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George MacDonald (1824 – 1905)

 

George MacDonald

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1824 — 1905

“I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ himself.” Not everyone would agree with C.S. Lewis’s assessment. Congregational authorities in Arundel (England) voted him out of their pulpit. (All the more striking in view of Lewis’s insistence that the “preachments” are the best part of MacDonald’s novels!) The young Scot had not been long in the English congregation before his convictions were evident. Genuine faith, he insisted, longs to exhibit the “fruits of the Spirit”, not merely subscription to a creed. Genuine faith disdains the values of the world and forswears the vanities of the world. God longs not merely to save us from hell but even to save us from our sins now, the sins which we must repudiate lest they disfigure us even more hideously. Objectors in the congregation tried to force him out by reducing his stipend by two-thirds. He stayed on for the sake of the few earnest people in the congregation, but had to leave soon, unable to deal with people who were unwilling to think and unresolved to obey.

George MacDonald was born in the north of Scotland, where Gaelic myths and Old Testament stories sank into him and formed the mind that would later cherish imagination as the vehicle of spiritual truth.

Even as a youth he was sensitive to the implications of what older people appeared to say thoughtlessly. When a preacher persistently expounded a doctrine of predestination (with its notion that God did not love and would not redeem a large class of humankind) he announced to his family that he didn’t love God if God didn’t love everyone. This kind of hyper-Calvinism would arouse his antipathy for the rest of his life. While still a young boy he was repulsed in equal measure by the established Church of Scotland (it struck him as intellectually abstract and spiritually ineffective) and by the sects (they struck him as all heat and no light). Yet he admitted that the sincere seeker could find God in either.

Although the Scots had a reputation for theological precision, MacDonald thought it to be the product of the dissecting knife: fine work done on something lifeless. For doctrine (as he had seen it handled) appeared to have been made a substitute for living faith where the believer’s heart is rightly related to the heart of God.

1840 found him at Aberdeen University where he gained his highest marks in chemistry and physics. A severe shortage of money evaporated his plans to study medicine. He gave himself to literature, his passion for the rest of his life.

MacDonald supported himself by teaching arithmetic in a school and tutoring privately, in Latin and Greek, children of the Victorian era’s merchant class. He was never at home with the rising business class, repulsed as he was by its eagerness to sacrifice everything to “getting on”, and heartsick as he was at evangelical churchfolk who regarded financial prosperity as a reward for righteousness.

Horrified at the spiritual suffocation of affluence, he came to the conviction, never to be surrendered, of the centrality of the teachings of Jesus. These would the be the core of his life and work. The New Testament epistles were to be read in the light of the master’s teachings. For too long the Non-conformist churches had elevated the epistles above the gospels, with the result that abstract theological statements had become the means of evading the concrete claim of the gospels on one’s daily obedience.

In the course of his preparation for the ministry MacDonald had come to see that reason, while essential to our knowledge and worship of God, of itself does not open the door to that Kingdom whose key is Spirit. Not surprisingly, the only congregation he pastored told him he should use more evangelical cliches (code-words) and bend the teachings of Jesus to conform to denominational pronouncements. He left.

For the next several years poverty wrapped itself around him and his family. (He and Louisa had eleven children.) His financial plight was eased through teaching Shakespeare and poetry at a new Ladies College. Then the breakthrough! Longman’s (a major British publisher) was bringing out Within And Without, a lengthy poem, and was assigning him half the profits.

Convinced that fantasy is an effective vehicle of spiritual truth, he produced Phantastes, an exploration of God’s Fatherhood. Reviewers promptly condemned it. One journal argued that every author is permitted one mistake, and MacDonald had just made his!

Nevertheless, an appointment to a chair of English literature recognized his talent. Soon he was compared to Sir Walter Scott, Scotland’s greatest novelist. Aberdeen University awarded him an honourary doctorate. Americans insisted on a whirlwind tour of major U.S. cities (with stops, however, in Niagara Falls and Toronto). He returned home ill, only to find his daughter Mary dying of tuberculosis. His heart broken but his faith resilient, he asserted, “I will not acknowledge concerning death what our Lord denies of it.” In the same vein he wrote, “No one can be living a true life to whom dying is a terror.”

From 1851 to 1897 he wrote over 50 books: novels, essays, plays, poems, sermons, fairy tales, adult fantasy. His spiritual convictions throb throughout them all. God’s love is “love which will punish fearfully [in this life] rather than leave the beloved in sin.” Because we are made in the image of God, we “must love him or be desolate.” “Obedience is the one key of life.” “Men would rather receive salvation from God than God their salvation.”

MacDonald’s Christian literary descendants are now household names: G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and America’s Madeleine L’Engle.

Everything he was and wrote is gathered up finally in one of his matchless aphorisms: “The response to self-existent love is self-abnegating love.”

Victor Shepherd