My daughter and I went on a hike today. I told her to put on her shoes, and she toddled over to her moccasins. I said we were going to the forest. She picked up her basket and carefully placed half a green crayon and a .38 Pilot pen inside it. She slung the basket along her elbow and looked up at me, ready for an adventure.
These days, when most of my work keeps me tied inside to a laptop, I can get caught up in depressing news and self-pity. And then I go into the summer trees with my daughter, smell the mountain air, touch the great pines, hear the trees creak in the wind.
George MacDonald is perhaps best known, and deservedly so, as one of the greatest fairy tale writers. If you haven’t, you must read “The Day Boy and the Night Girl,” “The Light Princess,” and “The Golden Key” immediately. But the theological vision that charges his fairy stories also pervades the rest of his life and work. C.S. Lewis famously noted, “The quality which had enchanted me in [MacDonald’s] imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live” (xv).
Hence, the greatest work of theology you read this year could be Plough Publishing’s The Gospel in George MacDonald. Introduced and edited by Marianne Wright, it is one of the latest in Plough’s Gospel in Great Writers Series, a lineup that includes venerable authors both bearded and beardless (there’s also Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Hopkins; Shakespeare is forthcoming). Wright draws generously and judiciously from MacDonald’s sermons, novels, fairy stories, and letters; addenda include appreciations by Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. The long overdue anthology provides a fuller taste than Lewis’s slim 1946 selection of the too little known and under-appreciated Scottish poet preacher. The themes ordering Wright’s selections (category titles include “Seeking,” “Repentance,” “Jesus,” “God’s Glory,” “Faith,” “Obedience,” “Death,” and “Resurrection”) is especially apt for MacDonald’s extensive corpus, for spreading the gospel of Christ—through sermon, song, or story—was the defining work of his life.
Some have called the life he and his wife Louisa built together unconventional—nowadays everyone loves, or feels he ought to love, an old-fashioned story of Victorians throwing off the shackles of tradition. But unconventionality was hardly the purpose of this preacher who insisted again and again on obedience to God.
Though the point of the anthology is to illuminate the gospel in MacDonald’s writing, even a brief outline of the Scotsman’s life lends gravitas to his bracing calls for obedience to Christ. He was born in 1824 and grew up in a loving family on a Scottish farm (he and his father were particularly close). He studied physics and chemistry at university, and was ordained a Congregationalist minister, but was removed from the ministry upon charges of heresy (such as his expressing “hope that the lower animals too would be sharers in the better life to come”). He continued to write a prodigious amount—novels, sermons, poems, fairy stories.
His wife Louisa put together plays for the family to perform, which provided extra support. (MacDonald would often play the part of Great-heart in their renditions of Pilgrim’s Progress, a detail Chesterton seized upon as a summation of the actor’s real-life character.) He was a man of formidable faith, who early on decided to commit his life to preaching the gospel, through word and deed, preachment and story. His faith did not come easy: four of his eleven children died young, and much of his life he lived with ill health and pennilessness. He also suffered the shadow of libel and contumely. His fierce trust in the Father of All sustained him, and he wrote many letters to friends in the shadow of death with certain hope of the resurrection. He passed on to glory in 1905, a year after the death of Louisa.
When we get to the hiking spot, my daughter walks with confident steps to the trailhead and along the pine-needle-covered path, happy to move her small limbs under the sun and tree shade. It’s a good place. But I need to move my limbs too, quicker, harder, so I strap her in the carrier and trudge forward, too fast for a contemplative stroll through the pines.
The trees are tall and lanky. A creek runs through an opening in the grove where fallen cedars act as makeshift bridges. My daughter is awed by the trickling water. She stops, crouches down, and looks at it.
We continue to higher ground, longer grass. She points and babbles her commentary on all the shrubs and flowers, and I wish I could name each one for her. Someday I will. Someday she’ll know the name of each leaflet. For now, it’s enough to see them, to notice them.
The trees open to a view of a grassy hill with blue sky above it, and then we go up and up a steep incline. I was silly not to bring water, I think. But I’m panting and my legs are working, and I’m glad.
What MacDonald writes of a shoemaker in his novel Salted with Fire could very well be said of the author himself: “Therefore was he what the parson called a mystic, and was the most practical man in the neighbourhood; therefore did he make the best shoes, because the Word of the Lord abode in him” (188-89). For all his talk of duty and obedience—and for all our blinkered understanding of what those words mean—his vision of the beauty and truth of God, and his startling penetration into the human soul, stand in stark contrast to the all too often small world of the strict, hyper-Calvinist grandmother (his own), the tent revivalist, the zeitgeist-bound egalitarian. His trust in his Father was so deep that he could possess a fierce and fearless joy in the good things of creation, and he was tireless in recalling that all these things are from God, gifts from a loving Father—who also will not rest until we are good.
The gospel for MacDonald was not a book, but rather a person, the person of Jesus Christ Himself, the image of the Father. “No other than the God exactly like Christ can be the true God.” The mercy of Christ is the mercy of the Father: “It is a doctrine of devils that Jesus died to save us from our father. There is no safety, no good, no gladness, no purity, but with the Father, his father and our father, his God and our God” (51). The one task of the human being is to become what he truly is meant to be—a child of God. To MacDonald, countering the Calvinists of his childhood, God is not preeminently concerned with His glory, but rather, to paraphrase Ignatius, the glory of God is His children, fully human. God’s is “the glory which alone will quicken the true man in us, and kill the peddling creature we so wrongly call our self. The true self is that which can look Jesus in the face, and say My Lord” (48). Hence, “All hatred of sin is love for the sinner,” as one character says to another in a novel. Jesus came to deliver us from sin, not from the wrath of God.
God’s love is an inexorable and consuming love: He “will have us good, and Jesus works out the will of his father. Where is the refuge of the child who fears his father? Is it in the farthest corner of the room?” The answer: “No, no!…in his father’s arms!” (51).
This is what undergirds the charges of universalism thrown at MacDonald in his time and ours. God is a holy God, and our Heavenly Father; He will not abandon any of his sheep, no matter how prodigal. There must certainly be a purifying of the sin in us, and the fire must burn away all that is unlovely in us (here MacDonald is of a similar mind with Gregory of Nyssa).
We are not let off easy: we are still each of us called to do the will of God. But we are fooling ourselves, says MacDonald, if we think the will of God is ultimately inscrutable. Discerning God’s will is not grasping after misty oracles; our duty—to love this child, to care for this house, to wash these dishes—is always in plain sight. We don’t even need the Bible to begin, for “In every heart there is a consciousness of some duty or other required of it: that is the will of God.” If we can but see what is right, the duty before us, clearly, “if it be but to sweep a room or make an apology, or pay a debt,” then that is all we need to begin (46–47). In his (unspoken) sermons, he is unrelenting on the perspicuity of God’s will:
What have you done this day because it was the will of Christ? Have you dismissed, once dismissed, an anxious thought for the morrow? Have you ministered to any needy soul or body, and kept your right hand from knowing what your left hand did? Have you begun to leave all and follow him? Did you set yourself to judge righteous judgment? Are you being ware of covetousness? Have you forgiven your enemy? Are you seeking the kingdom of God and his righteousness before all other things? Are you hungering and thirsting after righteousness? Have you given to some one that asked of you? Tell me something that you have done, are doing, or are trying to do because he told you. If you do nothing that he says, it is no wonder that you cannot trust in him…
In another sermon he says, “You will tell me some of you, that I am always beating that anvil, that obedience to Christ is Christianity. Let me die insisting upon it. For my Lord insists upon it” (115). Obedience to God and doing one’s duty are, for MacDonald, one and the same. And it is through obedience that we are made truly human, truly as we were created to be. To obey Him is to know Him; to know Him is to love Him.
But what if we dreamers cannot see where the path leads that He would have us follow? As the Old Man of the Earth says to Tangle, “You must throw yourself in. There is no other way.”
When we get to the end of the trail loop, I let my daughter down; my right shoulder needs a rest from the strain. She crouches down and looks at the creek water. She wants to look at it a long time. I don’t want to stop her, but my patience, and my wonder, is less than hers. She points at the burbling water and babbles in response. I think of her pointing at the cedars, examining the ground and picking up a pollen cone or a piece of torn fabric half the size of a pin. I think of what happens to a child when they lose that wonder. I think of other kids I’ve seen, older than her, walking by the Grand Canyon, phones in palms, and how I’ve wanted to swat the phone out of their hands and into the yawning chasm.
I have no rosy view that children are Victorian angels, or that they possess an ethereal goodness—that is to say, I have no rosy view of human nature this side of glory. I know the mischievous glint in my daughter’s eyes isn’t so innocent. But as she looks at this tiny creek, sitting on her chubby haunches, I agree with George MacDonald, that children are (in David Bentley Hart’s phrasing) “peculiarly blessed beings, always playing their games near the mysterious threshold of Eden or heaven.” Children bred blind to the world of the real suffer a spiritual poverty, and a scandal. And I worry how much it’s our fault—our adult selfishness, our neglect.
Love the real, child.
It is in these moments, when we stop and look at a trickle of water through a shaded glen, that we are aware of “the factitude of things,” in MacDonald’s words, that “we are most aware of our need of God, and most able to trust in him….The recognition of inexorable reality in any shape, or kind, or way, tends to rouse the soul to the yet more real, to its relations with higher and deeper existence.” The real—not the gorgeous, moody shots of the Pacific Northwest or snapshots of latte art on my blog feed, but the splash of water under our feet and the thorns that tear at my arms as I carry my daughter through a narrow thicket—is where we are to live, in the holy present: “It is not the hysterical alone for whom the great dash of cold water is good. All who dream life instead of living it, require some similar shock” (277).
I think I need a dash of cold water every day of my life.
The letter excerpts are some of the brightest gems in the Plough collection, since they reveal his tenacious trust in Christ in the face of despair. We witness his fatherly warmth and wisdom in a letter to his second eldest daughter, Mary Josephine (“my darling Elfie”), responding to her request for a definition of love:
Love is the best thing: the Love of God is the highest thing; we cannot be right until we love God, therefore we cannot do right—I mean thoroughly right—until we love God. But God knows this better than we do, and he is always teaching us to love him. He wants us to love him, not because he loves himself, but because it is the only wise, good and joyous thing for us to love him who made us and is most lovely….So you need not be troubled about it darling Elfie. All you have to do & that is plenty is to go on doing what you know to be right, to keep your heart turned to God for him to lead you, & to read & try to understand the story of Jesus. A thousand other things will come in from God to help you if you do thus.
I am very very glad you asked me my child. Ask me anything you like, and I will try to answer you—if I know the answer. For this is one of the most important things I have to do in the world.
Eight years later, when Mary Josephine was dying of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-four, MacDonald wrote to a friend of his grief, and of his certain hope in the Father: “I want to be God’s man, not the man of my own idea” (78).
MacDonald’s “Christ-like union of tenderness and severity” nourishes the soul, reinforcing Lewis’s own estimation of his master: “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself.”
MacDonald never strove to be a great theologian. He wanted to be a good father and faithful servant of his Father. And that is why he must be read, for he calls us to the perfect image of the invisible God, Jesus Christ. He calls us not to know about Christ, but to know Him truly—to love the Real.