Book Break: The Great Divorce

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had a profound Good Friday, but that was only half the story. The other half of the story is that, early that Friday morning, I sought out some spiritual reading for the day, and wound up with a new top-five favorite book: C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

Of course, when reading spiritually, the Bible is always a good place to start, and I’m also making slow but steady progress through Dante’s Divine Comedy a canto or two a day. But I wanted something fresh, something I could possibly read in a day, and something related to the penitential character of Good Friday and the great saving act of our Lord.

On a hunch, I took C.S, Lewis’s The Great Divorce from the bookshelf. I have great regard for Lewis as a writer and had heard good things about the book, particularly from my good friend Angie at Take Time for Him.

Lewis had me hooked from the preface, which begins by explaining the title of his fantasy:

BLAKE WROTE the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have written of their Divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant. But in some sense or other the attempt to make that marriage is perennial. The attempt is based on the belief that reality never presents us with an absolutely unavoidable “either-or”; that, granted skill and patience and (above all) time enough, some way of embracing both alternatives can always be found; that mere development or adjustment or refinement will somehow turn evil into good without our being called on for a final and total rejection of anything we should like to retain.

The book begins with our narrator in line at a bus stop in a grey and gloomy town, surrounded by people he doesn’t know and wouldn’t want to — unsure of where he is or where he’s going. It unfolds like Dante’s Divine Comedy in modern miniature: a pilgrim’s journey from hell to the edge of heaven in just 128 pages. I’m reading Dante now, too, canto by canto, and it is powerful in its way, but this held my attention from the preface to the end, with every word relevant to this sinner and this sinful time. Lewis articulates with poetic beauty and unflinching honesty the glory of God and his angels and saints, the pain of detaching from this world, and the stubbornness, the grasping, the pride and distrust that keep even “good” people from choosing God and reaching Heaven.

The book challenges the reader particularly on the Greatest Commandment: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). On this point, Dante provides an unintended summary (being some seven centuries older) which, as providence would have it, I read over lunch on Easter Monday. In Purgatorio, Canto IX, Lines 127-132, he writes the words of the angel guarding the gates of Purgatory proper:

“I hold these keys from Peter, who advised
‘Admit to many, rather than too few,
if they but cast themselves before your feet.'” 
Then pushing back the portal’s holy door,
“Enter,” he said to us, “but first be warned;
to look back means to go back out again.”

We sin when we put anything — even the blessings of life on this good Earth — ahead of loving and seeking God. Pilgrim after pilgrim turns his or her back on Heaven because the cost of entry is too high: the cost of admitting that they are mere creatures and of letting go of their earthly pleasures, passions, and prejudices. They want Heaven on their own terms and choose Hell to feel like they have some say in the matter. They cannot stand the humiliation of grace as an unmerited gift.

It is a powerful book: perhaps tied at this moment with Steinbeck’s East of Eden as my favorite of all time (although Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings (which I still need to review as an adult) and Sigrid Unset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy are right up there, too!) It paints a stark and revealing picture of how far so many of us have to go to be purged of all sin. So I will end this post with Lewis’s words from the Preface, on a hopeful note:

I do not think that all who choose wrong roads perish; but their rescue consists in being put back on the right road. A wrong sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on. Evil can be undone, but it cannot “develop” into good. Time does not heal it. The spell must be unwound, bit by bit, “with backward mutters of dissevering power”– or else not. It is still “either-or.” If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell. I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) was precisely nothing: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in “the High Countries.”

The Great Divorce. Find it. Read it.

Book Break: The Abolition of Man

I have said more than once that too often we seek to explain the hell out of everything and explain the heaven out of it in the process. This observation seems tightly intertwined with the arguments set forth in C.S. Lewis’s thin little book, The Abolition of Man. Do not judge this book by its size — the content is dense and provocative, demanding close attention. I’m sure I’ll need to read it again (and again).

The book starts innocently enough, with a critique of an English textbook of the day (the late 1930s) — then expands into a defense of objective reality and value, and the increasingly maligned notion of true right and true wrong. Lewis doesn’t suggest that we won’t continue to debate the finer points of how to live according to this universal Way (he uses The Tao as his term in the book, though he makes it clear that this is for convenience; that the Way transcends world views, creeds, and cultures); his goal is not peacemaking, but to lend credence to the idea that some things are simply worth fighting for and to illustrate the dangers of “debunking” objective values in favor of a more scientific approach to the world — an approach which, ultimately, (he said way back in 1939) would force us to sacrifice our humanity.

This relates to an idea I began to form last week, thinking about the story of the Fall in the book of Genesis: When we seek to become like gods, we become something less. Why? Because the only thing of value we have to trade for godhood is the thing that already makes us as close to God as we can ever be — our humanity. Lewis’s book, to me, was sobering and prescient.

Unfortunately, my head is still spinning, and I know I’m not doing the book justice by a mile. Perhaps a few favorite passages, then…

“As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest … It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. … The operation of The Green Book and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardour to pursue her. … It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”

“The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. … Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever. If the fully planned and conditioned world (with its Tao a mere product of the planning) comes into existence, Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness. Ferum victorem cepit: and if the eugenics are efficient enough there will be no second revolt, but all snug beneath the Conditioners, and the Conditioners beneath her, till the moon falls or the sun grows cold.”*

“[Y]ou cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

I wholeheartedly recommend this book, although it is essentially philosophy and so will vex some readers. I read the Chronicles of Narnia as a boy, enjoying them somewhat less than the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which appealed to my love of history and myth and language in a different way entirely. But I renewed my love of Lewis as my own children began to read (and watch) Narnia, and even moreso when I finally acquainted myself with Mere Christianity. Abolition came on the recommendation of a good friend and deep thinker, and it is again clear to me that I must read more by C.S. Lewis.

*Ferum victorem cepit essentially means “the conqueror is conquered,” I think.

Mere Christianity

I finished C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity after supper this evening. It’s a deceptively thin book for its substance — or put another way, much more has been written on the subject of Christian faith, and much less said, many times over. (I’m reading Dinesh D’Souza’s What’s So Great About Christianity right now, as well — much thicker, full of footnotes and sources and extremely interesting factoids … and not nearly as convincing as an apologetic work.)
Lewis’s little book is plain-spoken, well-argued, even-handed, and gentle. It is decidedly pro-Christianity, of course — that’s the point, after all. It gives great insight into why we believe what we believe, bolsters the believer’s faith, and may even send a doubter or two into a tailspin. Will it create new converts? Win fresh hearts and minds? Repel the atheist horde? Perhaps not. But I folded over many a page corner in my battered paperback copy.* I loved it.
* * * * *
* A habit I abandoned years and years ago, and only resurrected for this particular volume.