By Dr. Melody Green
In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes how, when he was a young atheist, he read a book that he described as having “baptized my imagination.” That book was Phantastes, a fantasy novel written by the Victorian Scottish author, pastor and poet George MacDonald. Later, Lewis explains that even though he did not have a name for it at the time, what he encountered in MacDonald’s story was “holiness.” Lewis acknowledged his debt to MacDonald in other texts as well, including The Great Divorce, in which MacDonald becomes a spiritual mentor to the main character.
We know he influenced C. S. Lewis, but what relevance does MacDonald have for us today? For some, the fact that Lewis loved his work is reason enough to read it. Even though he was a Scottish pastor who died more than 100 years ago, many of his stories address issues that we still deal with today. For example, the novel Salted with Fire explores the far-reaching effects of a pastor’s sexual sin, while Paul Faber engages the question of whether science and faith can be compatible.
MacDonald is best known, however, for his fantasy. According to scholar C. W. Sullivan, he set the “tone” and “style” of the genre as we know it today. In other words, not only did MacDonald influence Tolkien, Lewis, and other Christians, but he also paved the way for such contemporary stories as Game of Thrones. Two of his essays, “The Imagination” and “The Fantastic Imagination,” begin to build a theology of fantasy that provides a lens through which such stories can be better understood in light of that which is good, noble, and right. For MacDonald, good fantasy can break the laws of nature, but must uphold the laws of God.
This summer Urbana Theological Seminary is offering a Monday Evening class on the writings of George MacDonald. We’d love to have you join us! Contact Dr. Green for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org
By Dr. Melody Green