Fiction, News Addiction & The Scandal of Holiness: Standouts from a Reading Year

“One year from now, you are likely to be much the same person except for the people you meet and the books you read.” 

I don’t remember who told me this back when I was young but I never forgot it; it’s helped me track my reading year after year ever since. Lately the Goodreads Reading Challenge has made tracking the books we read even easier. Rather than a mere list, Goodreads shows the books’ covers, and I like the visual effect of reviewing my books this way and seeing what friends are reading as well.

How else to choose what to read?

Two podcasts are a mainstay for me. I often choose my fiction by reading along with whatever’s being discussed on Close Reads: a Podcast for the Incurable Reader and because I’m a lifelong fan of C.S. Lewis, Pints with Jack also comes to my rescue. Right now both podcasts are discussing Out of the Silent Planet (for Close Reads, the discussion is for patrons of Close Reads HQ) so Out of the Silent Planet (and the rest of the Ransom trilogy) are heading my list for 2023.

I also participate in the Word on Fire Institute’s Club 451 led by Haley Stewart. This group pushes me in great ways. Members participate in online discussion threads and when we finish a book we have a zoom conversation about it. We kicked off 2023 by reading C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man and Michael Ward’s commentary After Humanity: A Guide to C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man. Ward will actually be joining us for a live zoom at the end of the month and I can’t wait! I’ve written about Lewis’ book before, but After Humanity has opened The Abolition of Man like nothing else has and it’s been very helpful to finally read along with others.

I also rely on the recommendations of trusted writers and reader friends. Jessica Hooten Wilson’s substack is one of my favorite sources, and her book The Scandal of Holiness: Renewing Your Imagination in the Company of Literary Saints is one of my favorite 2022 reads. 

Part memoir, part literary compendium and part devotional, The Scandal of Holiness will enrich your reading life in lasting ways.

Hooten Wilson teaches us to form our imagination by reading great works of literature. She wants us to read with the heart fully open to growth in devotion and virtue, and she shows us how great works of literature can move us to become better Christians.

The founder of a classical school, Hooten Wilson advocates expanding the canon to include more of the finest international writers, writers of color and women writers. But she insists they be among the finest. She won’t abide watering down the canon with young adult novels of little lasting power. Instead, she recommends Zora Neale Hurston and Julia Alvarez along with Dante, Flannery O’Connor and C.S. Lewis. Each chapter ends with a book list and a devotional in this very special volume.

Jeffrey Bilbro’s Reading the Times: a Theological and Literary Commentary on the News would make a wonderful companion to Hooten Wilson’s book and is absolutely one of the best books I read in 2022. I reviewed it earlier this year and it remains at the top of my list.

Bonnie Kristian’s Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics and Corrupting Christian Community, is a more recent book on recovering from news addiction.

It was the last book I read in 2022 and it was easy to add it as a favorite. 

Kristian, who writes on foreign policy, criminal justice, electoral politics and much more at The Week and many other outlets, takes her faith seriously and is seriously alarmed at what she sees happening to good people whose addiction to fringe echo chambers has affected their ability to entertain opposing views or to question the sources they uncritically rely on to give them the real facts.

Carefully researched and laced as well with poetry, literature and scripture (she had me at the first chapter’s epigraph, W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939, and she cites Bilbro’s book and Wendell Berry as well), Kristian makes her case with truth and love. Our nation’s epistemic crisis is alarming, and we need books like hers to keep us alert to the ways we all are susceptible to it. Untrustworthy’s last chapter, “A Breath,” is indeed a breath of fresh air, charting a path for staying informed without being constantly inflamed.

She recommends giving up televised news in favor of a few curated news sources.

I’ve been reading The Week’s email newsletter at her recommendation, and my brain feels better for it. Like Bilbro, Kristian reminds us not to neglect the local church, the place where we are discipled by “sacrament, scripture and service” rather than our favorite media outlet. Neglect here “makes a space in our lives that won’t be filled by something better. It makes a desert in us.”

My favorite new author this year is Notre Dame professor Abigail Favale.

Into the Deep: An Unlikely Catholic Conversion and The Genesis of Gender: a Christian Theory held me riveted this past summer. After her childhood in an Evangelical family, Favale pursued an academic career in feminist studies and gender theory before her conversion to Catholicism in 2014. 

If you want to understand the recent gender controversies so much a part of the American political conversation The Genesis of Gender is a must read. In my work as a counselor of young children, the clash of ideologies in the culture has hit home in a big way, and I want to understand the issue rather than simply chant what the echo chambers of the left and the right are saying. Favale is informed in the way only an insider who maintains friendships with people who identify variously on the current gender theory spectrum could be, so she is highly qualified to explain the roots of gender theory, how it differs from traditional feminism and how the theology of the body can inform our thinking on these matters.

If you want to be informed rather than inflamed about these controversies (in the way Untrustworthy recommends) you must follow Favale’s work!

And then there’s fiction, the beautiful genre that grows the soul by telling its story.

With the help of Close Reads HQ I reread two of my very favorite novels, East of Eden and Anna Karenina this year. I started Anna Karenina in 2021 by the way; there’s no shame in taking a long time to read a long book!

But my favorite (new to me) novel is easily Chaim Potok’s My Name Is Asher Lev. I was delighted when Close Reads announced this one as its final read of the year. Potok’s The Chosen was assigned to me years ago in a history class on the Holocaust. It illuminated Jewish culture for me for the first time and remains a favorite book on how friendship can exist between people of differing views (in this case an Orthodox and a Conservative Jew, both teens growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940’s).

My Name is Asher Lev takes place in the same setting, but centers on a challenging relationship between a child of genius and his parents. Asher’s parents are both activist Hasidic Jews, and their story highlights the desperation of European and Russian Jews seeking their own freedom and dignity during a time when they were being actively exterminated by Hitler’s Nazis.

While Asher’s father travels abroad to free his people and to establish European Yeshivas, his mother attends university, learning Russian history and preparing to support her husband’s work. Asher’s artistic genius reveals itself early. While a student at Yeshiva, it is his struggle to define himself as an artist. Asher agonizes over faithfulness to his parents’ religion and their disapproval of the nudes and the Christian images he encounters while studying in Italy.

The connection to the life and work of Marc Chagall is unavoidable. Asher Lev is a very different person than the Russian Hasid born Moishe Shagall destined to become a great modernist artist. Yet the parallels, particularly when it comes to portraying the Crucifixion to illuminate a chosen theme, are unavoidable. This book was very hard to put down and the ending stunned me!

I hope, in this taste of a year in reading, that perhaps you’ve discovered a book or two to add to your own list. It’s still true that a year from now, we’ll likely be much the same except for the people we meet and the books we read.

What books can you recommend to me? I’d love to hear from you!

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If you enjoyed this post you might also like Links to the Soul-Washing Art of Marc Chagall and Loving Your Neighbor while Reading the Times: A Theological Contemplation on the News.

This inspiring talk at the recent Good News Conference provides a taste of what Jessica Hooten Wilson offers readers on the pilgrim path. She’s chosen to end each of her talks by reading a great poem, a thing of beauty. It’s worth the wait, and inspired me to catch up with missed episodes of The Daily Poem.

Photos by Gülfer ERGİN and Juja Han on Unsplash.

2 thoughts on “Fiction, News Addiction & The Scandal of Holiness: Standouts from a Reading Year

  1. The best book I read in 2022 was Rumer Godden’s “In This House of Brede.” I had heard it recommended for years, and now I regret having waited so long to read it. By turns beautiful, consoling, inspiring, wrenching, and savagely funny, it has gained a spot in my top ten novels of all time.

    1. Maria, you would make a great book reviewer! I am sold! Like you, I’ve heard it recommended for years, and actually I’m pretty sure it’s already in my Kindle library – I think I heard someone say if you wanted to read fiction for Lent, The House of Brede would be a good choice. Turns out Lent is on the horizon. And honestly I’d love to hear what other novels are on your Top 10!

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