Holy Envy (Barbara Brown Taylor) -- A Review

HOLY ENVY: Finding God in the Faith of Others. By Barbara Brown Taylor. San Francisco: Harper One, 2019. 238 pages.

When I was growing up, I had little exposure to religions other than my own. We were Protestants, Catholics, and Mormons. There might have been a few Jewish families in town, but no synagogue. To be religious was to be Christian. I would never have expected that one-day interreligious work would be one of my passions. Yet, for the past two decades, interfaith work has been at the heart of my ministry, and as I look forward to the next phase of my life I see it continuing to be a centerpiece of my life. My life has been enriched by friendships with persons whose faith commitments are different from my own. While I have long had an ecumenical outlook, the borders of my engagements have expanded considerably in the twenty-plus years. While I remain firmly committed to my Christian faith, I have discerned the presence of God's Spirit in persons whose religious commitments are very different from my own. I have learned much from them about God and humanity and the creation itself. So, perhaps I have experienced a bit of holy envy. Perhaps I’ve seen things present in the faith of others that I have come to admire and desire for myself. And I’m not alone.

Barbara Brown Taylor is a fairly well known Christian author. She is an ordained Episcopal priest who has written widely about matters of faith, including her own struggles with belief and doubt. She has been a help to many, including me. After she left the pastoral ministry, she took up a new career teaching religion at a small United Methodist College in the mountains of Georgia. That experience created in her a bit of Holy Envy, which she has chosen to share with a wider audience in her latest book. That book is titled Holy Envy.

Holy Envy, the book, is a winsome and gracious exploration of the religious dimensions of our lives. Several years ago, she wrote a book titled Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. At least some of us struggled with her revelation that she found the need to leave the church. In many ways, this book provides an answer to that earlier book, for, in the course of teaching world religions, she not only had her religious horizons widened, but she rediscovered her own faith tradition. She rediscovered her own home, even as she grew to appreciate the traditions of others.

The context for this book is the Religion 101 class she taught for many years at Piedmont College. This is a small church-affiliated college in northeastern Georgia. Most of the students who attend there are Christian. As you might expect, some of the students were afraid of the class, fearing that their encounter with other religions might undermine their own faith. As for Taylor, this class was transformative. She notes that the book she set out to write focused on the changes that took place in her students, but in the end, while they play an important role in the story, this is really about her own transformation.

In her introduction, she tells us how she got to Piedmont College, after leaving her Episcopal parish. The book really gets started in chapter 1, which is titled "Religion 101." In this chapter, she describes the early attempts to construct a world religions class at the college, which didn’t initially go well, and required much restructuring. From there she takes us on a journey to other faith traditions, largely through the eyes of her students. We are brought into class discussions and the field trips the class takes to various religious communities, beginning with a Hindu temple in Atlanta. Along the way, she engages with Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. As she takes this journey she begins to develop what she calls Holy Envy. She discerns in the course of this journey that these other faith communities offer something she could value, even though she was not of that tradition.

As the book moves along, Taylor reengages the Christian faith that had become problematic during the closing years of her ministry in an Episcopal congregation. She also discovered that even though one might be a Christian, one might not truly know and understand one’s own faith tradition. In a chapter titled "failing Christianity," she begins with the story of a simple ten-point quiz on Christianity, which her predominantly Christian class failed. In fact, the only student who passed was Jewish. This was the quiz students thought they didn’t need to study for because they thought they already knew everything there was to know about their own faith tradition. They discovered that they didn’t know as much about the history and practices of the Christian tradition as they thought. This leads to conversations about rediscovering the complexity of Christianity. In a chapter titled "Divine Diversity," she takes note of the fact that we live with diversity. For example, there is no one Christian faith (here she acknowledges that though we pray as Christians for unity, that the church would be one, such a desire is not likely to occur). Perhaps that's not a bad thing. Diversity might be a good thing.

Taylor is a talented and thoughtful writer. I've enjoyed reading her books through the years. I've found them to be insightful and enriching, and I'm not alone in this. This book is no different. It is vintage Barbara Brown Taylor. If you've read her before and liked her earlier books, I think you will like this book as well. She has a way with words, weaving stories throughout in ways that further the conversation. The stories, whether they are about her students' experiences and her own experiences, are never extraneous. They all further the conversation about the religious dimensions of our reality. In this, the book should be incredibly helpful.

From the perspective of one who has engaged in interreligious work for some time, the question that I had going in was whether Holy Envy could serve as a starting point for fruitful interfaith conversation, or at least it might assist persons who are new to the conversation to get started. In that, Holy Envy should prove immensely valuable. For those of us who have been on the road for a while, it will offer an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been, and we might be going next. While the book deals with important areas of concern for our time, and thus it serves an important role, for many it will be the starting point for more engagement. The good news is that it is written in a way that makes it a joy to read. That's important if we're going to overcome fears and biases that tend to keep us apart.


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