Book Review: Magnificent Obsession

13 Jan

Grade 11-12: Magnificent Obsession by Lloyd C. Douglas, classic; inspirational; romance

Plot Summary:  When party-loving college student Bobby Merrick, the privileged grandson of a millionaire, realizes he has a second chance at life, he decides to use it trying to fill the shoes of the man who died at his expense—a brain surgeon well-known for his philanthropic deeds.  But the deceased doctor had a secret, kept in a small book written in code, and Bobby is determined to find out what it is.  He also left a gorgeous widow that Bobby starts to fall for.

My Review:  I’m not sure how I came across this classic work by Lloyd C. Douglas, author of “The Robe.”  I found it at our local library and was interested that it took place in the same state I live.  I immediately found the writer’s descriptive style to be quite poetic and filled with wonderfully long words!

There seemed to be two sides to this unique novel.  One is the normal flow of a story following the lives of several different characters: Bobby Merrick, whose life is changed forever after a boating accident; the dead doctor’s wild daughter, who has a secret liking for Bobby; and her young step-mother, the arresting Helen, who haunts Bobby’s thoughts day and night.  I enjoyed reading their story very much and found it to be very romantic, even if a little melodramatic at times (esp. at the end).  But melodrama and the 1920’s go well together, so I didn’t mind a bit!

The other side of the story is the secret Bobby persistently sets out to solve—Dr. Hudson’s journal written in code.  When Bobby realizes just what the mystery is he disappointed at first, but later decides to devote his life to the same cause Hudson was ‘magnificently obsessed’ with. Magnificent Obsession

Two movies (1935 and 1954) have been made based on the book, both of which I have never seen and have learned were changed dramatically and watered down from the original story by Douglas.  I realize many people have been inspired by this story.  Yet it was the spiritual ideas behind the secret obsession that I had a problem with.  I will describe my views on it below, so be-warned it contains SPOILERS!

On the surface, the story seems to be one of self-sacrifice and the encouragement of doing good things for others without being rewarded for them.  I have absolutely no problem with this idea.  But hold on—if we take a closer look, is that what this story is really about?  The main characters aren’t necessarily being repaid with wealth or accolade, but their motive isn’t one entirely out of selflessness either.

In the explanation of his philosophical premise, the character Randolph turns to Matthew 6:3-6, “The Program” as he calls it:

“But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you… When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.  Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Rock Hudson  Great actor. Catch him in Magnificent Obsession (make sure you have tissues to catch the tears). The characters then proceed to interpret this passage as an equation for getting what they want in life, in other words treating God like a slot machine.  One daren’t learn of their good deeds, –not even by accident, –or else it spoils the equation and they don’t get what they want.

“’On the night of the day I made my first successful projection of my personality—I cannot tell you what that was—I dare not—I went literally into a closet in my house, and shut the door.  That’s the next step in the program….  You see—I was very much in earnest about this matter; and, having already bungled one attempt, I was resolved to obey the rules to the letter…. Later, I discovered that the principle will work elsewhere than in a closet.  Just so you’re insulated.”

I have to laugh when I read this.  But knowing that the author of this book was a minister who seemed to have gotten it so wrong makes it sad at the same time.

But let me continue.  These characters are really after one thing… power.  Power to be and do and get what they want in life.  

“So I went into a closet; shut the door; closed my eyes; quietly put myself into a spiritually receptive mood, and said, confidently, addressing the Major Personality,– I have fulfilled all the conditions required of me for receiving power!  I am ready to have it!  I want it!  I want the capacity to just one creditable work of statuary!’”

#With open arms                                                                          Love and forever bliss is waiting with open arms for all who love.In Matthew, Jesus did promise to reward believers who do good works, not out of hypocrisy but out of love for Him.  But He doesn’t say how.  He doesn’t promise that His reward will be power, and He doesn’t necessarily promise immediate reward.  (1 Cor. 3:13,14.)  Randolph’s demanding his candy out of the vending machine now! appears to be very prideful.  His works were not born out of any real love for or relationship with God.  I step back and see how this story with it’s theories strips everything about a genuine relationship with God away.  It reduces Him to a gimme gimme grandpa, and the characters inflate a false bubble to create their own religion.  I felt uncomfortable with the continual references to God as the ‘Major Personality’, almost distancing themselves from Him and turning Him into a sci-fi force.  It sounded Gnostic, though I’m no theologian.  At times, I wondered if I was reading a new age novel, reminding me of something out of Byrne’s “The Secret.”

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe in God’s power.  And I believe we have access to His power through His gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 3:16).  He gives us His power to live Christ-centered lives and gives us the victory over sin and death (1 Cor. 6:14; Rom. 7:24,25).  His power in us results in God’s glory, not our own.  This is a completely different type of power than what Douglas’ characters are pursuing.

Although the author seems to shy away from ‘conventional religion,’ (and Lord knows, there is a terrible lot of religion going around in today’s evangelical churches), he can’t get away from his own sort of created religion, either.  “’I now have everything I want and can do anything I wish!  . . . So can you! . . . So can anybody!  All you have to do is follow the rules!  There’s a formula, you know!”

I felt repulsed at the notion suggested that Jesus was the one who invented this ‘personality-projection’ (ie, slavish drive for secret power).  Dr. Hudson says in his journal, “It is very expensive. . . . It took the man who discovered it to a cross at the age of thirty-three!”  No, Dr. Hudson.  Personality projection, or whatever you may call it, was not why Jesus died at the cross.

In the Garden by Ron DiCianni

“Thy Will Be Done,” by artist Don DiCianni

Philippians 2:5-8~ ”Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

1 John 4:10~ “This is love; not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

What’s more, there are several fallacies in the author’s theory that just don’t hold up.  For ex., Dr. Hudson literally means the following:

“’To lose a friend in whom one had invested something of one’s personality was, I discovered, to have lost a certain amount of one’s self.

‘The successful pursuit of the philosophy now before you demands that you restore whatever of your personality has been dissipated, carted off by other people.  If any of its essential energy has been scattered, it must be recovered.

‘The original proposer of this theory, aware of the importance of insuring against such losses, advised that all misunderstandings should be settled on the spot.  When an estrangement takes a friend out of your normal contacts with him, he leaves with part of you in his hand.  You must gather up these fragments of yourself, by some hook or crook, so that you have at least all of the personality that rightfully belongs to you, before you attempt its larger projection.’”

To which I will get a little ornery and ask: What if the person you had an argument with is now deceased?  What then?  I guess I’d be sunk.  According to this excerpt, reconciliation isn’t out of obedience for God or love for the other person.  It’s out of selfish, ulterior motives.  Again, that slavish drive for secret power.

In Ch. 18, Bobby meets a minster named Dr. McLaren.  This minister is no ordinary preacher.  He claims to shun institutionalized religion and ‘the old stock phrases of theology.’  I was astounded when I read this particular character’s core beliefs:

“’I think it’s ever so much better to say frankly that God is an hypothesis than to attempt to offer proofs which fail to stand up under their own ponderosity.’”

Having a pastor who gladly chooses to believe that the thought of God existing is just as good as God not existing is completely… well, pointless.  It’s as effective as a builder who believes a particular foundation he’s building on is just as good as building on water or air or sand.  Dr. McLaren wants a religion that helps the common man in the nitty gritty of life.  But his own theory doesn’t hold up in the real world.   What good is God to anyone and how can He help us if He just may not exist at all?  Something must be true… either it is or it isn’t!  If God doesn’t exist, we’re on our own, and I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t get very far.  But if God does exist and we accept Him as Savior, then death has lost it’s sting, victory over sin has been won in Christ, and Heaven with Him awaits!

Rom. 1:20~ “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities –his eternal power and divine nature –have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

One might say, “It’s just a fictional story… Get over it already!”  Yeah, I know.  But oftentimes fiction stories pack the most effective wallop, and many have been misled by the heresies I believe to be hidden in this one.  It reminded me of the verse in II Tim. 3:5,

“having a form of godliness, but denying its power.  Have nothing to do with them.”

I was able to enjoy parts of it, but overall I was disappointed and can’t really particularly recommend it, unless you’re just plain curious.

You can listen to the radio dramatized version from 1937 below:

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Posted by on January 13, 2014 in Audio/Radio Dramas, Book Reviews


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