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 bushy 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
Andrew Peterson is a singer-songwriter and author. Andrew has released more than ten records over the past twenty years, earning him a reputation for songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. As an author, Andrew’s books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga, released in collectible hardcover editions through Random House in 2020, and his creative memoir, Adorning the Dark, released in 2019 through B&H Publishing.