book review: learning to walk in the dark

Learning to Walk in the Dark is by Barbara Taylor Brown and was published in 2014 by Harper One. You can get your copy here



Those of us who live in big cities are very rarely exposed to true darkness, we always have the glow of streetlights and signs and the ability to light things up at the touch of a finger. If we have grown up as Christians (or Star Wars fans for that matter) we may focus on the goodness of the light, and have little experience of the dark. But Barbara Brown Taylor helps us to take a step back. To stop and think actually didn’t God create the darkness and declare it good?
Learning to Walk in the Dark is Barbara Brown Taylor’s exploration of whether we can find the good that lies in the dark, and whether we can meet God there in the darkness. Towards the beginning of the book she defines darkness as

“shorthand for anything that scares me- that I want no part of – either because I am sure that I do not have the resources to survive it or because I do not want to find out.” (p.4)

From there Barbara Brown Taylor takes us with her on her journey to explore the meaning and impact of darkness. She takes us through her childhood and what darkness meant to her then, she looks at the physical darkness of being blind or in a cave, and the darkness that exists inside of us. The chapters follow the phases on the moon, the opening of the book is at full moon, which gradually dims and then brightens to full again by the end of the book. Brown Taylor describes the book as a journal, so it is not a theological essay but a personal reflection on her experiences with the dark, although she reflects on her theology and faith throughout the book.
She writes with a personal style that makes you feel included in her journey, and that you get to know her a little bit throughout the book. You can almost imagine that she is writing you a personal encouraging letter rather than the much more public forum of a book. Brown Taylor uses words well, she has a lovely attention to word craft that makes reading her books a delight. I particularly liked this description of her writers block

“Not long after that, all the words lay down and died, lying on the page like ants in a poisoned anthill: little black bodies everywhere, their legs curled up like burnt whiskers. I poked at them but they did not move.” (p.78)

As each chapter is an exploration of a particular aspect of darkness and because of the personal nature of the book, it can seem a little disjointed in places. I think readers will relate to some chapters better than others depending on where they are at in their own journey. By sharing her journey with the reader she provides things to think about, questions to ponder and ideas that we can use to go on our own journey into our own concepts of darkness. For example I have realised how little time I spend in the dark, even looking around my bedroom at night there are so many things that glow. I am wondering what it would be like to spend more time in the dark.
For me the book highlighted something that I have been exploring and pondering for some years now. Often our Christian faith and prayers understand and equate God’s work with removing us from the darkness. It is the equivalent of rushing to turn on the lights as soon as it gets dark. But what Brown Taylor manages to show us is how God can meet us there in the cave of our darkness, without being reduced to simply shining his light to remove the darkness. God is there in whatever darkness we face, and there are treasures in the dark that we cannot see in the light. She concludes that “I need darkness as much as I need light” (p.5). Her’s is not the simple conclusion that we so often hear that without the dark we wouldn’t appreciate the light, but rather she shows us how we can build a deep appreciation of the darkness and all that can be learned there.
I found it a comfort too as a spend time thinking and praying about the future of the institution of church, I can see we are in for great changes – yet I cannot see what they are. I think there is a lot of reassurance in this book for those of us who are blindly finding our way in the dark, towards the future with one hand stretched in front us us and the Holy Spirit to guide us around any obstacles. God is not only to be met in the certainty of the light, but is with us in all the uncertainties and unclear future that we face.
If you have read the book I would really like to hear your thoughts and impressions and what it sparked for you.

Here are some specific questions, that you may like to respond to:
What were your first impressions of the book?

What is one of your favourite phrases or sentences from the book?

What is your favourite concept in the book?

I have been listening to Leonard Cohen’s – You want it darker. (YouTube link here if you haven’t heard it)Do you see resonances or connections between his song and Learning to Walk in the Dark?

How did Learning to Walk in the Dark help grow or challenge your faith?

Was there anything in the book that you didn’t really like or relate to?

Who would you recommend this book too?


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