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W. H. Auden wrote in his introduction to the 1954 reprint of Lilith, “George MacDonald is pre-eminently a mythopoeic writer…In his power…to project his inner life into images, beings, landscapes which are valid for all, he is one of the most remarkable writers of the nineteenth century.” I’ve decided that my two favorite George MacDonald books, Lilith and Phantastes, are a safe and stimulating way for Christians to experience a godly version of a hallucinogenic drug trip.
Lilith is a tribute to the power of truth encased in story. It’s the tale of Mr. Vane, a man at first unaware he has no real sense of identity. Awakened to his true condition by the question, “Who are you?” Mr. Vane contemplates, “I could give him no notion of who I was. Indeed, who was I? It would be no answer to say I was who! Then I understood I did not know myself.” The questioner tells him, “No one can say he is himself, until first he knows that he is, and then what himself is.” Another great bit of identity truth happens when Mr. Vane says, “Tell me how to recognize the nearest way home.”
“I cannot,” answered the raven. “You and I use the same words with different meanings. We are often unable to tell people what they need to know, because they want to know something else, and would therefore only misunderstand what we said.”
The truth of identity in Christ is unintelligible to those who have not yet finished with world-identity. They still think the solution is to be found outside, in the world, in doings, in performance-based acceptance, and no amount of words will convince them otherwise. The only solution is found in the eventual, inevitable disillusionment with world-identity.
The raven continues:
“Home is ever so far away in the palm of your hand, and how to get there it is of no use to tell you. But you will get there; you must get there; you have to get there. Everybody who is not at home, has to go home. You thought you were at home where I found you: if that had been your home, you could not have left it. Nobody can leave home. And nobody ever was or ever will be at home without having gone there.”
“Enigma treading on enigma!” I exclaimed. “I did not come here to be asked riddles.”
“No, but you came, and found the riddles waiting for you! Indeed, you are yourself the only riddle. What you call riddles are truths, and seem riddles because you are not true.”
“Worse and worse!” I cried.
“And you must answer the riddles!” he continued. “They will go on asking themselves until you understand yourself. The universe is a riddle trying to get out, and you are holding your door hard against it.”
I recognized this riddle of identity as the same I’d been asking my whole life. Truth is paradoxical and seems riddle until we are living in it. We live by dying. We are exalted when we are humbled. We find true strength by coming to a deep, settled awareness of our total weakness and inability to “be like Christ.” Each of us is on a journey to find our true Home – not the home of “pie-in-the-sky”, but of meaning, purpose, security, worth, identity down here on planet Earth. We look in the most ridiculous places until we come home inside ourselves and find that our true home is inner, where Christ lives in our hearts by faith, the fountain of everything that we are looking for. When we finally come to our inner home, we know we can never truly leave it.
Mr. Vane then sets out on a journey to discover who he is, a gradual revelatory process that comes through various circumstances and his own inner and outer responses to them. By these he learns his weaknesses, and in his weakness he finds true strength – the strength to lay his life down for others, not in self-effort and presumption but in true love.
Beyond Vane and his journey of identity, MacDonald’s Lilith, like his other great fantasy Phantastes, opens a window into the ultimate purpose and nature of evil. I first read Lilith a decade ago after I’d gone through several years of a deep and dark night of the soul, and through the dark night had learned a great deal about who I am in Christ. Through the Word, Mr. Vane, and personal experience I learned that the Devil most often speaks to us in first person, seeking a foothold in us in order to use us for his purposes.
Casting great light on this dark truth, Lilith‘s character Odu says, “‘He was a shadow; he had no thick to him…He came down the hill, very black…He was nothing but blackness…He came on as if he would walk over us. But before he reached us, he began to spread and spread, and grew bigger and bigger, till at last he was so big that he went out of our sight, and we saw him no more, and then he was upon us!’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘He was all black through between us, and we could not see one another, and then he was inside us.’
‘How did you know he was inside you?’
‘He did me quite different. I felt like bad. I was not Odu any more – not the Odu I knew. I wanted to tear Sozo to pieces – not really, but like!’
He turned and hugged Sozo.
‘It wasn’t me, Sozo,’ he sobbed. “Really, deep down, it was Odu, loving you always! And Odu came up, and knocked Naughty away. I grew sick, and thought I must kill myself to get out of the black. Then came a horrible laugh that had heard my think, and it set the air trembling about me. And then I suppose I ran away, but I did not know I had run away until I found myself running, fast as I could…I would have stopped but never thought of it…Then I knew that I had run away from a shadow that wanted to be me and wasn’t, and that I was the Odu that loved Sozo. It was the shadow that got into me, and hated him from inside me; it was not my own self me!'”
“…a shadow that wanted to me and wasn’t, and that I was the Odu that loved Sozo.” Odu recognizes his real identity as love for others, and sees the Shadow truly as not-me. The identity of the Shadow, the spirit of Ephesians 2:2, is that of me-for-me, as opposed to God’s Spirit of me-for-others. Our primary battle is not to fight our self, but to fight the lies of the Devil that gain him a foothold in our thought life; that fighting is simply to stand in what God says about us. Beloved. Accepted. One spirit with the Lord. Light in the Lord. Overcomer. Indwelt by Love Himself. “It was the shadow that got into me, and hated him from inside me; it was not my own self me!” As the apostle Paul put the same thought in Romans 7, “Therefore, when I sin, it is no longer I that sins, but sin which dwelleth in me.” In such times, the arrows of the Shadow have gotten past our shield of faith and hit a spot we’ve left unprotected by the armor of Christ. The Shadow’s lies have struck home, and we’ve swallowed them, and soon we act out of the lies to live in Romans 7 temporarily until we wake up again, like Odu, to our true nature in Christ.
I’ve never found a book more illuminating, imaginative, uncanny, or thought-provoking than Lilith. Deep, deep writing worth real digging.
Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.