The Immersed Imagination, Part 3: The Inner Spirit

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This is the final part of a series about George MacDonald, adapted from my lecture with Ron Block at Hutchmoot 2010. In part one I discussed the inner chamber (about MacDonald’s peculiar insight into scripture and God’s nature). Part two was about his inner vision, MacDonald’s childlike ability to imagine.

I said before that his imagination was unbridled. That isn’t quite what I mean to say. It was, in fact, bridled–gmdcaptivated and led by the love of God. MacDonald wasn’t an inspired, canonical writer, of course, but I think the Apostle John may have had a similar otherworldly, eccentric approach to his writing. I’ve always liked the Gospel of John the best. Maybe it’s because I always root for the underdog, and poor John didn’t get picked for the synoptic team. John’s gospel is a little strange, more poetry than narrative.

It kicks off with: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. In him was life, and that life was the light of all men. So John was, I think, a poet. But when you read his letters, you get the sense that he might have been a bit senile. I mean no disrespect. But he was so repetitive, and his habit of calling his flock his little children implies his old age. And then you get to Revelation! How could a normal person have written a book like that? It’s a fascinating bit of writing, as confusing as it is epic. I’m working through Revelation right now, and it struck me recently that I get the same feeling of unsettledness when I read it as when I read MacDonald. There are elders and hosts of angels and cherubim and dragons and pits and millennia. It paints a picture that may confuse you, but you always get the feeling that it means something, like it’s there for a reason. And it is, of course. The only way for John to have written Revelation is to have been led by the Spirit.

In his conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus says:

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” John 3:7-9

I’ve heard people describe Rich Mullins the same way. He was a free spirit. He seemed to be swept up in something and was helpless but to go along for the ride. He listened to a voice and sometimes obeyed it, and to the rest of us it looked like craziness, or weirdness, or eccentricity. And it was, in its way. The Spirit, once it lives in you, may have you on some hobbit-like journey you never in a million years thought you’d take. So when a writer, especially a writer of fiction, sits down to write, and the Spirit is in him, and he’s willing to abandon whatever inhibitions he may have, you never know what you’re going to get. You can’t tell where it’s coming from or where it’s going. It goes where it pleases. And I don’t think the writer knows any more than the reader where the story is going. I’m not saying this is the best way to write, or that you’ll ever get published, or that you’ll ever come up with something anyone will read—but I guarantee you will be surprised. And you may have something to learn from it. For that matter, you may end up with something that is better than you can do.

Buechner said, “Where [my stories] tend to be repetitious, simplistic, superficial, merely rhetorical, I blush for them. Where, if at all, they have any power in them to touch for good the human heart, I can say only that in that instance I have said more than I know and done better than I am.”

Which brings us back to L’Engle’s principle of serving the work. George MacDonald, in his way, knew this better than anyone. At times he was on a galloping horse of a story, holding on for dear life, trusting that the destination was good. In the closing of Phantastes I discovered one of my favorite MacDonald lines, about the hope that the author of our story has good intentions for us:

A great good is coming—is coming—is coming…I know that good is coming to me—that good is always coming; though few have at all times the simplicity and the courage to believe it.”

That sense of ultimate goodness beyond the veil is what Lewis encountered in MacDonald’s books. MacDonald is helping us to see greater truths about hope, and sorrow, and our false selves, and about sacrificial love. But he’s doing it in a way that just might set your imagination crackling. He might wake up your sleeping inner child. He might even disarm you enough to admit that maybe there’s more to the world than you thought. And if you were a whip-smart young man from Belfast, on his way to Oxford and a life of high study, a young man who had decided long ago that there was no God, you might have the sinking feeling that you may not know as much as you think you do.

C.S. Lewis’s imagination, he said, was baptized. Immersed. It was redeemed by the Holy Spirit to do a great Kingdom work someday, all because he picked up a book at a train station. Life, it turns out, isn’t all that much different from one of MacDonald’s meandering, surprising, frightening, and luminous stories, where at any moment you may find yourself walking through a portal into another world.

“Picking up a copy of Phantastes one day at a train-station bookstall, I began to read. A few hours later,” said C.S. Lewis, “I knew that I had crossed a great frontier.”

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.


11 Comments

  1. Alyssa

    Thanks for posting this series for those of us who missed Hutchmoot. Hopefully next year will afford me the opportunity to enjoy such instruction from living, breathing beings instead of my computer screen.

    Anyone else think Andy Gullahorn could pull off George MacDonald for Halloween?

  2. whipple

    I think my favorite picture is from his later years, when he looks a bit like the white rabbit from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Richard Attenborough might have been able to do it justice.

    Andrew, ever since you put that Meister Eckhart quote in Far Country, I’ve been interested in those old mystic writers, of which John was surely one. Meister Eckhart had a belief about the Holy Spirit and the Scriptures that caused (enabled?) him to draw out new contexts and meanings, and his conclusions ring eerily of that untamed wind of the Spirit. They certainly go beyond “safe” theology sometimes.

    I thought of that when I was reading MacDonald. He took the very passage you quoted from the beginning of John’s Gospel, moved a single period, and drew an entire sermon out of it.

  3. Jonathan in Chicago

    I enjoy GM’s writing. I love what he says about longing for our heavenly home in the Golden Key, what he says about love in Phantastes, what he says about stubbornness in Lilith, how he teaches us to pray in the Diary of An Old Soul.

    However, I don’t think he understood scripture well. I’ve read that he didn’t believe that the cross quenched God’s wrath. He couldn’t imagine how God could punish his son. That’s plain in scripture.

    Anyway, cool to see a tribute to him.

  4. Brad

    I actually worked for a while for the gentleman who served as editor for most of the modern releases of most of the MacDonald’s books. I read several MacDonald novels during that time. Like Andrew, I found many good and eye opening truths buried in them, but in the end I had to walk away from reading them.

    The reason was that they just didn’t take me to a good place, they were just two weird (almost twisted at times, it seemed to me then). I was a young Christian at the time and was (and still am to a large degree) very affected at a deep level by much of what I read and see. Also, many of those around us that were MacDonald fans were a bit odd, and not in a good way. I would be interested now to go back an re-read some of his books and reevaluate.

  5. Julie

    Jonathan,
    while I don’t agree completely with McDonald’s theology, I think that from what I’ve read, what he means is that the cross did not save us from the punishment of sin but from the disease of sin. Does that make any sense?

  6. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    From GM’s Unspoken Sermons Series Three – Justice. Long but worth reading:
    ______________

    ‘How could he be a just God and not punish sin?’

    ‘Mercy is a good and right thing,’ I answer, ‘and but for sin there
    could be no mercy. We are enjoined to forgive, to be merciful, to be as
    our father in heaven. Two rights cannot possibly be opposed to each
    other. If God punish sin, it must be merciful to punish sin; and if God
    forgive sin, it must be just to forgive sin. We are required to
    forgive, with the argument that our father forgives. It must, I say, be
    right to forgive. Every attribute of God must be infinite as himself.
    He cannot be sometimes merciful, and not always merciful. He cannot be
    just, and not always just. Mercy belongs to him, and needs no
    contrivance of theologic chicanery to justify it.’

    ‘Then you mean that it is wrong to punish sin, therefore God does not
    punish sin?’

    ‘By no means; God does punish sin, but there is no opposition between
    punishment and forgiveness. The one may be essential to the possibility
    of the other. Why, I repeat, does God punish sin? That is my point.’

    ‘Because in itself sin deserves punishment.’

    ‘Then how can he tell us to forgive it?’

    ‘He punishes, and having punished he forgives?’

    ‘That will hardly do. If sin demands punishment, and the righteous
    punishment is given, then the man is free. Why should he be forgiven?’

    ‘He needs forgiveness because no amount of punishment will meet his
    deserts.’

    I avoid for the present, as anyone may perceive, the probable expansion
    of this reply.

    ‘Then why not forgive him at once if the punishment is not essential–
    if part can be pretermitted? And again, can that be required which,
    according to your showing, is not adequate? You will perhaps answer,
    ‘God may please to take what little he can have;’ and this brings me to
    the fault in the whole idea.

    Punishment is _nowise_ an _offset_ to sin. Foolish people sometimes, in
    a tone of self-gratulatory pity, will say, ‘If I have sinned I have
    suffered.’ Yes, verily, but what of that? What merit is there in it?
    Even had you laid the suffering upon yourself, what did that do to make
    up for the wrong? That you may have bettered by your suffering is well
    for you, but what atonement is there in the suffering? The notion is a
    false one altogether. Punishment, deserved suffering, is no equipoise
    to sin. It is no use laying it in the other scale. It will not move it
    a hair’s breadth. Suffering weighs nothing at all against sin. It is
    not of the same kind, not under the same laws, any more than mind and
    matter. We say a man deserves punishment; but when we forgive and do
    not punish him, we do not _always_ feel that we have done wrong;
    neither when we do punish him do we feel that any amends has been made
    for his wrongdoing. If it were an offset to wrong, then God would be
    bound to punish for the sake of the punishment; but he cannot be, for
    he forgives. Then it is not for the sake of the punishment, as a thing
    that in itself ought to be done, but for the sake of something else, as
    a means to an end, that God punishes. It is not directly for justice,
    else how could he show mercy, for that would involve injustice?

    Primarily, God is not bound to _punish_ sin; he is bound to _destroy_
    sin. If he were not the Maker, he might not be bound to destroy sin–I
    do not know; but seeing he has created creatures who have sinned, and
    therefore sin has, by the creating act of God, come into the world, God
    is, in his own righteousness, bound to destroy sin.

    ‘But that is to have no mercy.’

    You mistake. God does destroy sin; he is always destroying sin. In him
    I trust that he is destroying sin in me. He is always saving the sinner
    from his sins, and that is destroying sin. But vengeance on the sinner,
    the law of a tooth for a tooth, is not in the heart of God, neither in
    his hand. If the sinner and the sin in him, are the concrete object of
    the divine wrath, then indeed there can be no mercy. Then indeed there
    will be an end put to sin by the destruction of the sin and the sinner
    together. But thus would no atonement be wrought–nothing be done to
    make up for the wrong God has allowed to come into being by creating
    man. There must be an atonement, a making-up, a bringing together–an
    atonement which, I say, cannot be made except by the man who has
    sinned.

    Punishment, I repeat, is not the thing required of God, but the
    absolute destruction of sin. What better is the world, what better is
    the sinner, what better is God, what better is the truth, that the
    sinner should suffer–continue suffering to all eternity? Would there
    be less sin in the universe? Would there be any making-up for sin?
    Would it show God justified in doing what he knew would bring sin into
    the world, justified in making creatures who he knew would sin? What
    setting-right would come of the sinner’s suffering? If justice demand
    it, if suffering be the equivalent for sin, then the sinner must
    suffer, then God is bound to exact his suffering, and not pardon; and
    so the making of man was a tyrannical deed, a creative cruelty. But
    grant that the sinner has deserved to suffer, no amount of suffering is
    any atonement for his sin. To suffer to all eternity could not make up
    for one unjust word. Does that mean, then, that for an unjust word I
    deserve to suffer to all eternity? The unjust word is an eternally evil
    thing; nothing but God in my heart can cleanse me from the evil that
    uttered it; but does it follow that I saw the evil of what I did so
    perfectly, that eternal punishment for it would be just? Sorrow and
    confession and self-abasing love will make up for the evil word;
    suffering will not. For evil in the abstract, nothing can be done. It
    is eternally evil. But I may be saved from it by learning to loathe it,
    to hate it, to shrink from it with an eternal avoidance. The only
    vengeance worth having on sin is to make the sinner himself its
    executioner. Sin and punishment are in no antagonism to each other in
    man, any more than pardon and punishment are in God; they can perfectly
    co-exist. The one naturally follows the other, punishment being born of
    sin, because evil exists only by the life of good, and has no life of
    its own, being in itself death. Sin and suffering are not natural
    opposites; the opposite of evil is good, not suffering; the opposite of
    sin is not suffering, but righteousness. The path across the gulf that
    divides right from wrong is not the fire, but repentance. If my friend
    has wronged me, will it console me to see him punished? Will that be a
    rendering to me of my due? Will his agony be a balm to my deep wound?
    Should I be fit for any friendship if that were possible even in regard
    to my enemy? But would not the shadow of repentant grief, the light of
    reviving love on his countenance, heal it at once however deep?

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