Thursday, July 16, 2009
The Great Divorce
The Great Divorce
© 1945 C.S. Lewis
What drew me to this book? I suppose the novelty of a story in which the lead character visits an afterlife was one factor: my previous experience with C.S. Lewis -- which left me wanting -- was another. The story begins with the unnamed narrator wandering about a city known only as "the Grey Town", a dismal place full of empty streets, superficial means of amusement, and irritable people. The narrator has no idea why he's in this town, although he's not too much curious -- he just dislikes it and wants to leave. After wandering around from street to street, he finds a bus stop and joins the line forming. The bus takes the narrator and a few fellow citizens of the grey town to what appears to be a beautiful woodland clearing near a mountain range and some unidentified source of light.
The bus dumps its passengers without much of an explanation, aside from the fact that they are free to remain in the meadow area for as long as they would like. As beautiful as it is, the narrator finds that it is impossible for him to really enjoy it: the grass is so hard on his feet that it might as well be pointy stone, and water is the same way. What's more, the narrator realizes that he and his fellows aren't quite real: they appear to be ghosts. After solid people emerge from near the mountains and begin engaging various bus passengers, the narrator spends perhaps two-fifths of the book listening to their conversations. The real people -- the "Solid People" -- attempt to convince the "ghosts" to join them in a walk to the mountains. If you are already familiar with the general theme of the book, it becomes obvious that Lewis is using the bus passengers as means of explaining why people remain miserable in their non-surrender to Jesus. One grouch harangues his Solid guide for being a murderer and states that all he wants is his just deserts -- he doesn't want any "bleedin' charity", at which point the solid asks him to please do accept the "Bleeding Charity". I'm not sure if that pun is good or a groaner. Another ghost is a bubble-headed intellectual who would rather discuss intellectual matters than simply accept the "Truth" for what it is. Generally speaking, the fault of all of the ghosts that the narrator will observe is that they want heaven and God on their terms -- not God's.
Eventually the narrator gets his own visitor in the form of a Scottish theologian, at which point the narrator realizes that the shining place in the mountains is heaven and that the grey city is Hell -- and further still, that people are only in Hell because they choose to remain there. Making the move to Heaven is as simple as accepting God on his own terms -- which are never really defined: they seem to be whatever it is the ghosts dislike. Interestingly, the narrator is told several times that the life of the grey town will eventually end, and the consequences will not be pretty. Based on Mere Christianity, this seems to be a promotion of Lewis' theology. As a story, it's entertaining enough -- but its theological content is another discussion entirely. Although Lewis' view of hell is more humane than the traditional BBQ down under, I don't really understand why God just doesn't forcibly move these people to a place of safety: a parent who would allow their child to suffer through their own idiocy is doing them no favors by not interfering.
As for me, I prefer Kate Braestrup's view, so paraphrased: "If you're living in love, or in the Christian view following Jesus, then wherever you are is heaven. If you're not living in that love, though, then wherever you are -- no matter how splendid -- is hell."