Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor Talks Grace Through Christian Lens: God’s ‘Surprising Goodness’

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor filled the Hall of Philosophy despite the inclement weather on Tuesday, Aug 6, 2019 during her afternoon lecture on God’s grace, equating it to an everlasting party. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Nikhat Noorani, For The Daily

The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor is no newcomer to the conflicting ideologies on grace in the Christian tradition. In fact, she challenges the typical outlook of “amazing grace,” with “alarming grace,” to solidify the idea that grace can be bestowed upon anyone.

Taylor has served as Chautauqua’s weekly chaplain five times, is a New York Times best-selling author, listed on Time magazine’s 2014 “Most Influential People,” professor and recipient of Chautauqua’s Presidential Award. On Tuesday, Chautauquans gathered in the Hall of Philosophy with eager ears for her lecture, “Alarming Grace: A Christian Perspective,” as part of Week Seven’s interfaith theme, “Grace: A Celebration of Extraordinary Gifts.”

Taylor told the audience she had come not as a pastor but, “as a teacher of world religions,” and pointed out the variety of Christian backgrounds she encountered when she discussed Christianity in her classes.

“I never asked a Christian student to confirm a single thing I said,” she said. “There was too much variety among them, and there were too many levels of spiritual maturity.”

There are basic differences in every fundamental idea surrounding Christianity, as Taylor put forth in a series of questions to the audience: “What’s the view on infant baptism? On speaking in tongues? On the ordination of women? On the Pope? … Maureen (Rovegno, director of religion) called on me to speak with you on the Christian view on grace. And there are plenty of you here to contradict me.”

Within the Christian idea of grace alone, Christians often have conflicting viewpoints and various stances. In fact, grace is something that can “highlight how hard it is to get Christians to wrap their head around a phenomenon that they (actually) all agree on,” Taylor said. Grace, in the Christian tradition, has often referred to the idea of God’s “surprising goodness,” even when someone does not deserve it.

With rain pouring down and wind blowing away her papers, Taylor mentioned the surprising nature of grace.

“You know, if we had any respect we would just sit here a minute and welcome the grace of this wind and water,” Taylor said.

Taylor said this style of grace, this “surprising goodness,” makes it easier to defy the idea of “cheap grace,” a term coined by German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to describe how most people perceive grace — as a personal benefit.

By exploring the larger picture of grace and realizing it is not a sort of exceptionalism, or personal gift from God benefiting the individual, one can see the natural unexpectedness of grace. Taylor dove deeper by discussing the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

“But now, ‘Amazing Grace’ is the national anthem for sinners everywhere,” Taylor said. “The wretch has begun to sound too harsh for some 21st-century ears. … There is still an error in that hymn, if you ask me, … which is to consider grace as a personal favor.”

The very first line of the hymn is someone talking about the grace and benefits that God will bestow upon them. When individuals only see themselves in God’s favor, especially in the light of tragedy, “you can’t help but wonder God’s purpose for the ones who died,” Taylor said.

She used the writer of “Amazing Grace” as an example. John Newton was a slave owner who escaped death twice, but still profited from the sales of other human beings. Though his personal idea of grace originally was individualistic, Newton’s grace shifted from a “life preserver with one hole in it,” to a “raft,” as he eventually became an abolitionist in his 60s.

“So, take heart, friends,” Taylor said, “because sometimes grace takes a long time to activate.”
Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor filled the Hall of Philosophy despite the inclement weather on Tuesday, Aug 6, 2019 during her afternoon lecture on God’s grace, equating it to an everlasting party. ALEXANDER WADLEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

It is through examples that grace can be seen in its natural light, which Taylor said can be seen in the gospels: The word “grace” does not come up that often — that is, until Paul the Apostle uses it about “80 times.” Gospel writers wanted to show, rather than tell people, what grace was; that it can be bestowed upon people who are, or might seem to be, undeserving.

“Grace is alarming. … Grace isn’t fair,” Taylor said. “But since most of us want God’s grace for ourselves and God’s justice for everyone else, there’s bound to come a time when we confront a third error of grace, which is, there is nothing remotely transactional about it.”

Taylor used Luke 15:11-32, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, to describe this further. Though the lost son doesn’t deserve a party, his father throws him one, and the brother becomes angry because he has been faithful and toiling for his father day in, day out.

Taylor explained that it is OK for the brother to be angry, because that’s how anyone would feel. But the “divine parent isn’t counting,” Taylor said. The father in the parable always takes the first step, much like God.

“Grace is God’s job description. Why not let God do God’s job,” Taylor quoted Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM.

It is the individual’s responsibility to not wait and see how one is deserving of grace, but how they can embody the examples and teachings of grace.

“If Christians are meant to follow Jesus’ example, then grace isn’t flowing inward to us as much as it’s flowing out from us, carrying all sensible self-interest with it,” Taylor said.
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