Prepared in 2010 for FaithWords Publishers upon the publication of their first Michael Phillips title, Angel Harp
Michael Phillips (1946-), Californian writer and best-selling novelist, is one of those responsible for reawakening worldwide interest in George MacDonald through publication of his edited and original editions of MacDonald’s books.
Son of World War II Army Air Corps veteran Denver Phillips and wife (“Rosie the Riveter”) Eloise, Phillips was born and raised in the small northern California university town of Arcata. There he attended Humboldt State College (now University), where he competed at a high level in Track and Field and earned a degree (1969) in Physics, Mathematics, and Languages, following with post-graduate work in Education and History. Descended from the initial Quaker movement in England and the first Quaker immigrants to New Jersey in the early 1600s, and of an unbroken Quaker and evangelical ancestral line since that time, Phillips was raised in the protestant tradition of the 1950s and charismatic movement of the 1960s.
A seminal experience with God in 1969 in Germany, largely prompted by the writings of Quaker Thomas Kelly, changed the direction of Phillips’ life forever.
In a letter home at the time, Phillips wrote:
“I had read this section on holy obedience before, but all of a sudden it really hit home…it is precisely because I have had and, in fact am still in the process of having, this ‘flaming vision’ that I feel ‘called’ to something beyond what I now know, that I crave coming closer to Christ…the important thing is that I am having a glimpse of the absolute wonder…of the life lived in complete and utter obedience every step of the way to Christ.”
And thus in that memorable summer of 1969, Michael Phillips began to pray words that provided clarity and focus for the rest of his life, “God…make me like Jesus.”
As he did, the power of books and writing to influence lives toward Christlikeness, as Kelly’s had his, struck deep root within him. Without realizing it at the time, the course of his future was set.
Judy (Carter) Phillips (1949-), daughter of World War II veterans Robert and Cherokee Carter was born in Ashland, Oregon and lived the early years of her life in southern Oregon before the family moved to the San Bernardino mountains of southern California. Also of Quaker immigrant roots (to Pennsylvania a generation after Michael’s), Judy’s family line was forever altered when her Quaker great-great-great-great-great grandfather Ellis Harlan traveled to North Carolina where he married Cata’quinn Kingfisher, daughter of the most beloved of all Cherokee women Nanye’hi, niece of the great Cherokee chief Attacullaculla. Since that time the colorful tradition of her mother’s descent from Cherokee chiefs Moytoy and Attacullaculla, Nancy Ward, and others has remained preeminent in the family’s identity. Whereas Michael points to the English names Berkeley, Packer, Borton, Woolman, Hubbard, Varnell, and Clark in his ancestry, Judy’s descent is full of such legendary Cherokees as Standing Turkey, Dreadful Water (aka Chief Grey Eagle), White Owl, Dragging Canoe, Doublehead, Sequoyah, Cornblossom, Tame Doe, Drags His Blanket, and Fivekiller.
Judy’s ancestors left North Carolina in 1838 on the infamous Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, where her grandmother was raised in Indian territory at the end of the 19th century. Judy’s father, Robert Carter, a classical and jazz pianist and musician in the 1940s Big Band era, met wife Cherokee during their mutual service in the Coast Guard during the second world war. Thus, music and her native American roots combined with the church tradition of her upbringing as the predominant influences of Judy’s early life.
The church culture for Christian young people was much different in the 1950s and 1960s than today. To be a Christian was neither “in” nor “hip.” No Christian music for young people existed. Youth groups were small and brought no status. Identifying oneself as a Christian in high school, therefore, required a price, a sacrifice, and a distinct detachment from the ways of the world that has become blurred in the very different context of today’s vibrant and socially acceptable evangelicalism. The “Christian” books that were available were chiefly missionary stories. There were few Christian schools, no mega-churches, no worship music. Many young people of today would look upon the environment of those times as dull and old-fashioned. There existed a cost to commitment.
It was in this environment that both Michael and Judy were steeped. Both responded in their own ways at a young age to the “invitations” of their churches, and that commitment sent down roots that extended deep and never left them. They did not choose Christianity as a social convenience, but as a permanent way of life, to which they were dedicated wherever it led them.
Judy moved north from southern California in 1967 to attend Humboldt State. It was there she met her future husband soon after his return from his life-changing summer in Germany in 1969. Michael and Judy quickly realized they shared much in common in their outlook on Christian ministry and the total commitment of their lives and futures to Christ. Unity in the body of Christ was one of the singular heart’s cries of both that drew them together. They taught Sunday school classes and Vacation Bible school for different churches in the area–especially visiting some of the smaller churches where the need was greatest. At Humboldt State, they were instrumental in coordinating joint activities between the campus evangelical and Catholic student groups, including a jointly sponsored week-end retreat. As they shared all these activities, Michael and Judy knew they had, in the other, discovered a “best friend for life.” Judy graduated in 1971 with a degree in Music Education, which she also followed with graduate work in elementary Education. They were married that same year, in October of 1971.
As one of the first outgrowths of their many shared priorities and Michael’s vision of the importance of books and writing, while students at Humboldt, Michael and Judy began what would become the One Way Book Shop as a part-time informal source for Christian books and materials for their fellow students. The career plans of both young Phillips were changing dramatically during those years—from Physics (possibly space) research and professional music (harp performance) to teaching and finally to missions. Prior to the explosion of what later came to be termed Christian “ministry” in its many varied forms, primarily two main threads of “full time Christian service” lay open in those days to committed young people desiring to serve God in their lives and careers—the professional “ministry,” and overseas missions. Accordingly, Michael investigated seminaries briefly as one option open to him. With other students from Humboldt, Michael and Judy also attended the Urbana Missionary Conference in 1970, fully expecting a “call” to the mission field or ministry in some form. However, God seemed to continually lead them back toward the “ministry” of books, and the “mission field” of their small bookstore. They returned from Urbana excited about the possibilities by which God could build into the lives of people through books.
Though both subsequently also anticipated careers in teaching, the growth and demands of the infant bookstore continued to alter those plans. As credentialed teachers, both Michael and Judy taught at different times early in their marriage to support the expanding bookstore ministry. Still the idea of missions remained on the table among their prayer-options. From time to time during those years, as they discussed and prayed together and walked through their home, they asked themselves, “Is there anything here we could not let go of, when and if the call came and the Lord said, Go.” The goal of their marriage was to keep life simple and unfettered, to be ready for whatever God might desire of them.
Yet the ministry of the bookstore continued to grow, far beyond their expectations, bringing many of life’s “complexities” along with that growth. From its small beginnings, the One Way Book Shop grew eventually into a ministry with five Christian bookstores in northern California and southern Oregon which the Phillips operated for 35 years, closing their last store in 2004.
Love of books, history, a passion to communicate, and an intense curiosity about the deeper ideas and implications of Christian belief, as well as his affection for the writings of Thomas Kelly and C.S. Lewis, along with the Gospel of Mark, led to Michael’s initial writing efforts in the 1970s, which he pursued along with his fledgling bookstore enterprise. His manual typewriter clattering away on the counter next to the cash box was a familiar sight to bookstore customers in those early days. Three sons were born to Michael and Judy in 1975 (twins) and 1977. Michael’s first books covered a wide variety of topics (time management, family issues, business, apologetics, and church life). They also included major biographies of Olympian and former Kansas congressman Jim Ryun (Harper and Row) and Victorian man of letters, Scottish favorite son and Huntly native George MacDonald (Bethany House.) By 1982, at the age of 35, Michael Phillips was the author of nine published non-fiction books.
Over the following decades, Michael and Judy’s primary commitment, alongside the ministry of their bookstore in the Christian community, was to their family. They homeschooled for fifteen years and were among the noted pioneers in that movement, and Michael included his family in all his writing endeavors. The five Phillips each made contributions to the books being produced, helping to write certain chapters and develop many memorable Phillips’ characters. When stuck at a difficult point in a manuscript, Michael might interrupt the math or history or music or logic studies then in progress with Judy and their three boys, gather everyone together and say, “Here is the situation, here is my problem…I need ideas.” An hour’s brainstorming session would follow which got whatever book was being written back on track. Each of their sons still points to one character or another and says, “I remember the day I made up that character!”
The close-knit Phillips family provided the energizing core and foundation for all of life. The activities and discussions on and off throughout every day involved all of them together. All five participated in the bookstore and the publishing business, in addition to Michael’s writing. The Phillips traveled together to CBA conventions, Judy and the three boys accompanied Michael to speaking engagements and other appearances, and participated in his research trips. After a year studying German, they spent three months in 1986 working with their friends on the same European farm to which Michael traced his spiritual roots from 1969. A return visit in 1990 saw the Phillips family in East Germany only months after the fall of “the Wall.” Music and running always played a major role in the Phillips household. Judy and other musicians insured that a wide range of varied music lessons were an integral foundation to their home school curriculum. A dedicated runner and volunteer high school coach of a state champion cross country team, Michael and his sons participated together for many years in local and club road races.
Michael and Judy Phillips’ three sons are now grown, and they have three grandchildren. A credentialed and part-time teacher and musician, Judy has operated a harp studio in their home since 1990 that has produced scores of budding young harpists.
Michael’s literary career as one of this generation’s prominent and most prolific Christian authors has been intrinsically linked to his mentor, nineteenth century Scotsman George MacDonald (1824-1905).
Michael and Judy Phillips first discovered MacDonald’s work in the early 1970s through his affiliation with C.S. Lewis (1898-1963), who referred to MacDonald as his “master.” Hearing about MacDonald from a friend, they investigated those few of his books they could find in their local library (the Curdie books, At the Back of the North Wind, and an Elizabeth Yates edited edition of Sir Gibbie). A search for more of his writings from used bookstores and search services followed. They soon recognized in the Scotsman’s writings an altogether unique quality. It was a vision of thought-provoking and theologically challenging Christianity that exposed the fallacy of comfort-zone religion, and forced readers toward practical gospel obedience through intimacy with God’s Father-love. MacDonald conveyed his spiritual priorities and vision through five non-fictional works of sermons and theology, but chiefly through some thirty novels of great power. MacDonald’s characters, the Phillips found, were real and compelling and became lifelong role-models toward the Christlikeness both sought. Most significantly MacDonald presented a vision of God’s nature and character as an infinitely loving and forgiving Father that neither of the Phillips had encountered despite entire lives active in the church. MacDonald energized within them the hunger for a more encompassing Christian belief system than what was offered by many of the “doctrinally correct” formulas in which they had been steeped. Suddenly the gospel was alive with new dynamic practicality. No wonder, they realized, C.S. Lewis’s life had shifted on its axis from his encounter with MacDonald in 1916.
Very personal to Michael and Judy became C.S. Lewis’s words about his own experience:
“It must be more than thirty years ago that I bought—almost unwillingly…—the Everyman edition of Phantastes. A few hours later I knew that I had crossed a great frontier….What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptise…my imagination. It did nothing to my intellect nor (at that time) to my conscience. Their turn came far later and with the help of many other books and men. But when the process was complete…I found that I was still with Macdonald and that he had accompanied me all the way and that I was now at last ready to hear from him much that he could not have told me at that first meeting…
“I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it…
“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.” [C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, An Anthology, pp. 29-30, 20, 18-20.]
Both Phillips realized that, like Lewis before them, their perspectives on their Christian faith were being dramatically refashioned by their encounter with “the Scotsman.” Michael often explains MacDonald’s impact by pointing to the bold and insightful power inherent in the following quote:
Men would understand: they do not care to obey;—understand where it is impossible they should understand save by obeying. They would search into the work of the Lord instead of doing their part in it—thus making it impossible…for themselves to become capable of seeing and understanding what he does. Instead of immediately obeying the Lord of life…they set themselves to question their unenlightened intellects as to his plans for their deliverance….Incapable of understanding the first motions of freedom in themselves, they proceed to interpret the riches of his divine soul in terms of their own beggarly notions, to paraphrase his glorious verse into their own paltry commercial prose; and then, in the growing presumption of imagined success, to insist upon their neighbours’ acceptance of their distorted shadows of ‘the plan of salvation’….They delay setting their foot on the stair which alone can lead them to the house of wisdom, until they shall have determined the material and mode of its construction. For the sake of knowing, they postpone that which alone can enable them to know, and substitute for the true understanding which lies beyond, a false persuasion that they already understand. They will not accept, that is, act upon, their highest privilege, that of obeying the Son of God. It is on them that do his will, that the day dawns; to them the day-star arises in their hearts. Obedience is the soul of knowledge.
By obedience…I mean obedience to the will of the Father, however revealed in our conscience. God forbid I should seem to despise understanding. The New Testament is full of urgings to understand. Our whole life, to be life at all, must be a growth in understanding. What I cry out upon is the misunderstanding that comes of man’s endeavour to understand while not obeying. Upon obedience our energy must be spent; understanding will follow. Not anxious to know our duty, or knowing it and not doing it, how shall we understand that which only a true heart and a clean soul can ever understand?…Until a man begins to obey, the light that is in him is darkness. (George MacDonald, The Hope of the Gospel, “Salvation From Sin.”)
Dismayed to learn, however, that in spite of Lewis’s persistent and outspoken efforts, MacDonald’s major fiction, as well as most other titles, were unavailable, Phillips embarked on an ambitious lifetime project to re-introduce the world to the remarkable Victorian author through many different means. What Lewis had begun sporadically, and Wheaton’s Wade Center and Clyde Kilby and Rolland Hein had continued, Phillips determined to bring to completion—nothing less than a complete republication of MacDonald’s corpus in the twentieth century. Toward this end, he envisioned edited versions of MacDonald’s dialect-heavy Scottish novels. The purpose of redacting these masterpieces would be a practical one—hopefully to interest a contemporary publisher (skeptical about dense 500 page Victorian tomes) to publish and promote them, and also to make MacDonald’s stories and spiritual wisdom attractive and compelling to a new and less literarily patient reading audience.
Along with his other writing, Phillips began his initial editing of MacDonald’s Malcolm in the mid 1970s in conjunction with his initial non-fiction writing. Though it took five years and rejections by thirty houses to find a publisher to believe in his own, as well as Lewis’s, vision that MacDonald could speak to new generations, the eventual publication of Phillips’ redacted edition of Malcolm in 1982 (retitled “The Fisherman’s Lady”) was so successful and was received so enthusiastically by the reading public and the MacDonald community, that it led to the eventual publication of twenty-two redacted novels and six non-fiction works that sold over two million copies worldwide and were translated into several foreign languages. The 20th century MacDonald renaissance had begun!
Phillips recounts his own “odyssey”:
“As I look back myself from the present to those years, I find myself echoing Lewis’s words. “It must be more than thirty years ago” when I first discovered George MacDonald in 1971. Like many, the name “MacDonald” came to my own attention first through Lewis, whose Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and The Chronicles of Narnia I had recently discovered…
“At about the same time, a copy of the 1963 edition of Sir Gibbie, wonderfully edited by authoress Elizabeth Yates, whetted my appetite still more…Wee Gibbie’s story captivated me—as it had Yates—in a way that surpassed even what I had read in Lewis. Yates’s skillfully edited Sir Gibbie drew me into a magical world as surely as had my passage through the wardrobe into Narnia a year earlier. Thus began a quest to locate more of the nearly inaccessible works of this nearly forgotten Victorian…
“Within two or three years, my wife and I managed to obtain most of MacDonald’s novels in hundred year old editions through antiquarian bookshops. But it wasn’t enough merely to have them for ourselves. I did not find the idea satisfying merely to “collect and preserve” his books…I wanted to share them. I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to know in MacDonald the wonders that many before us, and now we ourselves, had been fortunate enough to discover. It therefore became my personal passion to find some means to reinvigorate public interest in MacDonald in a yet more widespread way.
“Sharing the belief of many in MacDonald’s singular stature as a Christian thinker, I was convinced that in the right format, and finding a new publication forum, MacDonald’s writings could speak again to new generations as they had in his own time…
“Thus began my own work of editing and redacting MacDonald’s novels in the Yates tradition—in conjunction with the publication of new editions of the same titles in their full-length formats—hopeful that both efforts might exercise a broad and life-changing influence in many lives, and again elevate MacDonald to his rightful place of stature as a Christian thinker. “(Introduction to Your Life in Christ, 2005)
Recognized as a man with a keen insight into MacDonald’s heart and message, in 1987 Michael released the major biography, George MacDonald, Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller.
In the twenty years following the publication of The Fisherman’s Lady, Michael and Judy Phillips expanded their efforts, producing through their family-run publishing company (Sunrise Books) original full length collector’s editions of MacDonald’s work to accompany the redacted novels (“The Sunrise Centenary Editions of the Works of George MacDonald.”) The entire MacDonald vision continued to be a family project. The five Phillips worked side by side together in the basement of their bookstore, boxing and sending out each newly published edition of MacDonald’s books to eager readers.
The Phillips also produced a series of books and studies about MacDonald (“The Masterline Series,” published by Sunrise.) The entire Phillips family also worked together for several years compiling and organizing quotes for what became an extensive anthology of quotations from all MacDonald’s titles—Wisdom To Live By. All told, with his family’s help, Michael Phillips edited and published fifty-five of MacDonald’s works over a twenty year period which successfully helped to inaugurate the present resurgence of interest in the forgotten Scotsman.
During this time Phillips’ own personal writing was taking a major turn. Having begun as a non-fiction Christian spokesman, he decided to attempt an original novel in the tradition and style of the MacDonald novels with which he was occupied at the time. Michael and Judy enlisted the participation of Judith Pella. From brainstorming sessions between the three former college friends, a Scottish series of novels was born (“The Stonewycke Trilogy”) in 1985. Beginning the effort more to “scratch a creative itch” than from high expectations of sales, The Heather Hills of Stonewycke and titles which followed surprised everyone. They were so unexpectedly successful that overnight Phillips’ non-fiction was forgotten. Publishers and readers now clamored for more novels. Over the next eight years, the Phillips/Pella writing team collaborated on fourteen best-selling novels that were soon eclipsing Phillips’ MacDonald editions in sales and established Michael Phillips and Judith Pella as among the elite Christian novelists of the 1980s and 1990s, helping set a standard for a new wave of co-writing fiction teams that would follow in their footsteps.
In the years since, Michael Phillips’ stature as one of the leading Christian novelists of the late 20th century continued to rise steadily. It is now as a novelist that he is primarily known. He has penned dozens of original novels that have been as well received as was his work with MacDonald. As his own volume of work reaches a stature of significance in its own right, he is regarded by many as one of the successors to MacDonald’s vision and spiritual legacy for a new generation. It is with a humble sense of awe that Phillips now encounters people from all over the world seeking him out, and listens as readers make similar comments about his writings as he has of MacDonald’s—even comparing his books in style and spiritual vision to those of his mentor. Though he remains insistent that he is not worthy to stoop and loosen the thong of MacDonald’s sandal, the faithful readers of Michael Phillips maintain that his own writings as well as MacDonald’s have widened their vision of God and his work, and challenged them toward a deeper and more practical walk of faith.
Meanwhile, Phillips’ non-fiction writing expanded its focus into many intriguing and less frequently explored areas of scriptural inquiry. Though not so widely known as his fiction, Phillips views his non-fiction as providing the necessary foundation for his spiritual vision, mostly emphasizing topics related to the nature and character of God and the practical walk of obedient faith. Never satisfied with rote pat cliché answers to his inexhaustible spiritual curiosity, Phillips’ hunger for reality of belief—even where it extends beyond the bounds of rigid church orthodoxy (which he admits gave some of his Sunday School teachers fits in his high school years)—has continued to inform his writings with common sense, originality, intellectual rigor, and a unique spiritual vitality. Never timid to ask penetrating questions, Phillips’ non-fiction probes areas that many doctrine-bound Christians are fearful to explore. Some of his recent non-fiction titles include, God A Good Father, Jesus An Obedient Son, Make Me Like Jesus, Is Jesus Coming Back As Soon As We Think?, and, with wife Judy, Best Friends For Life.
Since early in his writing career, Michael has felt an unmistakable call from God to emphasize the loving, embracing, expansive, and forgiving Fatherhood of God in every book he writes. This focus is both a matter of obedience, as well as an expression of faithfulness to the legacy of George MacDonald. Yet it continually amazes him how much criticism comes his way precisely because of this emphasis—from readers (and editors) who feel that he invests the Fatherhood of God with too much love. It is with speechless disbelief that he attempts to understand his Christian brethren who seem fearful of too loving a Father-God. He regularly receives mail from concerned readers questioning his salvation, occasionally including salvation tracts for his benefit.
“It is not,” Phillips says, “that I do not consider many other elements of the Christian faith vital to a complete and well-rounded theological system of belief. Notwithstanding the ‘concern’ of some readers that I do not put an altar call in every one of my books, and read into that fact my own dubious spiritual condition, I am actually quite orthodox in most of my beliefs. Nor am I opposed even to an occasional altar call in my books. I responded to an altar call when I was twelve and went forward in church and was baptized. I treasure those roots that extend down into the solid tradition of the conservative church of the 1950s. But when it comes to my writing, I received a very distinct commission from God to speak primarily to Christians, and to speak to them about the expansive Fatherhood of God. I must be faithful to that calling. I see little point, if I am speaking to Christians, in trying to get readers saved every other chapter. Recognizing my audience, for the most part I assume salvation, and choose to focus on the higher aspects of the walk of faith. It might be different if God had given me a different assignment. But as the Fatherhood of God is my assignment, not evangelism, I try to carry it out both faithfully and intelligently. So the criticism comes, on occasion from those very close to me…but I will continue to write about the Father’s love for the family of humanity.”
Earthly fatherhood, too, is an important element of Phillips’ message, as it flows of necessity out of the above perspective. Though his own father was not a spiritually outspoken man, Michael reveres him as the man given to him to serve as the earthly reflection of God’s Fatherhood. That “earthly reflection” of the divine Fatherhood, he admits, is not always easy to discern. Yet it is Phillips’ conviction that to learn to see it, to train oneself to see it, is one of the primary lessons life has to teach us.
“I agree with MacDonald,” Phillips explains, “that love and honor for one’s earthly father is perhaps the primary and most important doorway toward intimacy with God. MacDonald emphasizes this focus in every one of his books. He writes, Think, brothers, think, sisters, we walk in the air of an eternal Fatherhood…Human fatherhood and sonship is the image of the eternal relation between God and Jesus…Fatherhood is the last height of the human stair whence our understanding can see God afar off…This is and has been the Father’s work from the beginning—to bring us into the home of his heart. This is our destiny. Therefore, it is from MacDonald that this emphasis has been driven home to me as pivotal and foundational to the entire Christian experience.
“Discovering God’s Fatherhood in my earthly father was not easy. Wonderful man that he was, love him as I did, my father was not what would be called an overtly and expressively ‘spiritual’ man. He did not teach me about God. Like all young people, I had ‘issues’ to deal with in my parents. I did not grow up feeling a great deal of esteem or sensing affirmation of who I was as a person. I do not recall that my dad and I ever had a single conversation about spiritual things in my life. Yet he was my father. God gave him to me to teach me about his infinite and perfect and eternal Fatherhood.
“The responsibility was thus upon me to find that ‘divine reflection’ of the eternal among the human limitations that my dad brought to the relational equation between us as father and son. All human fathers bring imperfection and limitation to that life-equation. If human fatherhood is a mirror reflecting the image of God, it is a broken mirror whose reflection is thus imperfect and distorted. Yet it is the tool God has given us. We must make use of it, and come to discern God’s purpose in having provided it for us in this broken manner. I have therefore come to view it as entirely my responsibility to discover how to see God in my father. It was not his responsibility to be anything other than the man he was. It was my responsibility to learn to see God in him. The issues common to the life-experience of parents and children were mine to take account for, deal with, and grow from, not his. The charge given me was to honor him, not for being a perfect father, but for being my father, for giving me life, and, in a deeply mysterious way, for being God’s earthly representative to me of the divine nature.
“The reason this is so important,” Phillips clarifies, “and why I am so grateful to MacDonald for highlighting it and why I feel called and compelled to emphasize it at every opportunity, is that I firmly believe that this process is the doorway that leads to intimacy with God. We have issues with God, too. The chief one is simply that life is hard, that suffering and injustice and pain exist. In the midst of those seeming ‘imperfections’…we have to discover relationship with our Creator and Maker…our Father. We have to find his love for us in the midst of humanity’s brokenness. Human fatherhood is the doorway. One of the great challenges of my life, therefore, has been to discover the affirmation of personhood that my parents provided (perhaps, like God’s, difficult to see for a time), not complain that it was not demonstrated according to definitions and parameters more to the liking of my childish immaturity. This has been a lifelong process of growth to whose details and specifics my eyes are still being opened more than ten years after my father’s death.
“This is the universal human story, though the books being written by each of our lives are unique. Orphans have a particularly difficult time connecting the dots from earthly to heavenly in this process of personal accountability and discovery. Yet there are unique lessons God can nevertheless teach them about himself. Some sons and daughters have cruel fathers, some have wonderfully kind fathers. Children of divorce and separation face many different challenges than Judy and I faced with our fathers. But all humanity is issued the same challenge—Discover who God is, discover what Father means. I happen to believe, with MacDonald, that earthly fatherhood is the preeminent doorway into this discovery. This is probably the most important truth, if I had to reduce five hundred truths to a single truth, which I have gained from my work and forty year association with George MacDonald. This principle truly forms the bedrock and foundation of my entire writing career. Whenever I pick up pen or set fingers to keyboard, I am aware that God’s Fatherhood is the message I have been given to write about.”
Michael and Judy have both learned through the years to honor and revere Judy’s father for all these same reasons. Their two “fathers,” whom they recognize, along with themselves, as imperfect members of a fallen humanity, are the two men whose example they were given to glean from concerning much about the spiritual life. They have made the honor of their fathers a lifetime learning experience, to which both attribute much of their growth in intimacy toward God. In that light, with the death of his own father in 1997, Michael produced a small pamphlet about his father’s life and the lessons he had gleaned from it, entitled, Denver Phillips, A Tribute. And with the passing of Judy’s father (a devout Gideon and Bible reader) ten years later in 2007, Michael produced a year’s collection of Introductory Readings to each of the books of the Bible, dedicated to the memory of Robert Carter.
Readers of Michael Phillips’ novels and non-fiction works (as they have through MacDonald’s books) recognize a forceful, personal, cliché-shattering and challenging style that drives them continually toward deeper intimacy with both God the Father and Jesus the Son. Through his characters, stories, and non-fiction, Phillips challenges Christians to think and pray about and investigate the principles of their faith in fresh and more profound ways. About Phillips’ devotional title Make Me Like Jesus, artist Ron DiCianni has said, “Michael Phillips has echoed the heartbeat of the ancients who had something…summed up in the words of Oswald Chambers [as] ‘spiritual abandonment.’”
This quality permeates and transfuses all Phillips’ work—the hunger for more, the quest for deep faith, the imperative of looking beyond learned doctrinal orthodoxies…the “heartbeat of the ancients.” About the same book, Bishop William Frey emphasizes what might be said about every Michael Phillips title: “This is not a book for the faint-hearted, but is a book for anyone who wants to explore the depths of Christian commitment. Michael Phillips offers a much needed corrective…He dares us to abandon all candy-coated versions of the gospel…His challenge is to go beyond admiring Jesus…in order to resemble Jesus.”
In Phillips own words, this non “candy-coated” vision may be succinctly stated:
“During the years of my walk with the Lord, I have watched as the evangelical church has become more and more preoccupied with the externals and blessings of the Christian walk of faith. This has grown in recent years to what seems almost an obsession…
“If we are praying for secondary things, and are generally faithful in those prayers, God may indeed give us those secondary things…yet all the while our enthusiasm over those answers may prevent us looking to the primary things toward which he would rather our prayers and our overall lives were focused. If we are content to expend energy on secondary causes and their attendant blessings, we may never penetrate the bull’s eye of God’s will…
“What is God’s primary will for his people…What is the summum bonum, the greatest thing, the “supreme good” of life—the most perfect, ultimate purpose that is in God’s mind and heart when he thinks of you and me?
“It can be simply stated: That we become sons and daughters of God who are conformed to the image of Christ…God’s design is that we, too, become sons and daughters, his younger brothers and sisters, who are like him—who love like him, think like him, respond like him, resist the enemy like him, trust the Father like him, and who pray like him.
“We will never be like him in his perfection, but we are to become like him in attitude, thought, and motive. Only one Son brought salvation to the world. But all God’s sons and daughters are to partake of that salvation by growing into the Christlikeness that it makes possible.
“Obviously this is a process—a long process, a lifelong process. We don’t love or think or respond or trust God like Jesus did.
“But make no mistake, to turn us into the kind of people who can do so—with infinitesimally tiny baby steps to begin with, then growing steadily more capable of it as our lives progress—is the whole point of Christianity. There is simply nothing else that the Christian life is about than this. We will never do so perfectly in this life. But it is toward this end that God is leading us, and toward this divine “center” that the prayer of Christlikeness aims us.
“It will be obvious that such a transformation into men and women that reflect the nature of Jesus Christ is not something that can be accomplished externally…It can only happen inwardly, as we become people of a certain nature and character.
“God wants more than mere believers. He wants more than mere worshippers. He wants more than people who can parrot back doctrinally correct spiritual phrases. He wants more than men and women forever seeking new experiences and highs and blessings.
“He is involved in the enterprise of fashioning sons and daughters.” (Make Me Like Jesus, 2003, Introduction)
Adding a further component to his attempt to expand awareness of George MacDonald’s work, and as an additional outlet for the dissemination of his own message of “bold thinking Christianity,” publication of the magazine Leben was inaugurated in 2004, dedicated to the spiritual vision of Michael Phillips and the legacy of George MacDonald.
Illuminating much about his own priorities, and the undergirding foundation of his faith and writings, Phillips clarifies his intent in Leben’s Statement of Purpose:
“The fundamental essence of the Christian faith reduces to how one thinks and behaves. How one lives. At root, to be a disciple of Jesus Christ involves a revolutionary way of ordering one’s thoughts, attitudes, priorities, perspectives, actions, responses, and moment-by-moment affairs. Only in the daily practice of obedience and a dedicated and total commitment to selfless Christlikeness does it avoid the fatal tendency toward religiosity…To be his disciple—and thus to call oneself a Christian (literally, “a follower of Christ”)—is to become a citizen of a kingdom that is not of this world…
“Because of its revolutionary nature, and the revolutionary worldwide impact of its Founder, the man who claimed to be God’s Son and who rose from the dead to prove that claim, from its inception Christianity has been a bold and vigorous thinking man’s religion. Many of the greatest minds in history have been Christians. Through the years, however, its precepts have too often drifted into dogma, with the result that many of its followers have forgotten how to think, and to think boldly, about their faith. This is one of the predictable and unfortunate results of religiosity in all forms—the loss of the capacity to think with courage and originality—and that even more grievous hallmark of the religious mind that goes with it, fear of ideas that fall outside the theologic borders established by traditional orthodoxies. This doctrinal orthodoxy is rooted more than we have allowed ourselves to recognize in occasionally erroneous traditions passed down by the elder-gurus of our faith.
“Leben is…therefore, dedicated to the principle of “Bold Christianity.” It will offer a forum to challenge readers toward the intellectually integritous foundations of the other-worldly citizenship to which our Master called us when he said, “Follow me.” Gleaning from the example of our mentors and friends C.S. Lewis and George Mac-Donald, whose legacies we honor, we will not be afraid to ask hard questions and explore thorny issues. We will do so even when they perhaps go against certain cherished dogmas that have come down through the years but which may not reflect the intended teaching of our Lord and Savior.”
In later defining “What Is Bold Christianity?” according to the priorities being examined in Leben, Phillips amplifies:
“Bold thinking Christianity” brings to daily faith a vigorous courage to search for spiritual truth, and to probe the depths of God’s purpose, outside the box of learned dogma, cliché, and doctrinal formula. The bold thinking Christian seeks to know God intimately by the truth of his revelation as well as by common sense. He or she does not live by pat answers or proof-texts but by practical reality that engages heart and brain in a harmony of obedience to the instructions of Jesus. The desire of the bold thinking Christian is not to devise an intellectual framework by which to analyze God and man, but to prayerfully probe the Scriptures and the mind of God himself in order that his nature, character, and eternal purposes are more clearly illuminated. Such a bold thinking disciple will thus be enabled to understand, obey, and fall in with God’s purpose in a more dynamic and practical way…
It is therefore altogether and entirely positive (what are the deeper truths that spiritual formulae doesn’t reach, how much more truth can be illuminated from Scripture, how much more intimately and personally can God be known, how can the Bible’s truth be expanded to fill yet more of life, how can moment-by-moment obedience to the gospel life of Christlikeness be deepened by a wide awake mentality of common sense faith…how much more alive is God than anyone knows!)
To those whose comfort and security exist within spiritual formula, learned orthodoxy, and memorized clichés of doctrine, “bold thinking” after deeper truth appears frighteningly like “doubt” and “unbelief.” But only because they are so inexperienced at it. They have contented themselves with being spoon fed formulas of belief, rather than personally engaging the Holy Spirit in a vigorous tussle of ideas such as produces dynamic faith. “Bold thinking” discipleship is not merely optional, it is vitally imperative if Christians are to engage the world in a way that makes people hungry for what they have to offer—a muscular gospel. Without it, we have little to offer but one more set of religious formulas. That will always appeal to certain types of people. But it will never conquer the world for Christ. Only bold thinking Christianity has the potential and power to do that.”
In 2004, after closing their last bookstore, Michael and Judy Phillips fulfilled a lifelong dream, purchasing a 130-year old stone “fisherman’s cottage” in Cullen, Scotland, site of MacDonald’s classic Malcolm. They now alternate their time between California and Scotland, where it is their hope in this new season of their lives to reacquaint the reading public with the works of MacDonald in his homeland in much the same way they did twenty-five years ago in the U.S. Judy continues to teach harp lessons, playing for occasional weddings and receptions. Michael, meanwhile, after forty years of running, has turned to cycling to keep fit, and has become (almost) as avid a cyclist as he was a runner.
In his long and distinguished career, Phillips has written and co-written over fifty original novels. In all, he has written, co-written, and edited some 110 books, as well as published an additional 30 original MacDonald titles through Sunrise Books.
Additional information about Michael Phillips and George MacDonald, contact details, and book availability can be found at:
Inquiries can be made to Michael and Judy Phillips at P.O. Box 7003, Eureka, CA 95502,
or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.