Does the Cornerstone of John Piper's Theology Come from a Man He Thinks is Burning in Hell?
Piper unknowingly had his eyes opened to the truth of God’s goodness by George MacDonald through C.S. Lewis.
A key tenet of John Piper’s best-selling book Desiring God is what he calls “Christian Hedonism”. I’ll paraphrase the definition of Piper’s Christian Hedonism for the sake of brevity -- Christian Hedonism is the belief that Christians have a duty to find pleasure in God. Piper explains in the first chapter how he came to understand this truth.
Piper knows that Lewis attributes much of his writing and thought to the writer he called his “master” - George MacDonald. Yet Piper admits that he refuses to read MacDonald. More on this later.
So Piper does not know that the passage which changed his theology is one of the clearest examples of Lewis quoting MacDonald.
In MacDonald’s 1882 novel Weighed and Wanting, a fictional sermon is delivered which includes the following passage . . .
One thing she heard him tell them was, that they were like orphan children, hungry in the street, raking the gutter for what they could get, while behind them stood a grand, beautiful house to which they never so much as lifted up their eyes—and there their father lived! There he sat in a beautiful room, waiting, waiting, waiting for any one of them all who would but turn round, run in, and up the stairs to him . . . And I know the kind of thing you do care for—low, dirty things: you are like a child, if such there could be, that preferred mud and the gutter to all the beautiful toys in the shop at the corner of Middle Row. But though these things are not the things you want, they are the things you need; and the time is coming when you will say, 'Ah me! what a fool I was not to look at the precious things, and see how precious they were, and put out my hand for them when they were offered me!'
The passages could hardly be closer in thought without being a direct quote.
Satisfied with low desires
MacDonald: “And I know the kind of thing you do care for—low, dirty things”
Lewis: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition”
God finds our desires weak
MacDonald: “There he sat in a beautiful room, waiting, waiting, waiting for any one of them all who would but turn round, run in, and up the stairs to him . . .”
Lewis: “Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.”
Ignorant children making mud pies
MacDonald: “they were like orphan children, hungry in the street, raking the gutter for what they could get . . . you are like a child, if such there could be, that preferred mud and the gutter”
Lewis: “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum”
Missing out on the treasure
MacDonald: “a grand, beautiful house” “all the beautiful toys in the shop at the corner of Middle Row”
Lewis: “because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”
MacDonald: “what a fool I was not to look at the precious things”
Lewis: “we are half-hearted creatures fooling about”
We could easily imagine Lewis saying the same thing when he read MacDonald that Piper did when reading Lewis. “There it was in black and white, and to my mind it was totally compelling . . .”
Laughing at a Reprobate Believed to be in Infinite Misery
This might simply be an interesting observation of unknown literary heritage, if it were not for Piper’s implication that MacDonald is probably a reprobate. That makes it something a little more remarkable.
In a 2013 video discussion between Piper and Tim Keller on the life of Lewis, the two men briefly touch Lewis’ admiration of MacDonald.
Piper says “I was reading ‘Creation in Christ’, a collection of MacDonald’s essays 20 or 30 years ago, and came across his statement on the atonement and in it he said ‘I turn with loathing from the God of Jonathan Edwards.’ [astonished] I quietly closed my book” [both laugh]. For clarity, the collection is Unspoken Sermons and the sermon was actually "Justice," not “Creation In Christ”.
Keller comments “I think George MacDonald was filled with common grace.” If you are not familiar with Calvinist theology, that is a way of saying that MacDonald was not filled with saving grace -- he wasn’t, isn’t a Christian. To this statement Piper reacts by chuckling.
A chuckle seems to be an odd reaction to hearing that someone is probably burning in hell forever.
The discussion continues and Piper’s enjoyment of Keller’s assertion that MacDonald wasn’t a believer includes Piper slapping the table, doubled over in laughter.
Was Lewis Only a Fan of MacDonald’s Imagination?
You might ask if Lewis was only a fan of MacDonald’s imagination, or did he find himself in line with his theology as well.
In the preface to a book of Lewis’ favorite MacDonald quotes, he says . . .
"This collection, as I have said, was designed not to revive MacDonald's literary reputation but to spread his religious teaching. Hence most of my extracts are taken from the three volumes of Unspoken Sermons. My own debt to this book is almost as great as one man can owe to another: and nearly all serious inquirers to whom I have introduced it acknowledge that it has given them great help-sometimes indispensable help toward the very acceptance of the Christian faith. … I know hardly any other writer who seems to be closer, or more continually close, to the Spirit of Christ Himself. Hence his Christ-like union of tenderness and severity. Nowhere else outside the New Testament have I found terror and comfort so intertwined. … In making this collection I was discharging a debt of justice. I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it."
Piper is evidently one who has not taken sufficient notice of the affiliation of Lewis’ theology to MacDonald’s, and thus the affiliation of MacDonald’s theology with his own--the good part of Piper’s theology, that is.
I see a day in the future when two astonished men walk into the Father’s grand beautiful house by the sea and find Lewis and MacDonald doubled over in laughter -- not at the unfathomable torture of a soul created in God’s image, but at the joy they find in a truly good Father.
“Come, John and Tim, let’s have a pipe together.”
I might even join in.