GEORGE MACDONALD loathed the Westminster Shorter Catechism. He thought that to try to systematise the mysteries of faith was to presume to bind God’s free spirit. MacDonald consistently resisted attempts to call his own thought to order. In attempting “to construct a coherent summary of MacDonald’s theology”, John de Jong could be said to be engaging with someone who, were he still with us, might be disinclined to cooperate.
De Jong tells us that his task is like doing a jigsaw. The many pieces come in a box with a picture on the lid to help us assemble them correctly. That picture is of a child. De Jong argues that, for MacDonald, “childlikeness is the fundamental attribute of the deity”. That audacious claim turns out to be “the golden key that unlocks all his work”.
De Jong claims that MacDonald’s theology is essentially “a theology of childhood”. Your reviewer, who has been reading MacDonald for umpteen years, is persuaded that de Jong has made his case. This book is a scholarly achievement of the highest order, and all future work on MacDonald will have to take account of it.
De Jong places MacDonald in context. The inflexible Calvinism of the “Missionar Kirk” of his Scottish boyhood will fuel his lifelong hatred of religious sectarianism, as well as darken the portraits of some of the more unattractive characters in his fiction. The wider context is the range of conflicting opinions in Victorian England — whither Macdonald had fled for refuge — about what it is to be a child.
Wordsworth and the Romantics idealised childhood. Conservative Evangelicals taught that children were sinners to be brought to the Lord — or at least to heel — by the whip. More liberal Christians, listening to F. D. Maurice, embraced a larger hope. For others, children were simply nasty little animals. Drop an infant from a first-floor window, they said, and you’ll find that it will land on all fours like a kitten. These currents and cross-currents are bewildering, but de Jong navigates them confidently.
At the heart of MacDonald’s “cosmic vision”, as Glenn Sadler — doyen of MacDonald scholars — called it, is a distinctive understanding of childhood. De Jong develops this thesis, first, by a close reading of two texts that he sees as of central importance in MacDonald’s diverse output, At the Back of the North Wind and Sir Gibbie; second, by an analysis of the two astonishing works that form, as it were, the “bookends” of his literary career, the haunting faerie story Phantastes and — his last enigmatic word to us — Lilith. De Jong turns to much else that MacDonald wrote — we welcome especially his frequent appeal to MacDonald’s wonderful Unspoken Sermons — but few would quarrel with his choice of texts for more forensic analysis.
What does de Jong conclude from his study of MacDonald’s strange texts? First, we must not be distracted by the implausible and ill-drawn, notably MacDonald’s consistently unconvincing social settings. Second, we must recognise the distinction that MacDonald makes between the empirical child and the “Christ-like child”, the latter represented by such as the other-worldly Diamond, the protagonist of The Back of the North Wind, or the innocent Gibbie, who suffers in his own flesh the afflictions of Christ.
Third, MacDonald’s purpose is always to wake our imagination, never to tell us what to believe. Fourth — and here is one of de Jong’s great insights — MacDonald is, through and through, a pastoral theologian, constantly recalling us from investigation of the inscrutable to the next thing to be done.
Finally, de Jong requires of us that we read Sir Gibbie, MacDonald’s boldest attempt to find some meaning in the cruel mystery of innocent suffering, in the light of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. Can we still say that there is, after all, some sense in what many children go through? Or is Sir Gibbie yet another of “those tales of unbearable beauty that break our hearts because they are not true”?
The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.
The Theology of George MacDonald: The child against the vampire of fundamentalism
John R. de Jong
Pickwick Publications £29
Church Times Bookshop £26.10