Coming to Jesus in Utter Dearth of Feelings

The Victorian novelist, theologian and fantasy writer, George MacDonald (1824-1905), suffered much during his life. Providing for eleven children was always a great weight on his mind, even after his books began to sell. Witnessing the death of four of his children was even harder. MacDonald also experienced physical suffering, struggling all his life with eczema, asthma and bronchitis. Inclined towards a melancholy temperament, MacDonald often experienced periods of intense doubt, depression and dryness.

Throughout all these trials, MacDonald retained a childlike trust in God, believing that His Heavenly Father was using everything that happened to him—including the challenging circumstances—to make him more like Jesus. This perspective helped MacDonald to see his periods of spiritual dryness are actually gifts sent for the perfecting of his faith. “That man is perfect in faith” he once wrote, “who can come to God in the utter dearth of his feelings and desires, without a glow or an aspiration, with the weight of low thoughts, failures, neglects, and wandering forgetfulness, and say to Him, ‘Thou art my refuge.’”

Further Reading

Review of George MacDonald: A Writer Life

Earlier this year my father released a new six hundred page biography of George MacDonald.

I can’t remember when I first heard of George MacDonald, but I do remember the first moment I realized I had an author as a dad. I always enjoyed going into the children’s section of the Christian bookstore my parents operated. There were all sorts of interesting books there and a nice comfortable couch. One day when I was sitting there reading I got up to stretch and wandered out of the children’s section. I came across a shelf with my father’s edited editions of MacDonald novels. I had never seen them before, and what caught my eyes was my Dad’s name on front. I remember thinking, “wow that’s kind of cool–my father is an author!” I thought it was so cool that I went and showed it to one of the employees who couldn’t quite appreciate my point.

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Love and Human Identity

From my article ‘George MacDonald and The Anthropology of Love

…human identity is not first and foremost a question of doctrines (what we think) like the rationalists would maintain, nor is it first and foremost a matter of morals (what we do); rather, the deepest seat of human identity is located first and foremost in what we love. Love precedes both doing and thinking and is the energizing principle behind both things. This recognizes that our ultimate loves are tied to a certain vision of what we think human flourishing looks like which unconsciously orients us to consider certain things worthy of our adoration. But that vision is often affective and implicit before it becomes the material of direct cognition. It is an inchoate vision that grabs our unconscious with an aesthetic pull in a way similar to how David Brooks described the formation of political preferences in his book The Social Animal.

George MacDonald’s Sacramental Vision

The following is taken from the chapter on George MacDonald in my book Saints and Scoundrels.

george-macdonaldAt a time when Darwinism was removing the wonder and magic from the world, reducing people to animals and describing the universe as a giant impersonal machine, MacDonald bequeathed to us an opposite vision. His was a universe filled with enchantment, saturated in wonder and infused with grace. It was a sacramental vision that drew heavily on the Middle Ages, especially the medieval notion that the external things surrounding us are outward signs of inward spiritual graces. As MacDonald expressed it in The Miracles of our Lord, “With his divine alchemy, [God] turns not only water into wine, but common things into radiant mysteries, yea, every meal into a Eucharist, and the jaws of death into an outgoing gate.”

His novels conveyed this sacramental vision. Although they may technically fall under the category of “realistic fiction”, there was always something fantastic about them. The literary critic Marion Lochhead has compared them to Hans Anderson’s fairy tales in possessing “the gift of turning homeliness into beauty.” He enables us to see the world afresh, to perceive, as it were, the invisible halo on every bird and beast.

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The Baptized Imagination

This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.

In 1916, C.S. Lewis was in his mid-teens and preparing to enter the university at Oxford. At the end of a week, he stood on a railway platform waiting for the train that would take him back to his lodgings after a day in town. As Lewis’s mind was fixed on “the glorious week end of reading” that awaited him, his attention turned to the station’s bookstall. On it sat a curious looking volume, an Everyman edition of George MacDonald’s Phantastes: A Faerie Romance for Men and Women.

Having journeyed through this station every week, Lewis had seen this book before, but had never bothered to buy it. This afternoon as he waited for the train, Lewis picked up the book and took a closer look. During that stage in Lewis’ life he was, to use his own term, “waist deep in Romanticism”, and this book seemed similar to other Romanticist literature he enjoyed. Providentially, he decided to buy the book.

That evening Lewis opened Phantastes and entered into MacDonald’s imaginary landscape. Lewis was haunted by the dream-like narrative in which ordinary life becomes transformed into the world of Fairy. The story, he later reflected, “had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death.”

But while Lewis found in the narrative of Phantastes all the qualities that had charmed him in other romantic writers such as the novels of William Morris, there was something else that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. “It is as if I were carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.” Lewis was later able to convey something of this feeling in his story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe when the Pevensie children first hear the name of Aslan:

“None of the children knew who Aslan was…but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning…so beautiful that you remember it all your life.”

Though the young Lewis felt that Phantastes had some enormous meaning, there was one problem: at the time he was an atheist and MacDonald was a Christian. Initially, MacDonald’s theism was merely an annoyance to the young atheist, who felt “it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it.”

As he grew and read more of MacDonald’s writings, however, Lewis eventually came to understand that the peculiar quality he encountered in Phantastes was not separate to MacDonald’s faith, but because of it. “….I did not yet know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anodos. I do now. It was Holiness.”

In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, Lewis described his discovery of MacDonald as having baptized his imagination. It would be many years before his intellect would follow. Nevertheless, that afternoon at the station was the beginning of the slow and twisted spiritual journey that would eventually culminate in Lewis’ conversion to Christ. When Lewis did convert, he looked upon MacDonald as his spiritual master, saying, “I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself….I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master…”