August 17, 2003

The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis

This is a difficult book for me to review. I've read it at least a dozen times, and as it's a short book I've internalized almost all of it. It's also a classic of Christian literature, and one that I've found both educational and inspirational over the years, which means that it's difficult for me to talk about it in any detail without talking non-trivially about my Christian faith as well. I usually avoid that, as I figure people come here to read about books, not about religion.

That said, I love this book. Lewis has long been one of my favorite writers; there are few I know of who can discuss complicated matters so simply and clearly. I've found, recently, that this is true not only of his fiction and his Christian apologetics, but also of his scholarly work, which was in the field of literary criticism. It's true, Lewis' brand of criticism is completely out of style, driven out by the postmoderns and the deconstructionists--but the one thing I understand about deconstructionism is that deconstructionist writings are by definition impossible to understand. I have faith that some day clear speaking will once again be valued in academia, and perhaps then Lewis will once more be highly regarded.

But all that is to the side. The Great Divorce is a book about Heaven and Hell. The narrator (Lewis himself) finds himself in a dreary town. The only place he sees any sign of life is at a bus stop, and for lack of any better idea, he attaches himself to the queue--a queue filled with argumentative, obnoxious people. On the bus, he discovers that the dreary town is Hell; the bus is taking damned souls on a holiday to Heaven, where they can stay if they choose. Each of the damned souls is met by someone they knew (or knew of) in life, whose job is to persuade them to stay in Heaven. Some do; by far the most do not.

If this review were printed on paper, I'd suggest that you underline that word "choose", for choice is the essence of this book. Lewis-the-narrator meets the soul of George MacDonald, a writer whose book Phantastes initiated Lewis' own journey of faith. I will quote two of the things Lewis-the-author has MacDonald say:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.

and also,

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." There is always something they prefer to joy....

The question in every case is, what is it that the soul prefers not to give up? And how does this effect the choices they made in life? That should be emphasized as well--this book is by no means intended to present any kind of factual picture of Heaven or Hell. It's about the choices we make in life, and how they tend to lead us to reign in Hell or to serve in Heaven. And it's done through a series of character sketches that are appallingly similar to people I've known--and, most likely, people I've been.

One more thing, and I'm done.

Somebody out there is sure to ask themselves, "Does he really believe this? Does he really believe that some people go to Heaven, and some to Hell?" And the answer is, "Yes, I do." And given that, some might accuse me of damning people to hell simply because they do not agree with me. This is a point of view I find puzzling. It doesn't matter whether people agree with me or not; I don't set the standards. I'm sure I find those standards as irritating and inconvenient as anyone else, and if God were to reveal to me that he was only kidding I'd be more than pleased.

But morality is, to some extent, beside the point. God isn't Santa Claus, bringing the nice people to Heaven and sending the naughty ones to Hell. None of us are nice people by God's standards. But through Christ's sacrifice on the cross he's enabled all of us to reach Heaven--if, and only if, we will accept Christ's help and lordship. It's all about who I will have as my master--Christ, or myself.

It's as though I'm on the roof of a house in a flood, and Christ is overhead in a helicopter, dangling a rope ladder in front of me. I am free to take hold of it, or not. But I am not free to both take hold of it and remain on the rooftop. And once I take hold of it, I must hold on tightly.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming.

Posted by Will Duquette at August 17, 2003 08:59 PM

Jena said:

I just wanted to say how much i admire your faith in saying what you believe. I am a christian as well, and i was reading your review for this book because it was assigned to me as a project for school. You stood up for what you knew to be the truth and weren't afraid to say so:-) so thank you for honoring Christ and for not being ashamed to state the gospel.


Will Duquette said:

Hey, you're welcome. If you look around a little, you'll find that there are a lot of us out here.....