Back of the North Wind

Discussions of theology, philosophy, religion and life inspired by the writings of George MacDonald (and perhaps others such as CS Lewis) posted by "recovering fundamentalists".

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I am a "recovering fundamentalist". The trick is to figure out how not to throw out the Baby with the bathwater. I learn through dialogue, and so invite commentary on my posts to Back of the North Wind.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Welcome, BHT Folks

Well, I seem to be a landing place for folks from Boar's Head Tavern who have been having some sort of dispute with one James White, and also a pseodonymous commenter on this blog.

All I can say is "Welcome", and have a good look around. The BHT folks claim CS Lewis as their patron saint, which probably means we have a lot in common, given that George MacDonald is the patron saint of this blog.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Return of the New Kind of Christian

I just finished (less than 24 hours after it was delivered to my doorstep), The Last Word and the Word After That, by Brian McLaren -- the conclusion to the trilogy which started with A New Kind of Christian. I was not disappointed. McClaren seems to read my mind with what he writes. A good friend of mine and I thought for sure that McLaren had been taking notes on our coffee talks when we first read aNKoC. We took turns calling each other "Neo", the character McLaren uses to challenge the fundamentalism from which we were (are) both recovering.

In "Last Word" (the geek in me wants to abbreviate the title "LW&++"), McLaren spends a lot of time talking about hell, which I very much appreciate. And in fact, I believe he's brought a perspective on the subject I hadn't considered. I'm not going to write about that perspective yet, because I'm still digesting it. But I'll quote one line which certainly nails this blog:

"Ah, Hell... Hell is the frequent preoccupation of recovering fundamentalists."

That would be me. (See for example, discussion of hell from a George MacDonald perspective on this blog).

Maybe by the time I can get over hell, I'll be recovered from my fundamentalism.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Honest, Humble Self-Judgment

In today's GMD reading, I heard echoes of CS Lewis (or rather, the reverse, of course -- but I read CSL long before I read GMD) as an artist character of MacDonald's talks about judging his work:

A man ought to try to look at his own work as if it were none of his, but not as with the eyes of other people. That is an impossibility, and the attempt a bewilderment. It is with his own eyes he must look, with his own judgment he must judge. The only effort is to get it set far away enough from him to be able to use his own eyes and his own judgment upon it.

George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish, Chapter 27.

This sounds very reminiscent of CS Lewis' words from Screwtape to Wormwood:

"[God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another."
CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Chapter 14.

Lewis is emphasizing the humility part -- judgment as if another had created the work, forgetting oneself in the assessment. MacDonald adds another aspect: that the judgment still must be made from one's own perspective. I guess that's the only way one can honestly render judgment.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

A GMD Theology of X-Sports

Perhaps George MacDonald would have been a surfer, rock-climber, or skydiver had he lived in our time. In my reading this week, his main character, a parson, tells his daughter that he is going out for a walk in a severe storm. In response to her objection, here is George MacDonald's "theology of X-sports":

Do you think I should be better pleased with my boys if they shrunk from everything involving the least possibility of danger because there was no occasion for it? That is just the way to make cowards. And I am certain God would not like his children to indulge in such moods of self-preservation as that. He might well be ashamed of them. The fearful are far more likely to meet with accidents than the courageous.

George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish, Chapter 29.

There's a significant context for this in the story. The parson's daughter suffered a horseback-riding accident, and was paralyzed from the waist down. So when MacDonald, through the voice of the parson, recommends against "indulgence in a mood of self-preservation", he does so in the context of an earlier serious consequence for a different, and presumably less dangerous, activity.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

GMD on Religious Incantation

I enjoyed a little de-bunking George MacDonald did for today's reading from The Seaboard Parish. A somewhat overzealous Christian criticizes a carpenter for being too confident of his estimate of how soon the carpenter would be finished with his project. The parson steps in to the poor carpenter's defense:

"You shouldn't be sure of anything, Harry. We are told in the New Testament that we ought to say 'If the Lord Will', said Joe."

"You shouldn't be too hard upon Harry," I said. "You don't think that the Bible means to pull a man up every step like that, till he's afraid to speak a word? It was about a long journey and a year's residence that the Apostle James was speaking."

"No doubt, sir. But the principle's the same. Harry can no more be sure of finishing his work before it be dark, than those people could be of going their long journey."

"That is perfectly true. But you are taking the letter for the spirit, and that, I suspect, in more ways than one. The religion does not lie in not being sure about anything, but in a loving desire that the will of God in the matter, whatever it be, may be done. And if Harry has not learned yet to care about the will of God, what is the good of coming down upon him that way, as if that would teach him in the least. When he loves God, then, and not till then, will he care about his will."

I find this so refreshing. I'm sure that there are other "christianese incantations" I've heard that are unnecessary. But GMD criticizes not only the incantation itself, but the idea of trying to enforce a moral attitude on someone else through their speech.

Meanwhile, MacDonald continues with further criticism of the incantation:

Nor does the religion lie in saying, If the Lord will, every time anything is to be done. It is a most dangerous thing to use sacred words often. It makes them so common to our ear that at length, when used most solemnly, they have not half the effect they ought to have, and that is a serious loss. What the Apostle means is, that we should always be in the mood of looking up to God and having regard to his will, not always writing D.V. for instance, as so many do---most irreverently, I think---using a Latin contraction for the beautiful words, just as if they were a charm, or as if God would take offence if they did not make the salvo of acknowledgment. It seems to me quite heathenish.

(D.V. is "Deo volente" = "God Willing", by the way.) George MacDonald seems to me to be on pretty solid ground here, especially in the context of Jesus' instructions to his disciples:

But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
Matthew 6:7.

(Or check out the same passage in this version for a suprising slam on some Christianese.)

MacDonald wraps up the whole discussion with the following:

Our hearts ought ever to be in the spirit of those words; our lips ought to utter them rarely. Besides, there are some things a man might be pretty sure the Lord wills."

And that final line is not only cute (one can almost see the smirk on MacDonald's face as he says it), but echoes the book by Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God: the thesis that God's will is not some mysterious hidden thing which you might miss by accident, but is something revealed through the Bible and through our conscience, and is usually pretty straightforward. This book really impacted me when I was in school. It's a little disturbing to me that it's already 25 years old! It was quite controversial when I first read it. Perhaps less so now?

Friday, April 08, 2005

Can Girly Men withstand a Gurly Wind?

And now for a Scottish Brogue break: in my reading this week, I came across the following:

When we came out of the church, it was cloudy and dark, and the wind was blowing cold from the sea. The sky was covered with one cloud, but the waves tossing themselves against the rocks, flashed whiteness out of the general gloom. As the tide rose, the wind increased. It was a night of surly temper---hard and gloomy. Not a star cracked the blue above---there was no blue; and the wind was gurly....

George MacDonald, The Seaboard Parish

On a hunch that "gurly" means something other than Schwarzenegger's "Girly-men", I looked this up and found the following song from the Scots Independent online newspaper:

'They hadna sail'd a league, a league
A league but barely three,
When the lift grewe dark and the wind blew loud,
And gurly grewe the sea.'

The page also provided an audio definition of gurly. It'll be my new word for the week.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Strength for the Day, Courage for the Moment

Yes, I know I've been absent. I only blog when I've been reading MacDonald, and for the last couple of months, I've been parenting and knitting instead of reading and blogging. So tonight, perhaps inspired by some of the meditations I've read about the life of the Pope, I picked up where I left off in George MacDonald's, The Seaboard Parish, and came across this quote, describing the situation where the main character has climbed a steep hill to some ruins, and is looking back whence he came:

Any path seems more difficult in looking back than at the time when the difficulties themselves have to be met and overcome.

This is reminiscent of, but a little different from, CS Lewis in The Screwtape Letters, where Lewis suggests that one is only given strength to deal with the trial of the present moment, rather than strength to deal with all possible (and most likely, contradictory) future trials simultaneously. Often, Lewis points out, the present trial for which one needs strength is the anxiety which comes from the uncertainty about which trial one is going to face in the future.

This past weekend I was clearing out some old files from my graduate school / post-doc days, and was impressed with some of the work I had done back then. "How on earth did I manage all that?" I guess it's an example of GMD's principle described above. I don't know how I did it, but I did whatever I had to do at the time. I don't know if I could go through that again. And that's really what GMD is talking about: re-treading a difficult path. So he really is saying the same thing as Lewis.

Happily (and contradictory to some angst nightmares I have!) I don't have to go through it all again. But if I did, I would find the necessary strength for each day, and the courage for each moment.

Meanwhile I try to remind myself, when it seems like I'm too busy: we all each live 60 seconds (only) every minute. It's just a matter of choice about what to do during each of those 60 seconds. My seconds have been spent elsewhere than the blogosphere for the past few months, but I intend to try to visit a little more often.