Leaving Church for What?

I just finished Barbara Brown Taylor's "Memoir of Faith," Leaving Church. Taylor was for 20 years an Episcopal priest--first in an urban Atlanta parish, then moving to a rural north Georgia parish that calls to mind scenes from Mitford. The narrative arc of the memoir, however, recounts her decision to leave parish ministry--eventually ending up as a religion professor at Piedmont College. As such, the book is somewhat mistitled: it's really a book about leaving ordained ministry. "Leaving Clergy" would be more fitting, but less catchy--and it does seem by the end of the book that Taylor's post-clergy rendition of Christianity does translate into leaving church. Having so diffused God's presence into "the world"--especially the world of "nature"--Taylor can't come up with very good reasons for staying. So instead we find her on the porch of her hilltop home on Sunday mornings, reading the paper and enjoying the geese flying overhead. (Many "emergent" folks will find much that they'll love in her critique of the institutional church; that in itself is a red flag for me.) Taylor is clearly no Anglo-Catholic, since she sees no sense of any special presence of the Spirit in the church's sacraments.

The book is breezy and honest and a compelling read. As someone who has at times been tempted by the reverse trajectory--to "leave college" for ministry--the book is a sobering look behind the curtain which I'll want to keep close by whenever those temptations rear their ugly head.

But I must confess I never quite found myself sympathetic to Taylor's narrative voice. I think this is for at least two reasons:

First, I found the book incredibly self-absorbed. Someone might be quick to point, "Well, it is a memoir; what did you expect?" But perhaps this says something about what memoirs have become in our culture, and why there is such a cult of the memoir today--and increasingly within the church (I think the same voice comes across in the memoirs of Anne Lamott and Lauren Winner). The memoir is a symptom of the general cult of narcissism that characterizes late-modern American culture. In these memoirs, the author gets all the best lines. Indeed, I felt like Taylor voice sounded like that of the stereotypical "only child" (is she? I won't be at all surprised). The world painted for us revolves around Taylor, as if everything existed for Taylor.

Is it possible for memoirs to not be narcissistic? Absolutely, though they are rare today. A non-narcissistic memoir will be characterized by a first-person voice that doesn't confuse the first-person perspective with the centre of the universe. It will be a memoir that lets others emerge in full-bloom as developed characters, and puts the best lines in their mouths. (The paucity of other characters in the book was, for me, the most striking piece. Not even her husband's picture gets filled in.) In short, it would be a memoir characterized by one of St. Augustine's central axioms: "What do we have that we did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7)

My second reservation stems from the first: I just can't bring myself to find liberalism as a very interesting or viable hope for the future. And at the end of the day, Taylor just wants to give us more liberal Christianity. By "liberal" I don't mean an epithet that the Southern Baptist Convention throws at anyone who rejects a literal six-day creation. By "liberalism" I mean an understanding of the self and the world that was bequeathed to us by Locke and Rousseau--a vision that places the individual at the centre of the world and sees the entire world existing to satisfy that autonomous, self-determined individual.

And it seems that is the spirituality that Taylor finds liberating. She cites with approval another friend who "left church." Talking about his decision to no longer participate in the church's worship, the friend testified: "I think I finally hear the gospel. The good news of God in Christ is, 'You have everything you need to be human.' There is nothing oustide of you that you still need" (p. 219).

That might be a gospel, but it's not the Gospel of Jesus Christ--it's the gospel spewed by the evangelists of Enlightenment liberalism who waxed elegant about the self-sufficiency of the individual. A gospel of self-sufficiency is the antithesis of a gospel of grace, which points out our utter lack, and our utter dependence precisely on something outside ourselves. And not just God: the corporate worship of the church is itself a testimony to how much I need all of these odd, strange, generally unlikeable people that congregate together whether we "want" to or not.

As much as I would sometimes like to "leave church," I know that this would only be fueling the worst parts of me, allowing me to retreat to a comfy space that I control, no longer disciplined by the hard work of submitting to external discipline and no longer required to be called out of myself to encounter and love those who get on my nerves (and they me!).

Leaving church is easy; it's staying that requires courage--and that requires grace.


Protestant Novelists?

I've been thinking a little more about the closing questions I offered in my earlier reflections on Graham Greene's Quiet American--my hunch that somehow the Catholic sacramental imagination has produced better novelists than the Protestant social imaginary.

I should have qualified this, of course, to say that I was thinking primarily of 20th-century novelists--which is why Updike came to mind. It's probably the case that any American novelist in the 20th-century who isn't Catholic is a kind of "Protestant" novelist by default, just because of the ubiquitous protestantism of American culture (somewhat like Hegel said all Western philosophy after Augustine is "Christian" philosophy in some sense). This is obviously the case for Hawthorne and Melville, but might still be the case for 20th-century novelists, at least up to the 60s or so.

Perhaps this line of questioning is untenable, but it does seem instructive somehow. Pen-pal acquaintance Andre Muller (New Zealand) articulated the issue in correspondence: what would it mean for a novel to be "Protestant?"

Well, probably lots of guilt, with no penance! In which case Cormac McCarthy might be the quintessential Protestant novelist (!). More specifically, it seems to me that "Protestant" novels tend toward a kind of didacticism that reflects the cognitivist, "talking-head" way that Protestantism has tended to construe Christian faith. So rather than the obliqueness of Greene, you get something like Marilynne Robinson's Gilead--which is a fabulous book, but not on the order of Waugh or O'Connor (in my humble opinion).

[P.S. While it is unfortunately not available online, those with access to a relatively good library might be interested in my piece on Franz Wright in the most recent Harvard Divinity Bulletin. It's entitled "Absence as a Window." The same issue includes new poems from Wright.]