THESES ON DENOMINATIONAL LIFE 9
In reading the gospels, what strikes one first is the capaciousness—the roominess—of the faith of Jesus. Where others draw lines, he does not. With those that others exclude, he sits down to dinner. When he meets a Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, she, according to her contemporaries, belonging to the wrong people, the wrong gender, the wrong faith, and the wrong morals, he asks her for a drink and invites her to taste his living water—to become, in short, his disciple. When a Roman centurion, an officer in an occupying army, asks him for help, he not only gives the help but says that he has not encountered such faith among the people of God. When the tax-collector Zacchaeus, pariah among his people, climbs a tree to see him, Jesus makes himself a guest at his house. When the authorities who called for his crucifixion cheer his death, he prays for their forgiveness.
Those who have been properly instructed by Jesus share this capacious faith. They breathe the fresh air of the gospel. And among their number is a 19th century Scot, George MacDonald: novelist, theologian, and failed preacher, whose writings inspired, among others, C.S. Lewis. In our time, a time fraught with division, a small-minded time, we would do well to reacquaint ourselves with the generous spirit of MacDonald. Or, as he would have had it, to reacquaint ourselves with Jesus.
Let me tell you how I came again to MacDonald’s writings. It started with Justin Ariel Bailey. Justin teaches at Dordt University and hosts the In All Things podcast. He has recently published two books: Reimagining Apologetics: The Beauty of Faith in a Secular Age (InterVarsity, 2020) and Interpreting Your World: Five Lenses for Engaging Theology and Culture (Baker, 2022). We met at a conference where we both were speakers, Justin, the headliner and I, the sideliner (if there is such a thing). It was a delightful time. We engaged with each other on the role of imagination in theology.
Imagination is one of Bailey’s themes. In Reimagining Apologetics, he makes a case for the centrality of imagination in apologetics. He asks in his introduction, “How can we help those on the outside to experience its [the Christian faith’s] reorienting force?” He answers: “What is needed is a provocation of possibilities, a vicarious vision of what it feels like to live with Christian faith, a sense of the beauty of faith that is felt before fully embraced. For this imagination is essential” (page 4, italics original).
In making his case for the role of imagination in apologetics, Bailey presents as case studies two novelists and essayists, George MacDonald, from the second half of the 19th century, and Marilynne Robinson, from our own time.
Reading Bailey’s chapter on MacDonald, I remembered a book that had sat for a couple years on my to-read shelf in my library. It had been a gift to me from a couple who believed that the church could do with more of the spirit of George MacDonald, that the church they attend had fallen into a troubling sort of theological rigidity. The book they gave me was an edition of MacDonald’s 1867 novel, Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood, updated (as MacDonald’s novels usually are) and introduced by Michael Phillips. Plunging into the novel, I rediscovered the capaciousness of MacDonald’s presentation of the gospel.
I have often joked that what I love best about MacDonald’s novels is that contrary to much fiction and most movies and television his preachers are admirable people and—this almost never happens in the literature of our time—they get the girl. Imagine preachers as romantic heroes: the cute meet, the long courtship, the falling out, and the long-awaited kiss. But there’s more. The novels drip with spiritual bon mots, and they feature a theology—no, better, a spirituality—that is capacious, large in its view of God and people. One comes away from MacDonald’s writing with an enlarged sense of the presence and glory of God.
Justin Bailey rightly sets MacDonald’s project against the backdrop of the failure of much of 19th century Christianity in Great Britain. Quoting A.O.J. Cockshut on the autobiographies of the time, Bailey notes that MacDonald was born into a time when much of church life was “infinitely lugubrious.” Those who lived through it say “that it was wicked to play on Sundays, that cleanliness was next to godliness, that England was God’s chosen race, that Catholics were idolaters, that the Bible was to be interpreted literally, but that we must on no account take the slightest notice of large parts of it . . .” (120). The editor of Annals, Michael Phillips, says of MacDonald that “it is impossible not to be moved by the pathos MacDonald’s . . . quest during his student years to find the truth about God amid the lingering vapors of Calvinism’s oppressive theology” (xii).
The problem with such churches and such a god is that it gives one nothing transcendent to love. Such a faith is small, cramped, more about the limitations of the human imagination than the God of the Bible. Bailey quotes Thomas Wingfold of MacDonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Curate: “The only possibility of believing in a God seems to me to lie in finding an idea of God large enough, grand enough, pure enough, lovely enough to be fit to believe in” (page 139).
MacDonald, like Lewis, like Calvin, for that matter, believes that a deep desire for this God is built into every human being. It has only to be called out. Harry Walton, the vicar of Annals, says of his own ministry, “If I can put one touch of a rosy sunset into the life of any man or woman of this village, I shall feel that I have worked with God” (Annals, page 11).
It’s this, according to MacDonald, that the Bible is all about. Our vicar Walton muses, “I thought to myself that if I could get them to like poetry and beautiful things in words, it would not only do them good, but help them to see what is in the Bible, and therefore to love it more” (page 114). He suggests that too much of the reading of the Bible is wooden and stultifying: “All reading of the Bible,” says Walton, “is not reading of the Word” (page 81). Again, quoting Walton, “My own conviction is that the poetry is the deepest in us, and that the prose is only broken-down poetry” (page 60).
The Bible, along with much else, trains us to see the beauty of God, but unlike many of his contemporaries, the beauty of God was not found primarily in the sublime, in those things which are terrible in their majesty, but in the small and ordinary things of life. MacDonald’s spirituality is a spirituality of ordinary life.
A central character in Annals is the woodworker, Thomas Weir. (I wonder if MacDonald means to pun on the name of the Scottish common-sense philosopher, Thomas Reid.) Every time, Walton, the vicar of the parish, approaches Weir’s workshop, he smells the sweet scent of sawn wood and the novelist lingers on the tools by Weir in his trade. It’s in Weir’s care in shaping the wood, whether it’s a coffin for his sister or the spoke of cartwheel, that the glory of God is manifested.
For MacDonald, the honest worker and the honest doubts of that honest woman or man, do not stand in the way of their spiritual journey towards God. They will get there in the end. In fact, their honesty will stand them in good stead: “A [person] may be on the way to truth, just in virtue of [their] doubting” (page 35). Those who will not get there are the dilettantes, the people for whom theology is all head and no heart. Of such a person, the vicar Walton says, “He could make things, but he could not grow anything.”
In the end for MacDonald, it’s not so much what you think that determines one’s spiritual life; it’s what you love. Or whether you love: “To the loving soul alone does the Father reveal Himself, for love alone can understand Him.” And love begins with honoring what God has made, whether the creation or work or one’s neighbor: “When you have learned to honour anything, love is not far off” (page 5).
I linger on MacDonald—and there is more, much more—because it’s this capacious, gracious faith that seems to me to be slipping away from us, from those of us who are part of conservative churches like the Christian Reformed Church of which I am a part. We have fallen increasingly into division, and that division is fueled by a spirituality that breathes none of the openness and grace of MacDonald.
It–the severe spirituality of which I write—lacks MacDonald’s humility—a humility that acknowledges that we live among our spiritual betters. In Annals, the first person the new vicar Walton meets is Old Rogers, an illiterate former seaman who speaks in what are often indecipherable nautical metaphors, but whose deep spirituality anchors Walton’s own growing life with God. Old Rogers is a person with his feet on the ground and his eyes on the glory all around him. We often find such people, our spiritual betters, among people the institutional church has rejected.
Old Rogers is contrasted in the novel with a dissenting minister, Mr. Templeton, who is described as “a very worthy man of considerable erudition but of extreme views . . . upon insignificant points” (200). Templeton’s is a theology divorced from life, a theology whose only virtue is its consistency, but consistency that takes no account of the infinite love and grace of God.
It’s been my long experience in the church that people are frequently better than their theology. They may believe theologically in a God who cannot make peace with his creatures except by demanding the death of his own son, but the God to whom they pray and whom they worship is larger than this and more beautiful. They may believe theologically that the Bible is all about the rules and that, therefore, on their reading, people whose sexuality does not resemble their own are condemned, but show them such a person, and they will love them nevertheless. They will love what they think God cannot love, thereby making themselves unwittingly better than their the god of their theology.
But none of this is necessary. The theological line of which MacDonald is a part is not some strange and eccentric line far from the center of the faith; it is the center of the faith. This is the gospel. This is what Jesus preached and for which he died. It’s those who insist on separating God’s love from God’s justice who represent a strange faith, far from the faith of the Bible.
In our denominational life, let’s welcome again the sweet and hopeful spirit of the likes of George MacDonald. We will be better for it.