Review of Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy

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 An Altar in the World 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 filled this category for me, in wonderful and important ways that I will miss profoundly). 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 Learning to Walk in the Dark was one of the best things that I read last year–I was fully prepared not to like Holy Envy. 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 worshiping 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 the latter “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. Latter-day Saints and our practice of vicarious baptism even get a special mention of “things to be spiritually envious about.”

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.

Comments

  1. GEOFF -AUS says:

    Spent time in India, then Egypt and did wonder about the billion hindus, and billion muslims, and our 15 million mormons? Gods plan?

  2. +100 on Barbara Brown Taylor
    And thanks for “religious tourism” and “spiritual shoplifting.” It is useful to have evocative terms for things to avoid, even condemn.

  3. Thanks for the review. I think I’d like the book and could learn from it..
    But note: wishing that “my Church look[ed] like the Sistine Chapel [or had] music by Bach” or Gladys Knight or whomever is not a sign of assuming “that everything that another culture does is inherently superior to our own.” Instead, it is for some a sign of wishing to be inspired at one’s own church by the kind of art or music to which one is spiritually responsive. Some are not inspired by the “sunshine songs;” some are not by the German chorales we’ve adopted; some are not by early LDS hymnody expressing joy at (or threats that) “the wicked who fight against Zion will surely be smitten at last” or focused unnecessarily on how “demons oppose” (BTW, not the way Eliza ended her hymn — why does our current hymnal include that rather than her concluding hope that “you may come forth in the first resurrection, and feast at the supper of Jesus the Lord”? It seems almost no one is inspired by sparse, linsipid hymn singing at dirge tempos. I prefer not to assume something negative lies behind wishing things at church could be more personally inspiring.
    Maybe I have focused here too much on a remark that is not the point of the review, but wishing to be inspired more often by music that generally does not happen in our church is not spiritual shoplifting, nor is it religious tourism.

  4. Roger Hansen says:

    This is a tough subject for me. I travel a lot and come in contact with many different cultures and religions. I like to light candles in Catholic Churches. I like to spin Buddhist prayer wheels. I love to pray in Baha’i temples. I love to wander around in ancient Ethiopian churches. I suppose that makes me a cultural tourist. But so be it. I’m a huge fan of diversity. But with globalization it is appearing.

    I don’t think missionaries ought not to proselytize in some cultures, like Tibet. Religion is too much apart of the culture. With Native Americans i’m hesitant to ask too many questions about their culture. I’m not Native American. So for me, there is a line I don’t want to cross. I just don’t know where it is.

  5. I’ve studied and learned a number of other languages. I truly don’t feel like I’m appropriating anything when I do. It’s enlightening, fun, and opens new worlds. And I welcome those who speak other languages to learn English. I don’t view them as appropriating anything.

    Similarly, I’ve written a little about Holy Envy as a good guiding principle for Latter-day Saints, primarily in the context of the Mormon Lectionary Project, which actually justifies itself through the principle of Holy Envy. I truly don’t view the exercise of practicing Holy Envy as appropriating anything, like learning another language. At the very worst, Holy Envy might result in syncretism if the practitioner really takes it seriously. I’m sad to see it described as religious tourism or shoplifting.

  6. Another Roy says:

    I believe that using the term “holy envy” as appreciating other religions and cultures in their context and backdrop of history is appropriate. I believe that the book and review post are making the point that when “holy envy” is used to mean something akin to a religious form of cultural appropriation then it can be wrong and damaging.

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