EPISODE 053

What’s So Great About George MacDonald?

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C. S. Lewis saw George MacDonald as a kind of spiritual and literary father. These days, however, he’s not so widely read. In this episode, Ron Block explains why we should all be reading MacDonald, and how to get started.

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13 Comments

  1. Arlia M. Frink

    Just FYI: MacDonald’s “Phantastes” mentioned in the podcast is available on Project Gutenburg, including illustrations!

  2. Mike

    Thanks for the podcast! I too, am a George MacDonald fan. My favorite of his are The Princess & The Goblin, The Princess & Curdie, At the Back of the North Wind. These books give me that longing that I get when reading the LotR. I have tried Lilith and Phantastes but haven’t pushed all the way through them yet. Partly it’s hard to endure some of his stuff because he is so unknown. I find myself always trying to convince others to read him to no avail:/

  3. L. Pierce

    My wife and I have gone through maybe half of his writings which cover all the same genres that Lewis did—adult fantasy, children’s fantasy, poetry, and practical theology. Of all of them, the best thing I have read is the sermon “Life” from Volume 2 of Unspoken Sermons, which I posted on my website:

    https://treasurenewandold.wordpress.com/2016/02/29/110/

    Most of his books are free on both Kindle and Librivox, though many people prefer the updated-language editions.

    Unspoken Sermons had a huge influence on Lewis. I think about half the entries in his MacDonald anthology are from Unspoken Sermons; you can trace many of the more controversial or original thoughts from Mere Christianity directly to MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons.

  4. Nigel Smethers

    I too, in the 1970s, was introduced to the works of George MacDonald through C.S.Lewis’ anthology. It is in the preface to this  book that Lewis makes his well-known, and troubling assertion that he looks on MacDonald as his master:” I  have  never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written  a  book in which I did not quote from him.“ (troubling given the instruction of Christ the Master: “Neither be called instructors [KJV,ASV=’masters’] for you have one instructor [KJV,ASV=’master’] the Christ.” (Matthew 23 vs 10, ESV) But at the time, being attracted and stimulated by MacDonald’s pithy epigrams and insights that Lewis had collated together I began to explore his other writings, beginning with his children’s book “At the Back of the North Wind” followed by one of his novels “Robert Falconer”. Throughout the 1980s I continued to be fascinated by him, and when travelling around Scotland in 1988 deliberately made a trip to his birth-town, Huntly, even managing to request and peruse an original manuscript in the public library there.
    But I now realise I was bewitched. It was William Raeper’s biography of MacDonald (“The finest contemporary account of my great-grandfather’s life and writings” – Christopher MacDonald) that first alerted me to the dangers of diving in too deep into MacDonald’s theology which his writings convey: “There were certain doctrines concerning Christ that MacDonald repudiated strongly, notably the doctrine of penal substitution. This held that Christ was punished as a wrongdoer for the sins of the human race in order that God could reclaim the souls of the lost. MacDonald called it: ‘…..a mean, nauseous invention, false and productive of falsehood…It is the meagre, misshapen offspring of the legalism of a poverty-stricken mechanical fancy, unlighted by a gleam of the divine imagination.” (William Raeper, George MacDonald: Novelist and Victorian Visionary”, Lion Publishing, 1988, pages 251-252, quoting MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons, Vol.3 pages 211-212). For any wishing to examine further MacDonald’s theology I would encourage you to read John Piper’s evangelical critique in “The Pleasures of God” (Christian Focus Mentor paperback, 1998, pages 169-175, along with the related footnotes, and also consider the contrast drawn on pages 183-184 in footnote 16 between Jonathan Edward’s portrayal of the Lord Jesus Christ and MacDonald’s: Edwards “shows with abundant biblical evidence that in Christ there is infinite highness and infinite condescension, infinite justice and infinite grace, infinite glory and lowest humility, infinite majesty and transcendent meekness, deepest reverence for God and equality with God, infinite worthiness of good and the greatest patience under suffering of evil, a wonderful spirit of obedience with supreme dominion over heaven and earth, absolute sovereignty and perfect resignation, self-sufficiency and entire trust and reliance on God. Once a person has seen such a Christ portrayed from Scripture the reconstructions of…MacDonald lose much of their appeal.” The Excellency of Christ, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol.1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), pages 680-689.
    It is also disturbing to learn about some of the company MacDonald kept, and possibly (but not certainly) some of the spiritual activity in which MacDonald may have engaged during his life: “William Cowper-Temple and his wife, Georgina, are probably best known today for the spiritual conferences hosted on their estate at Broadlands during the late 1800s. It must be remembered that during this period in time, especially in Great Britain, interest in Spiritualism was gaining great popularity even among Christians. One might surmise that since the Church of England held little interest in what are typically referred to as “the gifts of the Spirit” by Christians, that Christians who were involved in, or at least had an interest in, spiritual gifts might have attended Spiritualist meetings in order to fill a need in their lives that the Church was neglecting. At any rate, the summits at Broadlands were among the first truly Ecumenical Spiritual conferences ever attended. It was quite common to find Christians together with Hindus, magical folklorists, mediums, and other adherents of wide-ranging diversity brought together with a common interest in the spirit world. It must be said however, that these meetings often went well beyond the comforts of mainstream Christianity, and on many occasions séances were held. Broadlands was also the center concerning meetings of civic and political natures. MacDonald would lecture there often on Christian and literary topics. He also would spend many a night at this mansion whenever he passed through the area. There is no evidence however, that George MacDonald approved of the more magical or occult-like activities which occurred at Broadlands. The only mention he ever made of these séances was one that Ruskin had attended that had a profound effect on the famous art critic. Actually, he never mentions the séance itself, but he states in a letter to his wife, Louisa, that he had one day met the clairvoyant in question that held the séance Ruskin attended (we know it was a séance from a letter written by Ruskin) and that he took somewhat of a dislike to her.” (The George MacDonald Informational Web: http://georgemacdonald.info/cowper.html)
    Visitors to the Rabbit Room should beware – wolves still appear in sheep’s clothing.
     
     

  5. Lanier Ivester

    @lanier

    Nigel, one of the things I love about George MacDonald is that he keeps me a little uncomfortable. He has a way of lashing out against what he perceives as slights in prevailing theology to the infinite mercy, goodness, justice, and love of God. But MacDonald is no systematic theologian. He reacts vociferously in his sermons, often laying out his objections in heated terms and with careful argument—but he’s not always quite as tidy in elucidating just what it is he does believe. (His sermon “Justice” is a good example—a fitting counterpart to the sermon “Righteousness” from which the above quotation came.) As I understand it, MacDonald’s argument in the abovementioned context is a lot more nuanced than a mere rejection of established doctrine—what he’s reacting to is not so much the efficacy of Christ’s sacrificial death as man’s attempts to rationalize it in purely legal terms. It’s clear from his writings that MacDonald both reveres and relies upon the sacrificial work of Christ as essential in accomplishing our redemption—the trouble is, one really has to sit with his works as a whole in order to fully appreciate the compliment he intends towards God’s character in implying that the Almighty is not bound by what we humans can grasp and compartmentalize, but by His own nature

  6. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Nigel,

    I do think you bring out a valid point that it is important, no matter who we read, to be very familiar with the Bible and to read it inviting the same Holy Spirit who wrote it to illuminate our minds to receive it.

    One of the valuable things MacDonald has done for me is to point me, not to doctrines about Christ, but to Christ. To assume we understand the Atonement because we’ve read various theologians is not to understand the Atonement. To know Christ, as a personal, real, relational being, to know that he is transcendent and sitting at his Father’s right hand and yet immanent and living inside of me, to know that he in me is the “wisdom and redemption from God,” to know that “In Christ all the fullness of the Godhead lives in bodily form” and I am “filled full in him,” these are the things to which MacDonald points me. One of the major “beefs” he had was, as Lanier pointed out, theologians misrepresenting God by subscribing to doctrines about him which, if we saw in a human being, we would consider heinous, ugly, hateful, and mean-spirited.

    I agree with you, Lanier, that MacDonald keeps me uncomfortable. When I first started reading him around 1989 or 1990 I would finish reading a sermon and I’d feel agitated and sometimes sick to my stomach. He grated against my legalism by rubbing my nose in it. “Have you done one thing today because Jesus Christ said to do it?” He grated against my easy-believism that said “If I know this, that, and the other doctrines about God, then I am a Christian.” But knowing something in our head doesn’t make us a believer; real faith must manifest itself, and holding doctrines in the intellect without letting them go into the heart changes nothing except our level of humility.

    All that said, Nigel, if theological purity were a prerequisite for reading a work, I would be forced to read only the Bible. I disagree with George MacDonald sometimes (because sometimes he is wrong, and because sometimes I find, to my chagrin, that I was actually wrong!). I disagree with C.S. Lewis when he says faith and works are like a pair of scissors, that we need both (it’s more like a ball-point pen; faith clicks it so it is usable). I disagree with Tozer on his attitude toward Story (he basically says Story is for babies, and I think he is a big dummy there). I can point to any man as a heretic; I can find doctrines and ideas by Piper, or Keller, or any other teacher, that don’t agree with the Word of God. One of my favorite teachers, Michael Wells, says that every teacher (including himself) has untruths they teach; God does not want us to follow men, but to follow Jesus. Men are there to point us to Jesus, and that is what George MacDonald does for me. I don’t subscribe to everything MacDonald says, but he always stirs me to think, to pray, to press deeper into Christ – and those are good things.

  7. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Also, Lanier, I agree that MacDonald is not a systematic theologian. Systematic theology is useful as a learning tool but can give the impression to some that we can sew up God into a “system” and then we understand him and how he is, and that we can know how he works by simply understanding The System. We also then think we are safe from heresy as long as we have voraciously read the systematic theology of an FDA-Approved Theologian™.  Also, Peter says we are “Kept by the power of God,” not “Kept by the power of systematic theology.”

    God is continually breaking out of systems. He wants us to know him, to walk with him in real-time, and not just know about him. I don’t think he enjoys when we put him in a big box because then our god is only as big as our box. That said, systematic theology is useful and helpful if 1. It is true, and 2. It goes from the head to the heart and actually affects our walk with God and our relationships with other people. CS Lewis said that fine feelings and new insights don’t mean anything unless they make our actual behavior better. And I’ve found the best cure for bad thoughts, attitudes, and behavior is to get with the actual, real-time God who is both transcendent and immanent, on the throne and yet inside me, and trust him to live in me, and through me, to deliver me from believing lies, in real-time, right here, right now.

  8. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    One other thought on MacDonald’s thoughts on the Atonement. The thing he had a problem with was people basically saying that God wanted to punish us for our sins, and Jesus stepped up and volunteered to let us off the hook, and God inflicted the punishment on him so that we could be forgiven and go to Heaven – as if that itself were the Gospel.

    GM believed the Gospel was a lot deeper and bigger than that – that Jesus and the Father are and have always been one in mind, that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son – so that we could have eternal life, an eternal, heavenly quality of life, here and now, not merely unending prolongation of existence. Who would want to live in mere endless existence consumed by jealousy, or hatred, or anger? At the heart of GM’s theology is a God who loves us too much to leave us tethered to a sin-filled life, and a Lord of whom was prophesied, “He will save his people from their sins,” not merely saving us from punishment.

  9. Daniel Rechlin

    @danrechlin

    It’s been a while since I’ve read MacDonald, so I’d forgotten, a little bit, just how much his writings meant to me.  This all reminded me of that, for which I’m grateful.  And now I have a new goal for my next Hutchmoot: to have a wonderful conversation about MacDonald with someone more knowledgeable than myself.

  10. Daniel Rechlin

    @danrechlin

    @mrs-hittle, I think I’ve read every book mentioned in this podcast, but it has been several years at least.  Of his adult non-fantasy fiction, my #1 in the past has been  Thomas Wingfold, but I think I’ve read less of Donal Grant, so there might be some new territory there for both of us.  (“Grant” and “Wingfold” referring to the main characters in several books a piece, at least for Wingfold)  I’ll have to look into that, especially considering I probably will be able to make it to “next year in Nashville!”

    Having read some of both, I agree that the Michael Philips versions are easier to get through, and I don’t think they lose anything in substance or power.  As Ron said, persevering through does give you that thrill like learning to read a different language, but, at least in the one I read, it was hard, often, and there were still words/phrases/sentences I just couldn’t figure out.  For me, the decoding part was sometimes distracting from the ‘chewy bits’ that I was really there for.

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