Thursday, August 20, 2015

Book Review: Magnificent Obsession

Title: Magnificent Obsession

Author: Lloyd C. Douglas

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (1929), reprinted by Grosset & Dunlap

Date: Copyright 1929; my copy is part of a set reprinted to comply with “wartime regulations”

ISBN: none, but click here

Length: 330 pages

Quote: “We'll have to evolve a new vocabulary for religion, to make it rank with other subjects of interest. We've got to phrase it in modern terms.”

How quaint the “modern terms” of the 1920s have become!

To the post-Victorian generation, being able to see that outer space was full of emptiness and of huge chunks of bare rock whirling about, that the human body is full of internal organs none of which could be described as “the soul” (although by now we can pinpoint a “spiritual center” in the brain), and that fossils can be arranged in an order that seems to support the claim that different species mysteriously “evolved” out of one another, seems to have been quite overwhelming “evidence” that traditional religious beliefs weren't true. To Christians who grew up after humans had survived this emotional shock, the idea that anybody's faith was ever based on a lack of information about outer space, human anatomy, or fossils seems the bizarre and ridiculous part.

Lloyd Douglas was writing to an audience of people who'd accepted the claim that being “modern” meant believing that God was dead. If God was dead, then humankind was God. Wonder at the miracles of God was to be replaced by wonder at the wonders of humankind. Trains, cars, and airplanes inspired a kind of quasi-religious awe at this period, as did factories, and Mussolini. The cultural atmosphere of books of this vintage seems so remote that it's a shock that the vices most writers deplored, drugs and drunkenness, promiscuity and homosexuality, seem so familiar. Lloyd Douglas's characters had never heard of television, but when a teenager is giving her parents a hard time, the story (“defied some house rules...flicked all her classes...contrived to get herself suspended...came home and plunged immediately into a series of hectic affairs; out every night”) might be happening today.

There's no longer anything trendy or exciting about atheism, though, and although Christian-phobia still exists nobody thinks Christianity has merely gone the way of the horse-drawn wagon any more. So the cumbrous way the students Joyce and Bobby work their way back around to a sort of “modern, scientific” faith in “the Major Personality” of God now seems more outdated than any of the volumes of collected sermons their grandparents might have read. And their faith still falls short of being a real religion; they'll believe as long as it seems clear to them that giving away a tenth of their money leads to prosperity, and being kind to other people leads to popularity—no longer.

That said, the Magnificent Obsession is this strange, sterile, compromising faith of the early twentieth century, which Joyce and Bobby and a few of their friends are led to rediscover from the cryptic notes left by an “obsessive” old doctor they admired. Without actually becoming complete Christians, the young people work their way back to some vague faith in kindness, honesty, and generosity, and since they're all well off in the first place, they end up solvent, gainfully employed, paired off, and likely to live happily ever after.

Lloyd Douglas was a very successful author of “Christian fiction” in his day; any study of early twentieth century Christian literature should include Magnificent Obsession. However, I can't claim that this is his best work. While writing The Robe and The Big Fisherman Douglas had to stick loosely to the facts of history, which are pretty lively. While spinning a fantasy about a religious fad that never really caught on in the form Douglas here describes (although it did lead to Positive Thinking), Douglas tends to lose me. My eyes glazed over during each of three attempts I made to read this novel. It has a bit of a plot, which resolves neatly in the end, but I couldn't interest myself in the characters enough to say whether the plot was satisfying or otherwise.

I can recommend Magnificent Obsession as a novel to people who need help to get to sleep at night. If you have inadvertently ingested too much caffeine, take a chapter. As an historical document or collection piece, it's worth having, although not hard to find. To buy it online here, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the bottom of the screen. It's not a Fair Trade Book, though, so feel free to buy this one online somewhere else and spend your e-money on Fair Trade Books here.