of Taylor's observations complement the Christian walk, some believers might be disappointed at how easily Taylor illustrates various points by referencing Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and other religions' beliefs and practices.
Overall, however, if one can read Taylor's insights reflectively, with an eye toward Scripture, Altar will serve as a refreshing reminder that the physical world is designed to help us experience the spiritual one. Her observations encourage us to think carefully about what God might be revealing through "what has been made": his "invisible qualities, his eternal power and divine nature" (Rom. 1:20).
Sarah Raymond Cunningham is a wife, mother, and the author of the memoir Picking Dandelions: a Search for Eden Among Life's Weeds (Zondervan, 2010). She blogs at SarahCunningham.org.
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