1946 TIME Review of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce

After digging into Time’s 1947 cover article on C.S. Lewis, I thought it might be fun to reprint a couple of Time articles from the 40s. Last week I shared a review of George MacDonald: An Anthology. This week’s review of The Great Divorce shows a little more depth.   

“Excursion from Hell”

Time, 3/11/1946, Vol. 47, Issue 10

“Blake wrote the Marriage of Heaven and Hell…. I have written of their divorce.”

Thus ruddy, balding British Author Clive S. Lewis (The Screwtape Letters, etc.), a convert (1930) from well-bred skepticism to the Church of England, explains the purpose of his new book, The Great Divorce (MacMillan; $1.50).

Lewis’ chief target: “liberal” theologians who attempt to combine skepticism with faith. Said Lewis of his own conversion:

“I want to be left alone, to feel I’m my own master: but since the facts seemed just the opposite, I had to give in.”

In The Great Divorce, Author Lewis, who teaches medieval literature at Oxford, takes himself and a load of jostling, quarreling passengers from a twilit, drizzly city of endless streets to a fresh meadow at the foot of a cloudy mountain range. “The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the after-world,” Lewis warns. But the grey city, he realizes, was Hell; he and his bus-mates are spirits on an excursion. Damnation is not final; they may stay in Heaven if they choose to.

Most of them do not. Explains an old (Scotsman who guides Lewis as Virgil and St. Bernard guided Dante:

“Milton was right. The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’ There is always something they insist on keeping, even at the price of misery…. It has a hundred fine names—Achilles’ wrath and Coriolanus’ grandeur, Revenge and Injured Merit and Self-Respect and Tragic Greatness and Proper Pride.”

Gaitered Ghost. One by one, Lewis’ fellow excursionists fail to find Heaven to their liking. Most outspoken: the liberal theologian, a fat, gaitered ghost with a cultured voice and “a bright clerical smile,” who clings to his benign skepticism and open mind even in the forefields of Heaven. An old orthodox friend says to him:

“We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ. We know nothing of speculation. Come and see. I will bring you to Eternal Fact, the Father of all other facthood.”

“I should object very strongly to describing God as a ‘fact,’ ” says the liberal theologian. “The Supreme Value would surely be a less inadequate description. It is hardly….”

“Do you not even believe that He exists?”

“Exists? What does Existence mean? You will keep on implying some sort of static, ready-made reality which is, so to speak, ‘there,’ and to which our minds have simply to conform. These great mysteries cannot be approached in that way…. God, for me, is something purely spiritual. The spirit of sweetness and light and tolerance—and, er, service, Dick, service. We mustn’t forget that… .”

Return to Hell. But the gaitered ghost cannot argue all day.

“I have to be back next Friday to read a paper. We have a little Theological Society down there. Oh yes! There is plenty of intellectual life. Not of a very high quality, perhaps. One notices a certain lack of grip—a certain confusion of mind….

“I’m going to point out how people always forget that Jesus . . . was a comparatively young man when he died. He would have outgrown some of his earlier views, you know, if he’d lived. As he might have done with a little more tact and patience…. What a different Christianity we might have had if only the Founder had reached his full stature! I shall end up by pointing out how this deepens the significance of the Crucifixion. One feels for the first time what a disaster it was: what a tragic waste….”

And with that, the clerical ghost hurries back to his grey, earthlike Hell, humming softly to himself, “City of God, how broad and far.”

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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61 Responses to 1946 TIME Review of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce

  1. hatrack4 says:

    Does any mainstream media today give honorable mention to any of today’s Christian writing? With the criticism that is rampant, being ignored might seem okay. Thanks for the retelling of this review. I wasn’t born yet in 47, but I remember this type of journalism from my youth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think that the large and more literary magazines still will cover a Christian public intellectual writing, so a Marilynne Robinson, Walter Brueggemann, Richard Rohr, or David Bentley Hart and folk of that level. And people like Rachel Held Evans and Eric Metaxas on a more popular level. But are there a lot of Christian writers that warrant public attention?

      Liked by 1 person

      • hatrack4 says:

        Very good point, yet one seems to arise in most generations. As to who it will be, that’s above my pay grade.

        Like

        • Yewtree says:

          Out of that list, I’d guess Marilynne Robinson, mainly because I have actually read a couple of her books and enjoyed them as literature.

          Christian friends seem rather keen on Richard Rohr, so perhaps he will be the non- fiction writer who will be remembered.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Perhaps. There are probably a couple of dozen Christian writers with some strength now, but it is easy for me to be depressed about how thin my own community’s literature and public thinking is (compared with past times). I am haunted by it, but when I look I always read wonderful things.
            Of course the UK and America lead. In Canada, Jean Vanier, Charles Taylor, George Grant, Northrup Frye, Reginald Bibby, plus some politicians. First Nation Christian leader Dr. Cheryl Bear may reach that status, given her work, and perhaps Jordan Peterson and Michael Coren. But we’ll see.

            Like

            • Yewtree says:

              Michael Coren, certainly. I like him.

              I’d hardly characterize Jordan Peterson as a Christian!

              Cheryl Bear, probably. I think I may have heard of her.

              Like

              • Dr. Bear may end up being more of a Canadian voice, perhaps intentionally so. I don’t know if most people in the world know the Canadian First Nations story.
                Jordan Peterson is more about the Western story in his public teaching, but we’ll see if he self-declares as Christian. He has been willing to be interviewed by Christian bloggers and podcasters (apparently), though his profile is bigger than that.

                Like

              • Yewtree says:

                I’ve noticed that most people outside Canada are unaware of the situation of the Indigenous Peoples.

                I dislike Jordan Peterson intensely so I hope he sinks into obscurity sooner rather than later.

                Christians would do well to disassociate themselves from his half baked ideas.

                Like

              • Yes, Jordan Peterson draws ire. I would probably be fired if I said anything positive about him, which teaches me two things. First, it is a troubling moment for liberalism which will drive people away from an invitation to progressive thought. Second, he might be actually worth looking at, as when I ask people what they hate about him, it turns out they haven’t read his books. Perhaps he is worth actually reading.
                It’s just not worth it to me.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Yewtree says:

                I haven’t read his books. I have read some detailed critiques by people who have.

                I was disturbed by the hoo-hah when the lecturer at WLU included a video clip of something he had said in a lecture which she then proceeded to comment on critically.

                I also disagree with him on the various things he has said about gender.

                Like

              • Do you mean the grad student that was fired when she showed a debate with Peterson in it? Yes, it was a real gap in wisdom in the school and a rejection of liberal values (and the idea of a university).
                I don’t think Peterson is on the front end of cultural ideas about gender. People I know who read him find his common sense approach refreshing, but we are in a context here where we have tagged free-speech limitations to the law on that point. An interesting approach.

                Liked by 1 person

              • Yewtree says:

                Yes, that’s the incident I meant. I thought she was reprimanded not fired?

                I don’t find his ideas common sense, and I hope they’re not common.

                Liked by 1 person

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Wow – that gives pause! Lewis was (if I reckon aright) 47 when this review appeared – rather arbitrarily taking that, what now-living 47-year-old Christian novelists, apologists, scholars, do I know – and enjoy – and who are famous? Or younger, or older? My mind’s a blank (not that that need have much weight) – let me think…

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Older – how about Susan Howatch (now 78), who’s only been long a famous name to me, though with little detailed sense – but whom conversation with Charles Huttar during his flying visit to the Netherlands the other day has got me keen to try reading?

          (Charles Huttar himself is certainly a lively and readable and in some sense famous scholar, for that matter!)

          Liked by 1 person

          • dalejamesnelson says:

            Thanks for reminding me of Susan Howatch. In 1997 I read a couple of her Starbridge books (that’s the series you’ll probably want to look into), Mystical Paths and Glamorous Powers. I don’t remember them very well, but would say they’re perhaps a bit like modern-milieu Trollope Barsetshire books, with perhaps a leetle of what some would call the paranormal. I was put on to them by a friend who was then, as I recall, a Lutheran seminarian (LCMS), and one of whose professors, a theologian named David Scaer I think it was, was quite fond of them.

            DN

            Liked by 1 person

        • This is a disturbing comment! I am 43 now, and still haven’t gotten out of the gate career-wise or got my writing off the ground at all! Fame isn’t much of a goal, but the comments helps me rethink my context with Lewis’.

          Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Thinking of published contemporary Christian novelists I know personally, something that occurs to me as complicating matters is, how difficult it can be to get something published anymore with explicit Christian content! I’m not sure how bad it is, and what ways there are round that, but a prize-winning novelist told me not so very long ago how impossible she had found it in recent years (in the UK).

        Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I was a contemporary of Madeleine L’Engle for a lot longer than I was a contemporary of Lewis, and it is funny to think how far along in my life many of her books were written – though it is already more than 11 years since she passed away. But I somehow forgot she was born on Lewis’s twentieth birthday, till I encountered this a few minutes ago!:

        http://www.breakpoint.org/2018/11/breakpoint-lewis-lengle-and-the-power-of-storytelling/

        Like

  2. Love this. The Great Divorce is one of my favorites!

    Like

  3. dalejamesnelson says:

    —–When transcendence-oriented usage became rare, words began to lose their secret glow. Their “value added” content collapsed. They ceased to radiate spirituality. They not only began to mean less but also lost the power to attract the way they did in past centuries. The change has snowballed in our time as the public square has been swept clean of spiritual “ballast.” I contend that the ability to carry on traces of the ineffable made many texts written before our time generate excitement of the kind contemporary texts seldom do.—–

    https://home.isi.org/great-amputation-language-postmodern-era

    Reading Lewis almost always tends to stir in the receptive reader the desire to read older works. The Great Divorce may refresh the desire to read, or reread, MacDonald and Dante. When you read MacDonald, you start wanting to read or reread Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Reading Wordsworth quickens anew the desire to read Plato and Traherne. When you read Coleridge, you want to read or reread authors upon whose works STC fed, and what an array they make up. And Ewa Thompson’s article helps us to see some of why we really need to do this, and not “eventually,” but now and as an ongoing thing the rest of our lives.

    Dale Nelson

    Liked by 2 people

    • “Reading Lewis almost always tends to stir in the receptive reader the desire to read older works.” This is precisely it, Dale. You are right. However, I partly went to Lewis to deepen and “age” my reading. After college I was burnt out and it took me a few years to recover strong reading. It is why I don’t look down on popular writers, for some of them helped me recover love of words.

      Like

      • Hannah says:

        “—–When transcendence-oriented usage became rare, words began to lose their secret glow.” That is it! I couldn’t formulate that during a rather ‘glowless’ book club discussion on the popular “Old Filth” by Jane Gardam.
        A ‘transcendence-oriented topic’ already helps a lot, like “Caleb’s Crossing” by Geraldine Brooks, but I love the books by Elizabeth Goudge as they ooze that usage all over, and who hasn’t yet been mentioned in these comments https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Goudge

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Calling up her Wikipedia article to refresh my memory, I find Elizabeth Goudge published her first novel when she was 33 or 34, her hugely successful Green Dolphin Country when she was 43 or 44, The Little White Horse when she was 45 or 46, and her last when she was 69 or 70 – followed by her delightful autobiography when she was 73 or 74. I’m happy to keep running into reprints of her novels – a contemporary Christian writer for the first couple decades of my life (though I had not heard of her, yet), being reissued 30 years after she passed away!

          Like

          • dalejamesnelson says:

            Maybe suggest four good books by Goudge for people to start with.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Hannah says:

              Hard to choose – David may have different preferences: The Dean’s Watch, The Little White Horse, Gentian Hill, The City of Bells, Scent of Water, The Rosemary Tree … and easiest to find: The Eliots of Damerosehay Trilogy (ao The Bird in the Tree)

              Liked by 2 people

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                I’d agree with “Hard to choose”! I have not read The City of Bells, yet, and only the first of the Eliots trilogy, so far (The Bird in the Tree (1940) ), but enjoyed all of the rest of these. I also liked The Castle on the Hill (1941) – and The Ikon on the Wall: And Other Stories (1943). One question is, whether you’d like to try a contemporary one or a historical novel. The first I read, on account of the acknowledgement to Williams’s The Greater Trumps, was The White Witch (1958), which is set during the English Civil War, and which I greatly enjoyed. (I’m not sure what the copyright situation is, but I see the “Public Library of India” has scans of a couple in the Internet Archive, including The Castle on the Hill and the first two Eliots trilogy volumes.)

                Liked by 2 people

              • Hannah says:

                Contemporary or historical novel is a good distinction! I also love the White Witch! Gentian Hill is set in Devon during the Napoleonic wars, Towers in the Mist in Oxford during the reign of Elizabeth I, and Castle on the Hill during WWII a.o. E.g. the Eliots Trilogy would be more recent.

                Liked by 2 people

              • dalejamesnelson says:

                Goudge’s White Witch might fit in well with my retirement project of reading 17th-century literature -plus- occasional more recent fiction related to the period (other novels being John Buchan’s Witch Wood, which was much admired by CSL, and Shorthouse’s John Inglesant, which seems to have intrigued Tolkien).

                Dale Nelson

                Liked by 1 person

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                That sounds like a good idea! (I love John Inglesant, but haven’t caught up with Witch Wood, though I always keen for another Buchan!)

                By the way, Hannah drew my attention to this:

                https://hope.edu/news/2005/12/14/charles-huttar-co-edits-book-on-susan-howatch.html

                Now, I want to read her essay “Do Christian Novels Exist?”!

                Liked by 1 person

              • Hannah says:

                I was hesitant in mentioning the White Witch exactly because it might be associated with black magic – as indeed seems to be the focus in the battle in “Witch Wood” “a story of seventeenth-century witchcraft in the Wood of Caledon in the Scottish Borders. The parish minister tries in vain to prevent devil worship and protect his protestant congregation.” (from a Good Read synopsis)
                So here a bit more on the White Witch. She is half British, half gypsy, living on the edge of both communities and it is a beautiful, multi-layered story with as main focus the conflicts between Puritanism, Catholicism, and pagan traditions of the gypsies at the beginning of Cromwell’s reign – the Puritans against the ways of Merry England (the old traditions with medieval origins).
                As another layer there is a battle between white and black magic (and witches).
                The only part I didn’t like in the White Witch (and main) character was her consulting Tarot cards on rare occasions (if I remember correctly, should re-read the book).
                But she only uses her wisdom, skills and knowledge of herbs towards healing! https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/420181.The_White_Witch

                Like

  4. Yewtree says:

    I feel that Lewis’ caricature of the liberal theologian is rather unfair.

    Like

    • Can a caricature every be fair, I wonder? Unfortunately, the liberals that Lewis encountered did not help him see beyond his quick judgment on their work. Because of a few encounters and some threads in conversation, he just didn’t get to know the Oxford div schools.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yewtree says:

        I like apophatic theology but perhaps it wouldn’t be to Lewis’ taste.

        Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        I’ve just been rebrowsing the speakers in Walter Hooper’s catalogue of the Socratic Club (in James Como’s C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table), and should do it further, more slowly and methodically – and would encourage that activity more broadly: in this context, with respect to theologians, div school folk, etc. (Fun to (re)read Austin Farrer’s contribution, there, too!)

        It seems to me it would be interesting to have a time-travelling Jordan Peterson, there, too – I’ve been enjoying finally getting acquainted with various of his talks and interviews – and he reminds me in part of Konrad Lorenz, who was a Socratic Club speaker, whom Lewis engaged with interestingly and fruitfully – and more of whose books I’d like to read…

        Like

        • When you post, David, I’m often struck by how much of the intellectual tradition I miss. Time and age tends to round off ideas and edge out people, so it look more unified (or neatly divided) in the past. I think the Socratic club speakers would be an interesting masters degree reading list.

          Like

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            Wow, yes! I wonder how far I’ve been half-consciously trying books by people I find there, or more broadly after becoming aware of a Lewis connection? I’m pretty sure that was the case with Austen Farrer, for instance – though I was aware of the fame of the English translation of Lorenz’s On Aggression before I ever heard of Lewis (but only started reading him fairly recently – with the Dutch translation of On Aggression still awaiting me on the shelf!).

            Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      It’s an interesting (inadequate word!) choice – and striking that, say, the chap with the lizard isn’t selected as a counter- or any kind of – example, and to what extent “One by one, Lewis’ fellow excursionists fail to find Heaven to their liking” is a misleading generalization – as, I think, “Lewis’ chief target: ‘liberal’ theologians” is – e.g., what about Sarah’s husband, or the chap who’s scandalized to find murderer repentant and reconciled with murder victim?

      A startling thought arose rereading that chunk beginning “I’m going to point out how people always forget that Jesus . . . was a comparatively young man when he died” – how it struck me as inviting comparison with the late Géza Vermes’s The Religion of Jesus the Jew (1993), as I remember it – ! (together with the fact that he was a Catholic priest at the time The Great Divorce was published!).

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yewtree says:

        It struck me that Robertson Davies has an elderly and very intelligent Jesuit who likes to drink express the idea of Jesus’ youth to his friend Dunstan Ramsay. The Jesuit says that as he gets older, he finds himself more in sympathy with the older personages in the Bible. There’s certainly a whiff of sulphur about the elderly Jesuit, but he’s utterly charming and human.

        Davies was of course a Jungian, so wanted to show his characters in all their complexity.

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I’ve never properly embarked on reading Jung since a first exhilarating taste as a teenager in the context of mediaeval western literature and art – and so am impressed with, e.g., R.C. Zaehner’s critique in Mysticism: Sacred and Profane (1957), without being really able to evaluate it. Jordan Peterson appears to be a thoughtful Jungian (! – assuming there are also doctrinaire Jungians…).

          Liked by 1 person

        • Can you help me, Yewtree, with that character idea? Jungian thought is archetypal and often mythic or folkloric in fiction. Both those (archetypes and speculative fiction) uses caricatures and the characters tend to land in grooves to represent an idea or motif or type. When you say “complexity,” what do you mean there? This isn’t a challenge, but a curiosity.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Yewtree says:

            Fully rounded and resembling a real person, rather than a badly drawn two-dimensional caricature.

            It is in many ways unfair to compare the liberal theologian in “The Great Divorce” with Padre Blazon in the Deptford Trilogy, as the style of writing is very different and the aims of these two pieces of fiction are very different.

            And I haven’t read “The Great Divorce” for a very long time.

            Like

            • Thanks, that makes sense. I have to get myself educated on this more.

              Liked by 1 person

              • Yewtree says:

                Read Robertson Davies 😊

                Like

              • Yewtree says:

                Also I wasn’t working from an exact literary definition of character and caricature but I’d say the difference is in the author’s intent. Does the author want to make a rhetorical point with the depiction (probably a caricature) or are they describing a person (probably a character). Also I read a book on archetypes in fiction that said the author might start with an archetype but the journey of the character should be towards personhood.

                Liked by 1 person

              • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

                This would probably be a good place to mention Helen M. Luke’s Through Defeat To Joy: The Novels of Charles Williams in the Light of Jungian Thought (1980). Anne Ridler gave me a copy when she was my supervisor, having thought it well worth reading (while not simply agreeing with everything), and I agree.

                Liked by 1 person

  5. reggieweems says:

    Did you notice that in the 1946 Time Magazine article, the author acknowledges Lewis’s conversion as 1930? Reggie Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

  6. Pingback: Literary Diversity and the Bottomless C.S. Lewis: A Unique Journey in Books | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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