Saturday, December 09, 2006

Celebrating a True Christian Classic

Recently, for reasons I'm not entirely sure of but have learned it's always better not to question, several people close to me have been reading a book that has been one of my favorites for many, many years. If "Christian fantasy" is a legitimate literary category (and I would argue that it not only is, but enjoys a long and distinguished history, from early classics such as the anonymous Anglo-Saxon epic The Dream of the Rood to Dante's Divine Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, Hawthorne's The Celestial Railroad, Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and beyond), certainly C. S. Lewis' short but vivid tale The Great Divorce stands as a classic of the genre. I know for a fact that he wrote it with many of these older classics very much in mind, but as with all fiction that he produced, he also wrote it to explore his own thinking on theological and philosophical questions that were important to him.

If you look at all of Lewis' "fantasties" and fictional writings, and are familiar with his more "serious" non-fiction works (I put that in quotes because he himself would scoff at the assumption that a work is more "serious" simply because it is non-fiction... in reality, I am almost sure he would argue for the opposite position), you will come to realize that all of his fictions were simply the manifestations of the ideas and questions he had been grappling with his entire life. It's been well-documented by far more capable and wiser minds than my own that his Chronicles of Narnia, for example, represents the "fleshing out" in story form of most of his own theological beliefs and hopes. His rich, mythic novel Till We Have Faces does the same thing, only this time was intended for adults and is far more complex and melancholic in tone (taking as one of its primary themes the necessity of suffering as a path to genuine redemption). In The Screwtape Letters, quite possibly the wisest book I have ever read (excepting the Bible), he famously mused on the battle between sin and grace raging underneath the surface of every human life (as observed from the point of view of one of the devil's master tempters). And he memorably and poignantly, in his last years, mused on thorny questions about prayer in an imaginary correspondence with a friend he called "Malcolm" in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer.

The Great Divorce would seem to be his musings on the nature of the afterlife, as in, what it might be like and how we live once we're there. But those who have read the book will tell you that that's really not what it is at all. For despite its fantastic premise of a bus trip from Hell to Heaven and back again, the tale is much more concerned with how we live our lives before we die than after. And of course in this it is only continuing very much in the tradition I described above: the idea of writing a parable of the afterlife in order to spur readers' hearts to face tough questions about our present lives is a very old one indeed. Heck, Jesus did it himself (think of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man).

Through a series of ingenious dialogs between passengers on the bus and residents of Heaven/Hell, Lewis illuminates our reasons for believing what we do, or for refusing to believe, as the case may be. I can't remember if this exact quote comes from the book or not, but this story is certainly the manifestation of Lewis' profound insight that "the doors of Hell are locked from the inside." Meaning, if there is indeed a Hell, we will only go there if we choose to: God, because He is all-loving according to His very nature, does not condemn anyone to Hell. He does, however, allow us to make the free choice to be separated from Him forever, because He knows that all geuine love must be free. Here Lewis memorably depicts for us the residents of Hell who are only there because their pride is preventing them from accepting the grace and mercy of God.

My wife and my sister, as well as my partner in crime on this blog, have all read The Great Divorce recently, so they would be much more able to comment on it than I am at the moment, my memory of it being far foggier than I'd like (sucks to admit that, but it's true -- obviously I'm due for a re-read!). Therefore if any of them read this, I invite their comments on this wise and witty story. In the meantime, if anyone else reading this has not read Lewis' little classic, I strongly urge you to rectify this as soon as possible! I think I can safely say that, like all great literature (hence the entire point of this blog), diving into this book can only be good for your soul...

3 comments:

Mutt Ploughman said...

It's hard to add to such an illuminating post on Lewis and this small book in particular. Especially way after the fact! Duke is well qualified to comment on Lewis' stuff, in spite of his humble words; he's been reading him diligently as an adult for years, and has been a fan, as he frequently reminds me when I express admiration for Lewis' writing, since we were kids. That's true, thanks to the Narnia stories. He knows a great deal of Lewis' work well, and his general roundup of some of Lewis' titles here in this post was informative....

I did recently read The Great Divorce as Duke alluded to, and was once again amazed at Lewis' capacity to make difficult concepts palatable for general readers. This particular story functions primarily as an allegory - there's no real 'plot', just a general fastastical scenario. I was prompted to read this by Duke's wife, who recently read it and was captivated by Lewis' insights. I personally do not find Lewis to be the easiest writer to figure out, and I'd even say I don't find him the most intriguing storyteller in the world. But what he does do, with astounding wit and intelligence, is craft essays or stories that probe profound Christian truths in a way that makes them appeal to a general reader. Not only can Lewis make the concepts appealing, he uses his extremely lucid prose style to demonstrate their immovable reality. Lewis' work confirms a Christian's sense of faith and entertains them at the same time. The Great Divorce demonstrates most effectively how the decision to be with God in eternity after we die is just that - a DECISION we make while we're alive. As various 'residents' of the afterlife come forward and the traveler in the story bears witness to their conversations, we recognize many of the common human characteristics we all share as they relate stories from their past lives.

It's an ingenious little book that's well worth the time for believing Christians, and it would open the door to dialogue and possible investigation for non-believers with the curiosity or the guts to investigate the Christian faith.

Felicity N. Fiat said...

I'm Duke's sister, and I am actually only in the middle of this book because it took forever for whoever had it last to return it to the library. Now I see why. I've used up all of my renewals and I don't want to bring it back. I never get that far in one sitting when reading it, because I have to keep putting it down and thinking about it (and praying for forgiveness and grace). I identify with every soul that the protagonist encounters, who all eventually wind up returning to board the bus back to Hell. Not because they are obviously evil, but because they just cannot bear to relinquish some particular piece of hell, in order to "head for the mountains" where they were created to be (with God). It's a different thing for every soul in the story... pride, bitterness, ego, the need to make others take note and share of one's own suffering... This book freaks me out because I am pretty sure I would head back for the bus too. Except that (thanks be to God) I know one thing I can always fall back on: DIVINE MERCY. More later when I finally finish the book, or when they take my library card away, whichever comes first.

Duke Altum said...

Thanks for ringing in Felicity! So glad to have your voice brighten up the ol' blog here.

I am thrilled that both of you, and my wife too of course, have recently read (or are reading) and gotten so much out of The Great Divorce. To me, or in my own life and understanding of things anyway, this book has made a major contribution to the whole classic Predestination vs. Free Will debate. I mentioned that Lewis' fictions are all simply devices he used to work out his thoughts on the theological and/or philosophical questions that vexed him. In this case, I think this book is Lewis' working out his thoughts about this age-old controversy. The great thing is that by writing these classic stories, he gives us a peek into his own amazing mind, and we're always the better for it...

It's interesting that Felicity brought up Divine Mercy. I know Lewis was a huge believer in this concept, in the overarching Mercy of God and how vital it is for every Christian. As just one example, it's well known that he coined the now-famous phrase "a severe mercy," and this is how he referred to God's work in the life of a soul to "prune" it or prepare it for future glory. Lewis wrote and spoke extensively about the value and importance of suffering in the life of the CHristian, calling it in The Problem of Pain (I think) "God's megaphone for a deaf world."

Of course, he came to learn much more about suffering, and about leaning on and trusting in God's mercy in the midst of it, later on in life, when he married Joy Davidman, only to watch her die a long, slow, very painful death to cancer less than two years into their life together. (BTW, Felicity -- and Mutt for that matter -- if you can ever track down a video of the older BBC version of the play Shadowlands starring Joss Ackland as Lewis, do not hesitate to grab it. I think if you guys watched it now you would really appreciate it, as this one was more faithful to the original play and thus explored more of Lewis' thinking and theology in it. Leave it to Hollywood to leave that stuff out.)

Anyway, I was glad to read both of your comments on this great book. If nothing else, the book certainly makes you think about how much you REALLY want heaven, whether it is truly "our heart's deepest longing." And it makes you thus re-examine your attachments to the "things of this world." And don't worry guys, most readers who do this end up just as freaked and terrified as you guys did! But what will we do with that fear? That's the question...