Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others

The renowned and beloved New York Times bestselling author of An Altar in the World and Learning to Walk in the Dark recounts her moving discoveries of finding the sacred in unexpected places while teaching the world’s religions to undergraduates in rural Georgia, revealing how God delights in confounding our expectations.Barbara Brown Taylor continues her spiritual journe...

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Title:Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others
Author:Barbara Brown Taylor
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Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others Reviews

  • Matt

    Over the years I have had the opportunity to experience from time to time the worship styles and expressions of faith of other religions. In each instance, I have left feeling much richer for the experience - and there have been times when I left feeling the impacts of these experiences quite deeply. I couldn't put words to it at the time ("holy envy" wasn't a phrase I had heard), but Barbara Brown Taylor does - magnificently - in this book. If I tried to pull a few quotes to represent the beaut

    Over the years I have had the opportunity to experience from time to time the worship styles and expressions of faith of other religions. In each instance, I have left feeling much richer for the experience - and there have been times when I left feeling the impacts of these experiences quite deeply. I couldn't put words to it at the time ("holy envy" wasn't a phrase I had heard), but Barbara Brown Taylor does - magnificently - in this book. If I tried to pull a few quotes to represent the beauty of this book, I would end up simply quoting the entire thing. If I tried to summarize it, I would cut out something important. So I will simply say this: read this book; reflect on this book; and discover how this book enriches you - both in a deeper appreciation of whatever faith or traditions you have and of the gifts we can receive from our neighbors.

  • Michael Austin

    Barbara Brown Taylor is perhaps the best thinker and writer that I ever blew the chance to hear live. Several years ago, I attended a conference at which she and Miroslov Volf were the featured speakers. Volf was the opening plenary speaker, and Taylor was the closing plenary speaker. I was not familiar with Taylor at the time, and I had a fairly small menu of flights to choose from when I booked the flight. So I chose an evening flight back home that required me to miss the closing session. To

    Barbara Brown Taylor is perhaps the best thinker and writer that I ever blew the chance to hear live. Several years ago, I attended a conference at which she and Miroslov Volf were the featured speakers. Volf was the opening plenary speaker, and Taylor was the closing plenary speaker. I was not familiar with Taylor at the time, and I had a fairly small menu of flights to choose from when I booked the flight. So I chose an evening flight back home that required me to miss the closing session. To make up for it, I bought

    and read it in the flight. By the time I landed, I realized what a mistake I had made.

    Since then, I have come to see Barbara Brown Taylor as an indispensable Christian writer. She combines depth and clarity, which are two traits that are rarely found together in any kind of writing. Other Christian writers I admire are deep without being clear (Miroslov Volf, for example) and clear without being particularly deep (Rachel Held Evans fills this category for me). Taylor is both. She has enough theological sophistication to write profound--and unread--treatises for fellow academics. But she writes like, well, a writer. And a really good one.

    Even though I knew this about her--her book

    was one of the best things that I read last year--I was fully prepared not to like

    . I don’t much like the term to begin with. Almost every time I have heard it used, it describes a sort of religious tourism that either 1) overly romanticizes distant religious practices (“look at all those noble savages worshipping God in their state of nature”) or just assumes that everything that another culture does is inherently superior to our own (“why can’t my Church look like the Sistine Chapel and have music by Bach?”) . Both of these attitudes drive me nuts.

    Not only does Taylor not adopt these attitudes. She tackles them head on and talks about the ethics of learning from other people’s religions. We cannot simply appropriate other people’s beliefs into our own--lifting them from their original context and adding them to our spiritual practice to show how open-minded we are. I mean, we can, but it is not a very ethical way to treat others. Holy Envy is not the same thing as spiritual imperialism. Taylor calls this "spiritual shoplifting," and it is not a good thing.

    Brown works out a much more nuanced approach. She grounds herself firmly in the Christian tradition, while, at the same time, acknowledging that this tradition is not uniquely or exclusively representative of God’s will. This is a very tricky position to occupy, since it involves reading against a fair bit of that tradition itself and very carefully interpreting its sacred texts. But she pulls it off and says something like (and I am paraphrasing here), “I am a Christian, and this is the context in which I experience God. It is a beautiful tradition, and I believe that it can lead me to God. But it is a tradition that works for people who have a specific set of experiences--and there are equally valid traditions that can lead people in different who experience the world differently to the same God, who is too big to be captured in any particular aspect.”

    Learning from other traditions, then, requires empathy, understanding, respect, and a lot of effort. It requires us to learn what other people believe, why they believe these things, and what aspect of God they address. When we do this, we can see some of the gaps in our understanding that grow out gaps in our experiences. A religion is basically a set of narratives that help us make sense of our relationship to things that are outside of ourselves--including divinity, nature, history, the universe, and other people. These are such big things that no set of narratives can say everything (or even most things) about them. So there is value in understanding the ways that other people, and other cultures, try to grapple with the “big questions.” They are big questions precisely because they support many answers.

    Perhaps the best metaphor for how Taylor sees religion is language. We all learn a language, and most of us are more comfortable using our own language than one we learned from others. However, learning another language can help us see things differently and understand concepts that we could never quite make clear in our own language. And usually, understanding another language teaches us things about our own language. (I never really understood how the subjunctive worked in English until I tried to learn how it works in Spanish). As Taylor puts it, “As natural as it may be to try to translate everything into my own religious language, I miss a lot when I persist in reducing everything to my own frame of reference” (34). Learning from the faith of others is very similar to learning from the language of others. And neither one can really be done without going to new places and meeting new people.

    The main body of the book is highly reflective memoir of Taylor’s experiences teaching a Survey of World Religion course to students at Piedmont College. A typical semester involved teaching five major world religions: Hinduism Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. She documents her experiences with mainly Christian students encountering these religions for the first time. She addresses some of the aspects of these religions that have helped her supplement blind spots in her own point of view: the Muslim relationship to prayer, for example, or the Hindu embrace of multiple spiritual paths.

    But she presents this as real work, not a tourist's vacation. We have to understand, not just the religions, but the people who practice them. She also flips the lens at the end of the book and shows the things about Christianity that can teach things to people of other faiths. Because this really isn’t a book about learning from other religions at all. It is a book about learning from other people who have religions. It is part of having humility and learning to love other people and to see them as fully human moral agents whose interactions with the divine are as valid and important as our own.

  • Elyssa Gooding

    This book is well written and expansive. I find the message to bring more questions than answers and that is a good thing. I recommend this for anyone who is interested in living peacefully in an interfaith world.

  • Melora

    I haven't been "wow-ed" by all Barbara Brown Taylor's books -- some of them have seemed a bit fluffy -- but this is a good one. While I don't agree with everything she says, I do agree with her

    , and she makes me think about

    I believe as I do, which is always a good thing.

  • Rebecca

    After she left the pastorate, Taylor taught Religion 101 at Piedmont College, a small Georgia institution, for 20 years. This book arose from what she learned about other religions – and about her own, Christianity – by engaging with faith in an academic setting and taking her students on field trips to mosques, temples, and so on. The title phrase comes from a biblical scholar named Krister Stendahl who served as the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm. At a press conference prior to the dedicat

    After she left the pastorate, Taylor taught Religion 101 at Piedmont College, a small Georgia institution, for 20 years. This book arose from what she learned about other religions – and about her own, Christianity – by engaging with faith in an academic setting and taking her students on field trips to mosques, temples, and so on. The title phrase comes from a biblical scholar named Krister Stendahl who served as the Lutheran bishop of Stockholm. At a press conference prior to the dedication of a controversial Mormon temple, he gave a few rules for interfaith dialogue: “1. When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies. 2. Don’t compare your best to their worst. 3. Leave room for holy envy.”

    Taylor emphasizes that appreciating other religions is not about flattening their uniqueness or looking for some lowest common denominator. Neither is it about picking out the aspects that affirm your own tradition and ignoring the rest. Of course, the divisions within Christianity are just as noticeable as the barriers between faiths. This book counsels becoming comfortable with not being right, or even knowing who is right. A lot of Evangelicals will squirm at this relativist perspective, but this book is just what they need. Releases March 12th.

    “To walk the way of sacred unknowing is to remember that our best ways of thinking and speaking about God are provisional.”

    “Once you have given up on knowing who is right, it is easy to see neighbors everywhere you look. … when my religion gets in the way of loving my neighbor, I will choose my neighbor.”

    “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.”

  • Hannah Smith

    I was expecting something a little more academic on comparative religion. However, Holy Envy is one of the most important memoirs I have ever read.

  • Julianna

    Reviewed for

    "4.5 star"

    was our latest book club pick. It’s part memoir as Barbara Brown Taylor details, to some extent, her time as a professor of world religions at Piedmont College. But really, as the sub-title says, it’s more of a discussion about how we can find God in the faith of others. The author has an interesting background, having grown up in a secular environment and not regularly attending church until she was a teen. Yet she ended up becoming an Episcopal prie

    Reviewed for

    "4.5 star"

    was our latest book club pick. It’s part memoir as Barbara Brown Taylor details, to some extent, her time as a professor of world religions at Piedmont College. But really, as the sub-title says, it’s more of a discussion about how we can find God in the faith of others. The author has an interesting background, having grown up in a secular environment and not regularly attending church until she was a teen. Yet she ended up becoming an Episcopal priest. That later dovetailed into her becoming a professor of world religions which took her on yet another spiritual journey. During this time, she found much to appreciate in other religions, but still kept coming back to Christianity as her foundation. But along the way, she also discovered a healthy case of holy envy.

    What is holy envy, you may ask? Well, it’s all about finding those things in the religions of others to which you can relate to and appreciate, things that perhaps you wish your own faith did better, and then allowing those things to help transform your own beliefs. If you think this sounds like cultural appropriation, it really isn’t. It’s more about finding common ground with those of other faiths and allowing it to deepen your own. I think that many of us are pretty ignorant of other faiths besides our own (if we adhere to one at all), and so by learning about what others believe, we can be more accepting of them. Since Rev. Taylor taught at a church-affiliated college in a predominantly Christian area of the country, many of her students identified as Christian. Some of them were bothered by her teaching methods, which included field trips to other religions’ houses of worship. But there were other students who drank it in as not only an educational, but a spiritual experience as well. In fact, through her teaching experiences, Rev. Taylor herself learned much and grew spiritually.

    Rev. Taylor gives some background on each of the five major world religions she taught: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. I learned a number things myself merely by reading this book, not just about other faiths, but also my own. I have to admit that there were some things that surprised me and maybe even made me a tad uncomfortable. Rev. Taylor said that happened to her as well, but over time, she’s worked through those issues. I think that’s where I am, as well, working through it all and figuring out exactly what I believe. But I love learning about all the ways in which the beliefs of other religions intersect with my own. I also enjoyed seeing certain Biblical passages interpreted in a different way from what I’m used to, offering fresh, new, valuable insights. As Rev. Taylor demonstrates through one of her metaphors, the reality is that, whatever our chosen faith, we’re riding just one wave in a much bigger ocean, and even within our chosen faith, there are so many divergent beliefs that it is pretty much impossible for one sect, denomination, or even an entire faith to have all the answers and be the only game in town. So for that reason, I highly recommend

    to anyone who is open to learning about other faiths or who might be searching for a way to peacefully co-exist in our religiously pluralistic society.

  • Charlene

    I came to this with high expectations: have enjoyed other books by Taylor, enjoyed hearing her speak, and anticipating hearing stories about her teaching experiences at a small rural Georgia college. I was not disappointed.

    She writes well, she is thoughtful and inspires thought in others, and has meaningful stories to share.

    Book is about her experiences & frustrations teaching World Religions course & some of the things about other religions that inspired envy in her, that she wished

    I came to this with high expectations: have enjoyed other books by Taylor, enjoyed hearing her speak, and anticipating hearing stories about her teaching experiences at a small rural Georgia college. I was not disappointed.

    She writes well, she is thoughtful and inspires thought in others, and has meaningful stories to share.

    Book is about her experiences & frustrations teaching World Religions course & some of the things about other religions that inspired envy in her, that she wished she had in her own Christian faith. Very nice to hear about the hospitality shown to her & students as they made visits to Hindu & Buddhist temples, mosque, and synagogue in the Atlanta area.

    This book is not about saying one faith is better than others but does say that there are many paths to God. And sometimes, she says, one realizes how radical Jesus really was when looking from outside the Christian Church.

  • Charity

    If you want to have some aspects of Christian elitism challenged, read this book.

    If you want to face up to the fact that we are not always right, read this book.

    If you want to find more understanding for other religions, read this book.

    If you want examples from Barbara's Religion 101 class, read this book.

    If you want to take an interest in other religions, read this book.

    But I expected to learn more than I did.

  • Mmetevelis

    Rather than a stale recounting of the tenets of the major world religions Taylor has crafted instead a memoir of her time teaching world religions in Piedmont College, a small liberal arts institution in Georgia. The work narrates her interactions with the variety of students she meets reared in the Bible belt and her own spiritual searching in the midst of her instruction. She speaks at times with amusement, surprise, wonder, disappointment, frustration, and most of all honesty. Stories are tol

    Rather than a stale recounting of the tenets of the major world religions Taylor has crafted instead a memoir of her time teaching world religions in Piedmont College, a small liberal arts institution in Georgia. The work narrates her interactions with the variety of students she meets reared in the Bible belt and her own spiritual searching in the midst of her instruction. She speaks at times with amusement, surprise, wonder, disappointment, frustration, and most of all honesty. Stories are told of trips to synagogues, temples, and mosques and interesting interactions between her students and the faith leaders there. She relates the transformation in students that she witnesses and is always engaging when using them to reflect on her own spiritual views. The book, like her class, is mainly a narrative of encounter and reflection.

    The title of the book “Holy Envy” is taken from famous (Lutheran) New Testament scholar Krister Stendhal. When we look to other religions Stendhal argued we should not compare our best to their worst but actively look for the best in other religions and covet those aspects for ourselves. While the things Taylor envied in other religions are not the same things I would envy I really enjoyed the principle. In order to look at another’s religion with envy means that we see that religion enriching the life of our neighbor. Taylor’s use of this concept is rich and helpful against other responses usually given to the problem of other religions. Practicing “holy envy” means actively searching for things that are unique and distinct about every religion not insisting that every religion is really the same. It involves deep listening, paying attention, and heroic levels of intellectual and spiritual humility.

    Sometimes we hear things more clearly from the perspective of an outsider. Taylor takes things she hears from faith leaders and practitioners of other religions and uses them to hone her understanding of her own religion. Taylor is at her best in analyzing stories about Jesus and speaking about them in new ways given the wisdom of these encounters she has had with other faith traditions. Jesus, under these new eyes, holds himself before us as utter mystery and all our attempts to clasp onto him as Truth (capital intentional) show that we don’t have him at all. Taylor squares this with her own experience:

    “I asked God for religious certainty, and God gave me relationships instead. I asked for solid ground, and God gave me human beings 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 …”

    While your foundations may not be totally shaken by reading this book you will appreciate this honest work by a noted Christian author which ends in a confession and closes on a note of gratitude and wonder. You might walk away with more questions than answers but this is entirely the point. Jesus gives you freedom so that the faith of your neighbor is neither an error nor a threat. You are free to practice “Holy Envy” so that aspects of their faith become a gift to you as you give thanks for the many ways it imparts life to them.

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