Thursday, June 23, 2011

Worshipping the White Witch

As summer arrives, my first bit of reading for the season is some unfinished business from the winter.   I am, at long last, making my way through the rest of George MacDonald's Unspoken Sermons.  MacDonald, the Scots Mystic who was C.S. Lewises spiritual teacher, isn't exactly the most entertaining preacher.   His sermons bear no resemblance to the form demanded by the consumers of AmeriChrist, Inc. inspirational products.

There are no canned jokes to warm up the inadequately caffeinated crowd.  There are no stories drawn straight from 1001 Garfield Sermon Illustrations.  There are no nice neat bullet points that tell you how to apply the Three Lessons Learned to Your Life Now.  It's just smart, hard, bare-knuckled and uncompromising theology, applied directly to the forehead with all the merciless intensity of a Scots intellectual.   And if preached, they'd run for at least an hour.

I love 'em.  MacDonald burns bright like fire, and he gets God in a way that goes well beyond abstract knowledge.

Here's da ting.  The last of MacDonald's Sermons I've been reading is entitled "The Truth In Jesus," and after over 100 years, it remains as fiercely heretical today as it would have been then.  MacDonald, as a mystic, had no patience whatsoever for the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  By this, I mean the theological framework in which Jesus has to die because God's wrath against sinful humanity must be appeased.  A blood sacrifice is demanded, and so Jesus is killed, thus releasing those who believe in him from the heck-fire that we so richly deserve.

This is pretty roots-rock stuff for many evangelicals, but MacD viewed it as monstrous and essentially pagan.  He sees it as a fundamental misunderstanding of Christ's person and teachings,  the central teachings of the apostles, and the nature of God.  For MacDonald, God is ferocious, consuming fire Love, and there's no way to reconcile God's essential nature with this theology.  And Lord ha' mercy, he's gonna be tellin' ya 'bout it.

As I read through his intense polemic, I've been wondering about the relationship between this clear and strongly held position and the place where I first learned about substitutionary atonement.

That place was, of course, Narnia.   I first read Lewises' Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by myself back when I was five.  Hey, it was 1970s Kenya, and in the absence of endless screen inputs, five year olds have time to learn to read.  From the fire and magic that is the gift of children, my memories of that reading are not of reading about Narnia, but of being in Narnia, like you remember a particularly vivid childhood dream.

I remember the Stone Table, and the hill, and the dark path leading there.  I remember watching with Lucy and Susan from a cleft as noble Aslan was led to an innocent death at the hands of Jadis and her howling mob of monsters.     That story laid the groundwork for my own theology, and my understanding of what Jesus means.  It's meant to do that.

So I got myself to wondering:  C.S. Lewis acknowledges George MacDonald as his spiritual teacher, and MacDonald radiantly, relentlessly, and repeatedly rejects the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.  If that is so, is there any connection between what C.S. Lewis teaches us as children and what MacDonald taught him?

The connection, I think, comes in who insists upon the sacrifice, on blood shed as punishment for sin.  

It is not Aslan.  It is not his ever unseen father, the Emperor over the Sea.

It's Jadis, the Last Empress of Charn, the White Witch, the emblem of worldly power and control and the form of "justice" that is written in fear and the horrible balance of suffering.

No wonder I have so much trouble with that way of understanding God.