JESSICA HOOTEN WILSON. The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022. Pp. 226. $24.99 (U.S.)
In The Scandal of Holiness, Jessica Hooten Wilson invites us to join in a holy rebellion of reading great books. Reading is, as we are often reminded, on the decline. We read less and less, skimming only the shortest headlines or posts, pausing only at the most cutting words, scrolling on and on not for something important but for the thing that comes next. The written word, once a cutting-edge technology that democratized knowledge, truth, and beauty, is increasingly being replaced with audio and video content ideally capped at just seven to fifteen seconds.
Given this cultural trend, reading a novel—and a long novel or older novel at that—seems irrelevant; it is an outmoded, escapist, and inaccessible form of entertainment practiced only by a shrinking pool of elitist scholars, librarians, retirees, and vacationers. For Wilson, however, slow and thoughtful reading of great literary prose is precisely the world-changing practice needed by people of faith today.
Wilson’s book invites us to read great novels that, over the course of a few hundred pages, put us in the company of imperfect and wonderful saints, those who “long for the holy” (11). Writing in a voice that is wholly academic and wholly personal, Wilson narrates her encounters with the fictional saints that have shaped her own holy longing for God and neighbor. Chapter by chapter, she focuses on specific twentieth century novelists–some well-known and others more obscure—that have contributed to her sense of what it means to live a faithful life today. The people of St. Anne’s Manor in C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength teach her the power of holy community, the Mirabel sisters in Julia Alvarez’s The Time of the Butterflies model holy protest against material oppression, Chauntecleer invites her into the holy call of creation care in Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow, Kristin Lavransdatter shows the promise of holy feminism in Sigrid Undset’s trilogy, and Jefferson shows the courage of holy suffering and death in Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.
For Wilson, the fictional nature of these imagined saints gives them a fullness of action, thought, affection, and desire that makes real the pain and pleasure of holy longing: “Our imagination [is] the realm where God meets us first and shows us more than tells us who he is and to what life we have been called” (5). Though most chapters focus deeply on only one or two novels, throughout The Scandal of Holiness Wilson references many others filled with holy longing. This culminates at the conclusion of each chapter with suggestions for further reading. In this way, Wilson curates a robust reading list of well-known and more obscure novelists who together reflect the racial, gender, and theological diversity of a sainthood that spans Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and even agnostic traditions.
The great joy of reading The Scandal of Holiness is the opportunity to peek into someone else’s faithful reading life. While classrooms and book clubs cultivate reading as a social practice, reading is a solitary endeavor for many, much like contemplation or prayer. Perhaps as a result of her own loneliness during the lockdowns and quarantines of these Covid years, Wilson gives us full access not only to holy books and literary saints but also to herself. We see her in glimpses throughout the book. She is an adventurous child inspired by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to balance on fence posts, attack tree villains, and hunt for hidden treasure. She is a serious, young diarist longing, despite her dismay, for the drama that filled Anne Frank’s writing. She is a college student curled up in a quiet dorm to read while her friends leave for a night of drinking and dancing. She is a young mother on an ultrasound table crying out her fears for her unborn daughter. She is a teacher and an academic sharing her most treasured books with new students year after year.
The Scandal of Holiness is at its best when it reminds us that we are reading about Wilson reading, that this book is an intellectual and spiritual account of a singular reading life that can inspire our own reading lives. It suffers, surprisingly, when Wilson overwrites about the content of the novels at the heart of her study. Energized by a deep love for these particular books, she wants her readers to know as much about them as possible, but the extensive, often pages-long summaries can stifle the stories Wilson wants to bring alive. To believe Wilson’s guiding objective, I do not need full plot summary. Instead, I need to read and feel the language, in quotation, that makes these books great. I need to see Wilson, the guiding reader of the book, engage this language in spiritual practice. I need to see and hear this language brought into prayer, sacred silence, lectio divina, faithful conversation, and holy praxis. I need to believe that literary reading can be a transformational spiritual practice.
In many ways, I am not a necessary reader of The Scandal of Holiness. I practice already the call to holy reading that guides Wilson’s book. Both privately and professionally, as a scholar and teacher of American literature, I read for the dynamic exchange between literature and faith. I cherish especially women who have written the holy longing Wilson describes, writers like Emily Dickinson, Madeline L’Engle, Alice Walker, Ana Castillo, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Edwidge Danticat, Marilynne Robinson, Louise Glück, Marilyn Nelson, and Yaa Gyasi. Their writing honors the questions and commitments, doubts and affirmations that enliven and stretch my lived experience of faith. I read them, and I am transformed. Our reading lists may differ, but Wilson and I are energized by the same commitment to reading literature as an act of faith.
And so, as I read The Scandal of Holiness and saw myself so clearly in its pages, I began to wonder more pressingly with every chapter about those necessary readers not so obviously in this book. I began to wonder about those yet to join the holy rebellion of literary reading. Who are they? What are they reading? Will they ever find Wilson’s book? Will they be convinced? Or can a seven-second #booktok or #bookstagram video gift someone a transformational novel by Zora Neale Hurston or Graham Greene?