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Can Fiction Teach Us Religious Truth?

Can Fiction Teach Us Religious Truth?

The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints, by Jessica Hooten Wilson (Brazos Press, 2022)

Jessica Hooten Wilson is the Louise Cowan Scholar in Residence at the University of Dallas. Her new book makes the argument that by reading a series of novels “about those who pursued [God’s] holiness, our desire for sanctity strengthens, and we share the burdens of our lives with a company of those who, like us, have been purged of their distractions and temptations. We join the company of saints who have been set free to become scandalously holy” (208).

The idea of learning to live a better life by drafting off the inspiring lives of others is not new, but usually the lives to imitate come from biographies of actual persons, biblical figures such as Moses, Daniel, Esther, Ruth, Peter and Mary the sister of Martha, or historical figures like, say, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Theresa, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Rigoberta Menchu, and Malala Yousafzai.

Wilson argues that a similar inspiration and growth in understanding life lessons can be drawn from studying the lives of fictional characters. Her book is organized into an introduction and eight chapters, each with a specific area of life focus and an exemplary fictional model or two. In each chapter, Wilson discusses a “saint” from the focus work and what we can learn from that person. At the end of each chapter there is a “Devotional,” consisting of a quote from the work in question, a relevant scriptural passage, a brief quotation from another writer (“Wisdom from the Saints”), a prayer of a few sentences, a few discussion questions, and a list of three or four books for further reading. The chapters proceed as follows:

Chapter one, “Holy Foolishness,” focuses on Eugene Vodolazkin’s novel Laurus (2012), and considers a character in the tradition of the “holy fool,” one who looks foolish in the world’s eyes but not, presumably, in God’s.

Chapter two, “Communion of Saints,” focuses on C.S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength (1945), and more specifically how communities impact the spiritual development of the main characters, Mark and Jane, who are encouraged in opposite directions by the communities they are a part of, N.I.C.E leading Mark to near-perdition and the community of St. Anne’s leading Jane to salvation. Wilson considers how communities are shaping each of us, asking “What habits are being cultivated by my home, my children’s school, and my church, and what kind of community are they forming?” (58).

Chapter three, “Creation Care as a Holy Calling,” highlights Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow (2003), which is itself a retelling of Chaucer’s “Nun Priest’s Tale.” The focus is on care of the natural world.

Chapter four, “Liberating Prophets,” focuses on Zora Neale Hurston’s Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) and Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies (1994). Says Wilson, “By reading about the lives of those saints who resisted and fought against totalitarian evil, we may be transformed by an imagination set apart from the pervasive consciousness ruling our own current culture” (85). She quotes Walter Brueggemann suggesting that “Poetic imagination is the last way left in which to challenge and conflict the dominant reality” (87). Wilson sums up the argument chapter saying that “The stories of those who prefigured and imitated Jesus–Moses, the prophets, Mary, the saints, and other heroes like the Mirabal sisters [from In the Time of Butterflies] and Pope Francis–provide us with a company, a fellowship with whom to renew our imaginations. They furnish us with the courage we need to face injustice–and, against all earthly models, the saints remind us how to love our enemies” (105).

Chapter five, “Virgin, Bride, Mother,” focuses on Kristin Lavransdatter (1920-1922), by Sigrid Undset.

Here the focus is on life trajectory as a woman, including a brief meditation on sanctification through nursing: “Nursing presses the human bounds of love. It demands self-sacrifice. It demands that you surrender all your plans for the day to the needs of another person” (126). But, as the chapter title indicates, the chapter focuses on various roles across the length of a woman’s life.

Chapter six, “Contemplative and Active Life,” focuses on The Diary of a Country Priest (1936), by Georges Bernanos. This book, according to Wilson, “exemplifies the symbiotic relationship between the active and contemplative life” (143). Bernanos’s priest, says Wilson, illustrates “Praying without ceasing, the kind of prayer that transfigures every activity into a way of glorifying God, of listening to God, of attending to the most sustaining relationship in existence” (157). 

Chapter seven, “Sharing in His Suffering,” focuses on Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away (1960). In addition to the fictional examples, Wilson discusses how O’Connor faced her own deadly battle with Lupus.

And finally, chapter eight, “Ars Moriendi,” Latin for “the art of dying,” features Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying (1993), Walker Percy’s The Last Gentleman (1966), and Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop(1927). Says Wilson, “From these fictional predecessors we may learn about the art of dying well” (202).

This book is only a gateway to the encounter with the narratives which it claims can help inspire and guide us in the process of growing as Christians. The summaries of the books discussed and the author’s points about them cannot replace spending time with the stories themselves. We would have to make the effort to read those books to get the benefits of hanging out with the “inspired” characters therein. This is not a criticism of Wilson’s book, which does a laudable job of assembling, organizing, and introducing a potent reading path for us. The next step is up to us.

I ask myself whether studying fictional models can inspire us in the same way as studying real-life models. I would say no, not in the same way. With real-life models we are inspired by knowing that people actually did this and said that. With fictional models we can think “that is an inspiring model” because of the nature of the model. It would be inspiring to act or speak in such and such a way, we say, because our imaginations can comprehend the model and imagine ourselves in relationship to it, even if it is only an imagined model. For instance, Sidney Carton, who goes to the guillotine for his lookalike Charles Darnay in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, can inspire us to the nobility of self-sacrifice, even though the story comes out of Dickens’s imagination. Wilson’s book is an excellent source for helping us to identify books that can provide inspiration and insight on our spiritual pathway. God created us for community, to learn from each other and to take inspiration from those who think well and act well.


Scott Moncrieff is a professor of English at Andrews University.

Title image by Brazos Press | Spectrum

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