The Immersed Imagination, Part 1: The Inner Chamber

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At Hutchmoot 2010 Ron Block and I spent an hour or so discussing George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis in a session called “The Immersed Imagination”. A few of you asked for the manuscript and I thought I’d post it here. It’s a little long for a blog entry so I decided to break it up. Here’s the first part.

I have just finished reading MacDonald’s Phantastes.

It isn’t the first book I’ve read by this Scottish preacher with a bushperspectivegeorgey beard. I first read C.S. Lewis’s anthology of MacDonald’s quotes, followed by Lilith, then In the Pulpit, then The Princess and the Goblin. I’ve since read At the Back of the North Wind and now Phantastes. Since he wrote, by my count, more than fifty books, I’ve only just scratched the surface of his writings and am by no means an expert—but if there’s one thing I can say for certain about MacDonald’s writing it’s this: he meanders. Each of the stories I’ve read have had storylines that made their way from beginning to end only after a lot of wandering, like those Family Circus comics where they showed the trail of the boy’s path when his mom sent him on an errand. That analogy is actually a pretty good one, because if there’s another thing I can say for certain about MacDonald’s writing is that it’s very child-like, which is not to say “childish”. He himself said:

I write, not for children but for the child-like, whether they be of five, or fifty, or seventy-five.

So if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to take a cue from MacDonald and do some meandering of my own as I process my thoughts about Phantastes.

The book was first published in 1858, which by my questionable math was 152 years ago. What was happening in the world then? The United States was simmering with the discontent that would lead to the civil war. Cars hadn’t yet been invented. Neither had electricity been harnessed nor the first photograph been taken. Native Americans still roamed parts of the unmolested West. There were cowboys. I’m not too familiar with England in that time period, but we can safely assume that London was a foggy, bustling, smelly city, while the English countryside was much as it had been for hundreds of years: horse-drawn wagons, farmers tilling ancient ancestral farmlands, thieves, lanterns, old pubs and public houses, and stone church buildings.

In one of those churches, in a little hamlet south of London called Arundel, a family man named George MacDonald preached. He wasn’t there long, and his time there wasn’t all pleasant—as much as we may love MacDonald’s writing and his deep love of God, he tended to preach a kind of universalism. It wasn’t based on the usual “many ways to God” idea, but on his fervent belief in the fierce, unchangeable love of God as Father. He believed, as far as I can tell, that God wasn’t content to allow any of his children to remain as they were and that even after death God’s love would burn and purify until the wayward soul was overcome by his love. He said the fires of hell were the very love of God—torture to those who didn’t want him or his presence. The fire was purifying. But we must conclude, as C.S. Lewis did, that this doctrine, as attractive as it may be, isn’t to be found in Scripture. Lewis said the possibility may exist, but should only be entertained perhaps as a hopeful thought, not a doctrine to be preached. Jesus, we know, talked more about Hell than anyone else in the Bible.

George’s time at the church in Arundel was troubled by the church’s understandable discomfort with this teaching. Still, he preached Christ, and his death and resurrection, and the great love of God, and filled books with sermons and passionate pleas to cling to Christ and his mercy. So, as uncomfortable with that part of his teaching as we may be, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. He had much to teach us. And one of my favorite lessons of MacDonald is that of the inner chamber of God. He said,

As the fir-tree lifts up itself with a far different need from the need of the palm-tree, so does each man stand before God, and lift up a different humanity to the common Father. And for each God has a different response. With every man he has a secret—the secret of the new name. In every man there is a loneliness, an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God only can enter . . . a chamber into which no brother, nay, no sister can come.

From this it follows that there is a chamber also—(O God, humble and accept my speech)—a chamber in God himself, into which none can enter but the one, the individual, the peculiar man,–out of which chamber that man has to bring revelation and strength for his brethren. This is that for which he was made–to reveal the secret things of the Father.”

I am comforted and emboldened by the idea that even I, who am not a proper theologian, I who am more sinful than I’d like any of you to know, who carry my own private doubts and fears around wherever I go, may have something to offer. I may be able to tell you something about the heart of the Father that you may have come all this way to know. I may have insights peculiar to me and me alone that may, by the power of the Spirit in my, edify and strengthen you.

Now, the beautiful thing about that idea, if it’s true, and I think it must be, is that if I believe such an outlandish, beautiful thing of myself, I must also believe it of you. Everyone I meet has insight about the world and even God himself that they and only they can bring to me.

It reminds me of this quote from C.S. Lewis:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. … There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Look around you. You’re rubbing elbows with immortals. You’re sipping coffee with the crown of all creation, more intricate and precious than the cell structure of a diamond, and more majestic than Everest. Let that sink in for a minute. That idea, the idea of common grace, the idea that every human is an image-bearer is at the heart of many Rabbit Room discussions about art. Films, books, songs, paintings—all these tell God’s truth if they tell the truth at all, no matter whose labor bore them into the world.

Einstein said, “There are two ways to live your life: one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is.

But what did he know?

Buechner said, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and the pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Isn’t that a more beautiful, gracious way to pass through our time on earth? If you want to learn to live with your eyes open to the million wonders converging every moment, writing is a good place to start. Reading is another. Still another is to have children, or if you have no children to spend time with them as often as you can. The few real moments of clarity in my life happened when the child in me was wide awake.

Next, Part Two: The Inner Vision

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


20 Comments

  1. Dan Kulp

    (I have listened, librivox.org, rather than read; I’m using them interchangeably here)
    I almost entirely agree with GMac as a meanderer. I’ve started Lilith 2x and got lost, made it through some others with little comprehension and a few I’ve managed to follow the whole way. But one story of his hit a chord that will keep me coming back to GMac: “David Bannerman’s Boyhood”

    Unlike the other wandering tales I’ve encountered (his novels more than shorter stories) this drew me in and kept me. It is less fantasy and apparently more autobiographical. Still a tremendous story and I recommend as a change of pace from the meanderings. OR as an intro for anyone who has trouble with a wandering story.

  2. kelli

    So glad you decided to post these writings! I’m hoping Ron’s will be added, too, at some point! Although I have read much George MacDonald and consider him to be the most influential writer in my life, it is always so good to learn more from how he has impacted others. And there was so much goodness in what you both brought to that session…I didn’t have time to process it all! And…I’m excited that others may be hearing about him for the first time!

    The quote about the inner chamber always reminds me of one my all-time favorite quotes by George MacDonald for parents…

    “A parent must respect the spiritual person of his child, and approach it with reverence, for that too looks the Father in the face and has an audience with Him into which no earthly parent can eneter even if he dared to desire it.”

    And…I love that picture of Uncle George, as we lovingly call him here at him. It is my favorite picture of him. His eyes speak wisdom, childlikeness and love.

    Thanks, Andrew!

  3. Dave DeAndrea

    Thanks for the post, Andrew, and for being a link in the chain of our understanding of the Father and this life He’s blessed us with. From the revealed chambers of MacDonald into yours… and then back out with your fingerprints added to it… and into ours… such a beautiful, building experience.

    Your words and songs often serve to wake me from my spiritul slumber and remind me of who I am and Whose I am.

    I’m glad to know you.

    God bless.

  4. Candle Sampley

    Thank you for posting this. I look forward to reading the continuing parts. My favorite MacDonald book is “Malcolm”, yet I’ve not found anyone who has heard of or read it. It truly is an amazing tale.

  5. Cory M

    I heard these at the Hutchmoot and was left inspired. Thank you Ron and Andrew!

    (Is that a recent pic of Ron? He looks great!)

  6. EmmaJ

    So glad you posted this – I’ve been meaning to ask if I could get a copy of this and several other presentations.

  7. D-Man

    I have followed the meanderings of both Lilith and Phantastes several times. Though occasionally lost in the journey, I have always emerged at the end filled with wonder and awe. They are well worth the price of time required to follow the rabbit trails.

    I look forward to the rest of the conversation….

  8. MargaretW

    I am so glad you posted this. I had not requested it because I didn’t know I could, but was silently wishing I could hear it again. Even as I read the words here and really allowed them to soak in again, I could hear your gentle voice articulating from the sanctuary at Hutchmoot.

    I have not yet tackled the George MacDonald book I bought at Hutchmoot. But this post has whetted my appetite again. Thank you very much for sharing.

  9. Chris Yokel

    I too noticed the meandering when I read “Phantastes”. I kept wondering, “Where in the world is he going with all of this?” But it was fascinating nonetheless. I read MacDonald mainly due to my interest in Tolkien and Lewis, who both considered his influence crucial to their own work. I’d definitely like to read more of his work though.

  10. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Candle: Malcolm and The Marquis of Lossie are two of my favorites. Also Sir Gibbie and Donal Grant, Thomas Wingfold Curate and Paul Faber, Surgeon. Robert Falconer, too. I need to get these back out; it’s been awhile, except for Wingfold and Donal Grant.

  11. Canaan Bound

    That CS Lewis quote is a favorite…but I believe there’s more to it. In fact, Lewis goes on to call every being either an “immortal horror” or an “everlasting splendour”. Seems harsh, at first. But then again, it’s quite true and straight to the point. A refreshingly honest perspective.

  12. Dan R.

    Ditto to everything Ron just said!
    Except for the part about Robert Falconer; looks like that’s number next on my G-Mac to-read list.
    I’m also just finishing Unspoken Sermons (Series I – III), and wow, what a trove of goodness!
    Oh, and I wasn’t at the ‘moot, so maybe I’m behind the times, but did anyone else catch the parallels between what was said about “the inner chamber of God” and Andrew’s song “Many Roads?” So glad, AP, that you believe, as the rest of us do, that you have something worth sharing. Keep it up!

  13. Chris Whitler

    Geez, do you plan these posts based on my hours of need? I want to write something more than “Thank you” but after all, it’s all that will do.

    Today, my friend and I pulled up dusty, cobweb ridden chairs in front of a solitary man’s house in the “Modern Trailer Park” here in our town. We didn’t do anything great. We sat there and smoked a pipe and he gave Aaron a cup of day old coffee he warmed up in his microwave. We only talked of normal things. But I could feel what you talked about there. I felt myself in a story. Only I’m not telling it. There is depth and thoughtfulness in this man that society has thrown away that almost shames me if it didn’t make me feel so special to be in it’s light.

    There was a man in need today in my town and another worked to help him. Only it wasn’t me, “the outreach worker” that did the helping. My wife called while we were talking with bad news about our car. My friend in the trailer park knew just what to do. He gave me wisdom and the tools I needed.

    My life is grace upon grace. I can’t contain it.

  14. Lanier Ivester

    Yay, Yay, YAY!!! Thank you for posting this, Andrew! It is a gift. I might print it out and frame it. (Or at least keep a copy at hand to read and read again. ;)) That goes for part 2, as well. Thanks, again…

  15. Peter Br

    Wow, thank you for helping me along on the journey to appreciating God’s image-bearers. This has recently become more apparent, i.e. that I need to be childlike and open — more like I used to be.

    Dan R, you beat me to the post. That’s exactly what I was thinking — and I imagine Andrew had it in mind too.

  16. David Dickerson

    I’ve read most of MacDonald’s books, and love ’em. I prefer the unabridged originals; yes he’s very wordy and meandering, but it’s amazing how much good stuff gets cut with the new edited versions. For instance, did you know that in “The Fisherman’s Lady”, the edited version of “Malcolm”, they cut almost 50% of the book?

    Ron, I share the same favs: Malcolm; The Marquis of Lossie; Thomas Wingfold, Curate; Donal Grant; Sir Gibbie…amongst others.

    Dan R: ‘Robert Falconer’ came at a good time for me a few years ago with some great insight on helping the poor. We were just starting out some work with people in India and Africa, as well as here in the states. I’ve written some about this with an accompanying excerpt from Robert Falconer here: http://davidscurious.com/on-helping-the-poor/

  17. Dan R.

    Hey, thanks! Always good to hear from other G-Mac fans, especially here. I’m on my way to owning a copy of Robert Falconer now. Hopefully my reading of it will be as blessed as yours.

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