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About George MacDonald

 

“I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him.  But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation.  Honesty drives me to emphasize it.”[1] Thus wrote C.S. Lewis about George MacDonald, the Scottish poet, preacher, and novelist of the 1800s.  Lewis is among many creative Christian thinkers in the 20th century who were deeply impacted by the writings of MacDonald:  G.K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, Francis Shaffer, Oswald Chambers, Dorothy Sayers, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Madeleane L’Engle, to name a few. 

     George MacDonald was one of the best-loved novelists of his day.  He was a peer with such writers as Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Mark Twain.  Michael Phillips, who has edited many of MacDonald’s novels for the modern reader, says this about the Scottish writer:    

George MacDonald was no teacher of  “theology” in the usual sense of the word.  His writing was varied.  Among his 53 published books are included more than 400 poems, 25 short stories, a dozen literary essays, 50 sermons, a number of book-length fairy tales, several fantasies, and some 30 realistic novels of between 300 and 800 pages each.  And on nearly every page, in nearly every poem, and certainly in every sermon, the two things George MacDonald cared most about—the character of God, and obedience to his commands—were clearly visible.[2]

MacDonald is best known today for his children’s books, fantasies, and fairy tales, but tonight, we will hear primarily from his sermons.

     George MacDonald was born in Huntly, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 1824.  Nearly three centuries had passed since John Knox had come and founded the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  During that time, some of the doctrines of the church had narrowed into extremes.  These extremes deeply troubled MacDonald.  Lewis writes about him: 

On the intellectual side his history is largely a history of escape from the theology in which he had been brought up.  Stories of such emancipation are common in the nineteenth century; but George MacDonald’s story belongs to this familiar pattern only with a difference.  In most such stories the emancipated person, not content with repudiating the doctrines, comes also to hate the persons, of his forbears, and even the whole culture and way of life with which they are associated.  Of such personal resentment I find no trace in MacDonald.  In the very midst of his intellectual revolt, he forces us, whether we will or no, to see elements of real and perhaps irreplaceable worth in the thing from which he is revolting.[3]

MacDonald did not reject Calvinism as a whole, but did grow more and more outspoken against those few teachings that he considered to be amiss.  He found himself battling the imbalanced and common impression of a wrathful tyrant on the throne of the universe.  George had come to believe, through the quiet influence of his own father, that whatever else God was, he was first and foremost a loving father, desiring all his children to repent and come home to his heart.  Furthermore, the doctrine of election, as MacDonald heard it being taught, seemed to make man’s responsiveness to the known will of God irrelevant.  That man’s salvation or damnation came about utterly and irresistibly by God’s sovereign and arbitrary choice, and was informed in no way by man’s response, MacDonald could not accept.  Through his study of the Scriptures he came to believe that though God was indeed man’s only Savior, man being absolutely powerless to save himself, yet man’s response to God his Savior was of critical importance: childlike obedience must follow the quickening incoming presence of Jesus. 

     MacDonald’s emphasis on the necessity of obedience is not limited to his day and culture; it reaches through and beyond his own religious context to challenge any of us whose focus has drifted off the Savior himself onto anything else, however good it may be.

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[1] Lewis, preface to MacDonald Anthology, xxxii.

[2] Phillips, introduction to MacDonald, Knowing, 11-12.

[3] Lewis, preface to MacDonald Anthology, xxii-xxiii.