Tuesday, February 10, 2009

An Altar in the World looks for God in your own backyard

Posted By on Tue, Feb 10, 2009 at 7:30 PM

click to enlarge Author Barbara Brown Taylor
  • Author Barbara Brown Taylor

I could probably fill a cathedral with people I know who claim to have a spiritual side, but immediately make the disclaimer that they’re not “churchy” or “very religious.” Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Altar in the World is a kind of how-to guide for squishily spiritual souls; the type who glance askance at religious fundamentalism, but don’t want to cut God loose and become atheists, either.

Taylor was ordained as an Episcopal priest and served for years at Atlanta’s All Saints’ Episcopal Church, but has wrestled with ambivalence over organized religion. In her 2006 memoir, Leaving Church, she describes how, despite the depth of her faith, she became burned out with the ministry. She currently works as a professor at Georgia’s Piedmont College. While she’s not opposed to church-based worship, An Altar in the World, as the name implies, seeks out sacred meanings in seemingly mundane activities. (Local readers will enjoy her anecdotes set at local venues such as the Atlanta Masjid of Al Islam.)

The book, subtitled A Geography of Faith, walks the reader through different strategies for finding the eternal in the everyday.

She devotes chapters to doing physical labor, being comfortable with your body, and connecting to other people, as well as DIY approaches to prayer, blessings and other traditionally sanctified activities. In a nutshell, Taylor advises people to appreciate stop-and-smell-the-roses moments, and offers that the moments you feel most alive are the instances when you’re closest to God. At times her perspective on the Almighty seems almost Buddhist, suggesting that you don’t have to be Christian to find the book rewarding. She also reveals a sense of humor when she recounts stories about noticing a mural of Jesus with no body hair in a Southern church, or performing a benediction on a bathroom.

Books like An Altar in the World and the spiritual musings of authors such as Anne Lamott tend to walk a line between insightful and obvious, between universal truths and navel-gazing. When Taylor refers to godliness as “The Really Real” or writes lines such as, “If you are paying attention, even a mail-order catalog becomes a sacrament,” the devil on your shoulder tempts you to roll your eyes and put the volume aside. Overall, though, Taylor writes in such grounded descriptive prose and draws on such a wealth of references (from the Old Testament to her life experience) that An Altar in the World offers readable, practical tips for finding epiphanies in your own backyard.

An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor. HarperOne. $24.95. 217 pp.

Barbara Brown Taylor appears Wed., Feb. 11 at 7 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, 2900 Peachtree Road, Suite 310. 404-261-7747. www.barnesandnoble.com; Wed., Feb. 25, 7:30 p.m. at Outwrite Books, 991 Piedmont Ave. 404-607-0082. www.outwritebooks.com; and Tues., March 3, 7:30 p.m. at Presser Hall, Gaines Chapel, Agnes Scott College. 404-471-6430. www.agnesscott.edu.

(Photo by Studio Chambers)

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