Friday, 29 January 2016

The Works of George MacDonald: A long journey to the beginning

Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of The Rings were the first novels I read with pleasure (aged 14) and they made an immediate and lasting impact upon me. It was very different with George MacDonald, although it must be about 30 years since I read the first book by him, which would have been either Lilith or Princess and the Goblins, I'm not sure which. I certainly thought Lilith was very good but it didn't lead to further reading. I think WH Auden and CS Lewis both gave me the impression that MacDonald's realistic Victorian novels were not very good and not worth reading, so I had the impression that MacDonald effectively had a small oeuvre.

Lilith I re read every so often, each time I read it it took me on a journey and amazed me, but the events of the book were not imprinted on my mind, I had certain lasting impressions, the ancestral house, the Library, Mr Raven, the movement between this world and another, the room of the dead. But it was such a unique book that takes you on an inner journey and you come out of it as you come out of a dream. I am starting to read this again this time taking extensive notes and it would be good to write a blog on this book alone.

The Princess and the Goblin's I enjoyed but probably didn't give it sufficient credit due to it being a children's book. I re-read it to my daughter and very much enjoyed it, Princess Irene's grandmother struck me as something of a prototype for the Lady Galadriel. Having recently read GK Chesterton's comments on the book, I realise I have taken this wonderful book too much for granted:
But in a certain rather special sense I for one can really testify to a book that has made a difference to my whole existence, which helped me to see things in a certain way from the start; a vision of things which even so real a revolution as a change of religious allegiance has substantially only crowned and confirmed. Of all the stories I ever read ... it remains the most real, the most realistic, in the exact sense of the phrase the most like life. It is called The Princess and the Goblin, and is by George MacDonald....

I read Phantastes and the Golden Key and also enjoyed them very well, but I think because I read his visionary fantasies I had a mistaken impression of him as a rather vague romantic whom I could enjoy but shouldn't contemplate too deeply. However slowly I came to realise that I had lived with MacDonald's work for a long time and their influence although subtle was lasting, there is a sense of the numinous, a slaking of a thirst of the soul, that finally pushed me out of my sleepiness and I realised that I wanted to know more about George MacDonald. I joined the George MacDonald Society Facebook group, which I found a source for a lot of good information and stirred my enthusiasm. It was through this group that I came upon an article called "George MacDonald: Merging Myth and Method" by Robert Trexler, which you can find here:

Trexter in his opening remarks made the following statement:
"But if the revival of interest in MacDonald can be partly credited to Lewis, so also can some of the misconceptions about MacDonald, especially as regards MacDonald the novelist."
Trexter goes on to argue that MacDonald's realistic Victorian novels have been significantly undervalued by Lewis and are worth serious attention, he focuses on one of the Wingfold novels "There and Back" and marks mythic motifs within the novel.

I am very thankful for this article as it changed my thinking and led me to read the Wingfold books: Thomas Wingfold Curate; There and Back and Paul Faber, Surgeon. I realised that I had only touched upon the riches that MacDonald's work had to offer. I like novels that contain ideas and deal with the interior life of their subjects and these novels did that in a unique way. They had likeable and varied characters, the main themes seemed to be a slow unfolding of faith which is depicted in a very real and sincere manner. The books are also many layered, with mythic and visionary elements that come from Polwarth's writings and his brother's manuscript although are not limited to these. MacDonald concentrates on personal transformations and the inner journeys we make to become better people and our movement towards the divine. He does this with gentleness and seriousness unparalleled by any author.

So almost 30 years after first reading MacDonald's work I have come to see that he has created a great body of work and I am at the start of a voyage of discovery, sailing into the east. I feel as though I have a lot to get from MacDonald, through his realistic Victorian novels, his sermons and criticism and the fantasy novels that I already know, but not well enough. I have come to the beginning.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Christianity: an appreciation from the outside

I grew up in a society that was already largely post-Christian. I don't recall my friends going to Church and I certainly didn't. I do remember having a pastor come to talk to us in standard 2 or 3 (aged 8-9). Increasingly the public discourse around Christianity has become vitriolic, giving the impression that the Christian religion is regressive and intolerant and responsible for slaughter. This blog is not going to be a defence organist these allegations, although I don't think they are fair and I would highly recommend David Bentley Hart's "Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and it's Fashionable Enemies" to answer those issues. I intend to write instead an appreciation of the Christian religion, at a later stage I would also like to do a blog that considers what religion is.

Over the years i have come across many Christian thinkers and artists and I have come to realise that Christianity is central to Western culture, I think we should celebrate our culture and steep ourselves in it and having an open attitude to Christianity is an essential part of that.

JRR Tolkien was the first author that I really read with joy and a sense of compulsion, his mythology which forms the fabric of his work is intrinsic to his Christian faith. CS Lewis' Narnia books had a wonderful sense of invention, Lewis wears his Christianity much more overtly than Tolkien.

Both of these writers owe a significant debt to the Scottish writer George MacDonald who wrote wonderful fantasies for both adults and children that speak directly to the heart in a way that no modern writer I am aware of can. Lilith, Phantastes and the Golden Key are gorgeous examples of the fantasy genre still unrivalled.  MacDonald also wrote much Victorian fiction which though very popular in his own time is now not so highly regarded, I think largely due to his central themes of faith that critics are now allergic to.

Lewis Tolkien and MacDonald are significant modern writers to me whose Christianity provides a rich imaginative backdrop to their works. The large sensibility of G K Chesterton unfortunately has no modern correspondence although it has a mirror within the Vedantic tradition with the works of Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo, writers like Chesterton that are also overlooked by contemporary critics.

I have recently started reading George MacDonald's Victorian novels and was interested in the way he depicted the Christian faith of the time. He painted a faith that was extensively practiced but mostly by habit and his central characters seek to find a faith that was the living water of Christ's teachings. That we now have a society where secular materialism is our orthodoxy is hardly surprising. The modern rise of fundamentalism and literal readings of the Bible play into the hands of the critics of Christianity. Insisting upon the earth being 6000 years old and focussing on old harsh dogmas, like the sin of homosexuality give the faith a facade of superstition. I can't see these trends as the living waters of Christ's legacy of compassion, they also have little to do with the work of the great theologians.

Looking further back than MacDonald we have amazing artistic achievements from Christian artists, William Blake's startling mix of visual poetic and prophetic vision still sears the mind's eye. Wordsworth and Coleridge, Handel's Messiah, Bach's work almost entirely fits within the Christian context, Dante's works of sublimity cannot be separated from the Christian faith. The cultural impact of people like Saint Francis, Martin Luther, Jacob Boehme, John Bunyan and John Milton to name a few is enormous. Trying to understand them without their Christian context is impossible.

Today amazing feats of engineering and massive public resources are invested in building roadways and their impressive over passes. In the Middle Ages they put that kind of effort and resources into building Cathedrals, filled with artwork telling the story of Christ, with incredible acoustics so that divine music celebrating Christ could be sung, Stained glass windows where the light would shine through Christ. Incredible arches, beautiful proportions all designed to raise our minds to the divine, they are still there to be marvelled at. I find these much more impressive than motorways.

Early Christian writers like Saint Augustine, Origen, Geoffrey of Nyassa drew out of the teachings of Christ rich theological traditions. We lack even the awareness of what it is that we are missing.

Do we want to appreciate our own culture? Surely some awareness of our cultural past would be valuable? A willingness to share those things that moved our ancestors with a great sense of awe and beauty, if we want to commune with them then we need get over this rude sense of distaste that we now have for the Christian religion.

Strangely our modern technological society grew within a Christian framework, was fostered by Christian Universities by Christian scientists. It is odd that we have come to believe the Christian religion was antithetical to scientific investigation.

Rupert Sheldrake (to paraphrase) said that he came to Christianity because he no longer believed in materialism and that Christianity was the spiritual tradition that fitted with his cultural background. Sheldrake has done a number of scientific experiments that have been repeatable which show materialism to be highly improbable. Pretty much the same can be said of CS Lewis his memoir "Surprised by Joy" shows the slow process by which he came to Theism, little is devoted to how he came to Christianity, but again it best fitted him and the joy of sharing a tradition with others could not really be had by him from the Hindu, Buddhist or Islamic faiths.

David Bentley Hart wrote a very good book "The Experience of God: Being Consciousness Bliss" which showed how the fundamental concept of God in Christianity, Islam and Hinduism is the same. The advantages that religions give is that on a most fundamental level these Theistic faiths allows that meaning, love and connectedness are fundamental qualities of the world. It also for me makes more sense that this relative world could spring into existence from the absolute reality of God, whereas a relative world popping into existence from nothing just makes no sense.

This is an external view of Christianity as i don't practice it, I practice Kriya Yoga which is a Vedantic or Hindu tradition, a lot of the advantages that Lewis found I don't. There are sufficient sincere practitioners of Kriya Yoga to have sense of shared observance. Having a living Master is a a huge boon, also the Churches where I am are no longer thriving and I can't with a clear conscience advocate the uniqueness of Christ which seems to be such a focus, I can accept his divinity.

Fundamentalists may have done more harm to Christianity than Atheists although it seems to me that the public debate only focuses on these two extremes rather than on the more sophisticated practitioners of Christianity.