Reflections on MacDonald Bicentenary Celebration

One hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton organized a centennial celebration for the one hundredth anniversary of George MacDonald’s birth. This year, two hundred years after MacDonald’s birth, MacDonald enthusiasts throughout the world gathered at the Marion E. Wade Center at Wheaton College for a bicentenary celebration. The conference took place last week and included everyone from college professors to farmers to pastors to musicians.

During the second day of the conference, I presented a paper on areas of continuity and discontinuity between MacDonald’s understanding of imagination and that of ancient and classical Christian conceptions. From my paper:

In MacDonald’s imaginative works, whether his fantasy stories or his realistic novels, he aims to educate his readers not simply about the rightness of a moral life; rather, he aims to show that goodness and truth are attractive. As truth is clothed in beauty, the door of the heart is opened to deeper understanding. While MacDonald’s characters constantly remind us that nothing is as needful as a person doing his duty in the next five minutes, his narratives also help us feel that nothing is quite so exciting. In this he paved the way for apologists like G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers who would later defend Christian ethics, not so much from the charge of falsehood, but from the charge of tedium… By appealing to the imagination, the skilled artist can reach the individual at the level of pathos, provoking an emotional sympathy with the good that penetrates deeper than mere didactic instruction or legalistic moralism. As MacDonald put it in an 1867 essay, “Seek not that your sons and your daughters should not see visions, should not dream dreams; seek that they should see true visions, that they should dream noble dreams. Such out-going of the imagination is one with aspiration, and will do more to elevate above what is low and vile than all possible inculcations of morality….Few, in this world, will ever be able to utter what they feel. Fewer still will be able to utter it in forms of their own. Nor is it necessary that there should be many such. But it is necessary that all should feel. It is necessary that all should understand and imagine the good; that all should begin, at least, to follow and find out God.

It would be impossible to share everything about the conference, so I will limit myself to five highlights that stood out.

First, I was able to see my parents, who also came to the conference. My father, Michael Phillips, presented a paper, which I have discussed on Facebook here.

Second, the music! I was able to meet the Hollywood composer J.A.C. Redford, who composed a remarkable piano piece for MacDonald’s book Phantastes. I discuss how the music impacted me on Facebook here.

Third, Malcolm Guite! Guite is the president of the George MacDonald society, and came over from the UK to share his insights on the prophetic imagination. I was really taken by his poetry, which I discuss here.

Fourth, Wisepath books! I was delighted to see that Wisepath books had a presence at the conference, not least because they used the conference as an opportunity to launch a new series of parallel editions comparing the American and British texts in four of MacDonald’s novels. My father is the editor of this series, and I have been very involved in helping him research for the introductions. I have posted more information about that here.

Fifth, the garden! I had a remarkable experience in the Aslan garden, which I have shared here.

See Also

I’m trying to settle back into my normal schedule, so that’s all I have time to share right now. But I think I’ll be processing the conference for many years to come.

Further Reading About George MacDonald



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