Holier Than Thou: How God’s Holiness Helps Us Trust Him, Jackie Hill Perry. Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2021. Softcover, 168 pages.
When you think of God’s holiness what are the first things coming up in your mind? Perhaps you’re thinking of his hatred and disgust for sin or his wrath against sin. Maybe it’s fear, ‘fear’ in the sense of dread. Whatever the case, I’d be surprised if you thought of comfort or encouragement. But that’s where Jackie Hill Perry brings us in this fine bit of theologizing. She not only tells but shows how God’s holiness is beautiful for believers to contemplate.
Jackie Hill Perry is an American recording artist and poet. This is her second book after 2018’s autobiographical Gay Girl, Good God. Theologically her music and her writing reflects a broadly Reformed orientation, at least in terms of the doctrine of salvation. She’s currently enrolled at Reformed Theological Seminary and appears on a Gospel Coalition podcast.
JHP’s poetic style makes Holier Than Thou an appealing read. Numerous other authors have written on God’s holiness and many of them are worth reading and re-reading. JHP has read them too and she borrows many of their insights. But it’s her brilliant way of putting things that really stands out. For example, in the third chapter she discusses the relationship between God’s love and his holiness. Why is it that people are drawn to the former and neglect the latter? Consider this paragraph:
Love is a commonality we all share. Introduced to it at first by the people who wiped our behinds, bent their backs to ensure we stood up straight, clothed and kept our bellies full until we were old enough to fix our own plate. From there, we gathered and spread about the country acting out the love we inherited on friends and folks we made more than friends. Anxiously waiting for the day when our lovers used words to tell us that they love us back. Oh, we know what it’s like to love and be loved, but what happens when our lovely experiences become the primary framework by which we understand God? What happens is this: When we read the sentence ‘God is love’ disconnected from a fundamental understanding that God is ‘Holy, Holy, Holy,’ we interpret the text with our experiences as the commentary. Using our life as a cross-reference, exegeting God with our world, we inevitably end up with a god made in our own image and then expect Him to behave just like us. (pp.75-76)
She’s writing there about weighty theological truths, yet she does so with a lyrical clarity.
The best thing about this book is where JHP leads you. She leads you to be in awe of God. She leads you to worship. JHP helps you understand how God’s holiness isn’t just an aspect of who he is, but it is who he is in the most profound sense (p.15). She dives deep into why this is good news for believers. For example, “holiness makes honesty an obligation” (p.35) and “holiness is what makes real love possible” (p.38). But, best of all, God’s holiness means his “words and works can be trusted because it is impossible for God to sin against you” (p.57).
Some have expressed concerns about controversial statements Jackie Hill Perry made in relation to social issues in the United States. I don’t have to get into that here except to say that it doesn’t matter for this book. In this book, JHP uses the Bible faithfully, she takes God and his holiness seriously, she doesn’t downplay sin, and she points us to Christ. To top it off, she writes with a rare creative flair. I look forward to reading more from this gifted author.