Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Highlander's Last Song, by George MacDonald

George MacDonald.  The Highlander’s Last Song.  Michael R. Phillips, ed.  Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1986.

George MacDonald was a nineteenth century Scottish preacher, whose works had a profound influence on C.S. Lewis.  MacDonald wrote fictional books, and Michael Phillips has graciously put a number of them into modern English.

MacDonald’s theological views are usually quite overt in his fictional works.  MacDonald rejected penal substitution, the idea the Christ paid the penalty for people’s sins on the cross.  MacDonald also leaned towards Christian universalism, the idea that sinners in hell will be purged of their sins and will eventually experience salvation.  MacDonald’s works focus on sinners becoming changed and purged of their sins, trusting in Christ, and following Christ’s teachings, especially the command to love one’s enemies and service to others.  Overall, I would characterize MacDonald’s God as loving, yet tough.

The Highlander’s Last Song is set in MacDonald’s country, Scotland.  A prominent character is Alister, who is the head of the Macruadh clan.  His brother, Ian, has returned from serving the Czar in Russia, and my impression is that Ian exemplifies George MacDonald’s concept of spiritual maturity, for Ian is full of wisdom and expresses MacDonald’s sentiments about religion and the spiritual life.  The mother of Alister and Ian is more of a traditional type of Christian, one who wants for people to accept Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf in order to go to heaven, and she and Ian debate about religion, yet they are still close and love each other.  There is Peregrine Palmer, a boorish Englishman, who has bought property in Scotland and has moved there with his family.  Peregrine’s two daughters, Mercy and Christina, are rather shallow at first, but their relationship with Ian and Alister and life-threatening experiences manage to deepen them and open them up to the divine.  There are other characters as well: a cranky (yet loveable) old lady who is part of the Macruadh clan, the deaf-mute Hector of the Stags, and Hector’s son, the childlike Rob of the Angels, who entrances people with his stories.

The great clash occurs later in the book, when Peregrine Palmer tries to get the clan-families off of his newly bought land so that he can create a place to hunt deer.

The Highlander’s Last Song has a magical quality to it, as do many of MacDonald’s works, and MacDonald’s spiritual commentary only adds to the story.  My favorite part of the book is when the cranky old lady prays for Alister.  MacDonald states on page 35: “And if there was a good deal of superstition mingled with her prayer, the main ingredient was genuine—-the love prompting it.  If God heard only perfect prayers, how could he be the prayer-hearing God?”

One impression that I have, however, is that MacDonald depicts the spiritually mature characters as virtually perfect.  This seems to be the case with Ian, who was imperfect in the book’s flashbacks, but who strikes me as perfect in the narrative’s present.  Alister is spiritually mature, too, but MacDonald states that Alister is looking to money for security and needs to be purged of that.  Moreover, while MacDonald appears to disagree with Ian and Alister on whether people should drink alcohol (MacDonald is open to it, whereas Ian and Alister are opposed), Ian still fits MacDonald’s spiritual standards in that he has inner peace and loves others, including his enemies, and Alister moves in that direction.

That makes me wonder: Do righteous, spiritually-mature people suffer, according to MacDonald, or are they so in touch with God that they greet every situation and person with inner-peace and love?  MacDonald in The Highlander’s Last Song does not stress Christ’s sufferings.  Could that be relevant to my question?  MacDonald is still clear that people can tell God what is hurting them, and his spiritually mature characters assure the victimized that they can trust that God will justly judge their oppressors.  Yet, there is an almost zen-like quality to his spiritually mature characters.

One scene that comes to my mind is when the cranky old lady is being thrown out of her house, and Alister exhorts her to trust in God and to love her enemies.  She proceeds to inflict biblical woes at those who are tossing her stuff out, as she quotes biblical passages about God’s wrath and God’s fierce opposition to injustice!  Is MacDonald’s point here that God is both loving and just?

Good book!

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