Skip to main content

Click here to listen to the episode on Spotify

In the twenty-sixth episode of the “Saturdays at Seven” conversation series, Todd Ream talks with Jessica Hooten Wilson, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Great Books at Pepperdine University. Wilson begins by detailing what qualities define a great book and what a great book asks of the readers who encounter it.  While some books may yield useful information, Wilson contends a great book demands that readers find themselves within an unfolding story and, in turn, ask how they understand themselves and the world differently because of such an experience. Ream and Wilson then discuss the state of English departments, how such departments define themselves, and how those definitions translate into offerings that fail to form students well beyond the narrow strictures of a discipline. With an enhanced understanding of the value of language and literature in place, Wilson reflects upon the lessons she has learned as a public intellectual, especially lessons related to the usage of various social media platforms. Ream and Wilson then close their conversation by discussing how the engagement with the great books serves as a bridge between the Church and the Church-related university.

Todd Ream: Welcome to Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. My name is Todd Ream. I have the privilege of serving as the publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review and as the host for Saturdays at Seven. I also have the privilege of serving on the faculty and the administration at Indiana Wesleyan University.

Our guest is Jessica Hooten Wilson, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Great Books at Pepperdine University. Thank you for taking the time to join us.

Jessica Hooten Wilson: Thank you so much.

Todd Ream: So to start, why should Christians read the Great Texts?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: Wow. You know, there’s an assumption there in that question. Why should they not? Because of course, I mean, this is what everyone should be doing. 

I was reading Anna Julia Cooper last night, who was an amazing Christian educator, and she was born a slave in America. She lived between 1858-1964. Can you believe she lived to be a hundred and something years old? And she writes about the necessity for African Americans to read. 

And I think in her answer, what you’ll hear is why Christians should read. She says, “it broadens our horizon. The educated person can commune with Socrates, can share the journey of Dante, can see the heavens open with Milton. When their wings beat against the cages, they see heaven and they fly free.”

And so there’s this, this sense in her answer, when she’s giving this talk, and this would have been like 1890, when she gives this talk about the necessity of African Americans to read, what she’s really talking about is the human spirit, the human soul to be able to commune with those throughout time.

If there’s anything that the Christian faith does, it reminds us that we are not creatures that are limited by time, but that we’re made for a timeless existence. We’re made for eternity. And when we get to dine with these writers of the past, when we get to dine with writers who are across the world, we remember that we’re creatures that are made beyond space and beyond time. 

And I think too often, most of the world’s narratives confine us and make us limited to being American or being a certain this time and placeness. And we prioritize that over the eternal. And instead, these Classics remind us that we are made for eternity. 

If I can just quote one more person I’ll quote the patron saint of Protestants, C.S. Lewis, who would say, if we could take off our skins, we would be tempted to worship the creature that would be revealed because none of us is a mere mortal. We’re instead these eternal beings that are meant to commune eventually with heaven and and the beatific vision is our destiny. 

And so I think getting to read the Classics is a way of getting us in touch with that destiny and reminding us of that reality.

Todd Ream: Thank you. What makes for a great text then?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: I think the books have to ask something of us in the way that people ask something of us. The book has to demand our attention, has to leave us changed after we read it. It has to be a book that is like meeting a person, is like meeting a world, is entering a world that is true and beautiful. 

And the saying it’s stranger than fiction. In some ways, it has to be more beautiful than truth. It has to be more beautiful than the reality we live in day-to-day. And it lifts us up. It reminds us, again, that we are souls and that we have these big questions that we all share. There’s these enduring questions that take place within the text and it doesn’t attempt to give us just one answer, you know? 

I think some of the greatest texts in the world like the Brothers Karamazov, for example, asks multiple questions without feeling the need to come down on one side. My students are always troubled when we start talking about these characters and things like the Brothers Karamazov because they’re just left wondering and they’re left asking and they want answers and they want absolutes. 

And I think with that level of certainty, sometimes comes too much arrogance. And these novels break us out of that pattern of arrogance and instead say, no, like you’re meant to wonder, you’re meant to behold, you’re meant to ask these questions. Like we are all these unfinished people who are going to be wayfarers until we die. 

And the right kind of books are going to follow us on this journey and keep asking us those questions. They’re going to keep us in this place of humility, that helps us on our pilgrimage towards sanctification. And so the right kind of books do that in a way that they address beauty and truth and goodness.

Todd Ream: Thank you. What does a reader then owe a great text when she or he approaches it? 

Jessica Hooten Wilson: I don’t think we owe anything to a great text. But I do think, when I say that a great text, the text asks something of us, what I mean is like, for example, when you start a relationship with someone, you know if there’s going to be a friendship, if they need you and you need them and not in a transactional sense, but in a belonging sense. 

I want to help take your kids to school and I want you to be able to call me when you need dinner because your parent’s in the hospital. Like I want to have some sense of belonging with you. And that’s usually forged through our human limitation. 

So when I read a great book that says, I need you to think about something differently. I need you to pay attention to me so it’s not a debt. It’s more of a sense of belonging with a book. Where they’re showing you your own limitations as a human being and the author’s admitting vulnerably their own limitations as a human being. And there’s some shared reciprocal friendship that begins with a text, when you both have that level of honesty as a reader and as the writer, in what you’re approaching in the story or the poem that you’re engaging.

Todd Ream: Thank you. Now thinking about the means of engagement then, I want to ask you a little bit about reading, the practice of reading. How do you define it?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: The easy answer is I wrote a book about that but the longer answer is-

Todd Ream: That may be part of why I asked.

Jessica Hooten Wilson: Well, yeah, it’s a really good question because the reason I wrote a book was I loved reading when I was a little kid. I was drawn to it. I just couldn’t put books down. Even to this day, a mom of four, and I carry a book with me like I will ever have a minute to sit and read it in the car. I don’t know why I still do it. It’s just a habit, and I always want to have books with me at all times. 

Well, when I started teaching college, what I realized was not everyone does that. My students would come into the room and be like, why would you do that? Like, why would you read? When I had always assumed that everyone was doing this for so long. 

What I figured out is my students’ way of seeing reading was so different than the way I saw reading. So they would open a text and they were trying to find the right answer, guess what the professor wanted them to see or if they were reading at all by themselves, it was usually just for entertainment. Like they were using the book for something. 

And I had been trained by theology professors to look more at the difference that Augustine draws between what’s used and what’s enjoyment. And when it comes to a text for me, I don’t want to use the book. I want to enjoy the poetry. I want to enjoy the literature. I want to enjoy the story. 

And so it’s retraining my students in a way in which they’re not using the text for answers. They’re not using it to pass a quiz. They’re not using it for information, but they could actually just sit down with Dante’s Divine Comedy and meditate on the language and look into the story to see themselves, to find themselves, to have their worlds expanded, as I mentioned with Anna Julia Cooper. 

You know, this kind of move for them, was a paradigm shift and so I started writing about how to do this because so many people had lost that reading was actually a spiritual practice. That it actually could be one of these things that transformed a person and did not have to be something that they just used in their lives, like a tool.

Todd Ream: How if at all, then, over the course of your lifetime, has sort of the cultural definition, we were talking- sort of talking about that, the cultural definition of reading changed?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah, I’m actually very troubled by this recently. The last four years since COVID took place, I stepped down from the classroom, undergraduate classroom, for a little while. And I’ve been teaching online graduate classes because there were so many things up and down with COVID. And now we’re kind of back to a little bit more stability. And so I’m back in the undergraduate classroom after like four years. 

So I feel like even in the last four years, there’s been a huge shift. So not even thinking about decades of shifts, just in the last few years, there’s been a shift where students don’t know how to read. I’m not sure what’s happening, but it really does feel like there’s some learning gaps that have taken place for students where they just can’t draw connections between sentences, between words meaning things. 

Just a basic example, I even wrote on the board yesterday, I was like, what’s the difference between important, significant, and crucial? Because you guys keep using those words interchangeably. And not a single person had ever considered that words mean different things. Right? Like in, in their world, it was just like, words are interchangeable. 

And so we had to go through and be like, import versus signify versus crux. You know, like, what are these things that we’re doing called words that we’re using, that matter so much? And from a Christian standpoint, of course, like we believe in a God who speaks creation by words, like into existence and who calls Himself the Word. So, the word has to have that level of crucial significance, so we need to know the words that we’re using when we say things like that. 

So getting students to slow down and pay attention to the words and pay attention to the way that they’re in a sentence, I know that sounds so basic, but it’s something that somehow, we’ve failed to teach them between kindergarten and high school. And now that I’m teaching college, I’m realizing like we have to redo this in a large part just to be able to understand a text.

Todd Ream: In what ways, then, do those challenges impact the ability for, say, this generation of students to engage a great text?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah, I think it’s just gonna require a lot more slowing down and a lot more contemplation. So Brothers Karamazov, I think it’s just the best novel ever written and I’m in the middle of teaching it right now and so it’s just all in my mind all the time but- or something like the Divine Comedy is also something I just teach every single year. 

And these are big books. And they require a lot. And if we are having to slow down, somebody could spend a whole year trying to get through the Brothers Karamazov. I think we have to be okay with that. I think a year spent just trying to get through the Brothers Karamazov is a lot better than a year reading 12 to 15 bestselling Christian fiction novels, right? 

I just think that’s a better use of someone’s time because they are learning this practice of enjoyment. They are learning a spiritual discipline. They are learning to sit with someone who matters, who’s going to change them, who’s going to ask something of them. And I think we have to be okay with that level of time commitment. 

The difficulty is that this generation is always thinking in terms of efficiency, of product, of output, of return on investment. I mean, they’re so programmed by the marketplace, that that level of commitment to something that they can’t see the payoff for, is hard for them to process. 

And so I think with this generation of students, if we can get them to meditate on a text, if we can get them out of their mindset that it has to be a market value to them, then they’re going to see something changing in their hearts and minds and souls. And that’s what we have to get them to. We have to break, we have to break them free, in a sense, from the traps of the marketplace.

Todd Ream: If I may, I want to shift gears here a little bit and talk about the broader discipline in which these sorts of interactions take place between reading and individuals and the Great Texts. And ask just for starters, given the debates in the humanities today, why should today’s students study English?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: I’m laughing because I literally just wrote a paper yesterday called “Don’t Major in English and Other Bad Advice the World Gives You.” So this is very much on my mind. Now when I say English, I’m not just thinking about American and British writers. 

And so one of the first things that I could do if I ruled the world especially if I just– let’s just make it smaller, if I ruled the world of higher education, if there was such a thing, I would just get rid of the name English department because it’s a misnomer that applied in the 1930s in Britain and it just doesn’t apply more large scale. I think instead we need to have literature and writing departments. 

And we should teach things that aren’t only written in English. We need to return to a sense that Oxford had originally with the greats the literary humanories, right? Like these are the human literature, the things that make us human. 

So when we’re talking about why students should major in that, that’s a different question than why you should major in English. You should only major in English if you’re going to become a British scholar, right? Or an Americanist. 

But if you’re trying to understand how to be a full human being, then you need to major in something like Great Books, right? You need to major in something like classical education. You need to master these things as much as you can, because the practice of empathy, of understanding language, of being able to see various perspectives, of seeing different arguments and putting them in conversation with one another, all of these things should take a lifetime. 

And they have a market value that is lifetime, right? That you can adapt to various jobs that God calls you to throughout your whole career, rather than just over specializing in one thing. And the world is changing. So specializing in that is just gonna really not have the ROI that you desire. Right? 

So like, if we’re going to play the game, let’s play the game. The best thing you could possibly do would be to major in the humanities, right? You will make yourself the strongest version of yourself through that discipline and through that study. And, and there’s just so many reasons why. 

In 2013, I think Mark Edmundson from UVA, the professor at UVA, wrote a great book called Why Read and Why Write, but he also wrote this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which he says the ideal English major. And he says, why should you be an English major? Because you want to be a good human person. 

And, and that’s really the truth. I think he’s not being facetious there. He’s saying there’s something about these kinds of disciplines that teaches us how to be re-humanized from the way that the world dehumanizes us.

Todd Ream: In what ways then are these departments, as they’re presently composed on college and university campuses, prepared to meet those goals, or are they insufficiently structured?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: They’re insufficiently structured in a thousand ways and, and I’m so surprised people are still letting me talk. You know, I thought a long time ago, with my really radical ideas, that I would have been shut up a very long time ago. But I think that the fact that people are still letting me say these things, that people see that these things really do need to happen.

So one of the major problems for me is that English departments focus on specialization to the detriment of their students. Oftentimes, when I go to schools and I’m talking to literature departments, I say your goal is not to have the most majors and you need to know, your presidents and your provost and your deans need to know your goal is not to have the most majors.

Your goal is to have the most students taking your classes. If you have 500 students graduating and each of them took two English classes for fun, you keep your numbers. You don’t need to have a ton of majors. You don’t need to have 30 majors. You need to have all these students want to be in your classes.

The other reason that that’s beneficial: you have business majors who suddenly know how to love people. They know how to have conversations. They know how to think outside the box. They know how to communicate. They know how to really understand the reason why they’re doing what they’re doing. And not just going through the labor. They know how to love. 

There’s so many ways that business majors need to have literature classes, need to have the humanities. Um, our doctors, our engineers, I mean, we’re finding the truth is that without these things, we’re making worse engineers and worse doctors and worse CEOs. I mean that’s just what we’re doing because they don’t have to take any of these classes that were once upon a time required and assumed and people took for fun. 

I’m going off here on this because I just really, I feel so strongly about this, but, but we have hundreds of years of the kinds of people we want to be in the world: Tony Morrison, Dorothy L. Sayers, those people are lost if we can’t find the value in these things, if we keep dismissing the value and we only see it in terms of monetary gain. 

The reality is a university is not a university if your business students are not learning how to live life, if they’re not learning how to work to love, right? If they’re not working then to have leisure and they don’t know what to do with their leisure, you’re not doing your job as a university. You’re mistraining people, even if you’re just trying to train them. 

So I think the reason that the English departments are not seeing this is because they’re being moved into the system of imagining. Okay, I get the most money from my administrators if I have the most majors– that can’t be our goal. We have to kind of fight that system in order to actually keep the ground that we’ve gained. And we have to see ourselves as servants to those students and remember why it is we’re teaching what we’re teaching. 

As a Christian educator, because this is Christian scholar’s forum, right? As a Christian educator, I’m trying to create saints. My ultimate goal every single time I’m in that classroom is, Lord, how can I make Your saints love You? How can I move these students whether they know You or not, to see Your face? How can I do that through the discipline of studying literature? 

That has to be a different goal than, ugh, students aren’t in here or they’re missing class or they’re tardy or I’m crossing things out or they recited that poem and they got the lines wrong. Or look at how horrible this MLA citation is. I’m just gonna cross it all off. If we have those kind of goals, then we are not doing what God has called us to do in that classroom. 

I’m going off on a soapbox. I need to stop. But I just, I really think that there’s a lot to say here about this.

Todd Ream: No. Thank you. 

Well, let’s then shift gears to ask you about your own professional formation. You’ve served on the faculty at John Brown University, the University of Dallas, and now Pepperdine University. What did you enjoy most about each one of those opportunities?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: I look back and I just, I see that the Lord was kind of putting all the pieces into place. Because, when you’re choosing colleges, I could have gone to Davidson. I could have gone to Vanderbilt. I feel like the Lord called me into Christian settings over and over and over again, and everybody has different callings. I don’t think there’s one route. Um, I love that Christ plays in 10,000 places. 

But for me, over and over again, I felt like the answer was always to go into Christian higher education. And what I loved about Pepperdine was still what I love about it today is three distinctions: um, its Christian environment, which every Christian school says that. What I really enjoy about Pepperdine’s Christian environment is that you don’t have any cultural gain here by being a Christian. 

In other words, it’s not it’s not something you have to pretend or conform to be because it’s not a requirement. And so there’s actually just a really strong Christian body here because there’s just freedom to be Christian rather than have any kind of cultural conformity. So I loved that about Pepperdine. I still do. 

Love the Great Books. Now I’m teaching in it. That’s how much I loved it. Um, it’s what I thought college should be. It’s still what I think college should be. 

And then international programs. Pepperdine, there’s just- nobody in the entire country touches Pepperdine when it comes to international programs. We own a castle in Switzerland. We own a villa in Florence. We own property in London and Heidelberg and Buenos Aires and Japan. It’s just phenomenal world class international programs. And I think the part of education needs to be to see ourselves in a global community, right? To see the whole human story and Pepperdine does that really well.

When it comes to University of Dallas, I had never studied one author so closely the way that I did at University of Dallas. So I did Great Books at Pepperdine and it was wonderful. We did everything from Homer to Aeschylus in one semester. Plato, Aristotle, all of it in one semester. 

When you get to University of Dallas, they do Homer one semester when you get to the graduate level. They do Whitman. They do Tolstoy. Like it is, you get into an author, you do an entire semester on Faulkner. That kind of close attention to the author where I learned to read everything that that person had written from their novels to their nonfiction, to their biographies, multiple biographies, to tons of criticism on one author at a time, was so beneficial. 

It’s actually the reason that I write the way that I do now. I just dig into an author and I spend all my time with them. So right now I’m into Anna Julia Cooper and I’m going to her archives and reading all her biographies and just basically doing what University of Dallas taught me to do at the graduate levels to really dig into an author at a time. 

And then at Baylor, I think the most exciting public intellectuals that are out there right now, you’ll see that their PhD was from Baylor University. Because there was a season in which Baylor, and for me, it was when David Lyle Jeffrey was provost. It was when Robert Sloan was president. Um, it was when Ralph Wood had been brought on and Stephen Prickett had been brought on. Like I came during that time when Baylor was outward facing with their PhD programs and thinking, how can we engage the world with Christian scholars, right? What is the point of Christian intellectual identity and how do we help it flourish in the world?

So everything was outward facing. It was, you’re learning these things so you can go and do good in the world. And so I went to school with Alan Noble and Jeff Bilbro, and just lots of us were there wanting to use our gifts to serve. And so Baylor just taught me that how to, how to take what I was learning and do something good with it.

Todd Ream: What led you to make the professional transitions then that you made from John Brown to the University of Dallas and now to Pepperdine?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: From my job experience John Brown, it was a great place to be. There were a few changes they made as a university. They originally began as a work college. And then there was a season when Rick Ostrander was dean there that they were becoming more liberal arts focused. But I think there was some division over whether that was really their identity. And I’m a huge proponent of liberal arts. 

And so I just wasn’t fitting with the vocational emphasis that they’ve started to make more and more. And then when COVID happened, that was kind of like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I just didn’t have a place there anymore, unfortunately. Even though I still lived in that community for four more years. And really, I went to church with everybody from JBU, including the president. So I was still very close with a lot of the people that were there doing that work, but vocationally, I wasn’t fitting in that setting.

When I went to University of Dallas, I was teaching graduate classes, but there wasn’t really a place for me in the undergraduate teaching. They’re definitely a kind of school where the undergraduate focus is on the specialization. And so I’m just too much of a generalist to get to fit in those departments. And there’s just not a lot of people that enjoy the generalist. 

Or just to speak more, more largely or broadly, when you start translating the scholarship for the Church, for trade books, for common readership, there’s a divide in the academy over whether they think they can take you seriously anymore. They don’t, they don’t look at your bibliography and think like, oh yeah, she read everything she would have normally read if she wrote that book for a specialized audience, but then she wrote it in such a way that it was accessible. 

And I know how to do the academ-eze, like I can definitely fit that language but it’s just not something that I felt called to continue doing. I proved my academic chops and I wrote four academic books and it doesn’t mean that I won’t write another one, but at this season of my life, I’m finding myself drawn outside of that. And I think there’s different schools that fit that. 

Pepperdine right now fits that for me. As the Fletcher Jones Chair, they wanted me to be connecting with other audiences besides the higher ed world. They wanted me to connect with K -12. They wanted me to talk to teachers about why they love teaching and how our Great Books university fits the same kind of teaching the classical schools are doing. 

So it was just a different mission field and a different call. And one that I’m thoroughly enjoying right now.

Todd Ream: Yeah, that’s wonderful. I do have to ask, though, now at Pepperdine, what unique opportunities come with teaching students to read in Malibu?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: Well we do a lot of classes outside. 

Todd Ream: Does that add to the distractions or does it ease them? 

Jessica Hooten Wilson: I believe that this is the way that classes were always meant to be. When you look at Socrates, like that would be my hero or Jesus, right? Jesus is like standing outside Caesarea Philippi and looking up and around Him. I mean, Jesus wasn’t teaching in a classroom. Socrates wasn’t teaching in a classroom.

I think in a lot of ways we’ve sanitized and messed up what teaching could be by putting it in a classroom. We put different restrictions on it. 

And so I love teaching in Malibu because, yes, I expect you to be reading Homer on the beach. Because, yes, I think that that’s what it was intended for, is to sit there and read Homer on the beach. I believe these things are what give us the good life. 

And so if we can do them in a beautiful place, like that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. I’m in a closet right now, basically, that I’ve turned into a library, but we shouldn’t just be stuck inside in closets. We should be outside and enjoying the sun and enjoying creation, reading the book of nature as often as we’re reading novels.

Todd Ream: Thank you. I just couldn’t help but ask. 

I want to pick up on this tension that you were just mentioning though, in relation to the previous question about doing scholarly work as the guild has defined it and then making the lessons of that work accessible to the wider public. 

So for about the last 10 years, you’ve invested in engaging people in conversations concerning the Great Text via social media. When utilizing platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, as well as the curation of your own website, what are the most critical lessons you’ve learned about those forms of engagement?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: So I have to give full credit to John Hwang who recently passed away unexpectedly. And John deserves all the credit for so many people doing this. It was John’s mission. He said Christ calls us to go, not to stay put. And He called us into these spaces. 

This is our challenge in this generation, is to go into these spaces. And most academics don’t want to be in this space. I don’t want to be in this space, just to be honest. I have to put certain controls on those spaces to enter them well. 

I think the way that the missionaries do when they have to go into certain spaces that are different, right? Um, or that could be dangerous. You have, you have to know you’re going into a dangerous space. And I believe that these kinds of online spaces can be dangerous, I just do– for our soul and the ways that we’re formed. 

And John called us there. So he created Kristen Dumez’s website first. He’s one of the first people that put her out in the world. And Kristen’s the one who recommended John to me. And then he did this for Noah Toly and he did this for Justin Ariel Bailey. And so there were lots of people that John was helping get into these spaces. 

The way that he taught me how to see it is, one, there’s so much nonsense out there that we have to go into the space to teach things that matter. We have to outtalk the nonsense. 

Even yesterday I was in class and one of my students was like a professor, you came up on my YouTube. I was like, did I? He’s like, we’re at Baylor and you were like praying and giving a talk on Saint Teresa. And like, I watched it. So I have students who are just watching YouTube and it is true. Like for whatever reason, my ways of speaking about true beautiful things are coming up in their feeds. 

And that’s what, that’s what John was asking us to do is like, if we’re not in those spaces, they’re only getting nonsense. So those of us who have gifts to share need to be sharing them into those spaces. And so that’s what I’m trying to do. 

When I’m there, I try to think of my Twitter like a syllabus. What do I think people should be reading? What do I think, what questions do I think they should be considering and thinking about? If they are in those spaces, how can I get them to stop and focus and think about something else? And so that’s how I try to do it.

I think the scary way is if you try to make it into building your own platform because it’s like building a cloud. It’s just going to disappear. It’s building a house on sand. We just can’t think of it that way. It’s not, we’re not meant to build a house there. We’re not meant to make that our home, but it can be a mission field that we go into. It should be for certain people if they’re called into those mission fields, as long as they’re thinking about the people they’re serving and not thinking about themselves.

Todd Ream: What then would you encourage younger scholars to consider as they sort of grapple with these questions of whether to enter into these spaces or not?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: I wouldn’t enter them early because they will malform you. I really do believe that. I’ve had to put a lot of restrictions even on my use of them because I get fearful. I just do. I think there’s ways they can distract you. There’s ways that they can cause you to think about yourself or think about your numbers or it starts becoming a game. Like how many people, you know? And you don’t think about people. You’re just like, how many numbers can I get here? 

And so I’ve had to do different restrictions thanks to Andy Crouch because he’s awesome for helping me figure out ways to do restrictions, but to kind of limit the ways that it forms me versus me stepping into that space. 

So when young scholars focus on the work, focus on the good stuff, if not, you’re going to be tempted to match your conversations to the conversations that are happening out there, which are so transitory. And the whole reason that I still feel called into that space is because I’m over here studying the dead people and the ideas that matter and that are long lasting and universal. And I’m trying to bring those in. 

But if I spend all my time in this ever changing, I mean, by the second changing conversation, I have nothing to add to it. So if scholars are not saturated by the old stuff, by the permanent things, by the universal truths, if they’re not spending most of their time in that world, and then just trying to inject it into this ever changing conversation then they’re not going to have anything to offer. 

You know Karen Swallow Prior years ago, she and I were going to an art museum, and we were talking about our next book or whatever. And she’s like, here’s the thing. A lot of these young scholars, they end up being one hit wonders because they’re not scholars, right? They just talk to the contemporary audience and they may have one amazing idea and then they just share it. 

But the reason that some of us with like PhDs last for so long in these spaces is because we’ve been trained not to just share this one quick idea, but to have multiple book projects and multiple questions and I think she’s exactly right, right?

I don’t feel like I have a one hit wonder. I feel like I still have a few more book projects and I’ll probably spend my whole life doing this. It’ll just look different than some of my heroes like David Lyle Jeffrey and Ralph Wood, who weren’t in these spaces. But who taught me how to do this kind of research that you can spend your whole life doing.

Todd Ream: How then do you balance the hard work, the solitary work, of engaging in those ways, with the sort of public engagement that social media and other platforms can provide? How do you do the work to write that next book, while also doing this level of engagement and balance those two?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: Well, I don’t. I don’t engage as much as it looks like I do because of an app called Hootsuite which is really helpful. And I just recommend it to everybody all the time. What it does is you can literally set up your week of engagement. 

So in an hour I can set up all of my posts for a week of commitment. And then it just, it looks like you’re in these spaces and you’re getting things out there and that’s what you do. And so then like last night, I am not in that space. Even if it would have said that there was a post from me on that space. 

Instead, I was here reading Anna Julia Cooper and focusing on her. And I read the hard books as often as possible rather than reading on devices. I sometimes have to read on devices because I have an eight month old baby, so you know, I need my Kindle or if I travel, I was just teaching Brothers Karamazov again, and so I needed the Kindle because I can’t travel everywhere with that 900 page book, you know?

But for the most part, I just sit and I focus on those books and I hold the tangible pages. I think that’s so important for scholars. There’s so many people that just fall into the habits of reading online and, and then that just leads to a distraction and reading something else or getting their computers out. I think there just needs to be minimal time spent in the online world and as much time as possible spent in the big books.

Todd Ream: Thank you. 

Along these lines then, in your estimation, at what point does one make the transition? And maybe it’s not a wholesale transition from one to the next, but make the transition from being an intellectual to being a public intellectual. What are sort of the markers or differences? 

Jessica Hooten Wilson: Everyone kinda has to figure out what they’re called to. I heard Beth Moore say one time that she felt called onto the stage and she felt Jesus with her and she prays before she gets on stage: Jesus, if You’re not with me and You don’t want me here, I’m not going to pick up this microphone, right? Like, I think there has to be an understanding of calling.

I have a really good friend, who I won’t mention her name cause she won’t like that I quoted her here, but I have a really good friend who’s an amazing professor, has the huge pedigree. And she’s like, I just don’t want to be a sexy academic. I just don’t want to be. 

And so she regularly gets called to speak, but she just refuses to do the public facing stuff. And I think that’s great for her. It just doesn’t fit her. Her scholarship’s great. I read her books. I draw on it for my own work. And so she just has a different calling than me. She’s reading these things that I’m then using and, and conversing with, and then sharing with other people in the ways that I can. 

So I think there’s different callings, like, are you teaching other professors with your scholarship, right? Is it for the specialists? Or are you meant to be a translator of this material? Are you meant to be the one who’s outward facing? 

And you’ll see really fast whether you have the talent for certain things or not. I remember one of my first public lectures, here’s an example: first time someone had ever paid me to give a talk and I the person who introduced me was a former professor and I got up and I had written this like 25-page paper and I cause that’s what I was used to doing was these, the unpaid gigs where you write papers. 

And then for some reason, I just grabbed the mic and I just started going. Like I had written the paper and I think I had memorized so much of it, that I just was like quoting Flannery O’Connor and just giving this talk. And afterwards he’s like, how did you do a TED talk? Like, how did you do that? I’m like, I have no idea. I have no idea, except that it feels very spirit led and I can do that. And not everyone can do that. And not everyone needs to do that. 

I have listened to amazing papers with scholars up there and I’ve just like written down everything they’ve said. And I’ve just been enthralled. And they had a role to play for me in speaking to me. And then there’s been other times where I’m up there and the Spirit’s leading and I’m giving my TED Talk version of the same kind of thing. And the students needed that. Or the retiree in the crowd who’s just like thirsting for this, needed that. 

And so I just go where the spirit leads. I think that’s what people have to do. If you’re spending a lot of time in prayer, and study, like the Lord will tell you when you’re supposed to speak and when you’re supposed to be quiet.

Todd Ream: Thank you. 

As we sort of prepare to wrap up our time, I want to ask you a couple questions, if I may then, about the Christian academic vocation and what practices in your estimation define that in distinction to say the academic vocation, writ large, is practiced in, say, the United States?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: Christ is an anchor for me. My day begins with Jesus Christ, my day ends with Jesus Christ. And everything in between is a regular prayer. So I think the number one thing is you just have to be a Christian doing what you’re doing. Your day has to begin and end with the love of God. That has to be number one. 

And for most academics, that’s not going to be the case. Now, when that is the case, for me personally, it is impossible to shut off. And again, this goes with calling. I have some really good friends who are wonderful at being in the secular space. They’ve always taught at secular universities and they’re Christians. They’re strong Christians. 

But they teach the pagans and they teach to the pagans and they move them along on this journey. And that’s what they do. They humanize other people, but they never move to paradise, right? They’re not trying to move people towards paradise. They’re just trying to make them more human and more civil. 

I just can’t shut up. I struggle so much to not say, look at this, don’t you see the cross? Don’t you see the incarnation? I just can’t let go of it. And I think in that sense, I would just not be a strong academic in a secular environment because I don’t know how to censor that or how to cut off the journey there.

I always think in terms of Dante, as we’re climbing up the mountain, I can’t stop at the Garden of Eden. I have to keep going towards the beatific vision when I teach and when I do scholarship. So that to me is the full sense of reality. 

When it comes to Christians learning their calling, there are some people that don’t have to take it there, right? They can talk about contemplation without talking about who you’re contemplating. They can just talk about the practices. I’ve never been one to be able to do that personally. I want to see the full story. I want to take you to the full picture. 

Todd Ream: Yeah, thank you. 

You’ve mentioned a couple of these folks already, I suspect, but I wanted to at least formally ask you what authors proved most formative in your understanding of the Christian academic vocation?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: So living people, I have mentioned and I’ll just mention them again- 

Todd Ream: You said you only read dead people.

Jessica Hooten Wilson: Yeah, but I am the product of my teachers. And so I have to give props to my teachers because they taught me how to do this. David Lyle Jeffery, Ralph Wood, Stephen Prickett recently passed away, but he also gets a huge amount of credit. 

And then some of the teachers that I’ve had at Pepperdine, Michael Gose and Paul Contino, who I both teach with, by the way, which is just kind of crazy that they were so formative for me and now they’re my colleagues. But they have just been very influential for how to do what it is I’m doing. 

When it comes to people who have not taught me, but are living authors too, Alan Jacobs at Baylor, just so great. I admire his work tremendously, for doing the kind of work that he’s doing. 

So, and then dead people, the dead people who have been most transformative for me, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anna Julia Cooper. I mean, these are people that I’m just really immersed in right now. They’re 20th century Edith Stein. And so they really showed me how to be a Christian academic because all three of them were Christian academics and their writings on it, their justifications for it, have been very transformative for me.

Then there’s the whole tradition. I mean, I teach Great Books. So everything from Homer, Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Julian of Norwich. I just adore Julian of Norwich, Frederick Douglass. I mean, these are just people that I just want to teach them every single year of my life.

Todd Ream: Thank you. 

One last question for our time together is, for scholars who embrace the Christian academic vocation, what responsibility or duty do you believe they owe the academy but then also owe the Church?

Jessica Hooten Wilson: I’m a Protestant, who has a lot of things come out of my mouth that sound Catholic. So this is going to be one of them. I believe that we should not be so separated. I think the strongest way for the Christian academy to flourish is when it’s connected to the Church, when they’re in and out of each other’s lives.

If it was up to me, I would go to church with all my students. And I would go to church with all the faculty. That we would be regularly, I mean, it would sound monastic, but we were worshiping together and studying together and living life together. I think that’s the full picture. I don’t know how many of these things are possible in this current age. But I do believe we need each other. 

I believe that what I’m doing- here’s one example, I went to a church. We’re still church shopping; I hate that language so much. We just moved here, and so it’s like, we were visiting every time people ask us, and so we don’t have a permanent home yet. And so we visited a church this last week, and the pastor spoke on community, and was quoting Buechner and Eugene Peterson, and what was funny, he also quoted Chris Smith, who is a friend from Englewood Review of Books. And so I was like, ah! 

So he’s quoting all these people about community, and then when I was in class, Russ Ramsey came and zoomed into my class this week. And Russ Ramsey spoke about community. And the community of artists that became the Impressionists and the necessity of community. 

And it was like this synthesis between what we were learning to see in Acts and Romans in the Church setting, right? And experiencing as a Body worshiping together. And then seeing what was happening in my class and looking at it academically and looking at this history of ideas that came and seeing ourselves still as that community that’s perpetuating this.

So I just don’t believe we should be so siloed. I don’t appreciate the compartmentalization. I think these things are meant to be more fluid and interchanging and affecting one another. I believe that Christian academics are most fully Christian when they’re in the Church and they’re the most fully academic when they’re in the Body. 

So we have to have the kind of freedom to be able to go back and forth, to be teaching our classes, and teaching Sunday school and worshiping together and then praying in our classroom. And all those things just need to be constantly going back and forth.

Todd Ream: Thank you.

Our guest has been Jessica Hooten Wilson, the Fletcher Jones Professor of Great Books at Pepperdine university. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights and your wisdom with us.

Jessica Hooten Wilson: Thank you, Todd.

Todd Ream: Thank you for joining us for Saturdays at Seven, Christian Scholar’s Review’s conversation series with thought leaders about the academic vocation and the relationship that vocation shares with the Church. We invite you to join us again next week for Saturdays at Seven.

Todd C. Ream

Indiana Wesleyan University
Todd C. Ream is Honors Professor of Humanities and Executive Director of Faculty Research and Scholarship at Indiana Wesleyan University, Senior Fellow for Public Engagement for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, Senior Fellow for Programming for the Lumen Research Institute, and Publisher for Christian Scholar’s Review.  He is the author and editor of numerous books including (with Jerry Pattengale) The Anxious Middle: Planning for the Future of the Christian College (Baylor University Press, September 15, 2023).