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“An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith”

In looking for the right word to describe my response to Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, what I have finally settled upon is resonance. Whether in the realm of physics or relationships, resonance is what happens when something moves in such a way that it awakens a corresponding response in something, or someone who is “tuned” to the same frequency (whether it was realized before or not). This is what I experience through each section of the book as the freshness of her conversational style makes tuning into the richness of the insights she shares almost effortless. But more than just describing my experience in reading the book, resonance is also a word which I believe captures what is at the heart of what she is trying to get at. She begins by describing this in terms of a longing that people share,

. . . for more meaning, more feeling, more connection, more life . . . They know there is more to life than what meets the eye. They have drawn close to this ‘More’ in nature, in love, in art, in grief. They would be happy for someone to teach them how to spend more time in the presence of this deeper reality . . . 1

Helping us do this is what she sets out to do. As Marcus Borg so aptly comments on the back cover of the book, “Elegant, wise, and insightful, this book is also sacramental; it mediates the life it describes.” 2

Starting with the practices of the patriarchs who built altars to mark those places in their journeys where God had shown up in significant ways, Barbara Taylor reflects on her own experiences and those of others. What unfolds are not only fresh resonating glimpses of those often-unnoticed places where God shows up, but also an invitation to consider what it might look like if we were to be more intentional about building and returning to the “altars” we might raise up to mark those same places in our own experiences.

Masterfully mapping these places of resonance less in terms of doctrinal coordinates and more in terms of spiritual practices, she provides her readers with an intriguing and challenging collection of altar sites. Her geographical survey includes the practices of waking up to God, of paying attention, of wearing skin, of walking on the earth, of getting lost, of encountering others, of living with purpose, of saying no, of carrying water, of feeling pain, of being present to God, and of pronouncing blessings. While it is difficult to resist the temptation to begin unpacking the rich insights that she weaves into each of these chapters, and indeed nearly every page, what I would like to do instead is reflect on the significance of the contribution she makes on another level. That is, what the implications of what she is doing has for us, particularly in the Adventist community. Let me suggest a few areas of particular resonance.

The first, already alluded to, is the deep sense of spiritual hunger she addresses. While articulating this is certainly not new, unique to Adventism, or to myriads of other books on spirituality, there is a freshness in the way she frames the conversation and grounds it in our daily experience.

People . . . will spend hours launching prayers into the heavens. They will travel halfway around the world to visit a monastery in India or to take part in a mission trip to Belize. The last place most people look is right under their feet, in the every day activities, accidents, and encounters of their lives. What possible spiritual significance could a trip to the grocery store have? How could something as common as a toothache be a door to greater life . . . the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. 3

Yet, far from straining credulity by dragging trite spiritual lessons out of routine daily events, she invites her readers to engage what might otherwise seem ordinary and unremarkable, and probing just a little more deeply, notice how God is present in their midst. In doing so, she describes a kind of spirituality that is not so much about trying to schedule more “sacred” moments into our “regular” lives, as it is about recognizing the sacredness of the moments we regularly live. It is a spirituality that is grounded in “regular stuff” that turns out to be not quite so regular after all. As a result, we begin to approach our lives differently — not only more aware of what already is, but also paying attention to, and perhaps even altering our patterns of living in ways that help us to tune in more fully to that “something more” we are becoming more aware of.

This brings us to what I believe is a second particularly resonant point. She describes what lies at the heart of living this life of heightened awareness, less in terms of carefully articulated statements of belief, and more in terms of how we actually engage what we believe in the way we live. In ways that parallel and build upon the contributions of Craig Dykstra, Dorothy Bass and others, who over the course of the past decade have led the way in understanding Christian Practices as central to what defines the life of faith, 4 she wades deeply into the same stream, but from a number of fresh new places along the shore that are surprisingly accessible, not only for already experienced swimmers, but also those who are still considering getting their feet wet. 5

Adventists would do well to follow her, and those who have gone before her, into the water. In fact, it is urgent that we do so. Because too many of our conversations have been driven by religious anxiety and framed in terms of tension between faith and works, law and grace, sinful or sinless natures, etc. — all in attempts to pinpoint precise locations along the shore on our doctrinal maps, we have struggled more with, and in the water, than we need to. It’s not that these conversations are not important, necessary and foundational, or that they do not influence the way the water flows in important ways. But as much as a doctrinal shoreline helps to shape the course of the river, it is also vital that we remember that it is also the flow of the river that shapes the shoreline. While the river stays the same, and major geological landmarks that have stood the test of time endure, the configuration of the shoreline does change as the water flows.

The implicit challenge in Taylor’s book for Adventists, is to consider what it might look like to huddle less on the banks of the river, trying to define ourselves by detailed descriptions of silt patterns on the shoreline, and consider more what it is like to be immersed in the water, and with an eye on the landmarks, allow our movement in the water to define us. Instead of relying upon 28 fundamental snapshots of river scenery, what might it look like to consider fundamental video clips of what being aware and engaged in our world looks like — of actually being in the water — to define us? As important as how we think about the world is (and it is), could it be that there are certain fundamental ways of being in the world that are equally as defining? Could the authenticity of the way we actually are in the world be at least as important as how carefully and uniformly we describe it?

But in order for Adventists to engage in this dialogue in a healthy way, we need to do so with a clear understanding of what this conversation is and is not about. If not firmly rooted in a clear understanding of the centrality of grace, this is a conversation that will quickly go awry. The patterns of living that are described here are those that arise from the transforming appreciation that we are saved by the graciousness of a loving God, and are now free to live in the wake of that in ways that mirror the graciousness that has embraced us, not as things we do in order to qualify for it. This is not relationally packaged legalism, but an opportunity to embrace a way of life that is shaped by awareness of grace, and as a result is more naturally and intentionally gracious. I wonder if it is, perhaps, because in so many circles we have not adequately finished the law and grace conversation, that we have been hampered in pursuing the richness of this one?

But what should be of particular interest for us, is her willingness to enter the arena with many others in the Christian community, in talking about the significance of two of Adventism’s most important and cherished treasures: the wholeness of people, and the Sabbath. In the chapter, “The Practice of Wearing Skin,” she does a wonderful job of probing the implications of what it actually means that “in our embodied life together, the words of our doctrines take on flesh.” 6 In the chapter, “The Practice of Saying No,” she explores what taking Sabbath seriously might look like, not only in terms of correct calendar reading, but in the way it shapes how we live. She invites us to “Test the premise that you are worth more than what you can produce . . . and when you get anxious because you are convinced that this is not so, remember that your own conviction is not required. This is a commandment.” 7 As others have done before her, 8 Taylor invites us to look at the things we hold closest to our hearts, not just in terms of how we might define them on paper, but how we might embody and live them out.

But all of this is only to comment on what needs to be experienced and embraced. I am speaking both of the book itself, which should be read slowly and thoughtfully, enjoying every page; but even more of the life it describes, that should be lived in the same way, celebrating the richness of each day.


1 Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009) xiv.

2 Taylor, dust jacket cover.

3 Taylor, xiv-xv.

4 While she does not directly reference these works, what she shares parallels their contributions. See Dorothy C. Bass, ed., Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (SanFrancisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), Craig Dykstra, Growing in the Life of Faith: Education and Christian Practices, (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 1999), Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass, eds., Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002).

5 Barbara Taylor should not be held responsible for any weaknesses in the river analogy used here. It is simply my attempt to get at one aspect of the significance of her contributions as they relate to how we work out our identity as Christians.

6 Taylor, 45.

7 Taylor, 139.

8 For two representative works on the Sabbath and the wholeness of people, respectively, see: Dorothy C. Bass, Receiving the Day (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), Stephanie Paulsell, Honoring the Body: Meditations on a Christian Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Pubishers, 2002.


Ken Curtis is an associate pastor at the Calimesa, California, Seventh-day Adventist Church.

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