#23: Barbara Brown Taylor 2004

Beholding and Believing, November 10, 2017

Barbara Brown Taylor—Episcopal priest, teacher, preacher, writer—reflects on the tension between the language of belief and the language of beholding, between responsibility to what should be and beholding what is. Describing her years in the priesthood, a life she entered with “deep claw marks along the way,” Taylor describes the difference between crafting words for the page and for the ear. She recounts her childhood love for backyard sweetgrass and the “larger lives” available in books, loves that matured into a commitment to “beholding life on earth in all its glorious and terrible reality.” This beholding is essential, she says, for belief. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and Calvin English professor Kristine Johnson.


RESOURCES

  • Barbara Brown Taylor,
    • Speaking of Sin
    • An Altar in the World
    • Learning to Walk in the Dark
    • Holy Envy
    • The Preaching Life

  • TRANSCRIPT

Intro

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Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Hi there. This is Lisa. Before we jump into this week’s episode of Rewrite Radio, I want to let you know about a little contest we’re running between now and the end of the year in which you have a chance to win a pass to the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing while helping to spread the word about this podcast.

It’s super simple: Review Rewrite Radio on iTunes and if your review is voted the most helpful by December 31, you’ll win a pass to the next Festival. Check out all the details at festival.calvin.edu and keep an eye out for the hashtag #ReviewRewriteRadio on social media. We’re excited to get your feedback and also to share the Festival’s archives with even more listeners.

Now, on with the show.

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Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I am Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we’ve had with writers and readers as we’ve celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.

Today’s episode of Rewrite Radio features Barbara Brown Taylor at the 2004 Festival of Faith & Writing. In this talk she discusses writing for the ear and the difference between what she calls the language of belief and the language of beholding.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a teacher, Episcopal priest, and New York Times best-selling author of books including Speaking of Sin, An Altar in the World, and Learning to Walk in the Dark. In 2014 TIME Magazine included her on its annual list of Most Influential People. Her fourteenth book, Holy Envy, is due out in August 2018.

To help introduce this recording, we recruited Kristine Johnson, a professor of rhetoric and linguistics at Calvin College, who was once a member of the Festival of Faith & Writing student committee when she was an English major here herself. Kristine was Barbara’s student host during the 2004 Festival.

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Conversation

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Lisa: [00:02:16] Well, Kristine, thanks so much for walking down the hallway to join us here in our studio slash Jon’s office…

Kristine Johnson: You’re welcome.

Lisa: ...to talk about Barbara Brown Taylor today. You have a really fun history with Barbara Brown Taylor because you got to be her student host when she was here for the Festival of Faith & Writing in 2004, I think. Talk a little bit about what got you excited for Barbara Brown Taylor's work.

Kristine: Mmhmm, yeah. Yup. So my first encounter with her was at the January Series in 2003. And I went to the speech because I was curious about, she was named one of the most effective preachers in the English language shortly before that time, so I wanted to see what that was about. And in her speech she talked about the preaching life. And the thing she talked about in that speech helped me label things that I was interested in that I didn’t know you could study. [Lisa laughs] So she talked a lot about the idea that language does things in the world and kind of the responsibility that a speaker has to an audience, and in her case, the responsibility that the speaker has to the big W Word of God.

And I was really interested in the way she spoke about preaching, and I went back to some of my professors in the department and I said, this was so interesting, I think I maybe want to do a senior thesis on this.

Lisa: On like preaching in general, like how preaching...

Kristine: Well, and even on some of her ideas.

Lisa: Her ideas, yeah.

Kristine: And they said, “Oh, yeah, well this is what rhetoricians and discourse analysts study,” and so that actually set me on the path of going to graduate school in that field.

Lisa: And now you're here in the English Department where you once studied literature, teaching rhetoric and linguistics.

Kristine: Now here I am teaching these things. Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. So because I did write my senior thesis on her, I did some comparison of her theory of what preaching should do against what she actually does in her sermons. And because I wrote the thesis on her, I had the opportunity to be her student assistant for the Festival.

Lisa: That's fantastic. In this session we're about to listen to, which is just, it's interesting that Barbara Brown Taylor sparked in you kind of the recognition of words as kind of tools, for lack of, for my kind of lay person's understanding, when her own use of them is also so artistic, right? So it's a really beautiful talk that she gives about these distinctions. She talks about the language of belief versus the language of beholding and how those kind of function differently for her, both as a writer and as a pastor, as a preacher. Talk a little bit about those distinctions as you heard them.

Kristine: [00:05:02] Yeah, so I think she sort of views the language of belief, right, and she'll draw the analogy in the speech of you find the language of belief where you're focused on what is right. And she says in her own history she looked to the Bible for that. And then she talks about this language of beholding where she says, "Okay, in that case, your responsibility is to be faithful to reality and to call things to attention and to show what is."

And I think in the speech, she sides with the language of beholding, [chuckles] to be sure. But I think what is interesting about her talking about preaching is in her earlier writing, so in The Preaching Life, and even in the speech, she sort of has this idea that the rhetorical situation, for lack of a better word, for preaching is kind of constraint. Maybe it's constrained by the language of belief, or in the speech she'll say that language is constrained by the capital W Word. So that your role as a preacher is to sort of do variations on that theme or to embellish that theme.

Lisa: And the W Word being the Word.

Kristine: Yup, the Word, the big W Word. And I think her little w words, I think what's really interesting about her work is if you read her sermons and you'll hear it in the lecture, that her words call attention to themselves. That even if it is this constrained situation, and even if it is just a variation on a theme, her language calls attention to itself, and in my mind she is still one of the finest kind of paragraph-level prose stylists out there. And her ability for sentence structure that translated orally really well, and her ability to riff on a good metaphor.

Lisa: [laughs] For sure, for sure. What was it like hanging out with her when you were here at the Festival?

Kristine: So it was fun. [laughs] You know, given the initial awkwardness of you're the student who is responsible for driving her places, so you want to be really cautious about that...

Lisa: Keep her safe. [laughs]

Kristine: Yeah, I will say, so Frederick Buechner was also there, and Barbara Brown Taylor is a huge fan of Frederick Buechner's. So he actually, he gave a lecture the same evening of her speech, and it was fantastic, but the next morning he preached in a local church congregation, so I actually got to sit with Barbara Brown Taylor in church, listening to Frederick Buechner preach.

Lisa: That's awesome.

Kristine: Which was, yeah, which was pretty awesome. I'm a big fan of both of theirs, and she's a fan of his.

Lisa: And I love that about the Festival in general. I feel like, it's not true for everyone, but there's a lot of people who come in here who are understood to be kind of the big names on the roster who sit down next to you in sessions. I remember sitting behind Jonathan Safran Foer one time in a session in the CFAC. I forget who was speaking, I think I was just like, "Oh, Jonathan Safran Foer just sat in front of me." But it's really interesting to see the writers come here to speak, but as readers themselves, and as fans of their fellow writers.

Kristine: The other thing that I respected about her when she came was as she started going to sessions here, she spoke at the end of the Festival, as she started going to sessions, she started to think, "I need to make some revisions to my speech. I want to incorporate all of these new things."

Lisa: [unintelligible] at the Festival. That's amazing.

Kristine: Yup, so she came and started having these ideas. And this was in 2004, when people didn't necessarily travel with laptops all the time, so we actually, we found her, I worked as the student assistant in the music department at the time, so we found her a computer in the music department and left her there for a couple hours to revise her speech and print out a new copy of it the night before.

Lisa: Wow. [laughs]

Kristine: Yeah, but I respected that she had made a speech for Calvin, and when she got here she was inspired to do other things. I remember the rush to find her a printer before the offices closed down on Friday.

Lisa: 2004 doesn't seem like that long ago, but when you think about where we were technologically, thirteen years ago as we're having this conversation, it is kind of like, yeah. [chuckles]

Kristine: She may have even used the student computer lab here, yeah.

Lisa: Little do students today understand what has taken place in their hallowed halls.

Kristine: They do not.

Lisa: Well, thank you so much Kristine for coming and and talking about Barbara Brown Taylor.

Kristine: You're welcome. These have been fun memories to think about. [both laugh]

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Session

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Lisa: And now Barbara Brown Taylor at the 2004 Festival of Faith & Writing.

[applause]

Barbara Brown Taylor: [00:10:04] I am both happy and very surprised to be here with you at Calvin College this weekend, especially since my literary genre is not what you would call mainstream. I write very small, religious essays and sermons, both of which have fairly limited, although I must say, loyal audiences. At Piedmont College where I teach, I feel most affinity with a professor in the biology department whose specialty is salamanders. [audience laughter]

As far as I can tell, he is a real celebrity in the field of amphibia. He has discovered several new varieties of salamander in the swampy places around campus, and I even hear he has one named after him. But I cannot say that I have ever read any of his stuff, and I'm sure that he has never read any of mine, because we regard one another as specialists.

Even my fans often work to say something nice. After my last book of sermons came out, I was at an ordination in another state with a bunch of clergy I didn't know when a bishop in full regalia approached me with his hand out and said, "Great book," shook my hand. I said, "Well, thanks. I'm glad you liked it." He said, "Chapters just the right length," smiling big. [audience laughter] I said, "I'm glad." Smiling back, he said, "Keep it in the bathroom." [audience laughter] One is always happy to learn that one's writing has been useful. [laughs]

In my case, of course, most of the writing has been in the service of speech. For the past twenty years my primary vocations have been preaching and teaching, both of which rely heavily on oral presentation. While the words appear first on the page, they are not meant to stay there. They're meant for the ear and not for the eye. Which means that the page is the stage where the words audition and rehearse. They file in to show me what they can do, I weed them out, they explain themselves to me, I ask for more feeling, they arrange themselves one way, I suggest another, they focus on meaning, I make them give me rhythm. Finally, it's my turn to say them out loud and that's usually when I have to let a few more of them go, because what's lovely on the page is often too heavy for the air.

Now, that's only logical if you think about it. Because a page is so much more substantial than air. A page can hold hundreds of words together, tethered to one another by commas and semicolons so that a reader can go back and make sure that none have gotten away. As long as you have a page, you don't need a memory. If you don't get something the first time, then you may always go back again as many times as you like, and the words will still be there waiting for you on the page, as patient as rabbits in a pen.

But none of that works in the air. In order to survive that medium, words have to be fast and light. Pack too many syllables in them, and they will sink before they have gone three feet out of your mouth. If you link a long string of them together with a semicolon in the middle, then you can can watch half of them take a wrong turn because those in back lost track of those in front. [audience laughter]

Or try keeping words abstract with no body odor to them at all, and you may also discover that words can be too light for air. Without any smell to them, without any color or heat to keep them down to earth, words can float clean out of human reach. Even in the air words need enough ballast to anchor them in memory.

Since you're veteran listeners to airborne words yourselves, then you know that sometimes the only memory they create is the memory of having felt deeply alive, even if just for a moment, or so close to the pulsing truth of things, so profoundly sad, that all the hair on your arm stands up. While the words that carried you to that place are now entirely lost to you, you'll never forget what the person sitting in front of you is wearing, or how the beam of sunlight, in this case floodlight, that cut across your vision revealed all the things dancing in the air that are always there, but that you could see clearly for just a moment.

[00:15:16] Some of you've even stood in line afterwards to say something to the speaker who held the door to that moment upen to you, risking the awkward moment when you thanked him for something he did not say, [audience laughter] or complimented her on her hair [audience laughter] when that was the absolute last thing you meant to say. All of these are significant liabilities for those of us in the oral presentation business, but the worst thing of all is that I have to be there, I have to be here in order to put my words in the air. I guess I could turn off all the lights and do a PowerPoint presentation instead, but I would still be able to hear you shifting in your seats. I would still be able to see one of you get up and head toward the door, without knowing whether it was what I said or what you ate for dinner last night that was the problem. [audience laughter] You know that I can see you, right?

At the last church I served, I watched a man in the back right pew struggling to stay awake while I preached. The church only seated 82 people, so it was pretty easy to keep an eye on everyone. He was in the back pew, as I said, with his eyes closed and his head leaned back against the wall, and every time his eyes would close and his mouth would drop open, that would pull him awake again. Then he would go through the whole cycle all over again. [audience laughter] I knew he had small children who were not in in church with him that day, so when he shook my hand at the door, I said, "Are the kids okay? I couldn't help noticing that you looked beat in there." He looked at me as if I'd just recited his social security number. [audience laughter] "You can see us?" he said. [audience laughter] "Yes, I can see you."

Most of the time I can even see how my words affect you, which was never the plan. The plan was to be a short story writer, not a preacher, so that you could read my stories or not, suit yourself. And unless you wrote me a letter that I could read in the privacy of my own home about a story of mine that you read in the privacy of your own home, then I would never have to know what you thought of it, or me either. I meant to wear bohemian clothes and sleep in garrets. I meant to live large and push language to its limits, describing things that few people saw.

Instead, I ended up with a closet full of black suits, you still see the remnants, and clergy shirts, learning how to write twelve-minute Sunday sermons that might mean something to the children present, as well as to the adults. I am not ungrateful for this turn of events, but I've always harbored a kind of wistfulness about it. Or closer to the truth, a kind of envy for those poets and writers who are able to say things I don't think I can say in church and keep my job. [audience laughter] In some cases, they are extreme things, both personal and political. In other cases, they are erotic things, or just plain sensual ones. But rightly or wrongly, it seems to me that there are large swaths of human experience, and of the English language as well, that are off-limits for me because of the way, the venue in which I've chosen to love language.

My present shorthand for the tension I feel is the tension between what I am calling the language of belief on the one hand and the language of beholding on the other. The language of belief being language devoted to what is right, and the language of beholding being devoted to what is. In my lexicon at least, the language of beholding calls be to full attention to real life on earth. Not just mine, but the real lives of other people as well, along with the lives of nations and oceans and creatures and trees. And to describe their reality, to be as faithful to their reality as I can, even when that is strange or frightening to me, even when it causes me all kinds of ideological problems. When I am in service to the language of beholding, my primary responsibility is to what is.

[00:20:12] When I serve the language of belief, I have many more responsibilities. I am accountable to a community of faith, for one thing with whom I share certain Scriptures and sacraments and conceptual truths about God, all of which we believe call us to live in certain ways. While we sometimes confuse right thinking with right living, rightness, righteousness remains important to us, and we spend a fair amount of time calling one another to accountability for doing what we say we believe. When I exercise the language of belief, my primary responsibility is to what is right.

To add an extra twist to this tension, there exists in some churches a conviction that what is cannot on principle be right, because creation is fallen, because human beings are born in sin, because flesh is at war with spirit, and Satan rules the earth. Since I didn't encounter such beliefs until I was an adult, I remain fairly immune to them, but where they're present, I find they cut an even deeper chasm between the languages of belief and beholding.

I fell in love with words early. At least partly because my family moved so much. My dad was not a military man, but he was close. He was a psychologist with the Veterans Administration for the first few years of my life, and then a college professor, so that we didn't stay anywhere long before he was promoted and we were on the road again. Best friends didn't last any longer for me than beloved backyards did. I became an experienced dish-packer. The only true constants in my life were family and words because my mother took us to the public library, my two sisters and I, every week of our lives, to check out an armload of books, no matter what town we were living in. My only constants were love and words, and I grew up as dependant on one as I was on the other.

I had the kind of parents who believed that religion should be chosen, not imposed. The way they told it, my baptism in the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic church pretty much put the lid on the church thing for both of them. When my Southern Methodist mother from Georgia married my lapsed Roman Catholic father from South Dakota, my Catholic grandmother was not pleased. [audience laughter] When I was born two years later, they tried to appease her with my baptism, but the whole thing backfired when the Roman priest took me in his arms and said what sounded to my parents like some very rude things about my character. [audience laughter]

Lacking in adequate doctrine of original sin, they took offence. As soon as the priest had handed me off and they were well out of earshot, my mother reportedly turned to my father and said, "We are getting out of here and we are never coming back." [audience laughter] And we never did.

They taught me reverence for the world instead, or did I catch it from them? My first cathedral was the field of broom grass behind my little row house in the plains of Kansas. My first Eucharist, the saltine crackers I toasted over a stick fire there with my friends. I'll never forget my first look at the meteor shower called the Tears of St. Lawrence that I saw in the sky over my balcony in Ohio. Nor will I forget the oily smell of the Black Warrior river in Alabama as a waded deeper and deeper as the clay bottom sucked at my feet.

My immersion in these mysteries gave me sanctuary. Beholding them, participating in them, set me right when everything else was wrong. If anyone had tried to tell me that creation was fallen, or that I should care more for heaven than earth, then I would have gone off to lie in the sweet grass all by myself.

The books I liked best early on were biographies and fantasies. Biographies because I was impatient with being a child and I needed some larger lives that I might grow up into. And fantasies because the real world of the Deep South during the Civil Rights Era was often a frightening place to be. Amelia Earhart and Florence Nightingale saved me in those days. So did Narnia and Camelot. They lent me their lives when my own fit as tightly as last year's shoes. They offered me alternative realities when my own neighborhood seemed dangerous to me, with tribes of mean kids who had soaked up their parents' politics lying in wait for my sisters and me.

[00:25:37] I'm pretty sure that we have as good as we got. But I'm equally sure that we did not understand what we were fighting about any better than our tormentors did. Like most young warriors, we took on the battles our elders had chosen for us with all the idealism that they had lost. The books did not provide an escape for me as much as they provided meaning.

In their pages, the forces of evil were given shapes and names. Mordred. The Witch of Endor. As frightening as they were, I learned in fiction that their power was limited. I also learned that I was free to resist them, although no one could oppose them by using their own hateful tactics. The minute someone decided to fight evil by employing evil's own weapons, then the battle was lost. There was a better way, a way that often involved suffering hurt instead of hurting others, which Aslan, the original Lion King, showed me before I ever read a gospel.

Eventually I did read a gospel, read the whole Bible in fact, where I was happy to discover both the larger lives and the alternative realities I had come to expect from books. I couldn't help noticing, though, between the first section and the second section of the book. While the first section of the Bible was full of lusty, often scheming and bloody human life, the second section seemed very cleaned up to me. [audience laughter] The distinction between good people and bad people was much clearer in the second section for instance, and while there was still a little violence, there was no sex at all. In fact, the second section made sex sound like something that only bad people did, or at least weak people. Most of the real heroes in that section were very serious, single people who, like the kids I'd grown up with, were involved in some kind of fights with their neighbors that I didn't fully understand.

So I continued to read fiction alongside the Bible as I grew into sexual adulthood myself, balancing Matthew and Luke with D. H. Lawrence and John Updike. [audience laughter] While I looked to the first to tell me what was right, I looked to the second to show me what was. I even found a few writers, like Nikos Kazantzakis and Graham Greene who seemed to do both at the same time. I experimented with church membership in high school, found it a poor fit. But I was hooked on transcendence by then, if not God, so when I arrived at college where I could finally choose my own courses, I gorged on English and religion. While there interests were different, both disciplines confirmed my instincts about the power of the word. Both taught me the art of exalted language, and while I spent four years leaping from Abraham Heschel and Paul Tillich to Wallace Stevens and Archibald MacLeish, I knew that eventually I was going to have to make a choice. In the end I chose the language of belief, and I packed my bags for Yale Divinity School, where I was finally indoctrinated into the faith I'd flirted with for so long. I became an Episcopalian.

I learned to use Christology and soteriology in the same sentence. [audience laughter] I worked as a cocktail waitress as Dante's Down the Hatch in the summertime. [audience laughter] Still drawn to the boundary between what was right and what was. Three years later I graduated from seminary with no more sense of vocation that I had entered it, and I took a secretarial job at Candler School of Theology, less than a mile from my parents' home. While I probably should have felt humiliated by that career move, I wasn't. The people were kind. I was at least serving those who served the church, and typing for a living, sixty words per minute, I don't know how many errors, I still lived by words.

I also had a great deal of freedom, so when I saw an ad for a summer writing institute, I enrolled on the spot. I began writing short stories and falling in love with poets. I rented a garret. The following winter I was accepted for a month's residency at Yaddo, the writers' colony in upstate New York where the ghosts of John Cheever, Flannery O'Connor, Catherine Anne Porter still linger. I built a file of rejection slips from the best magazines in print. [audience laughter] And I never sold a story.

[00:30:35] Around the same time, I was invited to preach at the first time at the downtown church where I worked on the weekends. Not a sermon from the pulpit, but a homily from the pew for some poorly attended service during Holy Week. "Sure," I said, "I'd be glad to." There were about ten people there, as I recall. I had worked at least ten hours on the homily, and I could feel the sweat running down both sides of my body as I delivered each dense word from my wilted manuscript. Afterward, someone asked if I would make her a copy. "Sure," I said, "I'd be glad to." And it wasn't until I was driving home that I realized I'd just sold my first story. [audience laughter]

In this way, I found my vocation, which involved wedding my two old constants, love and words, with my newer love for the Word of God. I became a preacher instead of a short story writer, although not with some deep claw marks along the way. I never intended to live such a public life, as I said earlier, nor did I intend to serve such a public cause. My plan had been to follow my own vision wherever it led without asking anyone else whether my interests were acceptable, appropriate or not. Instead, I entered the service of God's Word in community, which involved submitting myself to a vision that did not belong to me. That vision, described in Scripture, interpreted through the ages, revealed by the Spirit, guarded by the Church, that vision belonged to God and to God's people.

For Christians, the kind of life it made possible was summed up in the life of Jesus. And while there were certain things one was allowed to imagine about Him, His height, His hair color for instance, I learned the hard way there were many other things one should not imagine about Him. Such as his feelings towards Mary Magdalene, for instance, or His qualms about His own identity. I could perhaps imagine those things on my own time, but when it came time for me to speak to the community of faith, no one was looking for some brand new word from me. My job was to proclaim the Word, God's Word. Freshly and creatively, to be sure, but not overly inventively.

One day as I listened to Ralph Vaughan Williams' Variation on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, I discovered a helpful metaphor for my own work. My task was not to write an original score. My task was to provide ornamentation for a melody that was already well-known. My job was to produce a variation on a theme by Matthew, or Paul, or John. It was and is a great privilege to preach. A privilege so often abused by those of us who do it that it's a small miracle there is still anyone willing to listen. Which is why I felt a little guilty when I would pick up a book of Anne Lamott's and envy her dreadlocks, her salty language, her ability both to have and write about raising a son whose father she had not married. Or when I would behold Brad Pitt in the Fight Club and be wracked, I mean wracked by the speech he gave to a bunch of angry, underemployed men in the basement where they made meaning with their fist. Did you hear it, too? A speech about the spiritual desolation of our money-glutted culture that I ached, ached to quote in church, only I would have have to change all the R-rated language to PG-13 at least, and then rob it of its sting.

Meanwhile, however, people came to see me during the week about all the R-rated things that were going on in their lives. [audience laughter] Not only family violence and extramarital affairs, and in many cases the abuse they suffered as Christians who were gay or lesbian, but also religious questions they would not dream of raising with other Christians. In some cases, the questions concerned what they could no longer believe about God. In others, the problem was some very real experience that did not fit with any of their beliefs. A burning bush where no respectable burning bush should have been. Or a being of pure light who hovered over their beds in the middle of the night and changed everything, only how is that possible and what were they supposed to think about it?

[00:35:28] My knowledge of Updike and O'Connor turned out to be as useful on these occasions as my knowledge of Matthew and Luke, or to put it another way, the language of beholding turned out to be as helpful as the language of belief. What I had and have always loved about poetry, fiction, and drama is precisely the way that it does not preach. Whatever the writers of such works may or may not believe, communicating those beliefs directly to me is not their concern. They observe the first commandment of creative writing: show, don't tell.

Their concern is to increase my capacity for beholding life on earth in all its glorious and terrible reality, to make a kind of sling for my chin with the web of their words, so that I could not look away, never telling me what to think about what I saw, but showing me so much with so much clarity that I had to think for myself, is this right? What needs to happen here? If it were me, instead of him or her, what would I do?

When I work that same way with the people who came to see me, they could almost always answer those same kinds of questions for themselves. All they really needed was someone to behold their lives with them, someone to hold their own chins so that they could not look away until wisdom rose up inside them to meet what they saw. At best, my job was to say back to them what I heard them saying so they could hear it, too. Sometimes to offer a new name for what they beheld or to place a frame around it so that it wasn't so overwhelming at first. But never, never to disqualify the beholding on the basis of belief or to trim away what did not fit in the name of faithfulness to God.

In my line of work, you meet lots of people who come to church to flee life instead of to find it. Plenty of them are clergy, too. But whoever they are, it can be very, very difficult for them to accept that faithfulness to their own embodied lives on earth might be prerequisite to any faithfulness in God.

Almost seven years ago now, I left full-time parish ministry for college teaching for a whole panoply of reasons, but at least one of which I think now is because the language of belief had become so contentious. Both at home and in the news, Christian faith seemed to be more and more a matter of defending theological positions instead of washing dirty feet. The old short story writer in me cringed when people waved the Bible to support their various causes. Freeze-drying foundational stories of the faith into rounded tablespoons of exclusive doctrine. Context, plot, character, dialogue, all those vital details that some writer had worked so hard to capture, all those rich sources of earthly complexity and divine paradox in Scripture were chucked in the mining of pure convictional gold.

I found myself wanting out of the answer business and back into the question business. I wanted to reopen closed files and read banned books. I wanted to seek the kind of faith that has nothing to do with being sure what I believe and everything to do with trusting God to catch me, though I am not sure of anything. So now I'm a religion professor, which is sort of like being a preacher, except you get to give grades, which improves things. [audience laughter]

I also write, almost therapeutically at this point, as I try to find my way back into the language of beholding that I once knew so well. There is plenty to behold, too, since I slipped my leash. Every semester I take students in my world religions class to the Drepung Loseling Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies in Atlanta, as well as to the Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam. Swami Yogeshananda, the 80-year-old Ramakrishna monk who keeps the tiny Vedanta community in Atlanta going, invited me to speak to his little community on a Sunday morning last year, and when I arrived I ran into the former director of Christian education at a church I once served. [audience laughter] "What are you doing here?" I asked her. She said, "You first." [audience laughter]

[00:40:50] I've put so much time and energy into learning the boundaries of the language of belief that I still jump at the alarms that go off, both inside me and in my listeners, when I go past them. But I've found that if I can just keep walking, there's a whole crowd of people out on the sweetgrass who want to know where I've been and why it took me so long to get there. Like me, they haven't stopped believing thing, please. They've just decided to allow God to challenge and refresh their beliefs on a regular basis by attending to all that God has given them to behold. Some of them learned how to do that in Sunday School, too, incidentally, where many of the first stories they learned began with the word, "behold," behold. Check your concordances. There is one more column of references to behold than there are to believe.

What followed that word in Sunday School in both Testaments were things truly beyond belief. Behold! Not only the aforementioned burning bushes, but also split seas and bread from heaven and guiding angels and immaculate conceptions and miracle-working messiahs, and physical resurrections from the dead. The Nicene Creed didn't come up until third grade at least, and by then it was too late. [audience laughter] By then they loved the stories. By then they knew that God colored outside the lines all the time as a matter of divine principle, and there was no going back.

What saddens me these days is how many Christians I meet who identify themselves as heretics. Jokingly if they're still in churches, and defiantly if they're not. For some, the issue is that they believe less than they think they should about Jesus. They're not troubled that He may have had two human parents instead of one, or that His real presence with his disciples may have been after his death more metaphysical than physical. The glory they behold in Him has more to do with the nature of His being, luminous, than with a number of His miracles, but they've suffered enough at the hands of other Christians to learn to keep their mouth shut.

For others, the issue is that they believe more than Jesus, having beheld His glory, they find themselves better equipped to recognize God's glory all over the place, including placed that Christian doctrine says it should not be. I know Christians who've beheld God's glory in a lakota sweat lodge, in a sacred celtic grove, at the edge of a Hawaiian volcano, and in a Hindu temple during the festival of lights, which one student hailed as his first living experience of Pentecost. As well as in dreams and visions, things that people behold there that they are afraid to tell anyone else about at all. These heretics not only fear being shunned for their unorthodox narratives, they also fear sharing some of the most powerful things that have ever happened to them in their lives with people who may ridicule them.

Given the history of Christians as people who started out beholding what was beyond belief in the person of Jesus Christ, this strikes me as a lamentable state of affairs. Both for those who've learned to see no more than they are supposed to see, as well as for those who've excused themselves from traditional churches because they see too little or too much. If it's true that God exceeds all our efforts to contain God, then is it too big a stretch to suggest that dumbfoundedness is what all Christians have most in common? Or that coming together to confess all that we do not know as we reach out to one another might be at least as sacred an activity as declaring what we think we do?

[00:45:00] Clearly, this is a work in progress. I have no idea where I'm headed as a preacher or as a writer, except that I mean to stay in the beholding business as long as I can, using the same time-honored technique that God seems to use on me: show, don't tell. Hold the chin. Direct the gaze. Trust the vision. Find the perfect word. And seek communities like this one, where the boundaries between the languages of belief and beholding are so beautifully blurred, where the invisible bread of our communion together is not any one creed we can all recite in unison, but is instead our love of the Word that breaks each of us open in a different way. I pronounce rich blessings on each of you as you work your way through the last day of this feast. And I thank you for being here, where we can see each other while you tasted my dish.

[applause]

Outro

[music]

Lisa: [00:46:22] Many thanks to Barbara Brown Taylor. You can learn more about her work at barbarabrowntaylor.com. Thanks also to Kristine Johnson here in the English department at Calvin College, both for joining to today to introduce this recording and for her help with the Festival through the years.

Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Today's episode was produced by Jon Brown, Amanda Smartt, and yours truly. Our team includes Sarah Bass, Peter Ford, Gwenyth Findlay, Don Hettinga, Jennifer Holberg, Scott Hoezee, Bob Hudson, Lew Klatt, Debra Rienstra, Sarah Turnage, Chloe Selles, Isabelle Selles, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.

You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu, and if you're into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what we're doing here on Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show, and we are so grateful. Also, we've got twenty-six years of Festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio, and if you've been at some of these festivals and have a favorite session or two that you are especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an e-mail at ffw@calvin.edu and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.

Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I am Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.