George MacDonald (1824-1905) was a Scottish author, poet, and Christian minister. In his day he was considered one of the great Victorian authors on par with Dickens, Thackeray, Kipling and the like. His reputation as an author, however, has not fared as well largely because of the ubiquitous and fervent presence of religion throughout his works.
MacDonald's theology, though sprinkled liberally throughout his fairly substantial number of books, is perhaps nowhere more palpable than in Unspoken Sermons. These sermons, though by no means amongst the most popular of MacDonald's work, have had theological impact from their first appearance. Taking a brief survey of the critical history of Unspoken Sermons reveals this impact:
Shortly after the first series of sermons was published in 1867, the Journal of Sacred Literature published a review insightful not only of the book itself, but also of its author.
"It is a very difficult task to write a short notice of a book like this. It is a kind of book to be spoken of rather with affection as a dear friend, than to be coolly criticized. Like all true words worth uttering, whether by mouth or pen, these of Mr. Mac Donald's are "living, having hands and feet." To those who know him they recall a thousand times over the tones of his voice, the expression of his face, and his whole manner. And nobody can read them at all without feeling that they are the utterance of his very soul, the manifestations of what is thoroughly real and genuine in his truest self. The Unspoken Sermons, indeed, will by no means be accepted as orthodox, either in form or substance; but if they were wholly mistaken in their conclusions— which we are very far indeed from thinking that they are—it is still most difficult to understand how the narrowest-minded critic could consider them "unsafe." They bring everyone who reads them into the very presence of the Living God, and reminds him that not only what he says and does, but what he genuinely believes and really is will be tested by God's consuming fire. If, therefore, these Unspoken Sermons should lead anyone into dogmatic error, they will at any rate lead him into spiritual truth, and teach him to cry out for that light by which all the darkness, both of the intellect and of the spirit, will one day be scattered."
Of those whom MacDonald influence there is none more revered (and scrutinized) in the public eye than C.S. Lewis. In his introduction to George MacDonald: An Anthology (1947), Lewis states the following.
"This collection, as I have said, was designed not to revive MacDonald's literary reputation but to spread his religious teaching. Hence most of my extracts are taken from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons. My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help-sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith. … I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined. … In making this collection I was discharging a debt of justice. I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it."
Since the 1970s Dr. Rolland Hein has spent a good portion of his scholarly life presenting MacDonald to modern readers. In his preface to his edited and abridged version of Unspoken Sermons he states:
"The purpose of Unspoken Sermons is to arouse the reader’s will so to choose, by imparting a clearer understanding of what God’s Will is. It is not to argue doctrines intellectually. It is not to formulate a systematic theology. MacDonald’s insights are not for the mind alone, but for the heart. They afford the reader glimpses of truths which to the child-heart of the true Christian are undeniable. MacDonald avows: “I believe that no teacher should strive to make men think as he thinks, but to lead them to the living Truth , to the Master Himself, of whom alone they can learn anything, who will make them in themselves know what is true by the very seeing of it.” The careful reader (and this material may not be read otherwise) will certainly have such a confrontation with Truth in the pages ahead. More than once reading here has brought sudden tears to my eyes and an involuntary thrill to my breast, and I have seldom had a stronger feeling of certainty that I was standing in the presence of valid insights into the Eternal Mystery than during the reading of these Unspoken Sermons."
In 2005 Michael Phillips published an edited edition of some of MacDonald's more influential sermons and essays (including selections from Unspoken Sermons) entitled, "Your Life in Christ". In this collection Phillips states:
"MacDonald saw things differently. Doctrinal formula was nothing to him. His unique perspective takes some getting used to. I find that many passages require two or three readings. But I also find spiritual gold awaiting me, sometimes buried deep but always ready to shine out brilliantly from the page when suddenly I see it. Theologically, too, as imaginatively, I have discovered many doors of delight opening before me into new worlds of wonder about God and his work."
What shall be the impact of Unspoken Sermons in the future? If the past 140 years is any indication, this work will continue to influence religious thinkers of both the literary and theological bent. Though a speculative statement, perhaps MacDonald’s work in general and Unspoken Sermons specifically, will continue to be a catalyst for producing imaginative fiction and theology less concerned about dogma and more focused, as MacDonald unfailingly was, on the heart of God to his creation.--Submitted by David Baldwin
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