You just know something’s up when the theological and spiritual significance of darkness makes the cover of Time Magazine. The cover article this week explores ideas in Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark. Throughout history, Christianity has downplayed the role of darkness, even though Biblical and theological references would indicated otherwise. Hymns, sermons and other religious writing almost universally equate darkness with things bad or evil, while the light always means moving toward God and good.
For decades, this use of light/dark language had been critiqued appropriately from the perspective of race. Why is white always equated with goodness, God and love, while darkness always equated with evil, the devil and hate? Barbara Brown Taylor expands that critique, pressing us spiritually and theologically to see the striking role that darkness plays in crucial stories of faith. Elizabeth Dias, the Time article author writes: “‘But, she [Taylor] is also taking on the sometimes far-too-sunny fashion in which churches tell their most important stories. It is easy to forget amid ‘the Easter lilies, the sound of trumpets and bright steaming light,’ she notes, that the Resurrection happened in a dark cave. ‘God and darkness have been friends for a long time,’ Taylor says. ‘It’s just one nighttime story after another—amazing.’”
I think to all the portraits painted on Sunday School classroom walls of rainbows over Noah’s Ark and Jesus transfiguring into brilliant white and lifted into the clouds, forgetting that the rainbow appeared only after a humanity-decimating flood and Jesus’ brilliant light came only after a gruesome death and three days in a cold, dark tomb.
Christianity’s aversion to darkness, I believe, is part of what is driving young people away from the church. Because they’ve only been taught the “light” side of these stories of faith, when they encounter the shadow side in their own lives — the death of young friends to random illnesses, suicide or car accidents, dealing with abuse, addiction and other dysfunctional family dynamics or being insecure about food, clothing and shelter after a job loss — the cheery faith and the genie-in-a-bottle God we’ve taught them is woefully inadequate. They simply leave to find better answers to these deep questions.
Dias writes in the article: “Our culture’s ability to tolerate sadness is weak. As individuals, we often run away from it. ‘We are supposed to get over it, fix it, purchase something, exercise, do whatever it takes to become less sad,’ [Taylor] says. ‘Turning in to darkness, instead of away from it, is the cure for a lot of what ails me. Because I have a deep need to be in control of things, to know where I am going, to be sure of my destination, to get there efficiently, to have all the provisions I need to do it all without help—and you can’t do any of that in the dark.’”
As a church, we need to turn toward, not away from the darkness in this time of empty pews, dwindling budgets and loss of cultural status. As Taylor asserts, the darkness WILL save us and maybe even bring a few young people along with us.
To explore darkness, try a couple of these practices that Taylor suggests (as outlined in the article):
- Walk slowly at night
- Watch the moonrise
- Unplug all your devices at night
- Sit in a closet (the closest thing to real darkness for city dwellers)
Tell me your experiences of darkness here.