by Elizabeth Felicetti
Episcopalians like to claim Barbara Brown Taylor in somewhat the way we claim John Wesley. Sure, he’s remembered as the founder of Methodism, but he never formally left the Church of England, so we like to remind people that he died an Anglican priest. We like to claim Barbara Brown Taylor as a renowned Episcopal homilist, even though she left parish ministry more than two decades ago, as depicted in her best-selling memoir Leaving Church. She’s never front-and-center at General Convention nor has she ever run for bishop, but until Michael Curry preached the Royal Wedding, she was our Most Famous Preacher.
Besides her preaching, we claim Taylor because her writing is astonishingly beautiful. Her newest book, Holy Envy, is no exception. In many ways, Holy Envy picks up where Leaving Church left off, as it describes the job for which she left parish ministry: teaching religion to undergraduates. The title comes from Krister Stendahl, a Swedish biblical scholar and bishop who came up with three points for religious understanding: “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” (65). Taylor found “holy envy” enigmatic, but in each religion she and her students studied, she discovered something that resonated with her; thus, the term seemed apt.
Taylor quickly learns that exploring other religions from books leaves much to be desired, and she begins to learn with her students, visiting places of religion, such as a Hindu temple, and when possible, being led by an adherent of that faith, such as a Hindu faculty member. Eventually, however, in the epilogue, Taylor writes that she has retired from teaching religion: “The longer I did it, the more dishonest I felt. Fifteen weeks was not enough time to do justice to even one of them” (214). She goes on to write that she learned in college that religion doesn’t exist, only religious people. When we learn a Buddhist perspective from one Buddhist, we still only have that single perspective: we don’t know Buddhism.
Given this important point, I was sometimes frustrated in the book by Taylor’s presentation of Christianity, given that she only represents one perspective: herself as an Episcopal Christian. I don’t recognize the faith she talks about. For example, on page 54, when comparing Buddhism to Christianity, she writes, “In my way [Christianity], belief is essential.” I regularly preach to my congregation that many Episcopalians doubt, and that the Episcopal Church is a safe haven for doubters. From my perspective as an Episcopal Christian, this dates back to Queen Elizabeth, who told Catholics and Protestants that they could believe what they wanted, but that all would worship the same way using the same prayer book. I would argue that worship is essential in the Episcopal church, not belief.
In addition, Taylor writes about how knowing her own faith in depth helps her to recognize similar depth in other traditions, then writes about the Christian hymn “Lord of the Dance,” which is not in the authorized 1982 Hymnal. While I serve a church that has one service that regularly sings music outside of that hymnal, I was surprised that “Lord of the Dance” was a hymn she would choose to demonstrate knowing her own tradition “in depth.” (My reaction to this was likely triggered because I detest that song, especially the irreverent line “It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.”)
I agree with much of what Taylor writes about mainline Christianity, such as, “At the same time they obscure the last truth any of us wants to confront, which is that our mainline Christian lives are not particularly compelling these days” (157). This may not be the “last” truth that I want to confront, but as a parish priest, I do struggle with living out a faith which will compel others without faith to desire what we have at the Episcopal church that holds my heart.
Taylor’s humor infuses the book, such as when she solicits questions on her first day of teaching religion, “there were a few about excused absences and whether it was okay to wear hats in class” (7), or when she finds one of her favorite Buddhist quotes on fakebuddhaquotes.com (56). She writes in a sensory way, capturing the smell of garam marsala in a Hindu temple and the taste of bread at communion. Some of her poetic phrases offended me, such as describing herself as an Episcopal parish priest as “an alchemist of God’s grace” (4) even as I recognize the beauty in her words.
Leaving Church depicted some anger at the institutional church, and some of that anger seems to linger for Taylor, such as when she writes about the phrase “spiritual but not religious” in Holy Envy: “I know how critical some of my religious friends are about this designation, which they characterize as shallow, self-serving, and socially disengaged. Since that describes more than a few people who are still warming pews, it is hard to understand why the spiritual seeking of one group is less honorable than the other. Is it because one helps pay the utility bills and the other does not?” (62)
Like with Leaving Church, Taylor creates beautiful art when writing about her frustration, whether with parish ministry or teaching religion. I know that even though I find much with which to disagree in her work, I will buy any book she writes.
Elizabeth Felicetti is the rector of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia, and pursues an MFA in Writing at Spalding University in Kentucky. She reviews books for the Café, Kirkus Reviews, and Christian Century, and has essays forthcoming in the Westminster John Knox preaching commentary series Connections. She tweets @bizfel.