Book Write-Up: George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles

Timothy Larsen. George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles: Incarnation, Doubt, and Reenchantment. IVP Academic, 2018. See here to purchase the book.

George MacDonald was a nineteenth century Scottish preacher, whose works had a profound influence on C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, G.K. Chesterton, and Madeleine L’Engle. This book is a collection of lectures about aspects of MacDonald’s life and thought. Timothy Larsen is the author of most of them, but James Edward Beitler III, Richard Hughes Gibson, and Jill Palaez Baumgaertner. All of them are scholars at Wheaton College.

The back cover of this book states: “Larsen explores how, throughout his life and writings, MacDonald sought to counteract skepticism and to herald instead the reality of the miraculous.” Well, not entirely, at least not according to my impression. The book is excellent, but, if you are expecting MacDonald to be presented as a classical Christian apologist, you may be disappointed. MacDonald celebrated doubt as a possible path to authentic faith, in an age when people were starting to become more publicly honest about their doubts concerning the Christian faith. MacDonald was also a romantic, who believed that nature could inspire the worship of God, but who shied away from arguments for the existence of God that appealed to nature. At the same time, in one passage in this book, it is speculated that MacDonald may have regarded one of his character’s gullibility regarding fairy stories as preferable to wholesale doubt, as the former view is more enchanting.

I have read some of the works with which the book interacts, in Michael Phillips’s edited versions. Still, this book taught me a lot that I did not know before. Larsen talks about how the celebration of Christmas changed throughout history, and how MacDonald’s thought interacted with that. MacDonald’s surly personality is a prominent point of discussion in this book, as one of the essays argues that MacDonald’s failure as a pastor was due, not to his unorthodox beliefs, as that did not stop conservative churches from inviting him to speak. Rather, he was simply a bad pastor, who really wanted to be a poet. Imagine Sheldon Cooper in the pulpit, only with the desire to be a poet. Although MacDonald repudiated Calvinism, he still had a robust view of divine providence, viewing afflictions (even his own) as purifying agents from the hand of God. But he also had the idea that a person’s doctrinal beliefs could somehow influence his or her physical health, which reminded me of “Word of Faith” teachings.

When the book discussed topics that I had encountered before, it did so in an edifying and insightful manner. This includes MacDonald’s belief in postmortem cleansing and his preference for the Gospels over other books of the Bible, even though he did not reject the other biblical books. The book does not agree with MacDonald’s universalism. Larsen cites MacDonald’s view that God will utterly purify people in the afterlife before letting them into heaven and remarks that one need not be a universalist to appreciate the value of holiness. Maybe, but how many will become perfect for heaven in this life? Baumgaertner then offers her own Lutheran perspective, saying that “we cannot pursue” “holiness and sanctification” but “can accept it as it is freely given to us through Christ and respond in gratitude with good works” (page 132).

The book perhaps could have gone into a little more detail about how MacDonald thought nature pointed to God, by giving examples. Still, this is an informative and edifying book.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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