Beyond Our Glittering Images

Many years ago a friend recommended I read Susan Howatch's "Church of England" novel series. Howatch was a best-selling British writer of gothic fiction prior to her conversion to Christianity in the early 1980s ( After this, with proceeds from her writings, she endowed a chair at Cambridge University for the study of theology and science. During this period her writing took a new turn as she embarked on her ecclesiastical fiction series with her first novel, Glittering Images ( Set in the 1930s, this first novel is a tasty blend of deception, intrigue, generational sin, sexuality, theology, spirituality, and psychological healing. Her protagonist, Charles Ashworth, an Anglican canon, professor of theology, and spy for the Archbishop of Canterbury, is dispatched to unearth incriminating evidence against a rogue bishop. As Ashworth sleuths out the bishop's secrets, he finds himself unraveling spiritually and psychologically. Helpless in his disintegration, he lands in an Anglican monastery under the care of a brilliant spiritual director, Jonathan Darrow. Darrow assists Ashworth in exploring areas of his personality where his faith has been unintegrated, areas of darkness and sin, pain and loss, much of it related to unresolved issues in his family of origin--and ways these have played out in his faith. Through this painful process of examination, Ashworth finds congruence and healing: his layers of pain and brokenness begin to mend as he realizes he's constructed a false persona to mask his wounds and cover over his deep feelings of insecurity and inadequacy. He's used this glittering image to help him win acclaim in the church and in all areas of his life. Ashworth must confront this false persona and move beyond it.

Susan Howatch is a brilliant student of the human psyche; as a Christian, she sensitively portrays God's Spirit working to transform the human personality. This painful soul surgery slices through layers of self-deception, cutting through the tangled web of broken families and generational sin. The best recommendation I can give for her writings is that when I read them, I find myself wanting to pray: to explore with God areas of my own mess, to contemplate how God is seeking to integrate my whole personality through a relationship with Jesus Christ. Howatch makes me marvel at God's skill in forming us spiritually. Through her writings I admire in new ways how God willingly works with all our raw material and loose ends, our shame and guilt, our hidden pain and the brokenness of our past, weaving together a tapestry that is beautiful and seamless.

I believe that, like Charles Ashworth, each of us has some aspect of a "glittering image" we've constructed, a persona we've developed to earn the approval of parents or other important authority figures. In some cases, this image is highly refined, burnished to a gleaming luster, so carefully constructed we've actually fooled ourselves: we really think this is who we are! And yet beneath the glittering image is a broken person, someone longing for unconditional love, someone desperately seeking the light of truth and healing and integration. It is this person, not the image, that God loves and for whom Christ has died. It is this person, not the persona, that can relate authentically to others in deep fellowship and Christian community. It is this person, and not the glittering image, that God woos in love and welcomes in worship.

Discipleship is Christ's call to the painful process of tearing off our masks, shedding our personas, and stripping away our glittering images. This is the hard way and narrow path that Jesus spoke of (Matthew 7:13-14); it is exquisitely humbling, even terrifying. Few choose to pursue it. But to those who've journeyed a bit into this region, it is a place of beauty, gentleness, honesty, and great freedom. For in the end, carrying the weight of the glittering image is exhausting. Letting it go is greatly liberating, particularly when we discover beneath it the freshness and newness of the person God's designed us to be all along.


Steve Hawkins said...

First f all, I have always been in awe of how much reading you do, Carl. A counselor of mine once said that a good bit of our personalities are made up of qualities that we "prioritize" in order to feel good about ourselves. This is consistent with the premise of this author. The combination of our earnest work with the Holy Spirit, pointed/specific prayer and some good old fashion self-discuipline is, in my eyes, a pretty good formula.

Steve Hawkins

Carl Hofmann said...

Good thoughts, Steve. May I only add to your formula above the need for compassionate and courageous Christian community, speaking to us the truth in love. Lasting spiritual formation apart from community may not be possible, in the end!