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Book Review: The Scandal of Holiness
The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints by Jessica Hooten Wilson (Brazos Press, 2022)
I jumped at the chance to get an early peek at The Scandal of Holiness, which comes out in March (you can pre-order it at the links below). I’ve had the opportunity to do a little work with Jessica Hooten Wilson—she’s the editor of a forthcoming anthology to which I made a small contribution—and I knew she would have some good thoughts to share on literary saints. In fact, she had some truly spectacular thoughts.
The idea behind the book is that imagination can lead us closer to holiness, specifically by giving us fictional models to follow. So Jessica takes us through a wide variety of novels—from That Hideous Strength to Kristin Lavransdatter to The Book of the Dun Cow to The Violent Bear It Away to A Lesson before Dying to Laurus—and introduces us to the saints that populate their pages. (Warning: There are spoilers aplenty for the various novels.) These are no remote and pious presences, but three-dimensional characters who sin and stumble and mess up in all kinds of ways on their journey to sainthood. Which makes that sainthood all the more awe-inspiring when finally achieved.
The book starts off somewhat slow but builds in intensity and power as it goes along. I’ll be brutally honest with you: Even I, avid fan of C.S. Lewis and author of a book about him, sometimes feel that I cannot sit through one more analysis of That Hideous Strength—even if, like this one, it’s a good analysis. (I did pick up an interesting fact here, though: THS and Animal Farm and Brideshead Revisited all came out the same year. Someone please write a book about that!)
Anyway, once I got through that part, this book kept getting better and better and better. The further I read, the more I felt my mind and spirit being stretched. By the time I finished the last couple of chapters, on suffering and death, I felt like I’d been through a vigorous spiritual workout—one that had radically reshaped my thinking on these subjects. The chapter on suffering, especially, hit me right in the soul. I’m still mulling that one over and trying to figure out aspects of it, but I loved it. And not in that familiar “this chapter validated everything I’ve ever thought about the topic” way, but in an “I think this chapter just remade my world” kind of way.
In case I haven’t made it clear by now, Jessica Hooten Wilson has given us a lot to chew on with this book. You may take issue or wrestle with various theological, ideological, or literary points made here, but it’s the kind of wrestling that does one good. This is a book that makes the reader not only want to be a better person, but also come to a deeper understanding of what that means.
(Image copyright Brazos Press. Thanks to Brazos for the review copy.)