BARBARA BROWN TAYLOR is a brilliant communicator, both as a writer and a teacher. It is no surprise that she is a New York Times bestselling author. I cannot think that any student dozed off during her classes. For example, one day she arrived with bags of groceries from Cracker Jacks to peanut-butter cups. For half an hour, students could eat anything that had a kosher symbol on it. There was a shout of triumph when they opened the Pringles.
After 15 years of parish ministry, Barbara Brown Taylor was asked by a college near by to “teach religion”. The course was as much an eye-opener for her as it was for the students. Those who have also made an interfaith journey will identify with much of what she says; for others, the book may encourage them to embark on this risky and rewarding adventure. Teaching Christians about world religions, or members of other faiths about Christianity, is a learning experience. You see your own faith from a new perspective.
Listening to Jews, like so many others, Brown Taylor realised “how much hatefulness” she had absorbed “from Christian scriptures and tradition”. She now recognises that Jews had good reason to reject messianic claims for Jesus and that, in an increasingly Gentile Church, the religion of Jesus became a religion about Jesus.
Most of her class started with very negative views of Islam, which she challenged effectively. At times, I think she is over-defensive of Islam, but comes to see that every religion is liable to be hijacked. The temptation is to compare the best in one’s own religion with the worst in other religions. She insists, quoting Jonathan Sacks, that, after Mao and Stalin, “anyone who claims abolishing religion will lead to peace cannot be taken seriously.” With him, she affirms that we need “to see God’s image in one who is not in our image”.
She suggests that this may be why there is no physical description of Jesus in the New Testament. Likewise, the Babel story of confusion of languages is that God “favours the diversity of many peoples over the dominance of any one people”.
I was glad, however, that the author moves beyond “Respect for Difference”, which has become an interfaith mantra, to recognising that each spiritual well is “funded by the same great underground river that feeds all wells”. Each well provides living water, and, at times, another well offers particular refreshment (“holy envy”); but, as many who have made a similar journey discover, and as she writes, the “Christian cup works well enough,” although “the water in the Christian well does not belong to Christians.”
The Revd Dr Marcus Braybrooke is Joint-President of the World Congress of Faiths.
An interview with Barbara Brown Taylor will feature in the Summer Books supplement on 28 June.
Holy Envy: Finding God in the faith of others
Barbara Brown Taylor
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop special offer price £14.99