Leaving Church | Notes & Review

Posted on September 20, 2010


Barbara Brown Taylor. Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. HarperOne, 2006. (252 pages)

“You do not have to die in order to discover the truth of this teaching, in other words. You only need to lose track of who you are, or who you thought you were suppose to be…” (xiii)


The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. – William Faulkner

“I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do,” Susan B. Anthony once said, “because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.” (7)

When I read the stories in the Bible about people such as Sarah, Jacob, or David, what stands out is not their virtue but their very strong wants. (7)

God uses whatever is usable in a life, both to speak and to act, and those who insist on fireworks in the sky may miss the electricity that sparks the human heart. (26)

Strange travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God. – Kurt Vonnegut

An unguarded face is a deep well; you don’t go there casually, without ropes or lamps. So I practiced what some religious orders still call “custody of the eyes,” not only because eyes are portholes, but also because one does not gaze directly upon the Holy and live. (34)

Tending the Divine Presence in others, I became more aware of it in myself. (35)

As my beloved rector had told me in seminary, being ordained is not about serving God perfectly but about serving God visibly, allowing other people to learn whatever they can from watching you rise and fall. “You probably won’t be much worse than other people,” he said, “and you certainly won’t be any better, but you will have to let people look at you. You will have to let them see you as you are.” (37)

Every layer of responsibility you add is going to narrow your ministry, so think hard before you choose a smaller box. (40)

When I wake up in the morning I can’t decide whether to enjoy the world or improve the world; that makes it difficult to plan the day. – E.B. White (44)

When my friend Matilda lay dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, she said that she had been prepared all of her life to choose between good and evil. What no one had prepared her for, she lamented, was to choose between the good, the better, and the best — and yet this capacity turned out to be the one she most needed as she watched the sands of her life run out. (46)

The real problem with transference for clergy without the skills to deal with it is that it feeds our sense that we are more powerful than we really are. (73)

I stood in for him. … As long as I filled in, no one would ask where God was or why he was not more attentive …but I had once again become so busy caring for the household of God that I neglected the One who had called me there. (75)

At least one of the purposes of church is to remind us that God has other children, easily as precious as we. Baptism and narcissism cancel each other out. (95)

Because this is a love story, it is difficult to say what went wrong between the Church and me. (105)

What I noticed at Grace-Calvary is the same thing I noticed whenever people aim to solve their conflicts with one another by turning to the Bible: defending the dried ink marks on the page becomes more vital than defending the neighbor. As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God. In the words of Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mohandas,

People of the Book risk putting the book above the people. (106)

The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith. In practice, this means that my faith is far more relational than doctrinal. …God is found in right relationships, not in right ideas… (107)

Because church people tend to think they should not fight, most of them are really bad at it. (109)

The parts of the Christian story that had drawn me into the Church were not the believing parts but the beholding parts. (109)

If it is true that God exceeds all our efforts to contain God, then is it too big a stretch to declare that dumbfoundedness is what all Christians have most in common? Or that coming together to confess all that we do not know is at least as sacred an activity as declaring what we think we do know?… I wanted out of the belief business and back into the beholding business. I wanted to recover 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.  (111)

Anyone who has ever contemplated divorce knows that at some point you have to ask the question, “Is the problem with me and this partner, or is the problem with me and the institution of marriage?” (113)

…salvation is not something that happens only at the end of a person’s life. Salvation happens every time someone with a key uses it to open a door he could lock instead. (115)

Happiness is reality divided by expectations. – Dr. John Back

God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting. – Meister Eckhart.

If you are willing serenely to bear the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter. – Therese of Lisieux

Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake. – Wallace Stevens

The world for which you have been so carefully prepared is being taken away from you, by the grace of God. – Walter Brueggemann


Vocation puts an end to you in order to disclose your true end. – Richard Lischer

What do you do the day after you change your life? (131)

Remember the Sabbath, the rabbis say, and you fulfill all of Torah. Stop for one whole day every week, and you will remember what it means to be created in the image of God, who rested on the seventh day not from weariness but from complete freedom. The clear promise is that those who rest like God find themselves free like God, no longer slaves to the thousand compulsions that send others rushing toward their graves. (136)

If you decide to live on the fire that God has kindled inside of you instead of rushing out to find some sticks to rub together, then it does not take long for all sorts of feelings to come out of hiding. (140)

If my second loss upon leaving church was the ease of a given identity, then my second gain was the fellowship I felt with a far wider swath of humanity. (153)

I had lost my institutional power, which offered me the first of many lessons in the difference between church teachings and the view from the pew. (159)

No longer responsible for one particular altar, I began to see altars everywhere. (164)

…church is not a stopping place but a starting place for discerning God’s presence in this world. (165)

The church answered all my questions while I was growing up, but they also gave me the questions I could ask. – Becca, friend.

By the time I resigned from Grace-Calvary, I had arrived at an understanding of faith that had far more to do with trust than with certainty. (170)

Because I had left the house, I found less and less to talk about with people who were still happily engaged inside. (175)

If my time in the wilderness taught me anything, it is that faith in God has both a center and an edge and that each is necessary for the soul’s health. (175)

The first adult decision that some of them made was to not attend church anymore, which helped explain why so many grown-ups held adolescent views of faith. (202)

There was no mastering divinity. My vocation was to love God and my neighbor, and that was something I could do anywhere, with anyone, with or without a collar. My priesthood was not what I did but who I was. In this new light, nothing was wasted. All that had gone before was blessing, and all yet to come was more. (209)


What we are all more or less lacking at this moment is a new definition of holiness. – Pierre Teilhard De Chardin

…I hope never to put the book ahead of the people whom the book calls me to love and serve. (216)

…it remains possible to see Jesus not as the founder of a new religion but as the exemplar of a new way of being human… In a quip that makes the rounds, Jesus preached the coming of the kingdom, but it was the church that came. (220)

What if people were invited to come tell what they already know of God instead of to learn what they are suppose to believe? What if they were blessed for what they are doing in the world instead of chastened for not doing more at church? What if church felt more like a way station than a destination? What if the church’s job were to move people out the door instead of trying to keep them in, by convincing them that God needed them more in the world than in the church? (222)

…how we treat one another is the best expression of our beliefs. (225)

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle. – Philo of Alexandria

— VIA —

I have a strong appreciation for much of what Taylor writes about. The journey I am on is resonating more and more with the struggles and paradoxes of church. She writes with such eloquence and imagery. Her story brings true comfort and companionship.

I have two contentions, however with her thinking, though I would grade high on her articulation of thought.

One, as I read, I got the sense that she didn’t really leave the church. Rather, she was never fully committed to the church in the first place. Her vocational path was undoubtedly clerical, but her spiritual journey from very early on seemed more esoteric and anti-institutional. Her “departure” from church work, in my estimation and discernment, was really a “returning” to the way of spirituality that had been foundationally characteristic of her life since the beginning. I fully concede that this is an observational judgment. However, I think there is validity in accepting the possibility of the “nature” side to spirituality having great influence over the “nurture.”

Two, I believe some of her evaluations are inaccurate or misleading. For example, on pages 168-169 she states that “…every time I came across some religious certainty that I had previously preached, taught, or believed [I] found myself wondering if it were really so. Did the Nicene Creed really cover all the bases of the Christian story? Was the Bible always the word of God? Freed from defending the faith, I began to revisit what faith really meant to me and found that much of the old center did not hold.”

I would argue that questioning the faith–in addition defending it–is a Christian and Biblical value (e.g. Bereans, Jesus and the religious leaders, etc.) Through this portion of the book, there are several critiques of the church’s beliefs and practices in favor of a broader and more critical position. However, I just happen to believe that the canopy of Christian faith can actually be cast much wider than is currently accepted and therefore does not need to be dismissed in order to embrace a fuller understanding. Given Genesis 1:1, Psalm 24:1,  and 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, all things belong to God. Therefore, if we find truth, we embrace it, claim it as Christian, and do not  succumb to the limited pre-determined and defined boundaries of the narrow approach to what is or is not “Christian.”

In addition, she writes that, “…the gospel writers had not told me the whole truth about the Pharisees…” (174) While this is accurate, it is also true that the Bible never claims to give the whole truth. Criticizing the Bible for not being what it never claimed to be is dubious and an assumptive imposition. I would suggest that the Bible is hiding absolutely nothing from that which it has wished to communicate.

Lastly, in her statement that she wanted out of the belief business and back into the beholding business, I would suggest, this is precisely the job of the pastor/priest. The church needs redemption just like the world, just of a different sort.

Taylor is a fascinating and engaging read. I commend it to all who are wrestling with the life and institution of the “Church,” and would recommend a cautious reading in those areas I’ve mentioned above.

Posted in: Religion, Reviews