Published by Brazos Press on March 29, 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.
Jessica Hooten Wilson challenges common misconceptions about reading fiction, arguing that even though many Christians prioritize nonfiction reading and think of stories as frivolous, reading about literary characters can spur us on to greater holiness in our own lives. In each chapter, she focuses on at least one novel and how it illustrates different elements of the Christian life, such as the role of community and the importance of creation care. Most of the literary works she referenced were ones that I had never heard of or am only passingly familiar with, but she wrote about them in a compelling way and explained their contexts clearly. I learned a lot without feeling like I was outside of the conversation because I hadn’t already read the books.
The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints will primarily appeal to devoted readers who enjoy literary fiction. Personally, I wish that Wilson had provided some examples of less high-brow works that encourage holiness, because someone who reads this could walk away with the misconception that a book must be a Literary Experience to have spiritual value. Based on the author’s academic background, it makes sense for her to focus on great works of literature, but I can point to books that nobody would teach in a college class that have spiritually formed me or changed my life. I wish that Wilson had included some examples of well-written, creative novels that wouldn’t meet her standards for a “great work of literature,” but which have value and convey spiritual truth nonetheless.
Overall, I would recommend this book to people who want to stretch and challenge their reading lives, already enjoy great works of literature, or are interested in this book for academic purposes. If someone doesn’t already read regularly or read classic works, then On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life Through Great Books by Karen Swallow Prior is likely to be much more accessible. Ultimately, The Scandal of Holiness is not targeted towards Christians who are trying to get into reading fiction, but to those who are already well-read and want to further expand their literary and spiritual horizons. For those readers, Wilson provides thoughtful analyses of unlikely fictional saints, explores their complexities, and suggests ways to discuss and spiritually reflect on their stories.