THIS is a well-written, inspiring, and, in places, very personal book that explores connections between human desires and holiness and, indeed, between some human desires and serious unholiness.
Jessica Martin, Residentiary Canon at Ely and, formerly, Fellow in English at Trinity, Cambridge, was brought up in a chapel-going household, both her parents (David and Bernice Martin) being distinguished sociologists of culture and religion.
She imbibed their influence (and dedicates this book to them), but also explored Charismatic worship as a teenager, before becoming pregnant and then a single mother. In the personal sections of this book, she explains her disillusionment with ecstatic forms of Christianity and alludes to difficulties of bringing up her young daughter while studying and, then, seeking a deeper sexual relationship.
Now happily married, she knows from the inside the attractions and perils of human desire. She sets out in detail, for example, the pitfalls of online pornography. Emphatically, she is not a conservative moraliser who simply condemns pornography as decadent or sinful. She is much more concerned about how free online pornography distorts the desires and expectations of young people and then, cynically designed with algorithms, lures those attracted into expensive, sexually abusive, and, often, illegal forms of pornography.
Perhaps it is only an emotionally mature woman who could safely research and then analyse this seductive cultural trend. A generation of male desires has, she argues, become seriously damaging to men and women alike.
Nevertheless, human desire is important for holiness, as St Augustine of Hippo knew only too well while struggling with his own sexuality. The sheer attraction of holiness — whether experienced within worship, literature, music, or art, or encountered in holy people — is surely what inspires many of us to become or remain Christians. Without some desire, attraction, or (what I depict as) “moral passion”, it is difficult to see why any of us should devote time, energy, and money to a faith that seems to be increasingly marginalised within the West.
In his commendation of this book, the distinguished Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor writes: “Reading it strengthens my feeling that the decline of Christendom has opened the way for a remarkable flowering of new avenues towards the faith.” This is high praise indeed — and deserved. Martin brings her love of music, classical and popular, literature, and the Bible to illustrate the sort of human desire that can encourage and enhance holiness even within a supposedly secular society.
She admits at the outset that “This is a really, really wide range of inquiry, so I’ve gone for an unusual approach, one that is more like an old-fashioned ‘essay’ than a modern ‘argument’.” Its mixture of autobiography, cultural analysis, social criticism, and apologetics is also very accessible. She avoids jargon and engages the reader. Her views tend to be both socially liberal and theologically conventional — a combination that characterised her late father’s writings, albeit without his sometimes angular prose.
This is not a book for pedantic scholars, but it is written by someone who is herself both a scholar and a pastorally minded priest. As she states, it is a book for anyone who is “really interested in what it could be to live well and expectantly in dark times”. It deserves to be read widely.
Canon Robin Gill is Editor of Theology and author of Moral Passion and Christian Ethics (CUP, 2017).
Holiness and Desire: What makes us who we are?
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.59