Book Review: George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles

George MacDonald in the Age in Miracles
Timothy Larsen
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).img_2889

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.

Timothy LarsenLarsen’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.

Final Thoughts

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 ElginbrodAdela CathcartWhat’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.

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Book Review: Disruptive Witness

Disruptive Witness
Alan Noble
InterVarsity Press, 2018. 189pp.

It is quite apparent to anyone paying much attention that the world of late-modern Western capitalism is ever-the-more distracted, confusing, and messy. And, in the midst of all that messiness, the Western Christian Church finds itself languishing. It is all-too-easy to point the fingers of “poor doctrine” or “weak discipleship” when this languishing is occurring across the spectrums of “good,” “bad,” and “ugly.” For ages evangelicals have pointed at the mainline’s decline in membership and blamed it on their politics; recent polls show that the Southern Baptist Convention  – America’s largest evangelical denomination – is on just-as-serious a decline.

Disruptive Witness

Perhaps, then, the decline of the Church in the modernized, secularized West has far less to do with that of weakening or stagnant or calcifying dogmas, perhaps it has far less to do with where one lands on the mainline-to-evangelical plotline, and more to do with our context. Maybe the ground has shifted under our feet, and we do not yet recognize it.

A Secular (and Liturgical) Age

Alan Noble, in his debut work, sees this trajectory, and, translating the work of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies for a more general audience, takes careful aim in how to dismantle and address the impacts and effects of the secular culture. Especially for readers unfamiliar with Taylor’s landmark work, Noble’s summations will be invaluable general theological-philosophical introductions (A Secular Age is, after all, *that* daunting 800+ page book on your shelf that you spent $40-$50 on, but are unsure you’ll be reading anytime soon), as will Noble’s adjustments to the commonly-received “worldview” terminology used by evangelical missiologists (ad nauseum).

By articulating a missiology in the midst of Taylor, Smith, and in contradistinction to “worldview” approaches, Noble very carefully – and successfully – attempts to carve out an evangelism-within-the-secular that does not reproduce the secular’s own methods. This is tricky business, as he himself admits, since so much of the Church’s evangelistic language is coded with modern, secular values. Noble uses a bit of self-deprecation to good effect, and his illustrations function quite well to paint the picture of the problem of Christian evangelism under-modernity.

Double Movements

O Alan Noble.jpg

The second half of Noble’s work is devoted to praxis, and here we find a little bit of stumbling. I think the first instance is simply a clunky term. Maybe he’s channeling a bit of Charles Taylor here – neither “the immanent frame” nor “nova effect” are great turns-of-phrase in technical philosophy (this is the discipline with deep neologisms like being-in-itselfDasein, and noumenon, after all) – but “double movement,” although I feel like I understood it implicitly, doesn’t quite ring with the experience it attempts to circumscribe.

That being said, ignoring the terminological clunkiness, the double movement is indeed a crucial insight for how to apply a missiological response to Taylor. If we live within a frame-of-reference in which all existence is referred back to the immanent materiality, then developing practices that allow us to adopt a stance of recognizing and responding to the transcendent in everyday life is crucial. (Okay, I guess the previous sentence makes “immanent frame” useful; I recant. “Nova effect” is still dumb, though.) Noble provides some sketches of how to accomplish this both within individual, personal lives and, crucially, in ecclesial contexts. In the latter he borrows heavily from J.K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies, so those familiar with Smith’s claims in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom won’t find much groundbreaking here.

Aesthetics as Disruption

But what I personally found most compelling about Noble’s praxis were his overtures to the power of the aesthetic world – art, music, film, literature – and its ability to cause disruption in our lives. This is the point at which Noble’s own speciality, English literature, shines through. His brief vignettes on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and The Road, a reflection via Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter, some engagements with film and music, are among the highlights of how Noble understands the aesthetic to serve as disruption. One autobiographical example from his professorship and the ability of 20th-century literature to disrupt our assurances was particularly telling, and I, for one, deeply appreciate his willingness to confront unhealthy evangelical attitudes towards art head-on.

Final Thoughts

All-in-all, I found Disruptive Witness to be an excellent introduction for both students and evangelists on some of the basic frameworks of what witness in a modern world must look like. It does leave me hungry for more – but I chalk a lot of that up to my own familiarity with the work of James K.A. Smith, which is no fault of Noble’s! – but on its own, given to campus ministers, evangelists, and pastors young and old, this book serves as an excellent starting-point for learning and discerning how to bear witness in a secular world without compromising to its values.

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.