Some of you may have been among the hundreds of people lucky enough to hear Barbara Brown Taylor on her recent UK book tour. The Episcopalian priest always draws large crowds – and her books attract a lot of interest.
In her latest book, Holy Envy, the author relates her experiences (after giving up parish ministry) of teaching world religions at her local college over a number of years, and how that affected her perception of Christianity. During that time she came to see more and more the virtues of the religions she taught, leading to ‘holy envy’ of different aspects of each of them.
Initially Brown Taylor used slides and video clips for examples, but she soon found that the religions she was teaching had adherents in her own State (Atlanta) – she just hadn’t noticed before – and set about arranging visits to mosques, temples and synagogues. In many cases the contacts she made became firm friends.
The ‘envy’ she experienced was for the things she most admired in the religions she taught – and perhaps found lacking in Christianity. She was impressed by the openness and hospitality of the other religions towards her groups of visiting students. She envied ”the inclusiveness of Hinduism, the nonviolence of Buddhism, the prayer life of Islam, and the sacred debate of Judaism” while acknowledging that ”the grass is always greener in the tradition next door”.
This isn’t to suggest that the author advocates a ‘patchwork’ approach to religion, where the individual can pick and choose and cobble together a set of beliefs. She acknowledges that religions are not all alike, and “their followers see the world in very distinct ways”. However, although she doesn’t quite say this explicitly, she does seem to end in a place where she finds it difficult to say that Christianity is superior to other religions, and this, she realises, can be discomforting. Rather she finds her faith to be enriched by studying other religions.
Holy Envy is a very well written, thoughtful book that everyone will benefit from reading. It is based on years of experience and engagement with people of other religions, leading the author to conclude “After you have allowed the other to define herself, listening carefully to all the ways she is not you, it is hard to overlook the fact that you and she are made of the same basic material”.
Reviewed by Jenny Monds.