At the time I entered college, I was essentially a non-reader. I was literate, but reading for me was about acquiring knowledge. I did not much care for novels, poetry, or art in general and spent as little time as possible engaging with these categories outside of what school required.
My books of choice were my family’s 1989 World Book collection and various science textbooks and Audubon field guides. And when it came to Scripture, I brought a stilted reading that fit my assumptions of language. Paul appealed to me because he wrote like I thought, using syllogisms and straightforward statements. Peter’s fishermanly bluntness connected with me as well.
But sections like John’s letters and visions, much of the Old Testament, and even the gospel stories took so long to get to “the point” they were practically unintelligible to me. I loved Jesus and his Word, but I was functionally biblically illiterate, and my faith had begun to grow shaky no matter what I did to convince myself otherwise.
Learning to Read
Literature has long been recognized as a means of fostering moral character. Aristotle considered poetry superior to history for its ability to craft a narrative beyond the limits of fact to create more perfect examples of virtue. Sir Philip Sidney wrote in sixteenth century that the poet is the “monarch” of teachers.
Rather than merely providing moral instruction like philosophers, storytellers narrate in a way that incorporates beauty and delight, drawing people into their lessons willingly and eagerly. The best stories exist not merely to entertain, but to delight and guide readers toward kindness, courage, civic responsibility, and the common good.
In The Scandal of Holiness, Jessica Hooten Wilson builds on this longstanding tradition by exploring how fiction can shape people not just into virtuous citizens, but into the very likeness of Christ. Through the lens of several twentieth and twenty-first century novels, she guides readers toward a beatific vision of sorts, calling them to contemplate the lives of literary saints.
As far back as Augustine, Christians have doubted the value of emotional investment in the “unreal,” with some going so far as to decry fiction as deformative—only able to manipulate readers away from truth, goodness, and beauty and seduce them toward carnality and evil.
Wilson parries such cautions with ease, appealing to the value of imagination to temper Westerners’ penchant for overintellectualized faith. She writes, “Novels introduce us to ways of imagining God already at work in our hearts, present in the world, transforming and sanctifying his creation all the time.” This should come as no surprise to the people of a God who reveals himself through words, the balance of which are richly textured stories and poetry. Too often, though, we have failed to cultivate the necessary habits for appreciating the nuance of Scripture, the wonders of God, the world He has made, and even our very selves.
My own life bears witness to this truth. When faithful professors and friends encouraged me to try new books and join centuries-long literary conversations, they discipled me into an exegetical approach to texts, teaching me to hunger and thirst for both beauty and significance. Through them, I finally encountered fiction that spoke to my analytical mind, slipping in metaphysical and mysterious hints at a richer meaning behind a facade of plain speak.
Emboldened by a new love for the written word, I journeyed into a literary discipleship of my own, wading into the extended metaphors of the novel alongside the deep wells of imagery in poetry, attending to the interconnectedness of life and moral heartbeat’s rhythm under even the most ordinary circumstances. In the process, I rediscovered the Bible.
Suddenly, all the parts that used to make me squirm became rich sources of understanding. The stories that made the least analytical sense to me transformed into devotional gold. Recognizing the web of allusion, metaphor, and themes connecting the Old and New Testaments restored my faith that this collection of writings from across centuries and varied cultural contexts and languages must, in fact, be God’s Word. The Holy Spirit used those who influenced my learning to read literature and poetry to protect me from making a shipwreck of my faith.
Teaching by Example
Wilson herself is part of my cloud of witnesses. We crossed paths at the Walker Percy Weekend in 2016 and 2017, and I’ve followed her work since. The Scandal of Holiness feels like a culmination of the type of incisive application of literature to spiritual life that I’ve come to appreciate from her. She focuses on character, holding up men and women to the light of Christ who have been imagined by a bevy of modern and contemporary novelists. In doing so, readers join her in watching how God’s glory refracts and radiates through the personalities, flaws, catharsis, growth, and sacrifice of these fictional beings.
Some of the novels Wilson engages are old friends of mine—Laurus, That Hideous Strength, The Violent Bear It Away, The Power and the Glory, The End of the Affair, The Last Gentleman, Death Comes for the Archbishop—but her attention to their focus on spiritual disciplines and specific fields of heart work makes me love these works all the more.
No matter the text, beholding is central to Wilson’s argument. She makes her case by sharing the delight she finds in her subjects, teaching readers to love the stories she’s selected by demonstrating how to examine closely and spend attention wisely. Through redemptive looking and longing, she invites readers into the blessing of literature rather than squeezing out meanings or straining through texts to find devotional nuggets.
We cannot be made to all love the same books, and we may not all find the same gifts in each one, but Wilson endeavors to hold the door open wide. For every reader, there is a story ready to captivate and transform, and Wilson offers the tools needed to look for Christ without subjective application or limiting God’s witness to a book list of her choosing.
Writing toward the Image of God
We are each a brush stroke in the portrait of life God is painting. Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck teases this truth out well in his Reformed Dogmatics:
It is not good that the man should be alone nor is it good that the man and woman should be alone. Upon the two of them God immediately pronounced the blessing of multiplication . . . only the whole of humanity is the fully developed image of God, his children, his offspring. The image of God is much too rich for it to be fully realized in a single human being, however richly gifted that human being may be. It can only be somewhat unfolded in its depth and riches in a humanity counting billions of members . . . displayed in all its dimensions and characteristic features in a humanity whose members exist both successively one after the other and contemporaneously side by side.
If all of humanity is necessary to reflect the image of God, why not the people birthed of our imaginations as well? And if this project of reflecting God’s image will continue until Christ returns, why not carry on writing new stories until that blessed day? This conviction lies at the heart of beholding, and it’s one abundantly evident in The Scandal of Holiness—all of which points to the vocation of writing as a sanctifying art, responding to creation with creation for the formation of others’ souls.
From reluctant martyrs and prophets to skeptics confronted by mystery to humbly faithful servants to holy fools and holy warriors, characters reflect something unique and wonderful about what it means to be human, to be conformed to the image of Christ. Only through their differences can we see Jesus clearly and fully. That diversity of expression of God’s grace is part of His plan to magnify the glory of the savior.
We will never exhaust the source material. There is ample room for novels and stories yet to be written to carry the imitation of Christ, the one in whom all things hold together, to future generations.
Cover image by Maxim Lugina.