Mentoring usually comes through people we know in one-on-one conversation. But, the most influential mentor in my life is someone I never met and never talked to because he never existed, at least outside the mind of the Scottish novelist, George MacDonald, who wrote Thomas Wingfold, Curate1 in 1876.
I stumbled on George MacDonald because of what another mentor and writer, C.S. Lewis, said of MacDonald, “I fancy I have never written a book that does not quote him.” So, I picked up and read, Thomas Wingfold, and found a most peculiar mentor.
The novel follows a young curate newly placed in a country parish, Thomas Wingfold, whose faith is abruptly challenged one day by a haughty atheist who asks, “Tell me honesty—do you believe one word of all that?” The staggering question riles Wingfold, first for its presumption and then more deeply for his inability to affirm that he truly believed anything at all.
I saw myself in Wingfold. In my thirties, I had been through a period of great doubt about my faith and disillusionment with the church. Yet, I still felt called to serve. But how?
As in many MacDonald novels, help comes unexpected, often in what the world counts the weakest places. Wingfold encounters Polwarth, a humble man trapped in an ailing, dwarf-size body with crooked spine, who becomes his mentor, and mine.
Wingfold asks his new-found mentor for help in rebutting the atheist’s question, but Polwarth changes the question and gently sets the curate and me on another path, “Your business is to acquaint yourself with the man Jesus; he will be to you the one to reveal the Father . . . Take your New Testament as if you have never read it before and read—to find out. It is the man Christ Jesus we have to know, and the Bible we use to that end — not for theory or dogma. In that light, it is the most practical and useful book in the world.”
Wingfold and Polwarth talk frequently but Polwarth is careful not to answer every question, so as not to “weaken by presentation the force of truth which, in discovery, would have its full effect.”
In one exchange, Polwarth asks, “What, primarily, did Jesus from his own account of himself, come into the world to do?”
“To save it,” answered Wingfold.
“I think you are wrong,” returned Polwarth. Jesus’ “passion, if such I dare to call it, was the light of his life, dominating even that which would yet have been enough to make him lay down his life.”
Discovering what Polwarth meant occupies the narrative and moral of the book. Along the way,
The Salvation Army: March 2018 Article Mentoring from Books
By Jim Van Yperen
MacDonald’s commentary about faith and the church challenged my assumptions and supplied new perspective about my life and purpose, with quotes I still return to for wisdom and counsel:
“There are those who in their very first seeking of it are nearer to the kingdom of heaven than many who have for years believed themselves in it. In the former there is more of the mind of Jesus, and when he calls them, they recognize him at once and go after him; while the others examine him from head to foot, and finding him not sufficiently like the Jesus of their conception, turn their backs, and go to church or chapel or chamber to kneel before a vague form mingled of tradition and fancy.”
“The great evil in the church has always been the presence in it of persons unsuited for the work required of them there.”
“Our crimes are friends that will hunt us either to the bosom of God or the pit of hell.”
“I doubt if anything makes one so unforgiving as unrepentant guilt.”
“It is in trusting him that we move into higher regions of life, not in knowing about Him. Until we have his life in us, we shall never be at peace.”
“Trust is born in love, and our need is to love God, not apprehend facts concerning him.”
“For what are doubts but the strengthening building blocks toward summits of yet higher faith in him who always leads us in to high places? Where there are no doubts, no questions, no perplexities, there can be no growth in to the regions where he would have us walk. Doubts are the only means through which he can enlarge our spiritual lives.”
So, what was Jesus’ primary reason for coming into the world, if not to save it? Wingfold discovers, as I did, that the primary motivation and purpose of Jesus life, (from incarnation to crucifixion that produces salvation,) was to hear and to do the Father’s will.
May we do the same.
–Jim Van Yperen
1 Thomas Wingfold, Curate, by George MacDonald, originally published by Hurst and Brackett, London, 1876, printed and published by Johannesen, Whitehorn, CA, 1996, 2002