Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor

“I can respect almost anyone who admits to being human while reading a divine text. After that, we can talk – about we highlight some teachings and ignore others, about how we decide which ones are historically conditioned and which ones are universally true, about who has influenced our reading of scripture and how our social location affects what we hear. The minute I believe I know the mind of God is the minute someone needs to tell me to sit down and tell me to breathe into a paper bag.”

– Barbara Brown Taylor, “Holy Envy”

Review:

Before we deep dive into this lovely book, Holy Envy, we need some background on the author. Barbara Brown Taylor is an Episcopal priest. For those not familiar with the Episcopal Church, for an oversimplified explanation, it is a denomination of Christianity that is both Catholic and Protestant in both its tradition and its theology. The church is a part of the wider Anglican Communion. The Episcopal Church ordains all genders, affirms and celebrates those in the LGBTQ community, and is currently in the process to make its liturgy and prayer book more inclusive and accessible. It certainly is not a perfect faith tradition (it can get bogged down in doing things the way they’ve “always” been done), and all its adherents are remarkably and frustratingly human. Like Barbara Brown Taylor, I too am an Episcopal priest, though we are vastly different in experience and priestly vocation. One of the most inspiring things about being clergy in the Episcopal Church is that no two priesthood journeys are the same and they are not expected to follow any singular prescribed path.

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor

Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor was ordained in 1984 and served as the rector (lead pastor) of Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church before eventually leaving parish (church) ministry to become a full time professor at Piedmont College in Demorest, Georgia. One of her favorite classes to teach was an introductory course to major world religions. Before reading this book, it is a good idea to read BBT’s first memoir, Leaving Church, but it is not strictly necessary. You can still get a great deal of the book’s message without knowing everything about the author’s background. To be honest, I’ve not yet read the author’s first memoir, though I have read Learning to Walk in the Dark and An Altar in the World.

In her book, Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor discusses what it is like to encounter other faiths and find something in them to envy, to wish that your faith had or to wish that you could adopt into your own faith practice. She discusses how she felt when she found her own Christianity lacking, when she felt the well that she drew her spiritual water from began to go dry. She left parish ministry and began to teach Religion 101, and I found that as a teacher, I envy the freedom with which she can discuss and explore with her students. As a K-12 teacher in an area where I am likely the only Christian who is not evangelical, I must be careful. I’m also the only Christian in my school district who isn’t a Republican, and so I must be doubly careful. It was refreshing to read that someone is doing the work of showing the wider world to students who are much like mine. I often worry that we are sending our Christian students into the wider world with such a self-centered perspective that they fail to realize the beauty, strength, and dignity of other cultures and religions, that they fail to realize that their small corner of the world is not the world entire.

The author does her part to bring her students into the wider world in a way that does not dismiss or diminish their own faith. The vast majority of her students are evangelical Christians, such as Baptists or Church of Christ or Pentecostal. Their worldview has never come up against the worldview of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, or Hindus. Most of her students could not match these religions to their core beliefs before taking her class. The book explores the fear her students encounter when encountering other faiths. Will they be putting their own beliefs to the test by even learning about others? Will they be risking their faith? What if some of the other faiths make sense? What does that mean?

Like any good Episcopalian, BBT does not provide the answers to these questions, but instead teachers her students how to sit with these uncomfortable questions and explore to find their own unique answers. It was an honor to go on the journey as well, even in a limited way.

“Spending extended amounts of time inside other religious worldviews has loosened the screws on my own, which is beginning to seem like a good thing. Disowning God has been a great help to me. Owning my distinct view of God has helped me understand it much better. Although I can see the places where religious truth claims collide, this does not bother me as much as it could. I am far more interested in how people live than what they believe. When other Christians threaten or disappoint me, I work as hard to see God in them as in people of other (or no) faiths. It helps to remember that these are often the same Christians whom I threaten and disappoint in equal measure. The only clear line I draw these days is this: when my religion tries to come between me and my neighbor, I will choose my neighbor. That self-canceling feature of my religion is one of the things I like best about it. Jesus never commanded me to love my religion.”

– Barbara Brown Taylor, “Holy Envy”

Pros:

  • Easily accessible information on many major world religions
  • Interesting narration that keeps the thoughts shared in a mostly cohesive narrative
  • This is certainly a Christian perspective, but one that works for many denominations, not just Episcopal
  • The discussion around how to not center Christianity in interfaith work is timely and excellent.

Cons:

  • The book could benefit from a bit more information about how Barbara remained connected to her own faith tradition. The book leaves out that she also taught as an adjunct professor in a theological seminary at the same time she was teaching for Piedmont.

Rating:

  • ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

“I asked God for religious certainty, and God gave me relationships instead. I asked for solid ground, and God gave me human beings instead—strange, funny, compelling, complicated human beings—who keep puncturing my stereotypes, challenging my ideas, and upsetting my ideas about God, so that they are always under construction. I may yet find the answer to all my questions in a church, a book, a theology, or a practice of prayer, but I hope not. I hope God is going to keep coming to me in authentically human beings who shake my foundations, freeing me to go deeper into the mystery of why we are all here.”

– Barbara Brown Taylor, “Holy Envy”

Recommended For:

  • Those curious about exploring world faiths.
  • Fans of Barbara Brown Taylor’s books
  • Those looking to love their neighbor as themselves when their neighbor doesn’t believe, worship, or celebrate like they do.

Books to Read if You Loved Holy Envy:

Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)

  • Have you ever studied major world religions? If so, what did you learn that stuck with you? If not, what would you like to learn?
  • Does learning about the faith of others have the potential to strengthen or to endanger your own faith?
  • Have you ever experienced “holy envy” where something about another faith tradition really made an impact on you?

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