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Holiness: Beginning, Middle, and End
A Review of the Scandal of Holiness by Jessica Hooten Wilson
Before I start the review, the latest episode of Consider the Ravens is now live on Spotify.
As always, at Consider the Ravens, we believe that discipleship happens and should happen within the context of the local church, we also believe that the main way that discipleship has been bolstered throughout Church History has been through literature. Whether fiction or non-fiction, short epistles to huge four-volume tomes of systematic theology, we'll be looking at it all. In this episode, we talked about Bavinck and why we're going through the first volume of Reformed Dogmatics on the podcast this year.
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.
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,
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