Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Retro Review: The Great Divorce

If Brigham Young University ever got into the habit of handing out honorary General Authority calls for influential non-Mormon Christians, C. S. Lewis would get the first. Outside of Mormon Doctrine, Lewis’ body of work gets referenced in Sunday School classes* more often than any other work outside of the five standard works. I’m guessing there are probably more than a few of the faithful that are still under the impression that Lewis WAS a general authority (along with Steve Martin and Elvis).

But up until recently, the only C. S. Lewis novel I’d ever picked up was Screwtape Letters, the reverse-psychology classic based around a series of letters exchanged between a teacher devil (Screwtape) and a pupil devil (Wormwood). I loved the book, if only for the following passage, written in a cautionary hand by Screwtape:

“Do not be deceived, Wormwood. Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”

It may have been on the strength of that passage that I decided to pick up a copy of The Great Divorce at a small used bookstore in the Haight-Ashbury District in San Francisco five years ago (please don’t let the irony of that statement escape you). Of course, I never actually got around to reading the book until this month, because apparently it was more important for me to finish reading #743 of Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan.

The Great Divorce has a simple enough premise: it’s the firsthand account of a bus ride between Hell and Heaven, and all the accompanying analysis of what the afterlife will really be made of. Throughout the trip the narrator encounters a series of fellow dead folks as they confront their pasts and their futures, each trying to decide whether to let go of their individual frailties in order to progress. Many of them encounter people from their own pasts, who have died previously, and have now come to encourage them to let go of their vices and embrace true happiness. Painfully, many don’t.

As is usually the case with Lewis, he uses powerful imagery and metaphors to communicate his spiritual insights. Most effective is the insecure husband who meets up with his now-exalted wife. In life he was an emotionally domineering jerk, but in the afterlife, he is little more than a rapidly shrinking dwarf clinging to a chain that operates his own surrogate person—a proxy “Tragedian”—to symbolize his own deteriorating esteem and pettiness.

Lewis’ 128-page bus ride doesn’t seem to have as many “iconic” passages as Screwtape Letters, though it does pack a punch when it needs to, such as in this late bit of counsel given the narrator:

“Either the day must come when joy prevails and all the makers of misery are no longer able to infect it; or else for ever and ever the makers of misery can destroy in others the happiness they reject for themselves.”

The Great Divorce is also a lot easier to get through than Screwtape Letters, as I imagine it was easier for the author to write. Reading Screwtape Letters required constant focus, reminding myself to apply the opposite of the counsel on the page. Supposedly this effort to “get into character” was a painful struggle for Lewis. On the other hand, reading The Great Divorce was more like getting the straight dope. I could, in fact, read it on a bus.

In the end, The Great Divorce is another insightful look at human nature and the way our spiritual nature can be taught to emerge in spite of it. One can only speculate as to whether Lewis has embraced the restoration of the Gospel on his own bus ride, but thanks to the works he’s left behind, he’ll long be quoted as if he has.


*And Institute classes, as he was only a few hours after I finished the first draft of this review.