|"The Christian Goddess: Archetype and Theology in the Fantasies of George MacDonald" - ISBN# 9781611470086|
1. What draws you, as an author, to MacDonald's work, and to religious literary studies in general?
Most people today, I think live in compartmentalized worlds: science in one box, religion in another, imagination (or speculations about some sort of paranormal "reality") in a third, and practical questions of living divorced from it all. MacDonald's world view integrates all of these facets of human thought and life, which I find greatly appealing.
2. In your brief overview of MacDonald's life, you point out that his religious views were generally rejected by most Christian denominations of his day. Do you think MacDonald's writings' antagonism towards orthodox perspectives is personal?
MacDonald appears to have developed his deep dislike of Calvinism when he was still a boy. I don't think any of his theological views were developed because he felt rejected by religious "establishment" of his era. And I don't think he was hostile to any fundamental orthodox Christian perspective - I mean, nothing that I have encountered in his writings would oppose even one tenant of the Nicene Creed.
It is quite true that he expressed deep antagonism for the penal-substitutionary theory of the atonement and the doctrine of eternal punishment, but this was because - to be blunt - he perceived these notions, not just as human inventions, but as spiritually toxic: as insults to God which often tragically deformed the lives of Christians and kept many of his contemporaries from trusting and obeying Christ.
3. How would you compare MacDonald's fiction to other great writers who were deeply involved with Christianity, such as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis?
MacDonald was a significant influence on both of these writers, which makes him a sort of grandfather to the modern fantasy genre that was kicked off by Tolkien's The Hobbit and Rings trilogy. Tolkien's orcs, for instance, are loosely based on MacDonald's goblins in the Princess and the Goblin.
The work of these three writers is actually very different; what they all have in common is that they address the "ultimate questions" of human life through the creation of "other" worlds, imagined as parallel (or prior) to our own version of reality. But MacDonald's adult fantasies, Phantastes and Lilith, are much more dreamlike - even surreal - than anything Lewis or Tolkien ever wrote, while his children's stories conform more closely to the traditional fair-tale genre than do Lewis's Narnia stories or even Tolkien's Middle Earth.
Both Lewis and Tolkien's works have "epic" elements, involving world-altering battles between the forces of good and evil, which are totally missing from most of MacDonald's cannon. (The possible exception to this is MacDonald's Curdie and the Princess.) This difference may be partly traceable to the fact that both Lewis and Tolkien fought in a World War, while MacDonald had no military experience at all. I would say that MacDonald's work is more focused on individual psychology than of the two later writers. The books by Lewis which seem to me to resemble MacDonald's most in this respect are The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces.
One element that is common to all three writers, at least in some of their works, is the old-fashioned ethos of character-development that, now, persists mostly in popular (as opposed to literary) fiction. Tolkien's Bilbo and Frodo, as well as Edwin Ransom of Lewis' space trilogy, resemble MacDonald's fairy-tale hero Curdie of the Princess books, in that they grow from unremarkable (though basically good) sorts of people into larger-than-life heroes, simply by consistently making the hard, right choices in the circumstances presented to them by life. In MacDonald's terms, each follows his conscience, which is the voice of God, and thus has "a share in his own creation." This is the sense, also, in which Lewis's child-heroes become "kings and queens" of Narnia. They become "kings and queens" of themselves, like Diamond in MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind.
4. While attendance in the American Christian church is currently in decline, what application might MacDonald's revolutionary idea of Christianity and The Christian Goddess provide for the modern reader?
MacDonald's brand of Christianity is, I think, in many ways very suited to modernity. It is independent of institutions, mystical, anti-authoritarian. It values nature as a Divine revelation, deeply respects animals, sees God as androgynous and the welfare of individuals as God's ultimate concern. Hell becomes Purgatory, because "justice" and "salvation" mean the same thing: the first isn't eternal torture and the second isn't letting the sinner escape the consequences of sin. Instead, both "justice" and "salvation" mean "eradicating the sin out of the sinner" - whatever it takes.
MacDonald's Christianity, therefore, sees human creation as an ongoing - one might say, evolutionary - process, which only just begins during life on earth. But MacDonald's "ethical evolution," unlike a purely material concept of evolution, isn't driven by an impersonal Darwinian force that indifferently eradicates or changes whole species. Instead, the "ethical evolution" by which God continues human creation is intimately personal and absolutely individual. It think this notion of the gradual perfection of individual fits in well with our current paradigms of how people change - and of how hard such change is to achieve.
That being said, MacDonald's Christianity is still Christianity, not a vague "spirituality" with an uncritically benign Deity. Jesus, for MacDonald, is God incarnate, "the human God." And Jesus crucified is an icon, not just of the depths of God's love for every human person, but also of what every person, in one way or another, will have to experience in order to be made like Jesus. MacDonald says that as long as people "feel as if, separated from their sing, they would no longer be themselves ... how can it be any comfort to them to be told that God loves them so much that He will burn them clean? ... They do not want to be clean, and they cannot bear to be tortured. Can they then do other ... than fear God...?"
Interview by: Kathleen Shultz