Wednesday, June 27, 2007

(Don't) Dare to be Indifferent

Sometime in my teens I developed the now well-established habit of reading several books at once. One of the current reasons for this practice is that many of the books I read professionally are the sort that you either skim in an afternoon to get the jist, or are so dry they need to be spread over several days and interrupted with things that are wild and open and free (Aubrey/Maturin is a frequent refuge) to prevent dry rot of the mind.

Another is that reading several (good) books at the same time allows for interesting connections, and sometimes ideas arise from one book that help to explain something from another, however unrelated they may seem.

Today’s example: George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895) and Philip E. Johnson’s The Wedge of Truth (2000).

Johnson’s book is sort of a summary of “where we are at, what we are about, and why we will win” of the Wedge movement. If you are unfamiliar with what this is, Google search and you will find lots of interesting and important things to read. I will do a post of Johnson’s book on its own later this summer. For now, I simply want to point out how Johnson helped to explicate MacDonald’s project.

One of the first things you will find out if you read anything about MacDonald—everyone seems required to make it part of their opening salvo, so why should I break the trend?—is that he was all but forced out of his Congregationalist pastorate in 1853 because he was accused of positing that “with the heathen the time of trial does not cease at their death”—ie., that people can come to salvation in Christ even after they have died.

This view is certainely prevalent in MacDonald’s fantasies, especially because in these texts it is often impossible to tell whether or not MacDonald’s characters have physically died—as we know and understand death—or not. MacDonald believed we were presented with the opportunity to spiritually die all the time, and that these were the meaningful deaths because out of them would come real, true, life. Physical death was only significant insofar as it aided and pointed to a spiritual death and rebirth.

Lilith is entitled for the woman, Lilith who, as queen of a city, has set herself up to oppose Adam (yes, that Adam) who is also Christ, who also happens to be her father (don’t try to figure it out, just go with the flow). She is not quite Satan, but at least an anti-Christ in the sense of being totally and completely opposed to Christ/Adam and devoted to stopping any and all from finding Christ/Adam and doing what he wants for them. Despite all the weird evil nastiness in the book, including Lilith herself who is the queen of Nasty and Evil, they all (!SPOILERS FROM HERE ON!) are led to salvation in the end.

All, that is, except one group of people, and this is what is missed by the people who quote the doctrinal opposition to MacDonald and then move on. They are the “giants,” and are the children who stopped being children. Lona (Queen of the Little Ones—read: “childlike souls”) explains this to Mr. Vane (“a person who is readily changeable or fickle”, the protagonist of the work) in Chapter 13:

“The giants were not made always. … If a Little One doesn’t care, he grows greedy, and then lazy, and then big, and then stupid, and then bad. The dull creatures don’t know that they come from us. Very few of them believe we are anywhere. They say Nonesense!—Look at little Blunty: he is eating one of their apples! He will be the next! Oh! oh! he will soon be big and bad and ugly, and not know it!”

And a bit later …

“The giants have lost themselves … and that is why they never smile. I wonder whether they are not glad because they are bad, or bad because they are not glad. But they can’t be glad when they have no babies! I wonder what bad means, good giant!”

Now, to make the next point I’m going to have to interpret the text a bit, but I trust the reader will allow it, and in any case, I am pretty confident that this is right because it fits (my reasoning for those who have read the text is below).[1] At the end of the text, MacDonald is describing the world reborn in that last and triumphant day. As I stated above, Lilith and practically everyone are (being) saved except …

“We came to the fearful hollow where once had wallowed the monsters of the earth. It was indeed, as I had beheld it in my dream, a lovely lake. I gazed into its pellucid depths. A whirlpool had swept out the soil in which the abortions burrowed, and at the bottom lay visible the whole horrid brood: a dim greenish light pervaded the crystalline water, and revealed every hideous form beneath it. Coiled in spires, folded in layers, knotted on themselves, or “extended long and large,” they weltered on motionless heaps—shapes more fantastic in goulish, blasting dismay, than ever wine-sodden brain of exhausted poet fevered into misbeing … every head the wicked flower that, bursting from an abominable stalk, perfected its evil significance.

“Not one of them moved as we passed. But they were not dead. So long as exist men and women of unwholesome mind, that lake will still be peopled with loathsomenesses.” (Chapter 45)

For MacDonald, even those totally opposed to Christ can, and will, be saved (ie., Lilith). Perhaps because their very stance of opposition to him necessitates that he exists. There are, in his fantasy, however, those who cannot be saved, who have turned off the light, who follow the path of greediness to badness. The path of selfishness to the place of indifference. In the fantastic imagination of MacDonald, indifference is the chief, the unforgivable, damnable sin.[2]

The question that arose for me is: what sort of emphases in Christian salvation led to this view of the world and of Christ’s work? Why, now that we know MacDonald does believe in certain souls really truly damning themselves, is indifference that unforgivable sin? Enter Johnson (emphasis mine of course) [3]:

“… to distinguish between theoretical and practical problems of Christian theology. At the theoretical level, for example, there is the perennial question of whether the existence of evil and suffering can be reconciled with God’s goodness and omnipotence. At the practical level, the Christian traveler wants to know how to overcome evil and bring goodness out of it. … Christian travelers, knowing the reality of sin from within, want rather to know how they can be saved from it.”

MacDonald is writing for a ‘practical’ Christian, the Christian on the path. Non-Christians, Liliths, may be on the wrong path, but they are really on an anti-path which, once they are shown what is what, can be led along that correct path. The point is that they are trying to go somewhere.

MacDonald writes as a traveler, to fellow travelers. Those who are excluded from this audience are those who would rather sit at home in front of the telly and not be bothered at all. And in this context, I think I have to agree with MacDonald that for the Christian traveler with practical concerns it really doesn’t matter when, “with the heathen, their time of trial ceases” so much as it matters how we journey and what we try to say to them, and what we make of our own state of sin, for in the end, God is the singular righteous judge. It ain’t gonna make Aquinas happy, but it may be a bit more helpful day-to-day; a bit more capable of showing what are the effects of sin and why to turn from it, and how to die to self.

So, write it on your inside cover when you next sit down to read MacDonald: “A practical Christian on how to overcome evil, bring goodness out of it, and be saved.” Thanks, Uncle Phil.

Relevant Links:
The Golden Key Website
A brief and cursory summary of George MacDonald’s emphases in his understanding of salvation
Lilith notes by his son and also biographer, Greville (interesting in method of composition—understanding what MacDonald wanted his texts to do to/for the reader)
Questions while reading Lilith (I found some, not all, of these to be helpful)
An essay by Robert Trexler on MacDonald that makes the argument that since CS Lewis redirected people'e attention to him, MacDonald has almost always been read through the lens of the effect he had on Lewis (ironic, then, the pamphlet in which it appears!); also some helpful thoughts on other works about MacDonald; this CSL Society issue also includes a bibliography of GM and images of places he lived.

[1] The argument is that the first valley through which Vane passes parallels the second. In the first you have Mara and her cats, who ward off the ghoulish spirits; in the second you have Lona and her Little Ones, who fight against the Giants. The evidence for their overlap is in the passage about to be cited where MacDonald goes directly from describing the ghouls in the lake to describing the same sort of people—unwholesomenesses—that the Giants are said to have become.

[2] I’m not trying to offer Biblical defense for his theology, but the idea immediately made me think of Revelation 3:15-20 (to Laodicea, last of the seven):
“I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich; and white raiment, that thou mayest be clothed, and that the shame of thy nakedness do not appear; and anoint thine eyes with eyesalve, that thou mayest see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.”
[3] Who actually is playing with an analogy from J.I. Packer, see page 143-145 of Wedge.

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