Can you have a love affair with God after you take off your clerical collar?
Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. By Barbara Brown Taylor. HarperOne, 272 pp., $14.95, paperback.
By Janice Harayda
When I was the book editor of the Plain Dealer, a publisher sent me a study called The Private Lives of Ministers’ Wives. I knew right away that I wanted to assign it for review: How many books have you read about those underappreciated pillars of so many congregations? But when I asked a minister’s wife to review the study, she said she couldn’t do it unless I let her write under a pseudonym – which most newspapers don’t allow — because in her position she couldn’t express her views freely. Which, of course, was exactly the point of the book.
We may know even less about the inner lives of the clergy than we do about those of their spouses. Like the minister’s wife I tried to recruit as a reviewer, the partners of spiritual leaders may believe they have a responsibility to keep silent on some issues. But they have no formal job description that requires it. The clergy do have a duty to protect confidentiality and use other forms of discretion, which helps to explain why we hear about their private lives mainly when a scandal erupts.
Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor opens a stained-glass window onto their lives in an engaging memoir that at times gives the impression that she either lacks self-awareness or isn’t free to describe events fully. Leaving Church tells of her years a parish minister in Atlanta and Clarkesville, Georgia, and her decision to become a religion professor after realizing that “feeding people was no longer feeding me.”
Brown Taylor says she once saw being a priest as similar to being the chief engineer at a nuclear power plant: “In both cases, one needed to know how to approach great power without loosing great danger and getting fried in the process.” Her book has many such lines that are clever rather than deep, or seemingly intended more to keep people awake during sermons than to provoke serious thought. You might also question the logic of her decision to become a professor if “feeding people” wasn’t feeding her, given that college teaching consists largely of feeding students.
But Brown Taylor has strengths that offset her inconsistencies. Chief among these is that she describes vividly the demands of the parish ministry without whining or sugarcoating the difficulties. “Like most clergy, I know how to post bond, lead an intervention, commit someone to a mental health care facility, hide a woman from her violent husband, visit an inmate on death row, and close the eyes on a dead body,” she writes. “One summer when a frightened murder witness showed up at the church door I even learned how to arrange an appointment with the district attorney for testimony before a grand jury.” After years in church leadership roles, I didn’t know that the clergy did half those things, and I’d bet most other lay people don’t know it, either. Part of what makes Leaving Church valuable is that it shows how much the clergy do for those poverty-line salaries that they get.
But this book does more than help to explain why so many clergy face burnout and need long vacations and sabbaticals just as professors do. Like Anne Lamott, Brown Taylor notices offbeat but telling details that suggest the tangy flavor of her part of the country. Not long after moving to Clarkesville, she saw a church sign that read: “Given Satan an inch and he will become your ruler.” What minister would want to tangle with parishioners who suspected them of giving that inch?
Coincidentally or not, Leaving Church has arrived when God is taking it on the chin. Biologist Richard Dawkins www.richarddawkins.net has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for months with The God Delusion, which says that the biblical Yahweh was “psychotic.” He shares space with journalist Christopher Hitchens www.hitchensweb.com, whose God Is Not Great contends that religion is “irrational.” Brown Taylor doesn’t try to argue with the atheists. Instead, in a quiet way, she suggests joys and pains of a life lived according to faith and does so well enough that you believe her when she says that, no matter what went wrong between her and the Church, “this is a love story.”
Best line: Like most clergy, Brown Taylor often listened to requests for money from people with hard-luck stories. She reports that when she said “no,” one petitioner took it as a challenge to try harder. The woman called her and said: “Martha is sitting on the toilet and we are out of toilet paper. If I came over right now, could you write me a check to the grocery store so she can get up?”
Worst line (tie): No. 1 Brown Taylor says in one paragraph that “we have romanticized” Native Americans, then tells us in the next that a Cherokee friend has “a noble brow,” as though the image of the “noble” Indian weren’t part of the romanticized stereotypes she rightly criticizes. No. 2 She says that “the call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human.” That we should be “fully human” is one of those fuzzy clichés that many of have heard often from the pulpit. What does it mean? “Fully human” as opposed to half-human and half-bull, like a minotaur? Brown Taylor uses the phrase partly to explain why she left the parish ministry to teach religion. What about the people who have passed up such career moves? Are they less than “fully human”?
Recommendation? Likely to appeal to many fans of Anne Lamott www.annelamott.com, though Brown Taylor isn’t as funny or forthcoming about many parts of her life. Also highly recommended to church book groups.
Published: May 2006 (hardcover) and April 2007 (paperback) www.barbarabrowntaylor.com and www.harpercollins.com. Brown Taylor is a columnist for the liberal magazine The Christian Century www.christiancentury.org. She teaches at Piedmont College www.piedmont.edu.
Furthermore: Leaving Church won the Best General Interest Book award from the Association of Theological Booksellers www.associationoftheologicalbooksellers.org. For information on The Private Lives of Ministers’ Wives, click on this link www.lizaleshire.com and then on “Liz’s Books.”
Consider reading also: Michael Lindvall’s The Good News From North Haven: A Year in the Life of a Small Town (Crossroads, $16.95), a down-to-earth book of stories about the life of a Presbyterian minister in Minnesota. This book reads like a collection of autobiographical essays, though billed as a novel by its author, now the pastor at the Brick Presbyterian Church www.brickchurch.org in New York City.
One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007.
Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She is a former associate lay leader of Park Avenue Methodist Church in Manhattan and often speaks to local or national religious groups on topics such as faith in fiction.
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.