Learning to Walk in the Dark byBarbara Brown Taylor, Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College in Georgia and an Episcopal priest, challenges our traditional views about darkness and night and gently leads us into a new paradigm of learning to appreciate darkness as well as light.
Weaving the Bible, science, history, life events, and uncommon sense, Taylor delves into the subject with skill and compassion, and examines darkness internally, externally, and eternally. Though I do not agree with several of the author’s perspectives on faith and practice, I appreciate the book and would recommend it as an insightful read.
Taylor begins with exploring our fear of things in the dark, as well as our fear of God, by taking the reader through a study of examples in the Bible. In addition, she reviews the experience of many in history: the courage of Saint John of the Cross, the wisdom of Augustine, the poetry of Li-Young Lee, and insights of the French resistance writer Jacques Lusseyran as he became blind.
The author provides a way to find spiritual meaning in those low times in our lives when we do not have all the answers. From admitting that we do not have to have all the answers, she posits that we can learn from the dark times of life and be enriched by them. While this theme is not entirely novel, the book presents a fresh approach to the subject—a perspective without offering spiritual bromides, claiming to provide a “twelve-step plan” to deal with the challenges of darkness.
Taylor seeks to correct the widespread assumption that light is to be associated with goodness and joy while darkness with evil and sorrow. Does not God work in the nighttime as well as daytime? God encourages us to put away our fears, anxieties, and worries and explore the adventure of learning to walk in the dark.
The author speaks about “endarkenedment” as well as enlightenment and argues that we need to move away from seeing God as light alone and relegating all things dark to the devil. From the beauty of the ever-changing moon, the author develops an appreciation for “lunar spirituality.” The point: through darkness we find courage, we understand the world in new ways, and we feel God’s presence around us, guiding us through things seen and unseen. In fact, Learning to Walk in the Dark is a call to put aside fears and anxieties and explore what God has to teach “in the dark.”
The book’s nine chapters deal with common views on the dark and our foibles about night, a brief Bible exploration about night and darkness and their implications, insights on the phenomena of light and darkness, our emotions and struggles with dark feelings, seeing the world through the eyes of the blind, caving in pitch blackness, the experiences of those who grappled with physical and figurative darkness, and creative approaches to using the dark as a help versus defaulting to it as a hindrance.
This well-spread map of arguments helps Taylor to build the thesis that darkness can be the forum for reconstructing a more strong and robust faith—a faith that can walk in the light and face the encounter of being in the dark. Darkness is strategic, and there is no point in denying it or hiding from it. Indeed, along with the sunrise, we need to watch the moon rise as well. Darkness must give way to creation. God separates out the light from the darkness. We can come out of the cover of darkness into the light of illumination.
The book concludes with an “Epilogue, Blessing the Day,” sub-headed by Psalm 19:2: “Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.” Though Taylor does not exposit the text, she finds in it one of her major thrusts: it is in the day, in the full day, filled with light and darkness, one can discover God’s complete will and purpose.
The book focuses well on the Bible being the inspiration and instruction for learning to walk in the dark. Her confession is a balm in itself: “Among the other treasures of darkness I have dug up along the way are a new collection of Bible stories that all happen after dark, a new set of teachers who know their way around in the dark, a deeper reverence for the cloud of unknowing, a greater ability to abide in God’s absence, and—by far the most valuable of all—a fresh baptism of the truth that loss is the way of life” (186).
Like believers of all ages, Pastor Taylor knows that final point is perhaps the key for not only learning to walk in the dark but the path to eternal life. So she humbly adds, “That last one is a hard one to trust, which is why I need to keep walking in the dark.” How will she do that? By faith and practice “to keep seizing the night as well as the day”(186).
So this book, whatever its limitations and imperfections, accomplishes its purpose: learning to walk in the dark.
—Reviewed by Delbert W. Baker, PhD, general vice president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States