The Great Divorce
A month or so ago I wrote about GK Chesterton, and in particular his book Orthodoxy, in a little piece titled The Wizard of Ahhs. Like most people before I met Chesterton I met Lewis. I remember whose house I was in (it belonged to a family on staff at the old Ligonier Valley Study Center), which room I was in (the guest bedroom, this family was looking after me for the night) and where I was in that room, (near the door, in a sleeping bag) when I first read Lewis. It was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I was hooked. I read, of course, the rest of Narnia. I read the Space Trilogy. (That Hideous Strength remains my favorite work of fiction and will one day be covered here.) Then I read Mere Christianity, and promptly decided that Lewis should stick to fiction. I didn’t, and don’t care for that classic work, though I haven’t yet discerned why. Likely it is a severe character flaw in me.
A few years later I was assigned other non-fiction by Lewis for a class I took at Grove City College with Andy Hoffecker, a Lewis scholar who now teaches at Reformed Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. Dr. Hoffecker was my guy at Grove City. If he taught a class, I took it. He introduced me to Hans Rookmaaker in a class on art and philosophy. He introduced me to Jacques Ellul in a class on technology and society. And he introduced me to the Lewis I never knew. Twenty-five years later I remember what classroom we were in, what seat I was in as Dr. Hoffecker expounded on The Abolition of Man. I remember who sat beside me as we discussed Meditation on a Tool-shed, and several other essays appearing in God in the Dock. Still being in the cage stage, I was somewhat offended by Lewis’ failure to see the wisdom of Calvinism. But I wasn’t so blind that I missed his wisdom.
That wisdom is perhaps no where more manifest, perhaps because it is married there to such a peculiar narrative form, than in The Great Divorce. The premise is rather simple, the outworking profound. A group of souls takes a sort of field trip from hell if not to heaven, to its outer garden. There sundry saints seek to lead the dead to life. Do not read this book for a clear exposition of the doctrine of personal eschatology. Lewis’ genius was always that he understood the sinfulness of our hearts, and the richness of God’s grace. Lewis brings us a bevy of misguided characters, and shows us our own sins in each one. The noble tragedian, the self-absorbed smothering mother, the vain has-been painter. Lewis probes our souls with uncommon precision, and always cuts deep.
The greatest character is the book, however, represents that man who first opened Lewis’ eyes to wonder, George MacDonald. Though I always hear the echo of Chesterton in Lewis, one always sees the shadow of MacDonald. Here MacDonald escapes the limits of his fairy stories, and still poetically, expresses in prose the grace of God, the mystery of suffering and time, and the hope that awaits us. More even than the painful joy of having my sin exposed, The Great Divorce brings the joyful joy of showing us heaven.
Here Lewis is right, and we Calvinists wrong. No, we don’t speak falsehood about heaven. Instead we falsely fail to speak of it. The Great Divorce matters because it shows us the great marriage, revealing our great Groom. Read it, and then read it again. You’ll be glad you did.