George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles

Incarnation, Doubt, and Reenchantment

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Timothy Larsen
Hansen Lectureship Series
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic Press
    , November
     2018.
     150 pages.
     $16.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780830853731.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Timothy Larsen’s George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles: Incarnation, Doubt, Reenchantment comes as a welcome addition to the growing body of work on 19th century writer, scholar, and theologian George MacDonald. Larsen’s study situates MacDonald within his 19th century religious context, detailing the way MacDonald’s writings respond to Victorian ideas and debates concerning the emphasis on incarnation over atonement, the relationship between faith and doubt, and the role of suffering in sanctification. Each of Larsen’s three essays is followed by a brief response from, respectively, James Edward Beitler III, Richard Hughes Gibson, and Jill Paláez Baumgartner. The book’s discursive structure, as well as each scholar’s pleasantly conversational tone, draws the reader into what feels like a warmly collegiate atmosphere where the discussion is both stimulating and accessible. 

The first of the essays, “George MacDonald in the Age of the Incarnation,” considers the way in which MacDonald’s theology privileged the incarnation over the atonement, and the impact that this emphasis had on his fictional work––particularly his works of fantasy. Larsen draws upon Boyd Hilton’s division of the 19th century into two parts, the “Age of Atonement” and the “Age of the Incarnation,” noting that the division was one that had also been identified by the Victorians themselves. Larsen describes MacDonald as a “fine representative of the Age of the Incarnation” (28)––not because of his Christmas-themed poems and stories (although there were many), but because of the theological themes he emphasizes throughout his life and writings. One such theme is the importance of being born again as a child. Larsen connects this idea to Victorian notions of Christmas, which placed children at the center of the celebration. One of the traditions involved in celebrating the season was the reading or telling of ghost stories or fairytales ‘round the Christmas hearth. Larsen points out that MacDonald’s first adult fantasy novel, Phantastes (1858), was published around Christmastime, and that, in works such as Adela Cathcart (1864), MacDonald draws more explicit connections between fairytales and the spiritual value of childlikeness.

Turning to the well-trodden theme of Victorian faith and doubt in the book’s second essay, Larsen argues that the presence of doubt in the 19th century was not an indicator of faith’s decline, but rather a sign of its vitality. Larsen suggests that MacDonald “champions a better way for Christians to respond to doubt” (52) than some of his forebears and contemporaries had hitherto provided, for MacDonald believed that doubt could be a significant step on the path to knowing God. MacDonald’s response to doubt lies, in part, with what Larsen terms the “Romantic Road” (61): the belief that nature, poetry, music, and even human beauty may eventually lead to Christian salvation. The “Romantic” of Larsen’s Romantic Road is, of course, a reference to Romanticism, which Larsen demonstrates, had a significant influence upon MacDonald’s thought. For MacDonald, the other, and more direct, way of dealing with doubt is, as Larsen puts it, “to set aside perplexing theologies and theologians and start afresh with the Son of God incarnate” (67). Larsen’s subsequent discussion of MacDonald’s approach to scripture (he privileged the gospels, but held a high regard for the entire Bible), and the proper response to it (to trust Jesus, even in uncertainty, by obeying his words), is both nuanced and enlightening.

Larsen’s final essay on “George MacDonald and the Reenchantment of the World” provides a delineation of MacDonald’s understanding of the sanctifying role of suffering. The expositiondeals with MacDonald’s view on the role of divine providence, the spiritual source of physical ailments, and the possibility of continued sanctification in the afterlife. Larsen’s comparison of sanctification with fairytale-like transformation is particularly compelling, and draws attention to one of the strengths of MacDonald’s writing: his innovative and deeply theological works of fantasy. Larsen’s study is primarily focused upon points of historical theology, and this is certainly its strength. That being said, the essay might have benefited from a title change, or a more extensive treatment of the idea of “reenchantment,” as the discussion of the theme near the end seems more of an afterthought than a substantial part of the argument. 

My main critique of Larsen’s book concerns some misleading claims he makes in his final essay. For example, he argues that, contrary to “a personal mythology started by George MacDonald himself,” and perpetuated in secondary sources ever since, MacDonald’s pastorate failed, not because his narrow-minded congregation disliked his theology, but because he was a bad pastor (96-97). While this may well have some elements of truth, the broadness of the claim threatens to undermine previous elements of Larsen’s study. Specifically, it contradicts his first essay’s argument that the atonement/incarnation divide was often a generational one, and his suggestion that this division between old and young had bearing upon MacDonald’s failure to hold his post as minister of the Congregational church in Arundel because its members found their young minister’s theology threateningly “progressive” (18). Additionally, some of the evidence Larsen uses to support his claims concerning MacDonald’s poor pastoral skills should be read with caution. For instance, Larsen writes that MacDonald “mocked the working-class accent of a member of his congregation and would mimic his public prayers” (99). To substantiate this claim, Larsen cites extracts from a letter written by MacDonald and published in one of his biographies. The letter, however, was not written by MacDonald at all, but by his wife, nor was the person in question a working-class member of his congregation, but a fellow-minister who had come to preach in MacDonald’s stead while he was absent. The public prayer was a dinnertime prayer at the MacDonalds’ house. MacDonald may have left his post as a minister, but he continued his pastoral role throughout his life, helping those who struggled with, among other things, suffering and doubt. 

Overall, Larsen’s book provides an excellent and accessible introduction to these and other key aspects of MacDonald’s thought, and will be of interest to students and scholars of 19th century religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amanda Vernon is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Lancaster.`

Date of Review: 
June 18, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College.

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