*** DEBUG END ***

Holiness and Desire: What makes us who we are? by Jessica Martin

07 August 2020

Theological reflections on desire and holiness impress Robin Gill

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?
Jessica Martin
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.59

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Awards Ceremony: 6 September 2024

Read more details about the awards


Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available



Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website


ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)