Humans are incredibly skilled at rationalizing sin. We prefer to gloss over sin rather than face it. And for good reason! To grapple with the true weight of our sin is a heavy burden indeed. And even when we do recognize sin, we are more likely to note the sin of others and explain our own away. In the classic fable The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis deftly pulls back the curtain to reveal the workings of sin behind what might first be seen as excusable behavior. He is especially skilled at showing our rationalizations and the true darkness that inspires them. We might think we understand the doctrine of sin, but seeing it unfold through a story can help us grasp it at a deeper level. An adaptation of the story from Max McLean and the Fellowship for Performing Arts masterfully draws out Lewis’ themes and brings them afresh to a new audience.
McLean’s version maintains the magic of Lewis’ masterpiece and even adds new vitality and immediacy. The story follows a group of passengers who travel on a bus from Hell to Heaven. Once they arrive, they can choose whether to go or stay. But if they stay, they must accept the love offered to them and relinquish the fears and desires that ruled them on Earth and that continue to rule them in Hell. The conversations between the passengers from Hell (ghosts) and the heavenly beings (spirits) are really the core of the original book and the vehicle through which Lewis develops his ideas. The conceit of this particular adaptation is that the more than 20 characters are played by just four actors, which works surprisingly well. The medium lends itself to the message of the story. Seeing the characters on stage heightens the stakes because it helps the audience picture them as actual people and not just characters. It also brings an immediacy to their decisions that helps the audience grasp their import at a deeper level.
The true heart of the production is a pair of conversations, each with a ghost, both played by Carol Halstead. In one of these scenes, a mother who lost her son pleads to be brought to see him. When we first meet her, we might relate with her side. This surely is a cruel providence that keeps her apart from her son. Why can’t she see him? The spirit tells her that first she must love something else besides her son: She must “love God for his own sake … You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God.” (I’ll be quoting from the book, as does much of the material in the play.) We may think that the spirit is torturing her, not allowing her to see her son. But the spirit is trying to get her to see the true nature of her desire. Her inmost thoughts are later revealed as she demands to have him:
Give me my boy. Do you hear? I don’t care about your rules and regulations. I don’t believe in a God who keeps mother and son apart. I believe in a God of love. No one had a right to come between me and my son. Not even God. Tell Him that to His face. I want my boy, and I mean to have him. He is mine, do you understand? Mine, mine, mine, for ever and ever.
Here, the true weight of sin is felt through her demand. What at first could be dismissed as a simple innocent longing becomes something much darker. She would rather take her son back with her to Hell than be separated from him in Heaven. Her love has become rotten to the core. To even call it love is no longer accurate. She does not truly care for her son; instead she wants ownership over him. To desire control over someone is not loving the other; it is self-love attempting to override the will of another with one’s own will.
Any love can become destructive when pushed outside its natural boundaries: Each conversation is in some way a development of that theme. The idea of ownership is repeated from another monologue, also by Halstead. A wife pleads with an unseen spirit, staged intriguingly so she seems to be begging directly to the audience. She begs for her husband to be returned to her. But, like the mother, what she really wants is complete control over him, effectively to torment him forever. “There’s lots, lots, lots of things I still want to do with him.” In a conversation with an artist, we learn how love of beauty in the natural world expressed through art is a good thing. But it can become perverted into a love of art for its own sake and a grasping desire for fame. Then we meet a Bishop, who loves talking about theory so much that he misses the object of that theory.
Each character, in his or her own way, affirms Milton’s phrase “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.” It’s a revelation to hear the line read aloud: In the voice of George MacDonald, played by Jonathan Hadley, the line becomes a booming rollicking pronouncement. (Try saying it aloud in MacDonald’s Scottish accent.) Each of us must choose whether we will serve or be served, with eternal consequences.
The Reformed theologian John Calvin emphasized how sin pervades every part of our being; our thoughts, desires, and will are all corrupted by sin:
For man has not only been ensnared by the inferior appetites, but abominable impiety has seized the very citadel of his mind, and pride has penetrated into the inmost recesses of his heart; so that it is weak and foolish to restrict the corruption which has proceeded thence, to what are called the sensual affections, or to call it an incentive which allures, excites, and attracts to sin, only what they style the sensual part.
Although Lewis was no Calvinist, The Great Divorce is at least that doctrine come to life. We see the choices each individual makes to embrace evil or yield to the good. Through these vignettes we understand sin, and God’s response to it, in a new way. A good God must not allow such perverted love to continue. He must effect a final separation between good and evil. In fact, Lewis wrote The Great Divorce in response to William Blake’s argument that there will be a final reconciliation between good and evil. Through communicating the true nature of sin, Lewis shows how good and evil can never be reconciled. Once we understand the true nature of the mother’s “love,” we no longer want her to be reconciled with her son. A final separation is necessary.
Of course, Lewis doesn’t leave us only with the story of sin, and I would be remiss to do so. Once we realize our sin, as Calvin explains, “we are inflamed with fresh ardour to seek after God, to recover in him those excellences of which we find ourselves utterly destitute.” Only in knowledge of our sin can we then turn to God. One self-righteous character in the play sneers “I’m not asking for anybody’s bleeding charity.” But the spirit responds, “Then do. At once. Ask for the Bleeding Charity. Everything is here for asking and nothing can be bought.” A great line in itself, but in front of a live audience you get the whole irony and humor of it. Lewis’ words in the mouth of living, breathing humans become even more deadly. We can be face to face with the truth and still fail to grasp it. If you can see the play in person, do so. It won’t disappoint. If not, Lewis’ original still packs a punch.