"George MacDonald: Victorian Mythmaker," by Rolland Hein (StarSong, 453 pp.; $22.99, hardcover); "An Expression of Character: The Letters of George MacDonald," edited by Glenn Edward Sadler (Eerdmans, 395 pp.; $29.99, hardcover). Reviewed by Edward Gilbreath.
In 1947, C. S. Lewis released a curious collection of excerpts from the stories and published sermons of the Scottish preacher and novelist George MacDonald (1824-1905). In the book's preface, Lewis wrote, "I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. … I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him."
Unfortunately, MacDonald did not live to witness the renewed demand for his works that followed Lewis's generous endorsement. The unassuming Scot would never have imagined that long after his death a whole new audience would be rediscovering his books.
MacDonald, best known for his children's stories such as "At the Back of the North Wind" and "The Princess and the Goblin" and for his trailblazing ideas about the place of imagination in the Christian life, was a warm, sagacious man who possessed a gift for observing the sacred in every aspect of living. A devoted husband and father (of 11 children), he headed a household that was known for its joy and charity, despite the emotional and financial straits in which the MacDonald family often found themselves.
For many years, the only substantial biography of MacDonald was the 1924 volume "George MacDonald and His Wife," written by his oldest son, Greville. But thanks in part to the marketing muscle of Lewis's name, by the mideighties libraries and bookstores were filled with MacDonald reprints, and a substantial secondary literature was accumulating. The latest offerings break new ground, drawing on more than 3,000 of MacDonald's personal letters to unfold the man's life in his own words. Rolland Hein's biography, "George MacDonald: Victorian Mythmaker," and Glenn Sadler's compilation, "An Expression of Character: The Letters of George MacDonald," represent the highest in MacDonald scholarship to date. Hein, professor of literature at Wheaton College (Ill.), and Sadler, professor of English at Bloomsburg University (Pa.), are among the leading experts on MacDonald's life and works. The two books would be best read side by side, using Sadler as a supplement to Hein.
The benefit of drawing directly from MacDonald's personal correspondence is felt in the depth and honesty of the two books. We meet a man struggling with bouts of depression and doubt who, at the same time, seems superhuman in his boundless zeal for writing, preaching, and loving his family and his God.
Although an unexceptional writer in terms of literary style (his prose is often stilted and awkwardly constructed), MacDonald was adept at developing worlds that superbly meshed the auras of mystery and holiness. Indeed, two of his adult novels, "Phantastes" and "Lilith," stand out as being as authentically eerie as they are Christian. Hein observes that MacDonald helped to usher in the "renaissance of the writing of fantasy with a Christian flavor" that is displayed in the works of such notables as Charles Williams, J. R. R. Tolkien, Madeline L'Engle, and, of course, Lewis.
As a preacher, MacDonald was not a success. In fact, as a fledgling minister, he was forced from his post at a Scottish Congregational church due to doctrinal views that his parishioners felt smacked of universalism. But MacDonald was not fazed. After a few lean years that at one point found his entire family staging a theatrical version of "Pilgrim's Progress" to make ends meet, he went on to establish a successful career as a full-time writer and lecturer.
What immediately sets Hein's and Sadler's works apart from earlier volumes is their exceptional handling of MacDonald's spiritual life and theology. Hein's account of the formation of MacDonald's universalism is particularly valuable.
As a young boy, writes Hein, MacDonald had an adverse reaction to a sermon on the doctrine of election—"he said he did not want God to love him if he did not love everybody." Later, in an earnest defense of the magnitude of God's grace, MacDonald remarked, "Every soul that is ultimately lost is a defeat of the love of God." Which is stronger, he frequently asked, the love of God or the will of man?
MacDonald's universalism, which viewed hell as a type of purgatory to be followed by an ultimate salvation for all creation, arose from a hopeful examination of Scripture. His distinctive theological views wedded two seemingly irreconcilable traditions: Scottish Calvinism and German (Christian) Romanticism. Observes Hein, "He attempted a synthesis of these two traditions and from this put together a remarkable theology that brought the human imagination alongside the rational mind as vehicles for worshiping and experiencing God."
As Hein freely admits, MacDonald was not an evangelical. But a serious consideration of MacDonald's works, and these works about him, proves that writers need not sign on to every jot and tittle of orthodoxy in order to inspire us. MacDonald's perceptive grasp of spiritual matters drew an agnostic C. S. Lewis to Christianity and continues to inspire and stretch readers today. From the enchanting children's fairy tales to the occasionally disturbing adult fantasies, MacDonald's works demonstrate an uncanny insight and imaginative genius grounded not in the didacticism that typified the religious writings of his day but rather in a robust passion for God and life.
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