Re-Reading The Great Divorce For The First Time

I read this book in junior high or high school, probably, when reading C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series and the Screwtape letters. I just didn’t, nor couldn’t, understand what Lewis was saying in the Great Divorce. I hadn’t lived long enough yet, and hadn’t experienced what I have experienced over the last nine years.

Two quotable quotes that I’ve written down out of the book so far:

“The sane would do no good if they made themselves mad to help madmen.” This is multi-layered when one considers recent events in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

“Those that hate goodness are sometimes nearer than those that knew nothing at all about it and think they have it already.” Duh, this is why my prison ministry is successful as opposed to my efforts at reform of the Episcopal Church.

Oh, and the Bishop ghost at the beginning of the book reminded me very much of our current and immediately past Presiding Bishops. He even talked liked they do. Like this part of the dialogue:

“‘Ah, I see. You mean that the grey town with it continual hope of morning (we must all live by hope, must we not?), with its field for indefinite progress is, in a sense, Heaven, if only we have eyes to see it? That is a beautiful idea.’

‘I didn’t mean that at all.  Is it possible you don’t know where you have been?’

‘Now that you mention it, I don’t think we ever do give it a name.  What do you call it?’

‘We call it Hell.’

‘There is no need to be profane, my dear boy.  I may not be very orthodox, in your sense of that word, but I do feel that this matters ought to be discussed simply, and seriously, and reverently.’

‘Discuss Hell reverently?  I meant what I said.  You have been in Hell: though if you don’t go back, you may call it Purgatory…But don’t you know?  You went there because you are an apostate…’

‘This is worse than I expected.  Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions?  Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinion were mistaken.’

‘Do you really think there are no sins of the intellect?’

‘There are indeed Dick.  There is hide-bound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation.  But honest opinions fearlessly followed-they are not sins.'”

Later on the Bishop ghost talks about how he denied the resurrection in a famous sermon and that got him a bishopric.  Ultimately, he is a part of the little theological society down in hell.

I may write more on it as I study the book.  But, I would encourage my readers to read it or read it again for the first time.

5 Responses to “Re-Reading The Great Divorce For The First Time”

  1. 1 Perpetua June 8, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    A few comments:

    I am so glad you are re-reading the C. S. Lewis you read when you were younger. I meet so many people who dismiss his work with “Oh yes, I used to like C. S. Lewis when I was younger.” They are implying they outgrew him, when in reality, it may be that there was much more there to be discovered.

    It is amazing to realize C. S. Lewis created the bishop character over 60 years ago. It gives us a sense of how long this has really been going on at high levels in the church.

    Faith seeking understanding is very different from seeking understanding unmoored to the essentials of the faith.

  2. 2 Richard Naff June 9, 2008 at 12:14 am

    Thanks for the reminder about this book. I’ve certainly heard of it, always intended to read it, but well, Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making plans.

    I ordered a copy from Amazin’ so I won’t have the excuse of it not being on my library shelves.

  3. 3 robertf June 9, 2008 at 12:14 pm


    My experience with Lewis was kind of similar to yours. And Perpetua’s comments are right on the mark. When I was a kid, my dad made me read the Narnia stories; I hated them. He made me read Screwtape; it all went right over my head.

    Many years later, in my mid-thirties, I read (and re-read several times until I really understood it) The Abolition of Man. I enjoyed it so much that I then read The Problem of Pain, The Four Loves, A Grief Observed, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce and other Lewis writings.

    I then decided to go back and re-read the Narnia stories. As Perpetua said, there was so much more there to be discovered. In light of his more “adult” works, I found depth and substance in these stories that I had never realized or understood. It was a wonderful experience.

    Because I’m on the road a lot, I’ve purchased audio versions of several Lewis books including The Four Loves (read by Lewis himself), The Great Divorce, and my favorite, The Screwtape Letters read (performed really) by John Cleese.

  4. 4 Dr. Mabuse June 9, 2008 at 5:37 pm

    ‘The Great Divorce’ is a wonderful book. When my unbaptized, unchurched mother was dying, this is the book that gave her comfort – we read it to her over and over. It’s too late at that point to pull out a Bible and start trying to learn everything from scratch, but somehow this helped her make sense of what was happening to her, and especially helped her face her fears of death and the afterlife. She was baptized on her deathbed (Presbyterian, I’m afraid, but eh. That’s not a time to start arguing over details.)

  5. 5 Cajun June 13, 2008 at 4:52 am

    I first read this book 28 years ago. I was on the USS Francis Hammond going in circles in the Gulf of Oman (near Iran). I loved it then.

    I reread it a few weeks ago also. It is such a wonderful little book.

    Coram Deo,

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