Barbara Brown Taylor on Her New Book ‘Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others’

When LifeWay, the research arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, asked American pastors to rank the most influential living Protestant preachers in 2010, only one woman made the list, and only one minister from outside the Baptist fold: in both cases, that was the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, teacher and author from Northern Georgia.

Her renown isn’t restricted to the professionals, either. Her 14 books and her preaching have brought her recognition on TIME magazine’s list of its ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’ in 2014. In 2016 she received the President’s Medal at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. 

For all her prowess in the pulpit, perhaps her best-known book is her memoir “Leaving Church,” in which Brown Taylor recounts the often-painful, if ultimately redemptive, journey away from pastoring. The book, her first memoir, won her an Author of the Year award from the Georgia Writers Association. Her fourth memoir, “Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others,” was released in March 2019.

Brown Taylor, a speaker at the recent Evolving Faith conference in Denver, talked with Religion News Service about the event, finding community in the wilderness and the difficulty of deconstructing faith at any age.

“It turns out people here are dealing with what a lot of people my age are dealing with, which is a reformation — here, I hear it called a ‘deconstruction’ — of faith. It’s interesting that people in the third part of life are doing the same thing (as) people in the maybe second.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You made a distinction between reformation or deconstruction in middle age versus “the third part of life.” How are the two ages different?

At this conference, the deconstruction (relates to) a form of evangelical Christianity that people have found toxic. The crowd I travel with, you know, are all old Protestants. They’ve gotten everything they can out of local church efforts and missions and education and they love those places but they’re still hungry. And so their reformation comes out of a different place. The idea is about how much change we can effect in the time we have left. So that’s a difference just based on age. But at the heart of being seekers, that’s a great meeting place across traditional Protestantism, evangelical Christianity — generational crisscross.

Do you think there’s something about this particular moment that has produced this sort of deconstruction or reformation across generational lines?

I think the questions got sanctified. I think those are questions people have had forever, but they weren’t questions (people) felt comfortable asking out loud. Maybe sanctified is the wrong word, but they’ve been authorized. You can ask the questions now.

Phyllis Tickle — of blessed memory — said this is our reformation. It’s our turn. It got called post-Christian for a while. But I don’t believe that. I think it’s post-church. I think it’s post-traditional-structured church because there are too many people, there are 2,500 people here (at Evolving Faith). And you go to Green Belt in England — a whole other continent — there’ll be 10,000 people there.

Do you think Christianity can survive or thrive post-church?

I’m not on social media, but there’s a lot of community being found there. Then this kind of event is a sudden village, you know where the village emerges for the weekend and nourishes itself and then people scatter back. But I get real old-fashioned religious at that point. I really trust the Spirit to keep on blowing. There’s plenty happening and it’s exciting and it’s bringing new voices into the circle. People are mad in all kinds of appropriate ways and getting offended and that seems like we’re doing something right. It seems like fruitful friction, like ‘good Christian friction’ and not the nasty, divisive kind.

I’m hearing two languages being used somewhat interchangeably to describe how people are feeling in this sort of post-church journey — a language of pilgrimage and of wilderness wandering. Are they both accurate in their way?

Pilgrimages, you know where you’re going. You have a destination. I do know people who are redefining pilgrimage as the journey itself and not the destination. It’s (that) corny bumper sticker. You know: it’s all about the journey. It’s all about the ride. So, you’re right, they’re alike.

But, when I pay attention to the Exodus metaphor, people didn’t know. The Promised Land — where the hell is that? You just keep wandering in circles and you say, ‘Haven’t we seen that mountain before?’ That was not a straight-forward pilgrimage, even a straightforward hike. We don’t see the destination. So faith comes into a realm of trust that something new is being formed, but it doesn’t have enough shape yet to aim for it.

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Source: Religion News Service