George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles:
Incarnation, Doubt, and Reenchantment
by timothy larsen
ivp academic, 150 pages, $16
People often talk about “history” as if it were one thing, whether discussing a first-rate example or a dud. It is in fact as various as fiction. Go to your shelves and pick out a half-dozen works of history, then read the first several pages of each. You’ll notice different flavors (sometimes subtle, as at a wine-tasting, though sometimes very sharp), different styles of thought, different (implicit) roles for author and reader.
If I were writing tasting notes for a book by the historian Timothy Larsen, I would be sure to include “blithe insouciance.” To describe this as an “outlook” (perilously close to “worldview”) would be to court absurdity, but to call it an “attitude” isn’t quite right either: It runs deeper than that. What makes this disposition particularly interesting is Larsen’s identity as a card-carrying Evangelical, Mark Noll’s successor as McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College.
“Blithe insouciance” and “Evangelical” are rarely found in the same sentence, but they are evident on every page of Larsen’s latest book, George MacDonald in the Age of Miracles: Incarnation, Doubt, and Reenchantment, a volume in the Hansen Lectureship Series from InterVarsity Press. You could read this short book in one long evening, but it’s probably best taken in three installments. Each of the three chapters, based on lectures given at Wheaton’s Wade Center, is followed by a response from one of Larsen’s colleagues.
One of Larsen’s strengths as a historian is his ability to read prodigiously, with a detective’s eye for details others have missed. For example, see his biography of John Stuart Mill, published earlier this year by Oxford University Press, in which Larsen observes that the “unexpected presence and prominence of spirituality is not only there in Mill’s late, startling essay, ‘Theism,’ in which he makes the case for hope in God and in Christ. It is everywhere.”
This willingness to leave no stone unturned sometimes assumes heroic proportions. I adduce Larsen’s opening sentence: “George MacDonald’s second realist novel, Adela Cathcart (1864), begins with a chapter titled ‘Christmas Eve,’ and the rest of the action unfolds during the twelve days of Christmas.” I shudder at the mere thought of reading this entire book (by the way, to call any novel by MacDonald “realist” is highly misleading), but Larsen mentioned during the lectures (which were accompanied by marvelous visuals) that he had felt obliged to read all of MacDonald’s “realist” novels as well as his better-known fantasies. (Or was there one he was unable to track down? I’ll have to ask.)
We have a certain image of the scholar as drudge—the sort who would, for instance, dutifully plow through a slew of novels virtually unread since the nineteenth century, and for good reason. But Larsen is anything but a drudge; he proceeds with a swagger. The widespread notion that MacDonald was “forced out of the pastorate because his narrow-minded congregation disliked his love-infused, large-hearted theology”? Larsen makes short work of this canard (one of the first things I “learned” about MacDonald when my wife, Wendy, and I were introduced to his work in the late 1960s). “The real truth, which I—as a trained historian—am now able to reveal, is that George MacDonald’s pastorate failed because George MacDonald was a bad pastor.” He was a bad pastor in no small part because he didn’t really want to be a pastor—he wanted to be a poet—but he was desperate for income to support his family. And, as Larsen makes clear, MacDonald proceeded to subvert his own ministerial career by a variety of means: “The clearest act of self-sabotage was growing a beard, which was generally considered to be an unprofessional look for a Christian minister.” Who knew?
If this suggests that Larsen likes to take cheap shots at his subject, nothing could be further from the truth. He writes about MacDonald with great sympathy and admiration, but also with a clear eye and deep sense of irony. This irony can take many forms. If people know anything at all about MacDonald’s theological convictions, they’re likely to know that he was a “universalist.” For some this is a plus, for others a minus. But Larsen shows how MacDonald came to imagine something resembling Purgatory, an uncompromising cleansing “taking place in the afterlife over long stretches of time. . . . MacDonald insisted that even in hell someone will still not be allowed to hold on to their sin.”
Beginning with its subversive title, this little book is a marvel, a tour de force of insouciant piety. If it’s not quite small enough to slip into a stocking, I hope it will turn up beneath many Christmas trees this year.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.