George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles (The Ken and Jean Hansen Lectureship Series), Timothy Larsen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018.
Summary: Three lectures on the works of George MacDonald with responses that focus on the miraculous in these works, particularly with regard to the incarnation, faith amid doubt, and the re-enchantment of life.
Wheaton College is the home of the Marion E. Wade Center, which houses materials by and about seven British authors: Owen Barfield, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy l. Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Each year the center hosts an annual lecture series named in honor of Ken and Jean Hansen, who were instrumental in establishing the center, which honors the founder of ServiceMaster, with whom Ken Hansen worked.
That is background to this book, containing the 2018 lectures by Timothy Larsen, a professor of history and Christian Thought at Wheaton, and three responses by Wheaton colleagues. The lectures focus broadly on the theme of the miraculous.
The first of these centers on the incarnation. Larsen notes a theological shift in the nineteenth century from a focus on the atonement, the death of Christ and its implications, to the incarnation, the coming of Christ in the flesh. Once consequence was a shift in focus from Easter to Christmas being the great Christian holiday and Larsen notes how this is evident in many of MacDonald’s work focusing around Christmas. Accompanying this is a focus on the love of God in MacDonald’s works. James Edward Beitler III in his response elaborates the theme of incarnation in Phantastes, the two natures of Christ, and the idea of embodied thought.
The second lecture considers doubt and the idea of “the crisis of doubt” in Victorian writing. MacDonald believed in honest or holy doubt that was an expression of faith and maintained strong friendships with notorious doubts like Tennyson (e.g. “In Memoriam”). He proposes that this is integral to a process of reaching a deeper, more settled Christian faith, as occurs in his character Thomas Wingfold. Most significant for MacDonald are the times his characters trust and obey in the face of doubt. In MacDonald’s own life, this process accounts for his profound belief in miracles, including the resurrection, which sustained him in the loss of two children. Richard Hughes Gibson responds in considering how this works out in MacDonald’s ideas about poetry.
The third and final lecture focuses on the theme of re-enchantment and centers on the image of the “rosefire” in The Princess and the Goblin. MacDonald connected this image to God’s sanctifying work, the love that purifies and explores how this idea runs through MacDonald’s fantasies. Along the way, we also learn about his unhappy clerical career and his ideas about purgation, if not purgatory. Jill Pelaez Baumgaertner keys off two mentions of poetry and draws in the work of Luther, Donne, Blake, Richard John Neuhaus, and Frederick Buechner to show how fairy tales were a way into reality, particularly the reality of eschatological hope, for MacDonald.
This is a delightful addition to the library of any MacDonald fan. It struck me that it offers yet another example of the truth we often find in fiction. Personally, the second lecture on doubt spoke the most to me. I work with those whose research leads, as it would any thinking person, to questions and doubts. Too often, I believe, we confuse faith with certainty, which is faith’s opposite. We miss how honest or even holy doubt itself, especially when accompanied by the obedience that trusts that what one has believed is so, even in the face of questions, is perhaps a singular form of faith.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.