“The Preaching Life” by Barbara Brown Taylor: A Book Review

THE PREACHING LIFE by BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR

A Book Review

I wonder if Barbara Brown Taylor wrote her own book description on the back of The Preaching Life.[1] If she did, I would be surprised because it does not match the meat of the text. The first descriptive sentence on the back flap—that magical place where a publisher hopes to entice a potential buyer—needs to be a well-crafted, honest invitation; yet, on Taylor’s book is the following: “In this warm and poignant collection, Barbara Brown Taylor delves with humor and wisdom into the meaning of Christian symbols and history—both her own, growing up in the Midwest and Georgia, and the Church’s.” In other words, under the guise of memoir, the reader should expect an education about Christian symbols and history. Such expectations must be cast-off, though, because this book truly embraces its title. The Preaching Life is an enrapturing, two-hundred page sermon about the vitality of God, His church, and His individual people; Taylor’s intent is not to write her life story but to breathe life into her visual listeners.

If the reader knows How to Read a Book à la Adler,[2] then the argument against the back cover becomes even more convincing. The first stage of critically examining a book is to look at its structure. In The Preaching Life, the structure actually begins at the dedication: “for Grace and Earl, givers of life.” Such a dedication is personal and intimate. I, the reader, am offered nothing about Grace and Earl (not even their last names) except that they give life, and such information seems relevant since the book’s title also contains the word life. The table of contents reiterates the theme. The book is broken into two parts. The first is “The Life of Faith,” which contains seven chapters: A Church in Ruins, Call, Vocation, Imagination, Bible, Worship, and Preaching. The flow is striking. A struggling, dying church waits for its resurrection to glory if only its people will heed the call, envelope the life, and go forth and share it in their own style of preaching. Thus, before I have even found time to read a word of the text itself, I am slowly drawn into the primordial kernels of God’s plan for His creation. The second part of the book is “The Preaching of the Word,” and it is a collection of short sermons. The last sermon—where Taylor chooses to end her work—is “Surviving Eden.” Survive: a synonym for live. I say, “Come now, oh Publisher, and fool me not with your back-flap gibberish.” This is no memoir hiding information about Christian symbols and history; surely, this is a book about God’s people and the life that they will find in Him.

When I first began to study the Bible, I admit that it was difficult to find life in Him. I was thirty-eight, and I did not have the eyes of a child when I picked up that holy book. In fact, the Bible made the adult side of me downright angry. Leviticus was bizarre, Christ never explained His parables, and Paul was a misogynist. I would still be imprisoned by that judgmental cell if it were not for a little voice in my heart that said, “Read differently.” May I never forget that voice. It was confusing…challenging…inviting. How in the world does one “read differently”? For me, I had to learn in the form of traditional education. I enrolled in a literary criticism program and devoted years of my life in a quest to understand nothing more than how to read differently. When it was all said and done, they gave me a master’s degree, but the paper is a trivial token compared to the education. My studies unveiled one clear and stunning message: The good stuff is between the words. A literary critic would say that textual ambiguity finds its rest within the metanarrative; but colloquially, we call it reading between the lines. There, between the lines, the reader finds that The Preaching Life has much more to offer than the back cover signposted.

Because of Taylor’s storytelling, the book appears to be a memoir, yet these tales are not the tales of a person looking for recognition, or reflection, or admiration. They are the tales of a preacher, and she tells them not for self-gratification but to illuminate her sermon. And if a sermon, then the book is no accumulation of historical facts, but it is a carefully constructed place of worship, full of devotion and praise for God alone. A much-admired preacher, Fred Craddock[3] instructs preachers on the topic of good story-telling in On the Craft of Preaching. He writes,

“There is a text of scripture that is so central to your theology and to your beliefs, so life-giving in its nature, so pregnant with meaning that all of your preaching flows out of that text and the implications of that text for life and work. I propose that you identify that one distilled truth—just one brief text—one distilled truth out of which every one of your sermons come.”[4]

There is nothing in Craddock to suggest that preaching should include funny stories, memorable stories, heart-wrenching stories. There is nothing to suggest that stories should stand alone. Instead, Craddock suggests that the preacher start with a refined awareness about what makes the individual preacher “tick.” What is it that the preacher discovered in the scripture that it must serve as the central template for all the embroidery work that goes into crafting every sermon after he or she has found it? Barbara Brown Taylor found life in the scriptures—abundant, over-flowing life. Her story-telling is the delicate embellishment that defines her particular style, but make no mistake, the message is all about God’s good life.

Eager anticipation awaited me when I finally curled into my reading position and engaged the text of The Preaching Life. I wondered, Which one lied to me—the back cover or all of Taylor’s hints (the title…and the dedication…and the table of contents…and the foreword)? I demand honesty, and I will settle for nothing less, so my hope was that I would not read a book about Barbara Brown Taylor’s memories, but that I would read a book about God’s good life. I began to read about Taylor’s trek in the Kachkar Mountains of Turkey, where she and her fellow travelers came upon an abandoned and decaying church ruin. No longer studded with the glory of gold and silk decorations, it had become the haunt of vagabonds seeking a place for a campfire and children seeking a playground for a game of soccer. Taylor writes, “It is one thing to talk about the post-Christian era and quite another to walk around inside it” (4). For her, the dilapidated structure was a vision of the modern church, and it reminded her that the believers must do more to attend God’s presence. The death of God, she claims, is in the hands of each person who becomes disillusioned with God and refuses to do anything more to save the spark of belief that hides deep within. There is life, though, if that person pushes into the unknown, there is a “way to survive disillusionment” (9). And there it is—life…survival. When Taylor closes the chapter, she says that we “live into” the ongoing work of creation, that there are gifts in “our particular lives” and if we “Lay any life out for close inspection,” then truth is clear: “God has called us from the womb…[He] never stops calling us home” (12-13, emphasis mine). As I read the closing of that chapter, I knew that Taylor’s hints were not misplaced. The Preaching Life is neither memoir nor textbook; it is a sermon, and Taylor clearly intends to glorify God through her writing.

The personal stories sprinkled throughout the book are seasoning for Taylor’s theology. In the chapter entitled “Call,” Taylor opens with a story from her childhood. She spends a few pages tilling the heart of her readers, and then she hits the reader with the depth of her theology: God’s calling you. She writes, “If my own experience can be trusted, then God does not call us once but many times” (25), and we need not worry that we will not hear the calling, for it echoes from the voice of the body of the believers. God is not dead and silent. He is actively reaching out to each person individually, and through His divine wisdom, He calls us through the voice of our neighbors, our friends, and all the people who surround us in our faith. Such declaration resonates with me. I am an introvert who has struggled to fit into a world intrusive upon my privacy, but in faith, I see that God not only loves community, He demands it. We do not exist alone, and often I find myself writing about the importance of others in our lives. Taylor’s point is well met: God is calling, and we each hear the call through the ears, eyes, minds, hearts, and voices of our community.

Calling leads to a chapter on “Vocation.” I was initially tempted to think of vocation as the work that people do for payment, but Taylor clarifies that (at least in reference to herself) “vocation is to be God’s person in the world” (32), so I quickly discovered that Taylor wanted to engage a broad definition of work. I mentally decided to give free reign to her argument, and soon found myself mulling over one of my favorite quotes from the book: “The ministry of the ordained is no substitute for the ministry of the baptized; it is a prototype copied from Christ’s own that offers the whole people of God a pattern for seeking and responding to the Lord’s presence in our midst” (33). Truly, there are people called into ordination, but Taylor embraces the idea that every single person has an obligation to invite the Lord into his or her life—all of it. We each have a professional life, a personal life, and a private life. None of these are sacred unto our own thoughts and wills. They all belong to God, and we must let Him be the master over every partition that we make. As Taylor remarks, the entire congregation engages in preaching all week long (34) and that scripture is our prescription for life (36). Ah, there is the word again—life. If I did not know better, I would think that Taylor was preparing a path that might show her readers how God should operate in their lives.

My anticipation does not experience disappointment, because the remaining chapters are deftly handled. Taylor encourages her readers to invite the holy into even the most vulgar crevasses of our world.

  • In “Imagination,” she informs the reader that God gives individuals imagination that they might see the world that He sees, so that we will not be imprisoned in a reality that can be mundane and monotonous.
  • In “Bible,” she remarks that studying the Bible academically can be a heart-wrenching exercise as we come to confront new theories, old myths, and modern interpretations. I am pleased to say that like Taylor, I chose to be enticed but not bamboozled by academia. There is life in the Bible; a biblical education that glosses over that fact is no education at all.
  • In “Worship,” Taylor again pushes the bounds of definition. For her, worship is an act carried out in every moment. In particular, she enumerates the values taught by engaging in the sacraments: 1.) We do not worship God in isolation; 2.) God uses the material world to connect with us, and; 3.) God is not fragile (70-71). In other words, the sacraments are meant to be portable and useful. We should not erroneously assume that church service will suffice when the sacraments can be moved out into the world, enveloped in our own “non-churchy” parts of life.
  • Finally, “Preaching” brings “Part One” of The Preaching Life to a close. Here, Taylor does not abandon her evangelism, but remains true to her task of illuminating life for believers, not just employed preachers. She acknowledges that there are those who do preach for a living, but “the sermon is no place for a virtuoso performance; it is a place for believers to explore together their common experience before God” (84). The beauty of a sermon is not found in the inky words or crisp pages, but in the vaporous work of the Spirit as He moves from the preacher’s mouth to the ears of those who hear.

Taylor’s last words for this half of her book? “…God is…making us a people who make speak and hear the Word of Life” (91). That is no way to end a memoir, nor history book, nor book about church symbols; that, my dear reader, is an ending fit for a sermon. Thank God and Amen.

From the end of “Part One,” I will cut straight to the ultimate end, that of “Part Two.” The second major division of The Preaching Life is a collection of thirteen sermons written by Taylor. While all of them are edifying, the final sermon is (by very definition) Taylor’s final word for her text. I approached it with particular interest, wondering if she would hold to the theme of abundant life that so permeates the rest of the book. I nearly giggled to see that it was entitled “Surviving Eden.” Of course, I thought, she not only chose an ending; she chose to end on a beginning. Such wise thought comes only from a writer fully attuned to what she is trying to accomplish.

“Surviving Eden” welcomes readers with the storytelling that we have come to expect from Taylor. At first, it is a universal story, one where she calls to our imagination about our family histories. She touches upon tales of grandma meeting grandpa, about struggles, and about hope. Then, she moves into a story closer to her own family…the accounts that her mother found in her genealogy searches. There were moonshiners, and potato farmers, and chain gang bosses, and physicians, and artists. There was even Cousin Ezra. He liked to walk about with his cow…even in the dark. While those stories belong to her own family, she reminds us that there is a common story found in the Bible, and there we find even our first parents—Adam and Eve. As a reader, I found myself undulating between humor and pain, comedy and tragedy; yet, the focus becomes clear. Taylor writes, “[Genesis] is a story about God and about humankind, about a choice and its consequences. …It tells us not only how we fail—we already know that very well—but also how we survive” (176). The story of Adam and Eve is not about the fall or original sin; rather, it is finding a way to keep living after everything seems hopeless. It is about a God who never gives up on his creation.

Of course, Taylor recognizes that the Genesis 1:1 does not read “After Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden…” To prepare us for the function of her sermon, she first needs to lead us both into and out of Eden. She uses a visualization technique that encourages the reader to step into the place of the first man and first woman. Taylor asks us to imagine, which should not come as a surprise since one of her chapters was about using the imagination to connect with God. We are asked to feel the weight of the fruit, to hear the buzz of a beehive, to see the dimming of the light. As we rise out of our fog of imagined memories, Taylor calls us to reflect on Adam’s and Eve’s actions which followed. Taylor reminds us that by the end of the tale, the first couple had lost paradise. She wonders what would go through the mind of someone who had lost it all…in fact, Taylor moves into the second-person voice again and asks you to ask yourself the same questions. Would you blame yourself? Would you blame paradise? Would you blame God?

If assigning blame and lamenting had been the end of the story, we would be in a hopeless situation. The function of “Surviving Eden,” though, is not to ask the reader to feel shame, blame, or guilt. Taylor is asking that we engage this other side of Eden and cling to the presence of God as He dwells among us. We settle in this place that was not intended to be our final home; someday God will take us to our true home. In the meantime, we have a roadmap—a collection of our history and our stories—found in the Bible and in Christ Himself. We are “never ruined, never entirely, and never for good” (180).

And with that, Taylor brings us to the end of her full and complete sermon: The Preaching Life. In my mind, I am searching for what type of constructive criticism I give to this book, but I cannot bring myself to identify anything. I connected with Taylor’s preaching in a way that caught me off-guard. I began to read her work with a critical eye, anticipating that I would write a book review, but I found that my critical eye morphed into a willing ear. She speaks my language, and I found I could not fault her. I believe that if she had written a memoir or a church history, I would have been able to maintain my powers of judging. Instead, as I began to read, God sat down beside me and called up images in my mind, touched my heart, and tapped my soul. Is that not exactly what a sermon should do? Taylor so clearly knows her craft—and her vocation. My only criticism, then, would be a bit of advice to her: please, write your own back-cover description! In fact, I will happily be so bold:

In this warm and poignant collection, Barbara Brown Taylor delves with humor and wisdom into the meaning of a life found in Christ. Taylor weaves together memories, reflections, and wisdom about God’s call to his people. She challenges her readers to broaden their conceptions of vocation, imagination, and worship—all while she encourages them to discover the place God has created for them. Taylor’s vision is to share her stories, her theology, and her sermons in such a way that the readers will long to discover the life that God wants for them—an abundant life brimming with wonder and thankfulness.

WORKS CITED

Adler, Mortimer Jerome, How to Read a Book. London: Jarrolds. 1940.

Craddock, Fred B., On the Craft of Preaching. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2011.

Taylor, Barbara Brown, The Preaching Life. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1993.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1993). All in-line citations are offered with page numbers from this edition.

[2] Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book (London: Jarrolds, 1940).

[3] Fred Craddock is also the writer of the “Foreword” in Taylor’s The Preaching Life.

[4] Fred Craddock, On the Craft of Preaching (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2011), 138.

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