The humanities work against this dehumanizing paradigm. Instead, they help us grasp what human flourishing does — and does not — look like.
By Chris Hazell
Jessica Hooten Wilson, Ph.D., MA ’06, discovered her vocation as soon as she stepped into the classroom as a high school teacher.
"Similar to that line from Chariots of Fire, I felt God’s pleasure standing in front of a group of students," Hooten Wilson said. "I realized I was designed to teach even though I didn't know enough about how to teach or even what I was teaching."
This overwhelming sense of vocation led her to the University of Dallas, where she received her master's degree in English, and then Baylor University, where she earned a doctorate in Religion and Literature. She has taught at several Christian universities since, including the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor and John Brown University. She now serves as the Louise Cowan Scholar-in-Residence at UD.
Aside from her commitment to teaching, she is also an accomplished scholar. She has published such books as Giving the Devil His Due: Demonic Authority in the Fiction of Flannery O’Connor and Fyodor Dostoevsky; Walker Percy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the Search for Influence; and Solzhenitsyn and American Culture. In March, she gave a presentation on UD’s campus on her forthcoming book, The Scandalous Holy.
Her commitment to excellence in her teaching and writing has not gone unnoticed. She is the recipient of the Emerging Public Intellectual Award, the “Culture and the Arts” Book of the Year Award, the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, and others.
She is particularly interested in the works of Catholic and orthodox writers — and how their work reveals truth, beauty and goodness. In other words, how Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and others gesture to the reality of God and a world infused with meaning in their art.
“Visible reality is not mere matter, and there is an invisible reality that we can dig out from underneath things,” said Hooten Wilson. “The material world is pointing out something that is beyond its significance, and these writers bring that to the forefront."
She clarified that none of these writers demean or deny nature, bypassing material reality to reach metaphysical truths. Instead, like any good artist, their fiction plumbs the grittiness of creation and the human experience precisely to reveal the divine order behind it.
Hooten Wilson sees that literature can reveal God, form character and elevate our souls. Yet, while the liberal arts can offer a critical role in our cultural and personal development, more and more colleges and universities across the country are losing sight of this. She noted that as schools strive to only prepare students to earn jobs and make money — fine aims in and of themselves — it is coming at the expense of downplaying the transformative power of the liberal arts.
Hooten Wilson understands that it's the role of a Christian college, and that of good teachers, to ensure the humanities are approached with a Christian understanding. Literature is often ambiguous and challenging, demanding a level of engagement that only a good teacher and academic environment can foster.
Hooten Wilson points out that this is especially important in our modern climate, one that often presents human beings as a “consumer or producer, scraped down to one’s utilitarian value in the world.” The humanities work against this dehumanizing paradigm. Instead, they help us grasp what human flourishing does — and does not — look like.
"The great stories give us multiple lenses through which to view the world in which we are living rather than a myopic vision," Hooten Wilson said. “The humanities explore what it means to be human and provide the resources for someone who desires to imitate the incarnate God. For Christian colleges, the humanities only work when faith and piety are at the foundation.”
However, it isn’t only the humanities that are suffering these days, but all of the liberal arts.
“Mathematics and sciences are also being reduced. They should be about wonder, seeing patterns in nature, and learning of a new way to see the world. Instead, they are being used for their utility and application with the low goal of only making money,” posited Hooten Wilson.
This is one of the reasons Hooten Wilson is grateful to be teaching, writing and speaking as a member of UD’s intellectual community.
“Just as liberal arts programs are losing their value, here is the University of Dallas pouring back into their own liberal arts programs. I’ve been so grateful to have my name attached to the school and for being able to point people back to it,” Hooten Wilson said.
Hooten Wilson recently received an Initiative Grant from the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities to work toward a better appreciation and understanding of the liberal arts in higher education. She is collaborating on a project titled "Between Pandemic and Protest: Exploring the Future of Liberal Arts in Higher Education,” which aims to stoke discussion around how the liberal arts can respond to the recent civic protests and coronavirus pandemic.
Hooten Wilson’s hope is that the project, which incorporates interviews with university administrators and others, such as Yale professor and theologian Willie James Jennings and Harvey Mudd College mathematics professor Francis Su, will help higher education institutions make decisions that reaffirm the value of the liberal arts.
“In higher ed, we are not seeing the abundance of God and letting Him do whatever He needs to do. We should be asking ourselves: How might we be more like David and strike down Goliath with God’s help? We’re able to do the most innovative work from a place of abundance rather than a place of fear,” Hooten Wilson said.
Although there are serious challenges to faith-based higher education these days, Hooten Wilson reminds us not to compromise by denuding the liberal arts of their intrinsic value for students and the culture overall.
“We have to believe in the abundance of God and let Him do whatever He needs to do,” she said.