Introduction to the 2006 Bethany House publication, The Truth in Jesus, a compilation of edited George MacDonald sermons, with commentary by Michael Phillips
When a man recognized as perhaps the most influential Christian author of the twentieth century speaks of his spiritual “master,” one might naturally assume the spiritual elder to be as well known as his protégé. Curiously, this has never been the case in the spiritual relationship between C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and George MacDonald (1824-1905). Though Lewis persistently pointed to MacDonald, not only as the man whose writings began his own pilgrimage out of atheism toward Christianity but also as his lifelong literary spiritual mentor, the name and writings of MacDonald have remained in relative obscurity, comprising but a footnote in most Lewis studies.
Millions of readers the world over are fascinated with and enamored by Lewis’s ideas, his spiritual perspectives, and his method of communication. Yet few seem curious where those ideas, perspectives, and his wide-ranging breadth as a writer and thinker came from.
How did C.S. Lewis become the man he was?
The answer is a simple one, and we have it from Lewis’s own lips. He became the man he was, the Christian he was, the writer he was, from learning at George MacDonald’s feet. From MacDonald he learned faith, he learned doctrine, he learned obedience, he learned a perspective on Scripture, he learned the importance of obedience, he learned of God’s character, he learned the power of communicating through fiction and fairy tale. This is not to say that Lewis would not have been a literary force in his own right. But MacDonald’s influence is so pervasive through his thought and writings that it is impossible to separate Lewis’s own gifts from their roots. Lewis credits MacDonald as foundational in every book he ever wrote.
With this series, begun in 2005 to commemorate the hundred year centenary of George MacDonald’s death, modern readers are presented for the first time with newly formatted editions of MacDonald’s powerful non-fiction thought, drawn mostly from MacDonald’s volumes of “Unspoken Sermons,” about which Lewis commented, “My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another.” It is my sincere hope and prayer that these new editions will exercise an equal impact in the lives of their readers as these ideas did in the life of C.S. Lewis. For George MacDonald’s life-changing message is one that must be told anew to every generation. The call of MacDonald’s life and the essential cry of his heart through the body of his work is a call to a knowledge of God’s truth, a call to a lifestyle of simplicity and obedience, and a call for Christians to step into their destiny as the sons and daughters of a good and loving Father.
The editing of these selections that follow in The Truth in Jesus is as minimal as I have been able to make it. However, to extract the ore from MacDonald’s writings does require some effort. There are those who take exception to the idea of “editing” another’s work at all. But the fact that MacDonald’s originals are cumbersome seems justification enough. There may be some who do not find them so, but I am not one of them. I find them difficult. Thus my goal is to make MacDonald’s wisdom and prophetic insight about God readable and grasp-able to anyone willing to put in the effort to understand his occasionally controversial ideas. It is my hope that the minimal editing I have employed with these writings will help you discover these rich veins within MacDonald’s thought.
This is not to say, even now, that this will be a light read. MacDonald’s ideas and processes of thought are occasionally so profound that nothing makes them easy. We are not used to having to think quite so hard for our spiritual food. We live in a superficial age where doctrinal formula and personal experience are the parameters by which spirituality is judged. MacDonald’s unique perspective takes some getting used to. I find that many passages require two or three readings. But I also find spiritual gold awaiting me, sometimes buried deep but always ready to shine out brilliantly from the page when suddenly I see it.
Some will still wonder why such editing is necessary. For two reasons: The complex progression of MacDonald’s ideas, and the elaborately entangled grammatical constructions in which he expressed these ideas.
I would not presume to call MacDonald’s logic other than straightforward. I think I am on safe ground to say, however, that as his logic progresses it brings in its train multitudinous tangential modifiers and explanations and offshoot points that it occasionally becomes difficult to follow the primary sequence of ideas. Once or twice a page, it seems, I have to stop to read a lengthy section four or five times simply to “get it.”
Additionally, MacDonald’s grammar and syntax can become extremely involved and can itself impede understanding. Sentences of 100-120 words are common, and occasionally reach over 200.
As a single example, the following sentence from “The Truth” comes to us with 187 words, 13 commas, 6 semi-colons, and 3 dashes:
When the man bows down before a power that can account for him, a power to whom he is no mystery as he is to himself; a power that knows whence he came and whither he is going; who knows why he loves this and hates that, why and where he began to go wrong; who can set him right, longs indeed to set him right, making of him a creature to look up to himself without shadow of doubt, anxiety or fear, confident as a child whom his father is leading by the hand to the heights of happy-making truth, knowing that where he is wrong, the father is right and will set him right; when the man feels his whole being in the embrace of self-responsible paternity–then the man is bursting into his flower; then the truth of his being, the eternal fact at the root of his new name, his real nature, his idea–born in God at first, and responsive to the truth, the being of God, his origin–begins to show itself; then his nature is almost in harmony with itself.
Obviously we understand what MacDonald is trying to express. But the ideas can be more easily grasped with some restructuring and reordering in more straightforward fashion. This is especially important when one is attempting to interest new readers in MacDonald’s ideas, or when one is encountering him for the first time.
In the first chapter which follows you will find the above not shortened at all, but actually lengthened to 210 words, and restructured into four sentences and hopefully a little easier to grasp. This is probably a poor example in that one of those four sentences comprises 87 words, and even that is usually too long. But it is important that you see what it is I am attempting to do here. In other instances I might break up such a single knotted sentence into six or eight shorter ones. The important point is that nothing has been “left out.” Most of what I have done is more “structural” than editorial. Clarity, not brevity, has been the goal. I hope to make MacDonald’s mind and heart more accessible to us all without either long sentences or my editing getting in the way.
MacDonald’s ideas are here expressed, therefore, if not the exact words in which he wrote them, in something very close to it. Where MacDonald’s originals are straightforward and clear, they are reproduced without change. Where the word-thickets are complicated and the sentences long, then editing has been done but most of his actual words kept intact.
Finally, the sub-headings within the text are my own additions, again, provided as an aid to understanding without materially altering the text.
It seems only fitting, in preparing us at last to move on to the “main course,” that we listen again to Lewis as he describes what made these writings so unique and powerful in his own spiritual development:
“In Macdonald it is always the voice of conscience that speaks. He addresses the will: the demand for obedience, for ‘something to be neither more nor less nor other than done,’ is incessant…The Divine Sonship is the key-conception which unites all the different elements of his thought. I dare not say that he is never in error; but to speak plainly I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined…All the sermons are suffused with a spirit of love and wonder.” (Introduction to George MacDonald, An Anthology, pp. 18-20)