The Scandal of Holiness

Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints

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Pub Date 29 Mar 2022 | Archive Date 29 Apr 2022

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How do we become better people? Initiatives such as New Year's resolutions, vision boards, thirty-day plans, and self-help books often fail to compel us to live differently. We settle for small goals--frugal spending, less yelling at the kids, more time at the gym--but we are called to something far greater. We are created to be holy.

Award-winning author Jessica Hooten Wilson explains that learning to hear the call of holiness requires cultivating a new imagination--one rooted in the act of reading. Learning to read with eyes attuned to the saints who populate great works of literature moves us toward holiness, where God opens up a way of living that extends far beyond what we can conjure for ourselves. Literature has the power to show us what a holy life looks like, and these depictions often scandalize even as they shape our imagination. As such, careful reading becomes a sort of countercultural spiritual discipline.

The book includes devotionals, prayers, wisdom from the saints, and more to help individuals and groups cultivate a saintly imagination. Foreword by Lauren F. Winner.

How do we become better people? Initiatives such as New Year's resolutions, vision boards, thirty-day plans, and self-help books often fail to compel us to live differently. We settle for small...

Advance Praise

“This book will spur you to read more and will show you how to do it. Jessica Hooten Wilson knows the difference between being well-read and being holy as she calls us to strive for holiness even in our reading. This book illustrates how good literature can stir the imagination and how the imagination can stir us toward holiness. The voice of this book is not of an English teacher asking if you have done your reading but is instead the voice of a smart and humble friend who says to you: ‘Let me introduce you to some friends who know exactly what you’re going through right now.’”—Russell Moore, Christianity Today

“In this impassioned defense of the value of stories, Wilson invites us to delve into our literary heritage with fresh eyes and eager hearts. She guides the reader through an impressive array of diverse literary artists, connecting their works to the universal call to all Christians to become saints. Her defense of the centrality of imagination in the moral and spiritual life is both convincing and inspiring.”—Jennifer A. Frey, associate professor of philosophy, University of South Carolina
“How I needed this book! Jessica Hooten Wilson has provided a literary and spiritual feast that will take readers back to the enchanted wisdom of childhood while revitalizing their commitment to inhabit worlds of sanctity, magnanimity, and love. A timely inspiration in an age of distraction and de-forming temptations, with a wonderful reading list to boot.”—Anne Snyder, editor-in-chief, Comment magazine

“This book will spur you to read more and will show you how to do it. Jessica Hooten Wilson knows the difference between being well-read and being holy as she calls us to strive for holiness even...

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All quotes are from the Scandal of Holiness unless otherwise stated.

Holiness: Beginning, Middle, and End

“We push imagination to the side as fantastical and unnecessary: fiction offers an escape and has nothing to do with the practice of faith. But the imagination has everything to do with our faith: how we imagine our God, his world, and ourselves affects how we live and how we die. Our imaginations reflect the story in which we assume we are participating. What story are we part of? Who's telling it? Does it end happily ever after?”

You’re probably familiar with the idea of Schrodinger’s Cat, that a cat in a box on the brink of certain death is both dead and alive until the box is opened and the contents observed. If not, maybe you’ve heard of the tree which fell down in a forest, did it make a sound if no one was there to hear it fall? These are imaginary ideas that illustrate poignant points of interest, if I may though if we were to switch the narratives around, they might seem a tad more familiar.
You are the cat. You’re in a box on the brink of certain death, you don’t know anything that’s going on outside the box, nor do you know whether you will be observed and saved before time is up. On the other hand, perhaps you’re the tree and you’ve fallen down in a forest, unaware of whether or not anyone heard you and you can only lie down and wait and see, imagining the possible outcomes which could come to pass.
That is life. We don’t actually know what’s going to happen, but we are constantly imagining it. I love planning, I even have a word for it, Teleography, the combination of Telos and the suffix -graphy, essentially, the art of setting aims or ultimate objectives. As you can probably imagine though, a couple of weeks ago when I fell ill, my work fell to the wayside, my meticulous multi-coloured spreadsheet was no longer being followed and I began to imagine the repercussions the time wasted would have on the near future. What would I do to catch up at the weekend? Who could help?


Surely, having just been smacked in the face by illness, I wouldn’t have been so naive as to think I could start planning the next part of the narrative, right?
Well, that’s not how we work. Humans are geared towards using their imagination. Part of the reason we can catch balls for instance is by our brains calculating where the ball will go, not just where it is. Sure, wind could sweep the ball up, and some of us are better than others at the whole sportsball thing, but it seems we are hardwired to see where things are going, not just where they are. If you think you’re beyond using your imagination, remember that Schrodinger used his to help him to try and understand quantum mechanics.

Imagining Holiness

It seems clear to me that while Wilson clearly has a love for literature, her burden is that Christians of all stripes and denominations would strive for holiness. Wilson. is well-read in fiction and non-fiction, in both recent and ancient texts. Where holiness is presented, there you’ll likely find Wilson’s footsteps, she’s been there and assessed it all. Sanctification, Sacraments, Saints and their Icons, from protestant traditions through every shade of the orthodox and catholic churches, this book draws from Wilson’s extensive survey of it all through the critique of fictional literature.

Wilson illustrates why when she says:

“Whenever I read stories about saints such as Hildegard of Bingen or Teresa of Ávila, I wonder whether it was easier to be holy if you didn't have toddlers screaming at you. Then I remember: my children are my community. They are the family with whom I am pursuing holiness, as are my neighbors, my friends, my church, as well as the strangers with whom I daily interact.”

Though she is speaking here of biography, it’s plain that when Wilson reads, her mind’s eye is on holiness, when she takes that sight and then casts it upon herself and her own situation, she carries that over and continues the journey in her own life. She’s inspired by those whose lives she’s read, both fictional and non-fictional, and she then puts what she’s learned into action. If you’ve listened to our podcast, you’ll know that I fell in love with Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, but that’s not the book that sparked my love affair with Austen, that honour goes to Mansfield Park. Within the confines of Mansfield, a manor house belonging to a wealthy family, Ms. Price, the protagonist, is forced to wrestle with her loves, her morals, her faith, how to love neighbours with whom she staunchly disagrees and how to repent when she falls into sin. I grew through her and through other characters in the narrative too. If you’ve read fiction you’ve probably had similar experiences. If you’re a reader, especially a reader of fiction, this book is probably for you. I would recommend buying this book, along with one or two of the books mentioned in its pages and reading them together, slowly. I don’t know whether this was Wilson’s intention, which I’ll get to, but certainly for me personally, I felt better equipped to read fiction, and to help people read fiction, having read this book.


I have some criticism of this book, though nothing which would lead me to withhold recommending, I do think this is wonderfully written and well-argued. My critique comes down to these two points:

I’m not sure who the intended target audience was.
There are points where Wilson’s theology could have been made more clear
To that first point, I think I began this book assuming, I think wrongfully, that this was a book intended for anyone from a relatively new reader right up to more experienced ones. What became clear fairly quickly was that unless you already were already fairly well-read lots of the examples and analogies would simply go over your head. I will be honest and say that there were times I found myself in that camp, even with as broad a reading history as I have. I don’t say that to try and puff myself up, but to say that the audience of this book won’t be as broad as it otherwise could have been.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, in fact I found that when Wilson said the following:

“When I attend … events, I look for those on the outer ring. Where are the bright-eyed undergraduates and overeager graduate students? Who looks as though they know no one at this event and need a friend to sit with them? I've been able to love people who care about poetry and the arts but who will never be known in the eyes of the world.”

That I’d found Wilson’s audience. I might be wrong, I’m simply not sure, but if I’ve understood correctly, Wilson loves those who love literature and wants to take them on a journey that will help them not to simply walk with fictional figures of holiness, but to walk through them and into a greater understanding of personal holiness.

Wilson says in her introduction:

“If we are spending half our day consuming the world's narratives about who we are, what we want, and how to love, then we are being formed by an idolatrous imagination. If we are to counteract the diseased imaginations that we inherit and that daily influence us, we must be revolutionary in how we spend our time.”

That is an enviable goal that we should all look to fulfil, however, I think it’s a call that will need to be tackled by a few more writers at different levels, or again by Wilson at a simpler level, to achieve (A bit like Rebecca McLaughlin with Confronting Christianity & 10 Questions Every Teen Should Ask (and Answer) about Christianity.)

To the second point. I must stress here that I am a big advocate for reading outside of your own tradition and of theological retrieval. There are absolutely ways that we can grow through learning from the traditions of other denominations and understandings of Christianity (I used created a protestant version of the rosary a couple of years ago for instance.) Occasionally it’s unclear whether a theological distinctive of a particular tradition, i.e Orthodox Icons, was being used to illustrate Wilson’s point, to encourage ecumenism (promoting church unity), or was held by Wilson herself. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have been too much of an issue and we as the reader would likely have been able to assess this through context. However. As this book makes heavy use of fictional examples, sometimes speaking of them as if they actually happened (which I believe they did in a very real way for Wilson,) it blurs the lines too far in my opinion. This book would have benefitted from taking a clearer stance on certain theological views, even if those views were vastly different than where I would land theologically. (I would welcome criticism of this opinion from others who end up reading the book.)

Sidenote: In the spirit of fairness, I would offer this quotation:

“When we consider what it means to learn from saints' stories, we draw from our specific church background. The Orthodox are surrounded by the saints in the icons; Catholics celebrate saints' days and share their stories as regularly as Bible stories with their children; Protestants often overlook these historical figures because of their association with pre-Reformed tradition but will occasionally read Foxe's Book of Martyrs or focus on the sacrifice of beloved missionaries, such as Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. I have sought to overcome these divisions by assembling holy figures from a diverse array of writers from each tradition. I am not conflating the differences between these divergent faiths, but I am hoping to focus on our commonality for the present pages.”

I have, I believe, taken this into account, but I want to be as fair as I can be and I certainly don’t want to misrepresent Wilson’s own views.

Conclusion - Should you read this book?

If you are an avid reader, I believe you would benefit hugely from this book. If you’re an intermediate reader who would like to be challenged, I would also commend this book to you, but with the caveat that you may not understand every reference Wilson makes and that’s more than okay.

I would say again that if you are going to read this book, don’t just read this book, I know I’ll personally be going back to read Laurus with Wilson’s thoughts in mind, I suggest you do so with, at least, one of the books she mentions.

Finally, I would commend to you these words:

“I hope that you fall in love with these stories, that you close these pages desiring more beauty and goodness, and that these stories, most significantly of all, will increase your love for the one writing your story, the Author of us all.”

Wilson loves God, lives and breathes the quest for holiness and wants you to as well, I stand with her here. Whether or not you read this book, there are many fictional works you can and will grow through, whether Christian or not, keep these words in mind:

“Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.”

Philippians 4:8 CSB

Grace and Peace,

Adsum Try Ravenhill

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I love the idea of this book, but in practice found it frequently over my head. If you love thinking deeply about literature and faith, then this book is worth your time. Take my criticism of the book with a heavy grain of salt. It is likely that I simply didn't "get it," or was out of my depth academically.

The primary idea is that we can learn more about holiness by reading about Christians in literature. These depictions of saints can improve our imaginations and give us new ideas and ways of thinking about the Christian life. This description is what drew me to the book.

Each chapter focuses on an idea (Holy Foolishness, death, suffering, liberation, motherhood, etc) and one primary novel. The novels are then summarized in great detail. This was helpful since every story was unfamiliar to me personally, but they seemed to drag on.

The book will certainly stretch your imagination of what holiness can look like. The stories are chosen strategically and all follow rather unconventional saints. I left each chapter behind thinking more deeply about not just the subject, but the books mentioned as well.

The chapters all have a quote, devotional thought, questions, and more suggested reading. I typically skim past these, but these were profound and helpful.

This is a book that demands to be read slowly. It would even be enriched by reading the books mentioned in between each chapter. I found myself reading this book much slower than I would read normally and still struggled to follow along.

I would recommend this book for intermediate/serious readers. I like to think of myself as well-read, but I had never heard of most of the novels mentioned in the book.

If you are not well versed in more "serious" literary fiction, then I might recommend starting with Karen Swallow Prior's "On Reading Well" instead.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley.

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The title is a bit of a misnomer - this book, with amazing breadth, takes us through the stars of holiness and their works and publications. This isn’t a book for the feint hearted and there needs to be a good depth of literature read to feel at ease in the text. Tolkien, Anne Frank, CS Lewis to name just a few. There is also an excellent reference to the old and New Testament jumping between modern fiction, analysis and theology in each chapter. The guided reading at the end of each chapter was not simple nor were the questions and prompts. I love the idea of the book, and it is beautifully written, I just felt inadequate when confronted with the huge number of long references and analogies that were assumed.

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Jessica Hooten Wilson's book takes a journey through several literary works, some of which have long been part of the conversation on Christianity and literature--C.S. Lewis' Space Trilogy, Georges Bernanos' The Diary of a Country Priest--and some of which are new to the conversation, such as Eugene Vodalazkin's 2012 novel (2015 in English translation) Laurus. Taking The Scandal of Holiness as an annotated reading list would be just one profitable use of the book.

What sets the book apart is the author's attention to details. These are not sketches of themes that tangentially relate to the stories she treats, but close readings that serve as good introductions and, I would imagine, great conversation partners for rereadings of old favourites. This may prove to be a challenge to some readers, because a desire to go deeply into texts is assumed in The Scandal of Holiness. Although it is geared for a general rather than academic audience, it is something of a hybrid in terms of its tone. It's much more detailed than most "books on books" aimed for general audiences, readers being treated here to the insights of an experienced literary scholar and professor.

The aim of Jessica Hooten Wilson's book is revealed in its title and subtitle: the renewal of readers' imaginations on a journey to holiness. Here is where many Christian readers will find their encouragement to read on. A brief but helpful introduction situates this aim and suggests that this approach to literature is proper and beneficial to us. "We cannot concoct holiness on our own, decide what it looks like without examples, or try to become holy without other people. The goal is to be remade into God's likeness, and we do so by imitating models of holiness. When we read stories of holiness, we live vicariously through these stories, then we body them forth in our reality. The models become part of our imagination, our way of seeing how to live a holy life" (11). Linking various writers to a number of themes--creation care, liberation, the contemplative life--each chapter ends with a devotional for deeper personal engagement, questions for discussion, and a reading list.

The Scandal of Holiness' gives readers treatments of Christian writers like Sigrid Undset (Kristin Lavransdattir) as well as non-Christians like Zora Neale Hurston (Moses, Man of the Mountain), and I finished it eager to engage with more of these works and enter into the stories they show forth, stories of holiness in many different forms.

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The author presents a powerful argument, largely from her own reading experience, of how reading classical fiction (in particular but really a variety of fiction) can improve our minds. She convinced me.

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