18 July 2011

the great divorce 1

There has been a lot of recent discussion about heaven and hell, with various voices making every attempt to connect their position to history - either original meaning or great thinkers through history (usually both). Interestingly, one of the thinkers that is being used as a plumb line is C. S. Lewis - most notably, The Great Divorce (1945). I have come to realize that more people have read about CSL than have actually ready CSL (this is similar to the infinitely worse decision to reading about the Bible than actually reading Scripture itself).

In my undergraduate I took a course on the life and thought of C. S. Lewis. I confess that I did not understand everything I read at that time. Many years later I still do not consider myself in any sense an expert on his theology or ecclesiology, but I am willing to evaluate the words as they lie on the page and let the author speak for himself. At least then we can begin to see if Lewis' relevance is still powerfully among us.

For those unfamiliar with The Great Divorce, it is a work of fantasy in which the first-person narrator describes a journey in which he experiences heaven and hell. Conceptually, it is not unlike Dante's Divine Comedy or Milton's Paradise Lost. The basic plot is the pilgrimage of an individual in the after-life as he takes a bus ride from "grey town" to a strange "paradise" where a decision to move forward or return is required. The theology of the book is conveyed primarily through discussions and characterization, all to reveal Lewis' approach to heaven and hell.

The story begins with the narrator standing in line at a bus queue, in the rain and at twilight. He recalls that he has wandered the dirty streets always in the rain and always at the point of sundown, before the "cheeriness" of lights comes into the dark. This is "grey town," which exists at the end of a day, waiting for the night to come upon it fully. The other people who are in line are rude, obnoxious and self-centered, constantly fighting over something (they all fight to get on the bus, even though it is only half-full when the do). It is a dull existence, but one which the citizens seem to prefer over any other possibility. As the bus begins to pull away the narrator notices that they have left the ground.

From an arial perspective "grey town" could be seen as a great expanse of (a sort of) civilization. It is explained to the narrator that the quarrelsome nature of "grey town" leaves people to move further from each other, producing empty streets and expanding the parameters of the town (those who have been there longer continue to move further and further away). One of the hallmarks of this place is that an individual does not need to live with any other, so there is no potential of quarreling less. It is at this point that a great secret first begins to be discovered - that night is actually coming upon the twilight of "grey town."

The bus comes to a rest on a hill, where the brightness and freshness of springtime is almost overcoming of the people, who all fight to disembark the bus. At this point the narrator discovers that the fellow passengers are simply ghosts, "man-shaped stains on the brightness of that air." Nothing in that environment was disturbed by their presence - the grass did not bend, the flowers were unmovable, leaves were to heavy for them to disturb. The narrator also notices that he himself is one of these ghosts, just as one woman went scurrying to the bus never to emerge again. In the distance there is another town, and over the hill a group of solid and bright people came to meet the ghosts.

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