Tag Archives: George MacDonald

proving the unseen

Review: Proving the Unseen

Rating: ★★★★

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Overview: This book is a rare glimpse into the spoken sermons of George MacDonald. Proving the Unseen was arranged and edited by William J. Petersen from sermons published in Christian World Pulpit in MacDonald’s lifetime. The sermons are reasonably short and have the same subject matter found in most of MacDonald’s books: The Fatherhood of God, the resurrection of Jesus, and the obedience of faith.

Meat: This book’s strength is that it is significantly easier to read than Unspoken Sermons, which many—unlike me—find too abstract. MacDonald’s spoken ministry as found here is surprisingly straightforward, and yet, the material has the same depth and spiritual sharpness. I especially enjoyed the titular sermon, “Faith, the Proof of the Unseen,” and “Alone with God.”

Bones: The sermons here are pretty short, so you may get the sense that MacDonald could say a lot more on each topic.

Quotes: “Often the very things that lift us up nearer to God are viewed by us as misfortunes. ‘How sad,’ we say, and console one another on the means that the Father of our spirits is using to cleanse our souls and to make us the very children of his heart.” (p. 61)

Advertisements

Author Guide: George MacDonald

This is a guide to the works of George MacDonald. The books in each section are in chronological order.

Fantasy

Phantastes: A Fairie Romance for Men and Women (Our Review: ★★)
“Cross Purposes”
Adela Cathcart, containing “The Light Princess”, “The Shadows”, and other short stories
The Portent
Dealings with the Fairies , containing “The Golden Key”, “The Light Princess”, “The Shadows”, and other short stories
At the Back of the North Wind
The Princess and the Goblin (Our Review: ★★★★★)
The Wise Woman: A Parable (also published as “The Lost Princess: A Double Story”; or as “A Double Story”)
The Gifts of the Child Christ and Other Tales (republished as Stephen Archer and Other Tales)
The Day Boy and the Night Girl
The Princess and Curdie, a sequel to The Princess and the Goblin (Our Review: ★★★★★)
The Flight of the Shadow
Lilith: A Romance

Realistic fiction

David Elginbrod (updated as The Tutor’s First Love)
Alec Forbes of Howglen (updated as The Maiden’s Bequest)
Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood (Our Review: ★★★★★)
Guild Court: A London Story (updated as The Prodigal Apprentice)
Robert Falconer (updated as The Musician’s Quest) (Our Review: ★★★★★)
The Seaboard Parish, a sequel to Annals of a Quiet Neighbourhood
Ranald Bannerman’s Boyhood (updated as The Boyhood of Ranald Bannerman)
Wilfrid Cumbermede
The Vicar’s Daughter, a sequel to Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood and The Seaboard Parish
Gutta Percha Willie, the Working Genius (updated as The Genius of Willie MacMichael)
Malcolm (updated under the same title)
St. George and St. Michael
Thomas Wingfold, Curate (updated as The Curate’s Awakening) (Our Review: ★★★★★)
The Marquis of Lossie (updated as The Marquis’ Secret), the sequel of Malcolm
Paul Faber, Surgeon (updated as The Lady’s Confession), a sequel to Thomas Wingfold, Curate
Sir Gibbie (updated as The Baronet’s Song) (Our Review: ★★★★★)
Mary Marston (updated as A Daughter’s Devotion and The Shopkeeper’s Daughter)
Warlock o’ Glenwarlock (updated as Castle Warlock and The Laird’s Inheritance)
Weighed and Wanting (updated as The Gentlewoman’s Choice) (Our Review: ★★)
Donal Grant (updated as The Shepherd’s Castle), a sequel to Sir Gibbie
What’s Mine’s Mine (updated as The Highlander’s Last Song)
Home Again: A Tale (updated as The Poet’s Homecoming)
The Elect Lady (updated as The Landlady’s Master)
A Rough Shaking (updated as The Wanderings of Clare Skymer)
There and Back (updated as The Baron’s Apprenticeship), a sequel to Paul Faber, Surgeon (Our Review: ★★★★★)
Heather and Snow (Scotch; updated as The Peasant Girl’s Dream) (Our Review: ★★★)
Salted with Fire (updated as The Minister’s Restoration)
Far Above Rubies

Poetry

Within and Without: A Dramatic Poem
Poems (1857)
“A Hidden Life” and Other Poems
“The Disciple” and Other Poems
Dramatic and Miscellaneous Poems
Diary of an Old Soul (Our Review: ★★★★)
The Threefold Cord: Poems by Three Friends (privately printed, with Greville Matheson and John Hill MacDonald)
Poems (1887)
The Poetical Works of George MacDonald (2 vol.)
Scotch Songs and Ballads
Rampolli: Growths from a Long-planted Root

Nonfiction

England’s Antiphon
The Miracles of Our Lord (Our Review: ★★★★★)
The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke: A Study With the Test of the Folio of 1623
Unspoken Sermons (3 vol.) (Our Review: ★★★★★)
A Cabinet of Gems
God’s Words to His Children
The Hope of the Gospel (Our Review: ★★)
A Dish of Orts (expanded from Orts)
George MacDonald in the Pulpit
Getting to Know Jesus
Proving the Unseen
(Our Review: ★★★★)

Compilations

Works of Fancy and Imagination (short stories & poetry)
Cheerful Words from the Writing of George MacDonald (compiled by E. E. Brown)
George MacDonald: An Anthology (compiled by C. S. Lewis)
Beautiful Thoughts from George MacDonald (compiled by Elizabeth Dougall)
Knowing the Heart of God (compiled by Michael Phillips)
Discovering the Character of God 
(compiled by Michael Phillips)

Endurance (#28)

When I no more can stir my soul to move,
And life is but the ashes of a fire;
When I can but remember that my heart
Once used to live and love, long and aspire,—
Oh, be thou then the first, the one thou art;
Be thou the calling, before all answering love,
And in me wake hope, fear, boundless desire.
George MacDonald

“And the devil ended every temptation …” (Luke 4:13, ESV)

Jesus now has fasted forty days. His spiritual and physical senses are heightened. He no longer hears the Father’s voiced approval of his son, but the voice of the devil. The devil takes him to the temple.

The devil again challenges him to prove that he is God’s Son. Jesus is exhausted from fasting and fighting. Even his mind is stretched to its limits as his enemy uses all his subtlety against him.

The devil ended, and Christ continued. Jesus displays the ultimate resilience. One of the last weapons that Jesus uses against the devil is endurance.

“Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” (Eph. 6:13, ESV)

In his essay, “Our Second Wind,” F. W. Boreham wrote there are three types of extraordinary people. There are those who do extraordinary things. There are those who do ordinary things in an extraordinary way. And there are those who ordinary things with extraordinary endurance.

Boreham places David Livingstone firmly in the third category. Livingstone did not distinguish himself in his studies, although he worked hard. He was not from a noble family, but had to toil at a cotton mill to win bread. But in the great work of his life, he showed unprecedented endurance. Through a desert that even African chiefs said no one could cross, through thirty bouts of malaria, maimed by lion attacks and scorched by the tropical sun, Livingstone trudged on with his twofold goal of defying the slave trade and opening the way for missions.

Livingstone wrote that he endured because of Christ’s word, “I am with you always.” The risen and victorious Christ made that promise as a condition to the Great Commission. It is the Great Condition without which the Great Commission would be impossible for us. Because Christ endures, we endure.

There is an end to all the devil’s works, and Christ outlasted him there in the desert. When all else is done, may we stand firm.

Jesus, thank you for your promise that you are with us always. Help me to endure through my difficulties, trusting in your promise.

Amen.

Review: Heather and Snow (The Peasant Girl’s Dream) (No Spoilers)

Rating: ★★★

Who: George MacDonald, 19th-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. He had a profound influence on C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and many others.

Where: Rural 19th-century Scotland.

Overview: Heather and Snow, which Michael Phillips republished as The Peasant Girl’s Dream, is one of George MacDonald’s Scottish novels. The novel opens on Francis and Kirsty running a race on a highland hillside. Both are ambitious, even stubborn. Kirsty and her family are tenant farmers on the land of Francis’ family. But as they grow, tension comes between them. Kirsty and her feeble-minded brother Steenie grow in tenderness and maturity in the light of Christ, while Francis becomes proud. The story turns on Francis’ pride, and Kirsty’s refusal to let him waste his life.

Meat: MacDonald, in the characters of both Steenie and Francis, deals with various forms of mental illness and even retardation. As in almost all of his novels, in the end, the love of our neighbor is the only door out of the dungeon of self. MacDonald has a refreshing way of showing the impact of friendship on spiritual life.

Bones: The original edition fully justifies Michael Phillips’ mission of updating the language of MacDonald’s books; speaking as a linguist, armed with a dictionary, the Scottish dialect here is challenging. I wouldn’t recommend MacDonald’s Scottish novels in the original editions unless you just love language. You can pick up the updated edition, The Peasant Girl’s Dream, very cheaply.

Quotes: “The story of God’s universe lies in the growth of the individual soul.” (p. 21)

“The Lord’s gowk’s better nor the warl’s prophet.” (Or, “The Lord’s fool is better than the world’s prophet.”) (p. 125)

“One of the hardest demands on the obedience of faith is—to do nothing; it is often so much easier to do foolishly!” (p. 148)

“It seems to me there’s no shame in being frightened, so long as you don’t serve and obey the fright, but trust in him that sees, and do what you have to do.” (updated, p. 186)

Review: Unspoken Sermons (3 vol.)

Rating: ★★★★★

Overview: This three-volume shows the breadth of MacDonald’s theological thought. MacDonald wrote these sermons in such a way that the conclusion of one introduces the next—but the topics are only vaguely connected. He focuses especially on themes like the Fatherhood of God, the meaning of suffering, and obedience to the two greatest commandments. C. S. Lewis wrote about Unspoken Sermons:

“My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help—sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith.”

Incidentally, many of the thoughts in C. S. Lewis’ writings that are thought to be innovative or controversial were gleaned from these sermons. In Lewis’ anthology of MacDonald quotes, 257 of the 366 selections are from this little set of 36 sermons. (I am working on an article comparing Lewis’ most famous quotes with MacDonald’s sermon material.)

Meat: MacDonald’s strength in all his books is his stubborn insistence on God’s goodness. His spiritual writing is dense with thought, like that of Oswald Chambers. These sermons are a literary mix of highly abstract and clearly practical. There are many favorites. Lewis often hearkened to “The Hardness of the Way” in his books, such as Mere Christianity. “The Eloi” is a wonderful reflection on divine silence. “Life” is a fantastic exploration of divine suffering, and undoubtedly the most moving thing I have ever read outside the Bible. John Ruskin said that the first volume contained “the best sermons—beyond all compare—I have ever read.”

The other prominent point about MacDonald is his “theology of obedience.” MacDonald places great weight on John 7:17: “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority.” He says in almost every sermon that obedience is “the opener of eyes” and “the only way forward.” This theology is probably most clearly expressed in “Love Your Neighbor” and “The Hardness of the Way,” although MacDonald’s next sermon set, The Hope of the Gospel, deals with this theology of obedience almost exclusively.

Bones: The long trains of thought make it difficult to read the sermons piecemeal; you really need a large cup of tea and an hour (or two) to spare. And some of the sermons are very heady and abstract. I recommend trying “The Way” and “The Hardness of the Way” since they are foundational and straightforward.

The bone that most readers choke on, though, is MacDonald’s universalist tendencies, seen most strongly in “Consuming Fire.” Suffice it to say, MacDonald was strongly countercultural in the context of a stolid Scottish Calvinism, and found himself searching far and wide for more satisfying expression of God’s heart. But most reviewers agree that these sermons “bring everyone who reads them into the very presence of the Living God,” and MacDonald was far more concerned with heart-obedience than systematic theology.

Quotes: “Man finds it hard to get what he wants, because he does not want the best; God finds it hard to give, because He would give the best, and man will not take it.” (vol. 2, “Life”)

“The Son of God suffered unto death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his.” (vol. 1, “Consuming Fire”)

“Do at once what you must do one day.” (vol. 2, “The Last Farthing”)

“Had he done as the Master told him, he would soon have come to understand. Obedience is the opener of the eyes.” (vol. 2, “The Way”)

“I believe that no teacher should strive to make men think as he thinks, but to lead them to the living Truth , to the Master Himself, of whom alone they can learn anything, who will make them in themselves know what is true by the very seeing of it.” (vol. 3, “Justice”)

Related: Miracles of Our Lord, God’s Words to His Children, The Hope of the Gospel, George MacDonald in the Pulpit

Soul Espresso

It was 5:00 a.m. on one of the coldest days of winter. I was a freshman in college. My friend Mitch Mitchell had told me that the first ten people to a local coffee shop got a free drink. I didn’t know what coffee tasted like, but free sounded good.

I ordered a mocha latte. Mitch proceeded to chug four shots of espresso before falling asleep on the opposite side of a chess set.

I have never liked ‘drip’ coffee, and still don’t drink it often—but since that morning I have loved espresso drinks.

Espresso is unique. Invented in Italy, it requires high temperature and high pressure to saturate the water with coffee. Once it is exposed to oxygen, the composition of espresso begins to change, which is why it is usually either combined with water or milk, or drank immediately. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the high-pressure concentration of truth: spiritual espresso. I discovered that potent and concentrated spiritual truth can come in a very small package. Here are three examples:

My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers

“Beware of posing as a profound person; God became a Baby.”
Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, November 22

This classic devotional has been in print since 1924 in 39 languages. An old friend gave me My Utmost for His Highest as a high school graduation present, and I came to know Christ about two months later. The gift, at first unwanted, was not a waste. I was recently carrying one of Chambers’ books at a conference, and a friend told me “that’s a four-pages-at-a-time book.” I told him, “yeah, I can barely read one subsection before I have to stop and think and pray.” That’s what I mean when I call these writings spiritual espresso.

Oswald Chambers died at 43, but his wife Biddy had transcribed hundreds of his talks verbatim and spent the rest of her life publishing them. He was a YMCA chaplain to British soldiers during World War I in Egypt. He believed in a concept he called “seed thoughts”: simple but true statements about God and life could change your entire way of thinking. He had a bulletin board on which he posted a thought daily. (When the camp flooded, he posted, “Closed during submarine maneuvers.”) While My Utmost shows this tendency, his wife compiled an even briefer devotional called Run Today’s Race which better illustrates Chambers’ tendency for potent, concentrated thought.

George MacDonald: An Anthology by C. S. Lewis (compiler)

“The Lord cared neither for isolated truth nor for orphaned deed.”
C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald: An Anthology, Entry 54

Oswald Chambers said about George MacDonald that it was “a striking indication of the trend and shallowness of the modern reading public that [his] books have been so neglected” (Christian Discipline, vol. 1, pp. 44-45). C. S. Lewis compiled MacDonald’s best “seed thoughts” into an anthology, which I facetiously call “C. S. Lewis’ best book.”

Systematic statements take you to a conclusion; once you arrive at that conclusion, you find your thought finished for you. Seed thoughts are different. They live and grow over time, and are not conclusions in themselves. This is one thing Chambers and MacDonald had in common; they asked questions as well as they answered them. The goal here is not to produce in you a thought, but to get you to think.

Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”
A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy, p. 1

A third book that packs a lot of depth in a few words is Knowledge of the Holy. But then, Tozer has an unfair advantage here: if you want to go deep, there is nothing deeper to write about than God Himself. All of these authors are at their best when they take you to the Source of our faith without speculating, arguing or equivocating. “The knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Prov. 9:10).

But there is another connection that I have omitted. Chambers was an avid reader and quoter of poetry. MacDonald wrote volumes of poetry himself, as did C. S Lewis. Tozer compiled his Christian Book of Mystical Verse, stating that his best devotional times were alone with a Bible and a hymnbook. What is there about poetry that relates to the spiritual life?

Distilled Language

One American poet laureate said that “poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful.” Bad poetry, like bad stories, have a lot of words with little meaning. The best poetry has few words with great meaning. Even Bible expositors often quote hymns or Christian poetry to add something that an exposition can’t. The apostle Paul quotes Greek poetry at least three times in the New Testament. He encouraged the use of song as part of Christian teaching in Colossians 3:16: “…teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.” Songs often communicate our deepest thoughts the most simply. They can contain the gospel in a concentrated form, capable of being understood by children.

Embedded in a few of Paul’s letters are extremely concise statements of Gospel which some people think were actually early Christian hymns. Two examples include Philippians 2:5-11 and 1 Timothy 3:16, quoted below in verse:

God was manifest in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among the Gentiles,
Believed on in the world,
Received up in glory.

Most amazing of all, Jesus quotes the ancient hymnbook of his people from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) As today, Jewish hymns were often titled after their first line. (If I shout “amazing grace” in a room full of Christians, a few might erupt, “how sweet the sound!”) So some scholars think Jesus could as well have shouted “Psalm 22” from the cross, pointing the Jews to a song that prophesied nearly a dozen circumstances pertaining to his crucifixion and resurrection. In just four Aramaic words, Jesus communicated great truth about who he is, his own death, his victory over it—and the prophetic power of one ancient worship song written in a heart of affliction.

Life

George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, vol. II

‘I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.’—ST JOHN x. 10.

I

In a word, He came to supply all our lack—from the root outward; for what is it we need but more life? What does the infant need but more life? What does the bosom of his mother give him but life in abundance? What does the old man need, whose limbs are weak and whose pulse is low, but more of the life which seems ebbing from him? Weary with feebleness, he calls upon death, but in reality it is life he wants. It is but the encroaching death in him that desires death. He longs for rest, but death cannot rest; death would be as much an end to rest as to weariness: even weakness cannot rest; it takes strength as well as weariness to rest. How different is the weariness of the strong man after labour unduly prolonged, from the weariness of the sick man who in the morning cries out, ‘Would God it were evening!’ and in the evening, ‘Would God it were morning!’ Continue reading