Sometimes you meet kindred spirits in books. Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark has been waiting patiently. It’s one of those books that I suspected would meet me where I live, and regarding this I was correct. Brown Taylor, a former Episcopal priest and professor of religion (both of which I attempted but failed to achieve), has the courage and insight to suggest that darkness might just be a friend. The darker half of the year settled hard on me this year. As its black wings gathered about me I reached for this book. I’ve been struggling with a question I’m sometimes asked: why do I let my thoughts linger in what must be considered darker corners? I watch horror and write books and stories about monsters. What’s wrong with me anyway?
One accusation may be fairly leveled at much of American religion is that it is shallow. Light is uncritically accepted as good and dark becomes somehow evil. There are biblical prooftexts that can be used to “prove” this, but they change color when you wrestle with them. Learning to Walk in the Dark contains many ways of reflecting on realities which are inevitable. Brown Taylor visits museums that give the sighted the experience of being blind in a safe environment. She spends time in caves. She stretches out beneath the stars and contemplates the dark night of the soul as well as the cloud of unknowing. These latter two are, of course, spiritual classics. There’s quite a bit that can be learned from experiencing darkness and listening intently.
My own predilections toward subjects called “dark” are forms of therapy. My religion simply can’t be shallow. I need enough water to swim. And yes, I’m afraid of deep water. Darkness perhaps comes more naturally to those of us who are awake for every sunrise. If I move far enough north that may cease to be the case, but for the last decade or so my internal alarm goes off a couple hours before the first sliver of light creeps over the eastern hills. And I seem to have assimilated to it. As I read Learning I could imagine the accusations flying from my former Nashotah House context. Looking at that patriarchal theology of sin and misery, however, I think there’s no question whence true darkness comes. Without the dark we could never tell that it was light. Since we need both, it seems wise to follow the sage advice here offered and get to know the dusky side a bit more intimately.
“Theology” is a word that means very different things in different contexts. I dislike labels in general and I seldom call myself a “theologian” since that implies a systematic or “dogmatic” theologian on this side of the Atlantic. (And a better paying job.) In the about to exit Britain “theologian” tends to mean someone who studies religion and can be used regardless of discipline. In any case, I avoid the use of the title since my interests tend toward the history of religious ideas, not making them into a workable system. I was a little surprised when I received an invitation from the journal Horizons in Biblical Theology to contribute a piece on horror and the Bible. The issue in which the article was published (41) has just appeared. Ironically, invitations to contribute seldom came when I was employed as an academic. Of course, “independent scholar” is now a fairly common avocation. Especially in theology.
I won’t post any spoiler alerts for the contents of the article—I don’t want to quell the stampede of those eager to read it—but the basic idea is that biblical studies has embraced horror. Like long-lost cousins, they have come together at last, realizing that they are both pariahs. People generally don’t know how to carry on a discussion with a biblical scholar, as if those of us who spend time with the Good Book are constantly judging others. I can’t say as I blame them since that image is reinforced fairly constantly. Horror scholars, on the other hand, are thought to be weird examples of arrested development—stuck in the juvenile phase. Social respectability isn’t their strong suit, although horror movies do well at the box office and one of the most successful writers ever is Stephen King.
Religion and horror share more than being associated with troglodytes, however. Both address primal human fears. Religion may not be “all about” fear, but a healthy dose of it is. If life was peachy all the time, would we have any need of religion? We need help coping with our fears, and religion has a long history of dispensing it. Knowing we’re going to die, and in all likelihood will experience some suffering before that, whether physical or psychological, is a heavy burden to bear. Religion has always been there to provide meaning and sometimes even solace. Horror, or at least the best of it, does so too. I’m not sure I would call it theological, but if you’re interested you know where to find my latest musings on it.