Review: George MacDonald, Scotland’s Beloved Storyteller

Rating: ★★★

Author: Michael Phillips has accomplished an exemplary work in reprinting numerous works of George MacDonald in contemporary language. In addition, Phillips has written many novels of his own with the goal of imitating MacDonald in his style and theology.

Overview:

For much of his life, George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a poor and poorly known pastor. His claim to fame was his long and varied literary career, which spanned five decades and included fantasy, realistic fiction (some set in England, others in Scotland, complete with dialect), poetry, literary criticism, and sermons. MacDonald’s five books of written sermons (Unspoken Sermons, The Hope of the Gospel, and The Miracles of Our Lord) are the quickest path to understanding his theology, which can be quite dense.

MacDonald’s theology was influenced positively by speculative theologians from the Continent, and negatively by his own childhood in Scotland. He recoiled from the strict Calvinism of his youth into a relational theology that made God’s absolute goodness the most important thing about him.

Meat:

The Prologue is awesome. And there were certain chapters I enjoyed. All in all though, I felt that the meat was lost in a sea of details about family life and lengthy quotes.

MacDonald was great in suffering, and, while it shows in his writing, this book does a good job of illuminating some aspects of it. Like Robert Louis Stevenson, he suffered from a number of ailments.

MacDonald also suffered because of his theology. His deacons in Sussex, not taking kindly to his free-spirited way of explaining his own thoughts, docked his pay in the hopes that he would resign. They knew that MacDonald had a growing family—eventually raising eleven children with his wife Louisa. But MacDonald didn’t quit. In fact, this move drove him to commit to more novel writing as a way of finding a second stream of income; and this eventually expanded his influence. Although he wasn’t ever as well regarded as London contemporaries like Spurgeon and Parker, he was invited to a few prominent pulpits, and was befriended by famous writers such as Ruskin, Longfellow, and Walt Whitman.

The way of the world is to praise dead saints and persecute living ones. (Nathaniel Howe)

Bones:

There are several interesting anecdotes, but in general this biography felt overloaded. I am curious to find out soon if Greville MacDonald’s George MacDonald and His Wife is better. If you couldn’t tell, I am a big fan of George MacDonald, as well as what Michael Phillips has done in bringing him to a new generation. However, I found this particular biography to be more useful for reference rather than enjoyable reading.

Phillips is clearly enamored with certain aspects of MacDonald’s theology. He spent nearly eight pages quoting MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons as an explanation of how he thinks about the afterlife. I had already read many of those sermons, and a half-dozen of his novels, so these lengthy quotes didn’t really add to the story for me. I was more interested in MacDonald’s influences and personal life.

Phillips does point out that the best way to get to know MacDonald is through reading his books, and for me I felt that saying still stood true after reading most of this biography. If you want an introduction to George MacDonald, this biography would be a decent one. If you are a reader looking to delve into George MacDonald’s thought-life or theology, his books, especially his sermons, can stand for themselves.

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