Fictional Saints: A Review of The Scandal of Holiness

May 16, 2022
Author: Jessica Hooten Wilson
Publisher: Brazos Press
Publishing Date: March 29, 2022
Pages: 240 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1587435249

Ordinarily when we think about sanctification and becoming holy, we think about activities like worship, prayer, reading Scripture, or being involved in a regular Bible study. Many of these practices focus on our intellect, although some may also involve our affections. Only rarely do our spiritual practices actively engage our imaginations. Jessica Hooten Wilson’s new book, The Scandal of Holiness, challenges us to change that.

Holiness is the quintessential attribute of God. God is holy and God calls his people to be holy too.1 But what does this mean? What does holiness look like? These are the pressing questions that Wilson leans into. In a culture that more often than not models anything but holiness, Wilson urges the church to point us toward saints, those faithful pilgrims who offer not a prescription or self-help plan, but a model of holiness for us to imitate. And where do we find these pilgrims, or “saints” as she refers to them? Well, of course, we can look to Scripture or the historic saints that the church has recognized and venerated. Wilson, however, offers another idea: literature, specifically fiction.

“Wilson urges the church to point us toward saints, those faithful pilgrims who offer not a prescription of self-help plan, but a model of holiness for us to imitate.”

Wilson, an author and professor of literature, suggests that by inhabiting the stories of fictional saints through our imaginations, we can be drawn to imitate them. Imitation, she claims, is part of being human “written into reality.”2 Humans are naturally apt to imitate others. The question is really who we will imitate. Will it be the glossy, mass-market heroes, saints whose lives exhibit holiness and have the potential to draw us to holy living?

Thankfully, this book is not about telling us what we should do and leaving us to figure out how to make that work. The beauty of this book is that Wilson offers eight themes populated by various Christian authors to entice us to imagine what this fictional saint imitation might entail. Drawing on her expertise in literature, Wilson gives opens our eyes to authors and characters we are likely familiar with, like C. S. Lewis’s character “Ransom” in That Hideous Strength. But she also offers a number of authors, many of us have likely never heard of: Vodolazkin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Sigrid Undset, to name a few. Notably, many of the authors are women, offering an often neglected opportunity to find heroes like them—women they can strive to imitate.

In addition, Wilson is consciously ecumenical in her choices. She is aware of and takes note that Protestants have a rather tepid history with regard to learning from the saints. All we need to do is look at a typical Catholic calendar and we see the days populated with a wide variety of saints. The Orthodox, she points out, also have their icons. Therefore, she includes in her choices not just the Protestant writers we might expect, but writers from the wider Christian tradition, as well as some agnostics. The diversity of authors she draws on is admirable and calls her readers to reconsider the breadth of their own reading.

At the end of each chapter, Wilson offers her readers a devotional which connects the literature she has engaged with Scripture and prayer. She also includes a list of discussion questions and suggested books for further reading. It is hard to ask for much more.

“The diversity of authors (Wilson) draws on is admirable and calls her readers to reconsider the breadth of their own reading.”

As I read through this book, however, I wondered what Wilson might say about some of my own less serious book choices. Some of the works suggested seem pretty heavy and complicated, and as a systematic theologian, I read heavy and complicated books, albeit non-fiction, as a substantial part of my work. When I find time to read fiction, it feels like an indulgence—a luxury of sorts. I also find, much like Wilson suggests, that it often feeds my soul, which in turn helps me feed the souls of my students. But I do wonder what she would think of some of the titles I choose—titles that vary between young adult literature, like Gary Schmidt, to lighter adult Christian fiction. Would literature that I can relax into rather than work through still count, so long as it provides me with saints whose lives inspire imitation? I think she would say yes, but I am not entirely sure. I would have appreciated a few lighter titles on her “for further reading” lists. However, this is a rather mild critique of a book that is both inspiring and challenging.

Overall, Wilson has given Christians a gift of finding saints to emulate in places we might not have thought to look. Her work reminds us of what the author of Hebrews gives us in chapter 11, ‘the heroes of faith’, albeit in the form of non-fiction. At the beginning of chapter 12 the author tells us that “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” as those we have just read about in the previous chapter, “let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” It’s as if the author is saying: ‘See all these characters, folks just like you and me with blessings and challenges just like us? You can persevere, just like they did. You have Jesus to help you so don’t lose heart.’ This encouragement to persevere in holiness is exactly what Wilson is holding out to us in the fictional characters she introduces. Through them, she offers models of a life of faithfulness and holiness that stands in contrast to the culture in which we are embedded, and challenges us through them to be drawn to God through literature.

About the Author
  • Mary Vanden Berg is a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary and lives in Hudsonville, MI with her husband, Skip.

  1. Lev. 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16  

  2. p. 9  

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