So there it was, Time Magazine - on the newsstand – in the supermarket no less - competing for space with the Soaps and Star Couples’ Divorce Rumors - Time Magazine, a news magazine. What caught my eye was the black and white cover picture, dramatic in its minimalism, a picture of what appeared to be the moon vaguely glowing between the trees on a dark, foggy night and the words: FINDING GOD IN THE DARK in white, bold letters. A closer look at the cover revealed what looked like dim tracks going off into the darkness, suggesting that perhaps the “moon” was in fact the headlight of an oncoming train – pretty powerful imagery by anybody’s standards. The print under the title announced that that “Acclaimed preacher Barbara Brown Taylor argues that strength, purpose and true faith are found in the shadows”. And that was the news.
The story behind the picture is that Ms.Taylor is a best-selling religious author and charismatic preacher who found that her celebrity was drowning out her message - so she’s pulled back into the quiet places to try to reconnect. She takes walks late at night, finding the dark more comforting and likely to provide inspiration than the glare of the spotlights. Not a bad idea if you think about it, especially given the battering we’ve all been getting from that image driven world we were talking about a minute ago. I tried to keep my cynical side at bay, did my best to keep the fact that Ms. Taylor’s private “retreat from the light” is on newsstands all over the country and that she has a new book to sell. Her point is a valid one – anyone trying to hold onto their faith (if not their sanity) in a world of mega-churches, non-stop social media and constant bombardment by images of natural and man-made disasters might do well to step back from it all, shut out the noise, and let whatever inner voice guides them squeeze a few words through – a sort of religious twist on the quiet revolution. It’s an interesting idea, and the sort of thing anyone familiar with my work knows I spend a lot of time kicking around - but is it news?
Until I picked up Time Magazine, I wasn’t aware of Ms. Taylor’s work. Some quick research made it clear that she’s one of small but growing number of religious teachers who are wrestling with the idea of belief that can stand on its own without dogma. She is willing to trust in the Lord despite feelings of real anxiety over aging, death and, perhaps most of all, the Lord’s own silence. I’ve got to give her credit for that, and apparently her work is comforting to a lot of people.
As one of the minority, at least in America, who are living with a simple and obvious if not at all comforting reason for the silence of God, what makes me uncomfortable about Time Magazine’s treating her approach as hard news is that it’s an insult to my position - gratuitous religious propaganda at its worst. If you go a little deeper though, it is in many ways an insult to Ms. Taylor’s position as well.
While I’m sure she’s grateful for the publicity and clearly participated in putting the whole thing together, the problem is that a lot more people will see the cover than will actually read the article. The article itself skims the surface and is more concerned with Ms. Taylor’s popularity and her pulling back from it than with the deeper issues she’s trying to deal with – though interested parties may at least be inspired to look further.
The problem with the cover is the same as the problem with our actress posing in front of that phony squashed house. It sends a message - simple, direct and way too easy: “Don’t worry, He’s out there.” Or, to put it another way – “You may not be able to find Him where you used to find Him, but a celebrity preacher is here to tell you that He’s still there, just using different imagery to reveal Himself”. Unless I’m completely projecting my own willingness to live with real doubt onto Ms. Taylor, that’s not what she’s saying. The house she’s standing in front of is really hers and it’s really wrecked. There’s no guaranteed light at the end of the tunnel, shining though the tress, down the track or whatever. Belief without guarantees takes guts, the same kind of guts it takes to commit to unbelief – not the kind of unbelief that enjoys taking pot shots at organized religion (a relatively easy target) but the kind that’s willing to confront the terrifying reality of living in a Godless universe. Ms. Taylor’s willingness to stand in the dark may be the beginning of a badly needed dialogue between believers and unbelievers. Time magazine is feeding the divide and, unless I’m missing the point, missing the point.
Obviously, they wouldn’t have run this as a cover story if they didn’t think there was a market for it. And there is. People are interested. They’re looking for answers and, far too often, unfortunately, will take them wherever they can find them – even Time Magazine. This isn’t news, it’s religious opinion, and should have been labeled as such. The answers aren’t that easy to come by.