The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor's new book is "Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others."

The Easter story helps an 'outcast' preacher find her way back home

Updated 3:35 PM ET, Thu April 25, 2019

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(CNN)The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor was attending a seminar one day when someone asked her a question that she hasn't been able to forget.

"What is the story you are working on that doesn't have an ending yet?"
Taylor gave one answer that day but today she has another: The story she can't quite figure out is her own.
On the surface, Taylor led a life that most people would envy. She was a widely sought-after speaker whose sermons were compared to "literary gems." Her books made the New York Times' best-sellers list. One made the cover of Time magazine. She appeared on Oprah Winfrey's "SuperSoul Sunday" show. Strangers approached her in grocery stores with reverence and awe.
But something happened to her as her reputation spread. She found herself drawn to "someone else's rose." She began to see beauty and truth in other people's religions. And she became so disillusioned with her own that she "could not look it in the eyes."
Taylor once called herself a "detective of divinity" for her ability to collect evidence of God's genius. But her spiritual wandering made her feel at times as if she was guilty of a crime.
    "The fear rose up from a more primitive part of my brain that had been taught to fear a jealous God's wrath if I did not love him and him alone," Taylor says.
    This was the plot complication she faced in her story: What do you do when you're the superstar preacher, but you fall in love with other faiths more than your own?
    Easter morning would help give her an answer.

    A voice for anxious times

    A story about doubt may seem like an odd topic for an Easter weekend. The traditional Easter message is one of triumph: Jesus conquers death and sin through his resurrection. But this is a tough Easter for many Christians. Many don't feel so triumphant.
    Christianity is in crisis. Catholics are losing faith in church and clergy because of an ongoing sexual abuse scandal. Mainline Protestant churches are splitting apart over issues such as gay clergy. There are now more Americans who claim no religion than there are evangelicals and Catholics.
    Taylor holds eggs she collected from her chickens. She calls the animals on her farm members of her congregation.
    When the Notre Dame Cathedral recently erupted in flames, some saw it as a sneak preview of the church's future in the US. They warned that American churches are heading toward collapse. They envision a post-Christian future like Western Europe's: rapidly emptying churches and soaring cathedrals that no longer speak to people.
    Few, if any, contemporary Christian leaders speak to the spiritual restlessness of this time like Taylor. In her books "Leaving Church" and "Learning to Walk in the Dark," she always seems to be in motion -- leaving one spiritual rest stop for another exit down the road.
    She has "near perfect pitch" for speaking to people's fears without leaving them hopeless, says the Rev. Thomas G. Long, another celebrated speaker. He was recently selected, along with Taylor, as one of the 12 most effective preachers in the English language in a prestigious preaching survey.
      "She has such powerful gifts of language and narration that her readers and hearers find their own questions and concerns coming to expression in ways that prompt them to say, 'Yes, yes that's what I feel,''' Long says.

      Why Taylor is scared of true believers

      What Taylor is feeling on this recent afternoon is hungry. It's lunchtime when she receives a visitor at her secluded farm in the northeast Georgia mountains.
      Now 67 with a mass of dazzling white hair, Taylor motions to a spread in her kitchen that she's prepared for her guest.
      "Deviled eggs, good turkey sandwiches," she says pointing to the food. "You eat the rest because I'm not going to."
      Taylor's farm looks as picturesque as a postcard: rolling meadows, mountains looming on the horizon, a sprawling porch decorated with swings and cushions. She even has a small writing cabin near her house where she goes to work without distractions.