by Mary Louise Bringle
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky. 176 pages
Reviewed by Mairi Renwick
Professor Mary Louise Bringle’s intriguing book “Envy” calls upon American Christians to examine how their lives are prone to envy due to their social and economic context. She goes further to expound on why and how Christians can make deliberate decisions to work toward a life that does not center around envy, but one that focuses on God’s grace and “human flourishing.” Most simply, Bringle defines envy as the desire to “weep with those who rejoice, and rejoice with those who weep.”
One extreme example is that of a mother in Texas who plotted to kill another mother over their daughters’ cheerleading rivalry. One daughter made the team; the other did not. However, Bringle does not only focus on the extreme. Rather, she shares contemporary examples of envy, its effects that are experienced daily and how today’s society is complacent to forms of envy (and may even glorify it). For example, many are constantly inundated with images of others’ “glamorous” lives on Facebook, which has led to an increase of envy and depression. While some of instances may seem relatively harmless, Bringle argues that ultimately the nature of envy leads to destructive behaviors that harm relationships with neighbors and God.
Her research concerning the history of envy as one the traditional deadly sins is comprehensive and expansive for a short book. In order to understand the breadth and place of the theme in history, she examines the history and terminology surrounding the word “envy,” including the roots of words and idioms from Latin, Hebrew, Greek and German, which she claims influenced the understanding of envy in earlier centuries.
Furthermore, Bringle is able to provide multiple examples of well-known fables, fairy tales and works of physical art to demonstrate the theme of envy across the centuries. For instance, studies of classic fairy tales portray envy among generations and siblings. (Think Snow White and her stepmother or Cinderella and her stepsisters.)
In order to expand the reader’s understandings of envy, Bringle turns to modern psychology and the development of advertisement and media. She observes that media and advertising often center on outdoing one’s friends and family. Some psychologists argue that envy is part of survival of the fittest or that we need envy to prove that we are worthy.
Ultimately though, she returns to her main concern, which is the need for love within our human relationships and with our Creator. Throughout her chapters, Bringle weaves in Christian theology and Scripture to show how the Christian story demonstrates humanity’s proneness to envy, but more importantly, that with God’s help we can work towards fulfilling the greatest commandment, to love. She suggests that Christians can react counterculturally to envy through humility, simplicity, benevolence and gratitude. By doing so, Christians are able open to receiving the fruits of the Spirit and the grace that God gives to all of creation.
While some may find the detail of Bringle’s research too in-depth, I believe that many will find her study helpful as an excellent resource to use for one’s own journey or within a group that is seeking to form a deeper understanding of themselves and their relationship to neighbor and God.
Mairi Renwick is a teaching elder and director of admissions at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.