Have I told you all how much I love my church book group? We meet every week and have extremely lively discussions of books that deal with different aspects of the Christian life. Even when the books aren’t so great, we have wonderful conversations about the ideas in them. We don’t always agree, but we make one another think, and that’s one of the great pleasures of a book group.
Another great pleasure of being in a book group is being encouraged to read (or in this case, reread) books I never would have picked up. I read The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis several years ago, and it just didn’t do much for me. I don’t know what the problem was, but I scarcely retained anything about it, other than that I found it confusing and not helpful at all. Rereading it with my book group this month has me even more puzzled as to why I didn’t love this book the very first time through. I certainly loved it this time.
Jenny’s review from her own reread two years ago will give you a good idea of what this book is about, so I’ll refrain from sharing much in the way of summary. It’s enough to say that The Great Divorce is an account of Lewis’s dream journey through hell (or perhaps purgatory) and into heaven—or at least heaven’s narthex, as one of the members of my book group observed. Lewis travels to heaven with others who are given the opportunity to stay or to return to the grey “hell” they came from. The choice is more difficult than you might think.
One of the most striking things about heaven in this book is that it is more solid, more real than anything the people have previously experienced. The grass is so solid it hurts to walk on it; the rain would pierce you right through. Heaven is not some spiritual realm, where matter is no more. Matter is more substantial than ever. It’s a wonderful way of showing, in contrast, just how insubstantial our day-to-day concerns are when we consider eternity.
The potential new residents of heaven—Lewis calls them ghosts—are all told that with time they’ll be able to live comfortably in this strange new place. The grass will cease to hurt them; they’ll be able to lift the fruit and eat it. They just need time to get “more solid.” Part of becoming more solid is letting go of those insubstantial concerns of the past. It’s not all about giving up obvious sins and shortcomings either. Ostensibly noble affections, such as motherly love or religion itself, are shown in some cases to have been twisted to the point where they keep people from moving onward and upward. But the beautiful thing is that the guides who’ve come to urge them into heaven are unceasingly patient and kind. They may not say what the “ghosts” want to hear, but they are never rude or forceful. In the end, the ghosts just have to want heaven more than they want anything else.”No soul that seriously and constantly seeks and desires joy will ever miss it,” Lewis is told. “Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.”
The ghosts that Lewis observes trying to make this momentous choice represent a variety of types. There’s the nagging wife, the constant grumbler, the forward-thinking intellectual, and the artist who has come to love his painting itself more than he does the things that he paints. All are recognizable, and I chuckled to think of similar “types” I’ve known in my life, and then I winced to see glimpses of myself among them, too. Some of the characters’ excuses and evasions were familiar not because I’ve heard them, but because I’ve said them. Lewis has my number all right.