Books capture me when they capture my experience. The first few pages of a book are often enough for me to know whether or not I care to continue. If an author speaks directly into my life, captures my imagination with something I understand, then my guard is down and I’m in for the ride. Lewis grabs me from the beginning.
I hate waiting in line. I would never choose to wait in line. This is why I jump back and forth as I approach check out counters and toll booths (my apologies to the shopping and driving communities). The brilliant image of the first chapter is that waiting in line is actually the best thing going for the writer. Every other aspect of his existence is bleak – not dark, yet nowhere near bright. Endless walking in a lifeless backdrop. The best thing going is this line. Miserable people surround, but they are the only people and so he waits.
“But for the little crowd at the bus stop, the whole town seemed to be empty. I think that was why I attached myself to the queue.” (the Writer)
An angry woman, the bitter man at her side. The scowling short man, the proud beefy man. The indifferent pair. The cheating man, the whiny woman. Hanging out in this line with these people was the option. I hate waiting in line. I even like people and I hate waiting in line.
Ah, but the bus driver is different. Full of light. Comfortable driving. A look of authority. Moves with purpose. The striking difference is that the writer seems to observe the difference with calm, while the bitter crowd growls. Even the driver himself notices something, swatting at the greasy steam in his face.
Then there’s the tousle-haired youth, also different, but a different different from the driver. He observes. He engages. But the youth is part of the queue. The writer is quickly annoyed, grabbing an excuse rather than read the youth’s stuff before the bus took off… into the air. Yes that happened.
In the preface (yes, you should absolutely read the preface), Lewis makes it clear that he is not trying to expound on the biblical realities of heaven & hell. Rather, he is presenting a story with a moral, creating a sequence with a sense of the reality we face. One quote in the preface stuck out to me.
“But what, you ask, of earth? Earth, I think, will not be found by anyone to be in the end a very distinct place. I think earth, if chosen instead of Heaven, will turn out to have been, all along, only a region in Hell: and earth, if put second to Heaven, to have been from the beginning a part of Heaven itself.”
People in the first chapter seem to be caught in this very situation, inhabiting an “earth” that is, in fact, either a region of hell or the departure ground unto heaven. In our story, the queue exists. The bus exists. Few join the queue. Fewer persevere the queue. Most board the bus grudgingly. Two slink to the back.
I once heard a preacher say that, for some, this life is as close to heaven as they’ll every taste. Amidst sin and brokenness, pain and sorrow, evil and death, “heaven” is but a temporary pleasure on the third rock from the sun. For others, this busted life is as close to hell as they’ll ever taste, for one day the old will pass away and only glory shall remain. Lewis takes the eternal reality and extends it into our current situation through the queue and this bus ride. His story takes off (literally) in the heart of this choice about eternity made from an earth that is either a region of hell or a slice of heaven.
(No, this is probably not related. But if you follow me around long enough, you find that virtually everything and everyone I encounter has the potential to send my head somewhere)
I’ve had a long internal dialogue lately about the way that I view people. More often than not, I’m guilty of viewing people through a selfish lens – either as a project, a distraction, or as a means to an end. I believe we’re all guilty of this, it’s the nature of sin, but I’ve been more acutely aware of it in this most recent season of life. I’m grateful for the conviction, though conviction leads to change, and change is not always easy. As I read the writer’s thought process through the queue, I was challenged to think about the last few lines I endured. Do I remember any of the people who waited alongside me? Could I even describe them as “well” as the writer in the Divorce? Was I at all attentive to their needs?
I think about the writer’s encounter with the tousle-haired youth. When was the last time I met someone who wanted to talk when I wanted to be left alone? Or someone who wanted to show me something and I instinctively moved to my excuse without even giving them a chance? What holy compassion and generosity was I suppressing? Actually, as I type this I think of a man I met at the hospital last week. He was lost. His English was rough, but he and I were looking for the same place and so we were walking together. We shared the small talk about how easy it is to lose our compass in this maze of a medical facility. When we arrived, he started talking about his hair. He styled hair for a living, and he wanted me to see his work. There was a conversation there somewhere, but not for me. I smiled, I offered a brief compliment, but like the writer’s reading glasses, I searched for the fastest avenue out. He was another guy in the queue. Tuesday morning conviction.
Good fiction takes you places. Good fiction takes you where the author wants to go, but I also believe good fiction draws on reality and takes you places you never saw coming. I’d love to know where The Great Divorce takes you. Share a random thought if you’ve got one!
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