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Book Review: An Altar in the World

I finished my second book by Barbara Brown Taylor this month. An Altar In The World was incredibly nourishing spiritually.

People used to use phrases like that, and I would roll my eyes, or think it was just Christianese.  But let me explain what I mean by “spiritually nourishing”

It affirms my embodied faith. The more I am immersed in nature, the closer I feel to God.  This has always been the case. I have had a hard time rectifying the many facts about God I learn in books, with the fingerprints I find streaking sunsets and on magnolia petals.  I feel reverberating presence in summer thunder and sunshowers, ocean waves, and the awe of a full moon, but yet many seem to quantify God in lists of shoulds, and should nots. I wanted a book to tell me how this faith and awe I live in fits on pages of theological discourse, and Barbara Brown Taylor has given me that.

It was delightfully free - nothing suggested required a program or overhaul of lifestyle.  There was no quick fix or veiled marketing ploy. I had everything I needed to engage in these spiritual practices. God, Faith, Earth, Spirit, Sky, Moon, Humanity, Time. There was no magic ingredient. I felt like Barbara was simply naming the kind of faith I’ve walked through miles of fields since I was ten. In naming it, she directed me deeper, and showed me greater intention.

Because of the accessibility to the spiritual practices, and perhaps the fact that they can be utilized by everything from washing toilets to digging potatoes, this book feels refreshingly un colonial, at least in comparison to other books with pat answers and thinly veiled prosperity gospels.  Barbara doesn’t claim to be decolonizing faith, but I am working to ground and deepen the facets of my faith that aren’t rooted in privilege, domination, and possession. I’m teasing apart my history of Christianity, looking for when it shifted from radical relationship to a tool of subjugation.  Barbara has created a portion of that space for me. Her respect of other religions mentioned was also refreshing. She doesn’t ever seem to think she knows it all, has learned it all, can’t be shown a new perspective or way to connect with God. I love her humility and constant wonder.

The chapter on the practice of Incarnation - the practice of wearing skin - was incredibly healing.  If you’ve read any of my other writing or followed me on social media, you will know I grew up in a conservative Christian subculture permeated with shaming “purity” messages. Barbara’s practice of treasuring her body as a spiritual practice is so beautiful. This is something I’ve found myself in some ways but not in as embodied forms as Barbara has.  Maybe it’s the 30+ years of faith she has on me.

This book was a breath of fresh air.

There was one section that I would be remiss not to mention, where she explores sexual arousal / alertness as a spiritual experience.  This is not something I’ve personally experienced so I refuse to cast judgement on it. It was a paragraph. I moved on. Some people use this to shrug off her whole book and I think that’s silly.  In One Thousand Gifts Ann Voskamp has a whole chapter at the end which uses a sexual allegory in spiritual context and that made me WAY more uncomfortable. This was barely a paragraph. It’s possible that makes me uncomfortable because I still have some shameful attachments to sexuality I need to unpack. Maybe what she and Ann describe just aren’t for me. That’s OK, it doesn’t mean I’m going to write off everything else they share.

Ultimately, An Altar In the World  was a call to deep intention and reverence.  To slow down enough to see the Divine in the face of my friend, my cashier, and maybe even the person in front of me on the highway. It reminded me of my roots, that being made of dust is miraculous and humbling.  Listening to it on audiobook felt like an exhale. If you’re looking to deepen your spiritual walk with everything and everyone you already have in your life, pick up this book, or check your local library for it. If you do, let me know your thoughts!

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