People of the Books: An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor

There are books that you love, some books that you hate, and some books that occupy this strange middle space of being so amazing that your mind is blown, but so discomforting that you almost don’t want to read them ever again.

An Altar in the World is one of this last kind.   Interpreter loaned it to me back in November, saying, “Everything you need is in here.”  He wasn’t far wrong, in some ways; the breadth of this book is kind of amazing, when you think about it.  But more than that, this is something that actually doesn’t say anything I didn’t already know.  It’s very odd, actually, that a lot of Taylor’s observations are ones that I’ve made along the way to myself, but never bothered to really set them down next to each other and see the connections that she lays out.  The power of seeing something in print that  you had already known is a bit incredible, actually; there’s a connection there, a realization that you are linked in some way to another human being that you’ll probably never meet, and from that human being to all of the other human beings who are reading this and thinking, “Yes, yes, that is right and true and spot-on for my life.”  You’ll probably never meet them, either, but that’s the wonderful thing about reading; you all exist in this space of agreeing on this one book, this one reading experience, this one truth of the moment.

The reason for being loaned a relatively quick read in November but not posting about it until January is that this is deceptively easy.  Yes, the prose is not hard; neither are the concepts, superficially.  But when you really start digging into the text, hearing what Taylor is trying to say…whoa.  The text settles into your bones if you let it, wrapping itself around the marrow like the chill of early February; for much of the book, I actually read every individual word, which you simply don’t do in your native language.

One of the things that I really like about Taylor’s book (and yes, I will be tracking down her others) is that her writing style is incredibly open, smooth, and easygoing.  The book felt like having tea with a very dear friend; yes, tea with me and my friends does often get into the heights and depths of human interaction with each other and the Divine, surprise, surprise.  But it felt that secure, that solid—and that surprising, sometimes, as a connection would be made that I didn’t see coming.

That’s the part where the love/hate relationship comes in for me.  I love this book, I really do, I’m going to go buy a copy for myself soon.  But there were some parts that were actually hard to handle.   There was at least one instance where I read a sentence and put the book down, in the middle of a paragraph which I never do, and didn’t pick it up again for two or three days.  I couldn’t.  It was too close for me, too real to some of my own experiences, and I couldn’t face that mirror, not yet.  I had to put distance between myself and that stark prose until I could find a place where it was acceptable that someone else should know that moment, that feeling, that honest intensity.

I can do nothing more than highly recommend this book, no matter your faith background.  It really doesn’t matter where you fall in belief; this book is intended for Christians, but its celebration of the world around and in us is something everyone can connect to, I think.

Rating:  5/5 stars     

4 thoughts on “People of the Books: An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor

  1. […] Table of Contents, but man, there are some heavy hitters here.  Walter Brueggemann has an essay, Barbara Brown Taylor has an essay, Fred Craddock has an essay, Thomas G. Long has an essay.  Moderate bit of academic […]


  2. […] None of this means that these are places I’m meant to stay, or even that they are always pleasant.  Sometimes my students are morons, my boss is a control freak, and Latin beats me up and takes my lunch money.  Sometimes the utter dullness of concrete walls makes me want to scream, but these are not all times, and it is in the seeking after that place of connection with God that my cubicle becomes sacred.  It is in taking the time to have that surprising conversation about faith in academics, in looking my students in the eye and listening even when they ask the questions that seemed obvious the first six times I answered them, that the classroom becomes sacred.  It is in refusing to allow myself to keep God in a box, a building, a room with a cross that the university becomes church, and I realize that there are so many altars in the world. […]


  3. Ron Johnson says:

    I sometimes hesitate to leave a comment because your writing is deeply personal. Even this post is not merely a book review; it’s a glimpse into your own spiritual development. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.


    • Thank you for walking the journey with me, Ron; I appreciate your consideration of my openness here, but I more appreciate the commentary. Part of why I keep this blog is to have others to bounce these ideas off of, and your reaction to my thoughts almost always deepens and broadens my understanding of things.


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