on October 2, 2002
Lewis' "The Great Divorce" is a book that I have owned for years but only recently read. I don't know why it took me so long, but now that I have read it I want to read it again all the more. I guess that is a sign of a good book. Many of you reading this review are no doubt familiar with Lewis the philosopher, theologian, writer, and speaker. Suffice to say he remains one of the most esteemed and brilliant thinkers and writers of the last century.
This book easily compares to the best of his work. The idea of using a fantasy-land constructed around a bus trip to try to give us some look into the unknown is pure Lewis. A dark, desolate, rainy bus stop gives us a mental picture of hell that reminds me of the films "Blade Runner" and "Dark City". The descriptions of a heaven-like place given in the book remind me of the house of Elrond and the elvish city in the recent "Lord of the Rings". The book essentially follows the author as he tours both of these worlds-seemingly seperated by a million miles. With George MacDonald as his guide, the author witnesses many interactions between those in the 'heavenly' world and those arriving from hell on a bus. The heavenly beings-who are solid-attempt to convince the spirits aboard the tour to remain with them and allow themselves to be made whole by the overseer of the heavenly realm.
Unfortunately, most of the spirits prefer to deal with their various troubles 'some other time' or not at all. Wishing to remain as they are, they refuse the help of the heavenly beings. We witness spirits literally and figuratively in chains of pity, anger, pride, arrogance, and fear. The answer to all of these maladies is offered to them with outstretched arms, they need only accept the gift.
The most powerful exchange in the book comes between a spirit who arrives with a little red lizard on his shoulder. (Readers of Lewis will recognize this from his earlier essay 'Horrid Red Things' in "God in the Dock"). The lizard embodies the spirit's struggles with lust; it continuously goads him on. As the spirit comes into contact with one of the heavenly angels, the angel states that if the man will only ask him to, he will kill the lizard. The lizard immediately warns the spirit that the angel is capable of this and reminds the spirit that if this is allowed, he-the spirit-will never enjoy the pleasures of lust and sin again. The spirit hems and haws, asking the angel many questions. Each time the angel responds "...MAY I KILL IT?"
It is heartbreaking to read as the spirit decides to allow the angel-hands hovering just around the neck of the lizard-to kill it, only to relent when he realizes that he himself will be hurt in the process of obtaining freedom. The angel responds: "I never said it would not hurt you, only that it would not kill you." This seems eerily similar to so many of us in the 'real' world who, when offered freedom thru Christ and the solutions to our myriad of social, emotional, spiritual, and physical struggles, raise an angry hand to God and reject His offer. How many of us want our problems to be fixed, our wounds healed and our pain dealt with-without any pain!? How many of us prefer to hold onto the very things that are destroying us? Keeping us from God?
A brilliant treatise on the ability of the human-in this case the spirit of departed humans-to rationalize and justify our behavior, whether it be an overbearing, controlling mother, a frightened woman, a man diseased with lust, those consumed by career, or any of the other characters in the book. Look deeper because there is a message for everyone in this book. A powerful allegory of the struggle to make the Gospel known to others.
[NOTE: I am reissuing my Amazon.com reviews on Amazon.co.uk. This review was originally published on Amazon.com June 8, 2000]
"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 `Thy will be done'."
This is a quote from this little volume, and effectively sums up the entire book in that one sentence. THE GREAT DIVORCE, like Lewis's TILL WE HAVE FACES, is his song of songs, his great achievement. Tolkien's was LORD OF THE RINGS, Adams' WATERSHIP DOWN, Sinclair Lewis' MAIN STREET. These novels are generally regarded as their major works. This little book, published in a little periodical called The Guardian, is one such book. (It was this periodical that Lewis's classic book THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS also appeared). Sadly, SCREWTAPE, though excellent in and of itself, is often given much more credit than this, which is a deeper work (and to those who know THE SCREWTAPE LETTERS, know what a feat that is).
Perhaps one reason that this work is such an excellent little volume is its length of gestation: it was concieved in 1931 and written in 1944. Insipred by a sermon found in Jeremy Taylor's WORKS, suggested such a premise as to think, or take, the absuridity of damned souls getting a real refreshment from hell. Also another source was the fourth centru Latin poet named Prudentius Aurelius Clemens (his contribution can be found in "Hymn for the Lighting of the Lamp). Assuredly, one of the reasons that it took so long to be written (the first known written account is a diary entry by his brother Warnen on Paril 15, 1932) is he had not had it visualized. In terms of inspiration his fiction arose from "seeing pictures" in his mind. (Example: One of his images he received when he was about 16, and it was a faun with parcels in one hand and an umbrella in the other, standing in a wintery, snow laden forest).
Much of this short little novel has a direct comparison or parellel to Dante's DIVINE COMEDY. Just like Beatrice to Dante, so also was George MacDonald to C. S. Lewis. MacDonald was almost a Universalist. He believed most of the world populace would submit and enter into joy, and know God's love. A lot of this would occur after death. According to Sayer, Lewis did not believe this, but thought it was a possibility (much my view on purgatory). What Lewis had to do was to rectify this belief with the others of purgatory, hell, heaven, predestination, damnation, etc. How he did so was a stroke of genius: he made hell and purgatory the same place. To those who would leave and give up a vice, it was only purgatory; but to those who were determined to keep their wickedness, instead of entering into joy, were damned. To enter into Heaven, the only prerequiste was to give up a vice. That was all. Some lust, some apostasty, some selfishness and false love (the mother Pam for her son Michael). Just like Dante, Lewis has an Apostate Anglican bishop in there.
One of the things that he has done most brillantly is the potrayal of the Platonic belief that the essence of something is more real than the thing itself. Virture is more real that the vitrue that is practiced. Everything in God is much more real and tangible than hell, and Lewis does this marvelously. A device he borrowed from a writer whose name was unknown to him, Lewis made everything very, very real, and the damned men and women were but ghosts in that heavenly place. Each had an accompaning Spirit, one who has surrendered to God. In that place, the ones saved are real and can bend the grass and walk and swim, but always traveling further up and further in (to borrow a Narnian phrase, although it equally applies here). To aid the damned, the real, the saved, must go back and forsake their journey for a time, to aid those that will.
One of the grandest scenes is toward the very last, in which a lady named Sarah is seen. In this, another of his master's ideals is expressed. Sarah Smith is no great woman by earth's standards, but she is so close to God, everyone she meets she changes for the better. God wants to use you, not only for his own intimate purposes, but for you also to update and bring the quality of the life for others around you to a much better place. Her whole train of follows is transformed by her love, because she allows God to work through her, and submitted to her; in turn, she transforms others, because she is a yielded vessel. Macdonald states of her "There's joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all the dead things of the universe into life". Likewise, because of Lewis being yielded to God, this book has a similar effect (as, perhaps, all of his books do -- I cannot say all because I have not read all).
Ultimately, the entire point of this beautiful little book is that there could be no damnation without free choice. God made us to fellowship with us, not to damn us to hell. We are to enter into joy - but because we live in a fallen world, we might choose to hang onto some vice instead of entering into joy. Joy, that grand and beautiful intimacy with the Lord, real satisfying water that will forever quench your thirst, that is what C. S. Lewis is about. Let us not choose to stay in Hell. But one must understand this - Lewis is not advocating there is such a thing as bus rides to hell. The novel is, of course, but a dream. It is no way an examination of what lies after we die, although it does give thought to MacDonald's view on Universalism, though Lewis did not hold that view himself. Enter into joy, dear child, and meet Christ.
C. S. Lewis is one of the best-known Christian writers and apologists. His works have made a huge impact on generations of readers, and have brought Christian thought and doctrines to many who otherwise would not have shown any interest in them. In “The Great Divorce” he tackles one of the darkest topics in all of Christian doctrine: the topic of Hell.
C. S. Lewis’ views and writings were always to a large extent designed to shake up the comfortable complacency of the society around him. This particularly holds for the Christians who were all too happy to give up the hard and sometimes uncomfortable tenants of their faith and embrace the ever more libertine ethos of the modern culture. Two of the most salient points that Lewis is trying to get across in “Great Divorce” are 1. Hell is real, and 2. Hell is not just reserved for the most egregiously evil people. Chances are, if you are a Christian today you’ll get more criticism and ridicule for the belief in these two points than almost any other tenants of Christianity.
This book more resembles “The Screwtape Letters” than any of the other of Lewis’ apologetic works. “The Great Divorce” showcases Lewis’ narrative skills and imagination, in addition to his deep theological insights. Presenting a clear and convincing vision of the afterlife can be exceedingly challenging. Most literary and artistic attempts fall short, as the picture they paint more often than not end up being cheesy and sentimentalist. This could be one of the reasons why today it’s much more likely to see the afterlife depicted in humorous cartoons or with a heavy dose of irony – those tropes help shield the author from potential ridiculing. Authors who manage to depict the afterlife in a convincing and profound ways – Dante, Milton – are almost invariably the giants of arts and literature. No one will ever put Lewis in the same category as those giants, but nonetheless he manages to depict a very believable and thought-provoking vision of what Hell is all about. It’s a vision that is in many ways at odds with most theological schools of thought – something that is mentioned quite explicitly in the book in fact – but it’s not entirely incompatible with them. This book will not please either a very strict fundamentalist Protestant or a punctiliously scrupulous Catholic, but for almost everyone else it will be a neat exercise in theological speculation. In fact, it’s much more than that – “The Great Divorce” is a powerful reminder of the Last Things and a call for all of us to a life of holiness. That’s, ultimately, what lays behind all of theological speculations on Heaven and Hell.
Unlike some of Lewis' other books ("The Pilgrim's Regress", or "The Chronicles of Narnia"), "The Great Divorce" is not allegory but rather a well crafted and metaphorical dream of the nature and ethos of heaven and hell and the reasons people will one day find themselves in either one or the other. In this beautifully imagined story, Lewis develops one of the main ideas of his famous essay/sermon, The Weight of Glory, namely that the often imagined airy and opaque spiritual realm is a truer and "harder" reality than that of this physical/material world (which is really a kind of shadow land, like a pencil sketch rendering of a landscape compared to being in the actual place). When the narrator arrives in heaven (or in the waiting space of heaven) he finds that the grass cuts his feet and when he goes to find relief in a stream, he is carried away on the surface of the current he tries to wade in to. Falling cones and acorns would pass right through him if they fell on him, not because they are ethereal and "soft" but because in the realm of glory, they are so much harder and real than unglorified and as yet unperfected humanity. New arrivals in heaven are but a shadow of what they were always meant to be and which the redeemed will one day become.
Lewis also explores the idea that people who are in hell are there because they choose to be and, even if given the opportunity to leave, they would not for they refuse to humble themselves and hand over the reigns of their lives to Another. The narrator/dreamer in the story overhears several conversations between people already in heaven and the recent arrivals who are given a day pass out of hell to visit their loved ones in a type of intermediate place. The believers attempt to talk their loved ones into surrendering up their self-centeredness for the Lordship of the Master which will allow the visitors to permanently remain in heaven with them but every excuse is given for not doing so (ranging from the petty excuses of people who once knew a Christian who was a hypocrite to scholarly self-important pride).
This is a thought provoking and beautiful book, in my opinion one of Lewis's best, and that is truly saying something.
on May 1, 2004
First I have to admit that I have not read much CS Lewis. Given his reputation as one of the premiere Christian writers of the last century I recently purchased a small stack of his signature series books. The Great Divorce is the first one I have read, and I was truly amazed by its simple, yet complex message.
This book is powerful fiction with enough theology to put the gears of your mind into overdrive. In my opinion Lewis addresses two key questions in The Great Divorce - Is there a difference between heaven and hell? And, does God truly give us the freewill to decide our own eternal destination? Lewis really makes the reader ponder these two "deep" topics, and think about why certain "types" of people may have more difficulty choosing heaven over hell.
I won't give away Lewis' conclusions, but instead I will highly recommend this book to anyone looking for a short, but powerful book. If you are a Christian you should definitely add this to your reading list. Lastly, if you are not a Christian, don't be afraid to read it. Lewis was a great writer by anyone's standards, and his "theology" is subtle enough to be enjoyed by anyone.
on February 25, 2004
The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis is a theological triumph. Narrated by the character George MacDonald(a fantasy writer who resides dead in hell) Mr. MacDonald in this story gets the unique opertunity to go from Hell to Heaven via a bus trip. Where he can then decide to stay in Heaven if he wished. It is to the reader's surprise that most of the travelers on the bus trip choose to go back to Hell instead of staying in Heaven. it is a lesson in the concept of human hunger and thirst. In Heaven your thirst is satisfied, but in Hell you may continue to thirst. A true modern day lesson of the nature of sin and sinners. The message of this book is portrayed strictly and carefully. Extremely detailed and exact. The narrators description is one we will all recongnize, he describes the vises and sin we all suffer from in everyday life. He goes to great pains to inflict the read with a personable feeling while reading. Lewis' talent for relaying the flaws of humanity back to humanity is clearly shown in this book.
on January 10, 2004
"The Great Divorce" is C.S. Lewis' allegory of our lifelong struggle with our fallen nature in search of faith in God and Christ.
Lewis uses the image of a bus trip taken by a few hardy souls - some of whom have an agenda, others who have nothing better to do - to a familiar yet fantastic place where they discover themselves to be ghosts in a realm of "solid people". Through a series of vignettes, the narrator describes the travails of other ghosts who contend with the roadblocks to salvation - pride, jealousy, vengeance, lust, and the love of earthly life itself.
Lewis' theology owes much to the character "My Teacher", George MacDonald. A universalist, MacDonald echoes the sentiment that would dominate Lewis' other writings: that those who are condemned to Hell are there because they chose to be there over Heaven. Another readily apparent Lewis theme is that human emotions or feelings are two-edged: they can be used for purposes noble or evil. "Love begins to be a demon when he begins to be a god", lower case "g" in god emphasized, Lewis would later write in "The Four Loves". In The Great Divorce he shows that concept in action.
If you are a fundamentalist or conservative protestant, you may not like some of the suggested implications, like Lewis leaving open the possibility of a purgatory, or the concept of people making salvation choices in the afterlife. Remember, it is an allegory, and as Lewis points out, we humans see things through the lens of time that appear differently in timeless Heaven.
For those willing to relax their dogma a little, The Great Divorce is a thought-provoking insight into Lewis' theology and, better yet, a good catalyst for self-examination. Am I obstructing another person's spiritual progress through my selfish demands or careless attitudes? More to the point, am I willing to put on a mantle of humility and seek out those I have wronged, asking forgiveness and showing myself to be a true Christian? These are questions well worth asking, and The Great Divorce a book well worth reading.
on January 9, 2004
I read this book in college, my first C. S. Lewis book, and was floored by Lewis's use of language, images and symbols. For those who found his Screwtape Letters an amazing work, you may find yourself a bit overwhelmed with this one (not meant to be arrogant but rather based on personal experience). Lewis takes great effort to demand that the reader follow the many characters and what constitute them in order to convey his idea of "seeing God". Many friends who were please with Screwtape did not like this book and found it to be too heavy in message. This book takes a route not so much of ethic but of idea and concept and it is within the latter that one can get lost. I experienced this when reading Dune so I can appreciate the frustration. If books of this type do not interest you I would still implore you to give yourself and the book a chance.
Not being what one would call a "person of the faith" one can still understand what (t)ruth Lewis is trying to express. I won't disclose what that is as it is the crux of the experience. What I will say is that it makes faith a universal approach by humanity whether it be to religion, science or any other belief system. You may not agree with Lewis's theology but Christian or not this book should raise questions and offer great opportunity for intelligent discussions.
on October 29, 2003
The theologian who would rather lead a theological discussion in hell than experience heaven?
The poet who is always slighted, never appreciated?
The man who is too proud to accept any "bleeding charity" and must have his "rights"?
The artist who would rather fight for his style of art than stay and take in true beauty?
The materialist (entrepeneur?) who would rather try to take a bit of heaven back to hell for a proffit than enjoy the real thing?
The cynic who believes everything is a sham?
The grumbler who has finally become a grumble? (What other petty sins fit in this same category?)
The mother who "loves" her son so much she would rather have him in hell than desire God, and be with her son in heaven?
The man who struggles with lust but doesn't want to let it go?
The tragedian who would rather blackmail the joyful than give in and experience joy himself?
Or are are you simply onne of the malcontents who can't even get along well enough to get on the bus and see what heaven has to offer?
Truth be told, I have parts of many of these people and need to learn from them all.
on August 22, 2003
If you don't care for C.S. Lewis, you will not care for this book. On the other hand, if you like C.S. Lewis (and appreciate what he was up to) you may thoroughly enjoy, even love, this book. I say "may" because an honest reading of this short allegory can reveal a great deal about the author's soul and view of the moral universe and something about the reader's own soul and views as well. In other words, it can entertain or disturb or both. It will, in any case, provoke a great deal of thought for any reader who bothers to think at all.
I read The Great Divorce many, many years ago and could never forget it; some of its images and episodes were and remain indelible. By some quirk or inspiration, I recently suggested using it for an adult Sunday School class of folks who love good, mental exercise, good literature, etc. and thus got back into it - big time. In preparing ten lessons on the book, I rediscovered why I loved it in the first place but then I also discovered a myriad of rich nuggets and not a few whole veins that I had completely blitzed by in the earlier reading. This second time I found it to be absolutely magnificent and have gone from being a CS Lewis fan to a serious and devoted student of the whole "mythopoeic" approach that he (along with many others, including now, most famously, JK Rowling) have championed.
You don't have to be well read or a Christian or an intellectual or a theologian or a Bible scholar or even a full grown adult to truly enjoy - or be really bothered by - this book. The premise, after all, is that not everyone would enjoy a holiday in the Valley of the Shadow of Life (post-mortem or otherwise), much less a few hours with C.S. Lewis himself. (It does help things, however, to have a good imagination and sense of humor.)
Like scripture, like great poetry, like any of those guys in my title (all of whom are embedded in the text and context of this book), this book and everything else I've read by Lewis is worth reading ...and worth reading (including reeading) carefully and soulfully.