Murder mystery by Leslie Williams ’11 S.T.M. is set at YDS

By William Travis Helms ’13 M.Div.

One of the thrills of living in a community like YDS is the constant prospect of surprise presented by the multitude of extracurricular projects and endeavors being pursued by faculty and students. In a community of such breadth of diversity and talents, there seems to be an endless trove of avocational treasures hidden in our midst, waiting to be discovered. One such happy occurrence took place recently with the publishing of a new novel, The Judas Conspiracy, by two-time research fellow and current student Leslie Winfield Williams ’11 S.T.M.

WilliamsIt is in fact precisely this theme of “discovery” that lies at the heart of Williams's novel, published Nov. 30 by JoSara MeDia. Set in part on the YDS campus, the book delivers a vivid, thrilling rendering of the more harrowing side of scholarship. The story tells of the unearthing of the “Gospel According to Judas,” an ancient Gnostic text, in a professor’s New Haven basement. A YDS faculty member is called upon to authenticate the scripture, and a power struggle over the document emerges that could prove fatal…. And you thought tenure competition could be cutthroat! Williams’s novel follows protagonists from Scotland Yard to the National Cathedral, but the journey begins and ends in New Haven.

For Williams, the choice of setting was an obvious one. No stranger to the Elm City, she spent two years on Prospect Hill as a little girl, while her father attended Berkeley Divinity School, the Episcopal Church affiliate at YDS.  Now a grandmother five times over, Williams still retains strong and poignant memories of the place and can recall in vivid detail familiarities of the rooms in the Overseas Ministries Study Center her parents rented just down the street from YDS.  Clearly, the aptitude for reminiscence, and the writer’s unique skill to transform that remembered experience into the material for engaging art, was formed on a nascent level in the vibrant culture of nearby Sterling Quadrangle those many years ago.

What seeds those budding years first planted, Williams cultivated consciously in her profession. Her love of knowledge, her passion for writing and teaching—in addition to her affection for New Haven and YDS—has brought her back for a number of further sojourns. Williams has spent time here twice as a research fellow, in 2004 and again in 2007, and is currently working on a textbook, Beyond Jerusalem: Christian Themes in Literature.

The text, over 1,000 pages in length, seeks to give a comprehensive representation of Christian themes in literature on a global scale, from ancient Near Eastern contexts to those of the contemporary West. A professor of English literature by profession, Williams is currently teaching two courses online through Midland College.

Williams identifies her pedagogical vocation as one of the major inspirational influences behind both the textbook and her novels. The breadth of her published oeuvre—ranging from spiritual and devotional subjects to literary, critical, scholastic works, and even thrillers! — attests to her wide diversity of interests.

Indeed, Williams describes the process of novel writing, in part, “as a counterpoint to the rigors of academic research.” More than mere escapist fiction, however, Williams’s work aims at the very fundamental questions of what it means to be a Christian. The Judas Conspiracy, in fact, sets out, in part, to provide a sort of faith-based answer to the at-times-more-secularizing popular fiction novels by writers like Dan Brown. The novel is meant to be a corrective to the misconceptions, put forth in works like The DaVinci Code, which give credence to the notion that, in Williams’s words, “good guys are the heretics, bad guys are the church.” Williams wanted to respond in kind, by writing a novel in the very genre that has given rise to these kinds of characterizations.

Williams acknowledges that scholars have challenged Brown and others.  However, she wanted to offer a rebuttal from an orthodox view of faith—“with all the excitement and intrigue that the medium of ‘thriller’ fiction can offer.” Williams identifies another subtext as well, grounded in the realization that, as she laments, “this culture is no longer biblically literate.” The Judas Conspiracy then, on another level, offers an attempt to integrate a larger portion of the general population into theologically relevant conversation.

Writing is a serious matter for Williams, and, as with many Christian authors, the act itself becomes a sacrament— “a sacred discipline,” in Williams’s words. Inspiration and faith, she says, play crucial and essential roles in the act of composition.

“When you write from your true heart, from the very depths of your human nature,” she explains, “the spiritual dimension will show itself no matter if you intend it or not. You don’t have to put up neon signs that say ‘author’s message.’” Though employed by universities, she describes her writing as “an act of ministry”— a conviction no doubt supported by her husband Stockton, who is an Episcopal parish priest in Kerrville, TX, which the couple call home.

New Haven and YDS, Williams attests—with their ideal combination of charm and academic rigor—were the perfect places in which to set the novel. However, whether or not there are other Gnostic secrets lurking in our students’ midst, Williams cannot say.

The novel is available for purchase through the YDS Student Book Supply and on amazon.com, in both hard copy and digital form.

Posted: 01/03/2011