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–captivated 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.”
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.