George MacDonald in the Age in Miracles
IVP Academic, 2018. 142pp.
As a book reviewer, it has been typical for me to present books that “caught my eye,” that have some kind of special spark or significance to me, and then present them as I have found them to be, with all their strengths and imperfections. Some meet or exceed expectations and others have fallen woefully low.
But I must put this present fare from Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor Christian Thought at Wheaton College, in another book-review category altogether. As a lifelong admirer of George MacDonald, as a member of a grad school Bible study who called ourselves “The George MacDonald Fan Club,” and as someone who has spent considerable intellectual energy on MacDonald over the past three years, I picked up this volume knowing that my response to it would be emotionally and intellectually charged. There is simply too much at stake for us MacDonald-ites to write in the conventional “unbiased uninvolved” manner. I knew when I requested it for review that this would either be a work of academic excellence or it would fall into a deep vat of mediocrity.
Refreshing, Invigorating Scholarship At Its Best
One reason why such a book could be so dichotomous has been the absolute horrid state of MacDonald scholarship in the preceding decade. For every quality essay or article or book section entry, there are at least ten more that are poorly-written, poorly-researched, and poorly-implemented. This is not unique to MacDonald, of course; it is symptomatic throughout the literary scholarship on fantasy writers in general. One sees the same few threads, the same few arguments, repeated ad nauseum, until the literary scholar begins to question: Is it worth continuing to study fantasy at all? Often it can feel like the study of certain fantasy writers (including MacDonald alongside Carroll or Lewis or Tolkien, etc.) has gone as far as it needs to be and that there is nothing worthwhile to ask anymore.
Timothy Larsen, however, brings some incredible new resources to the conversations surrounding MacDonald. Working from the angle of a historian of Victorian religious culture, Larsen unfolds three accounts for how MacDonald’s thought — explicitly stated in his Unspoken Sermons and private letters; implicitly deployed in his fictions, fairy tales, and fantasies — engages and contends with the broader socio-theological context of Victorian England. The MacDonald who emerges from this historicizing framework is a more robust, more realistic, and more human figure than the one most MacDonald-ites are familiar with (e.g. the Christ-like MacDonald of Lewis’ The Great Divorce).
For the first time in my experience reading MacDonald scholarship — and, for full disclosure, I wrote a full-length master’s thesis on the man! — I actually felt re-invigorated to do more research, more reading, and more investigating. Whereas so many scholars in MacDonald’s field take him and his words at face-value, Larsen’s studies here really uncover the subtext and context of MacDonald’s life and work in such a way that makes his writings come to life in an even more vigorous fashion.
Re-enchantment in a Secularizing, Victorian World
The format of the book follows a series of three lectures, with respondents, written by Larsen for the Hansen Lectureship Series at Wheaton College. Each lecture takes on a theme of Victorian culture and follows that theme in MacDonald’s writings. The themes here should seem pretty familiar to us, as they are themes that have recurred throughout modernity: the tension between Redemption and Incarnation; the conflict between Faith and Doubt; and, lastly, the need for Re-enchantment in a Dis-enchanted world. These lecture-essays constitute something like a Charles-Taylor-in-miniature. In fact, setting aside the need for a thoroughly-philosophical account, I’d recommend Larsen’s essays here as a suitable (and more readable) replacement for A Secular Age.
Larsen’s familiarity with Victorian culture allows him the ability to comment on MacDonald with verve and context, constantly reminding readers that the Christianized Victorian world of our Dickensian memories is an illusion at best. MacDonald is pictured as an artful enchanter in a world where the Industrial Revolution’s cultural upheaval has brought to question the assumptions of Christian Britain. Various theological crises of the day and age are put under the microscope. I especially enjoyed the interplay of the Evangelical movement’s newfound (at that time) love for the doctrine of the Incarnation in contrast to their previous dedication to the doctrine of Redemption. MacDonald’s deep love for Christmas, privileging it beyond Easter, fits in a broader socio-theological conversation debated in Victorian Evangelical (and Nonconformist) churches.
I have a lot more to say about this small book. The respondents’ short essays are each worth the read, especially when they “improvise on the theme” rather than simply extrapolating from Larsen’s lecture. Even though a respondents’ essay is considered a “minor” work in academic circles, I’d commend each of these three essays as quality MacDonald work and more interesting than most of the academic work already done on him. Larsen’s emphasis on the realist work of MacDonald — David Elginbrod, Adela Cathcart, What’s Mine’s Mine, and Thomas Wingfold, Curate — fills out a field of MacDonald discourse that is often neglected, while his historical perspectives put MacDonald’s works on the imagination (from A Dish of Orts, etc.) in conversation with his context, something I personally think crucial for understanding his writings. There are even some surprises in store for long-time MacDonald fans (for instance, Larsen refutes Greville MacDonald’s assertion that his father was removed from the ministry for his theology).
Altogether, while I especially recommend this collection for MacDonald scholarship, it is a good read for MacDonald-ites of all shapes and sizes. Whether a reader has an academic or personal interest in MacDonald, they’ll find that Larsen’s lecture-essays bring a new depth, breadth, and vibrancy to a writer whose work is already deep and mysterious.
I would like to thank InterVarsity Press for sending me a review copy of this work. As with all these reviews, I was not required to write a good review, and all the opinions expressed within are my own.