So Easter Happened. That’s kind of an important Rhythm. I also moved to a new apartment and just gave a lecture in Theology Class. So…tardy on a couple of posts. But here’s the result: my lecture notes, complete with typos. Enjoy.
Part 1: C. S. Lewis’ conceptions of heaven and hell in The Great Divorce
In The Great Divorce, Lewis continues his exploration of afterlife and the nature of good and evil, heaven and hell, weaving together themes that are found in much of his other fiction. In The Great Divorce, there is a depiction of afterlife that is not discontinuous with the choices and trajectory begun in this life. Thus, characters are invited to engage their own continuing journey in pursuit of desire and personhood either towards or away from community. In the story, hell is seen as an ever expanding greyness in which people move further into isolation and eventually seem to dissipate into shadow, whereas heaven is seen as a place of solidity that is more real than the people themselves, a place where the cost of remaining and becoming more real is repentance and turning towards the call “further in and further up” into community and growing solidness through vulnerable exposure of their shadowy selfhood to what it real.
Like the final scene in The Last Battle, the characters in The Great Divorce are largely met with the afterlife their lives have anticipated. When the unending expansive greyness of hell is revealed to be the tiniest crack in the ground of heaven, we begin to understand that in Lewis’ understanding, the distinction between heaven and hell lies most importantly in the willingness of the person to repent—to turn towards heaven and allow it’s solidity to transform the person or to turn toward our own attempts to be our own persons and thus disappear into the hell of our own making.
David Downing, author of Planets in Peril writes about Lewis’ mythological framework for his fictions. Describing Lewis’ vision of heaven and hell, Downing says:
“Lewis believed that every moral choice humans make moves
them one step closer to heaven or to hell; in fact, hell and heaven
did not represent for him God’s judgment so much as God’s
acknowledgement of the pattern of choices people make
throughout their lifetimes. Lewis summed up his position best in
The Great Divorce: ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end;
those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom
God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell,
choose it’ (72).”
Part 2: Resurrection, Grief, Desire, and Zombies
Lewis’ narratives of heaven and hell serve as a way of engaging our imagination for thinking “apocalyptically”—that is, it pushes us into exploring the question of what is being uncovered or revealed.
Narratively, the 20th Century marks a shift in the functions of dystopian visions of the future. What started out optimistically for some as the possibility of it being “The Christian Century” began to be eclipsed by images of a world that T.S. Eliot would describe so vividly as a wasteland. Functionally, in the early part of the century, popular works like War of the Worlds tapped into a growing sense of uncertainty in the Western collective consciousness. Even in the dawning of an information age, a lack
of control and fear of the unknown began to take hold.
Books like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, named the western fear of the stranger and prophetically urged us not to create our own destruction—a theme that carries into films like Wally and The Hunger Games series. By the late 20th century and in the just over a decade since, we have increasingly used dystopian narratives to explore the question of “what happens after?”.
What happens after WWII, Cold War, Apartheid, Genocide, 9/11, school shootings, race riots, peak oil, corporate colonialism, Enron, economic collapses, slave labor, low prices, factory farming, genetic engineering, HIV/AIDS, polar ice caps melting?
There appears to be a shift to dystopia as the inevitable end. Stories like The Hunger Games capture our imagination, and in one way, still hold a certain mirror to society, inviting us to be something else; however, there is a certain resignation—a cynicism, or ironic response that seems to view these narratives as the unstoppable future riding down on us, and there are even those who welcome collapse as the possibility of something new for the few who might survive.
There’s a whole subgenre of dystopian literature dedicated to Cascadia—the post-collapse secession of the Pacific Northwest as its own survival colony, able to agriculturally sustain itself after global meltdown. These are not new narratives, but the way they share our imaginations seems to have shifted. One demonstrable category
is zombies. Within the 20th century, the notion of the undead began to haunt us in new way. While there are earlier examples more connected to the older understanding of zombies, the film “Night of the Living Dead” truly inaugurated the notion of the
dead come back to eat us.
I want to focus briefly on current zombie lore, because I think may offer us a way of entering into the question of what Christian hope might look like in the face of
current dystopic myths and in face of the looming realities out of which they emerge.
While Zombie lore varies, and it’s arguable that a key function of zombies for a globally connected and white-dominated West is to give us a less than human/human other that it’s still okay for us to villainize and kill without guilt, the notion of zombies as corpses come back from the dead and the eating of human flesh has odd parallels to the Christian belief in the resurrection.
Having just celebrated Easter, we recognize that there is an undeadness at the center of our confession about Jesus. The resurrection takes seriously the full impact of death, yet after entering death, Jesus Transforms death into life. The resurrected life is not animation of a corpse. Instead, the Triduum, or Three days of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, is a movement that is perhaps best understood through Thursday’s initiation of the Eucharistic meal.
As Jesus’ body and blood reverses the direction of metabolization, transforming us, through the eucharistic meal, into the body of Christ, so Jesus’ body enters death in order to transform death itself into resurrection life.
If Jesus is our anti-zombie, rendering fuller life out of death—it is notable that rather than consuming our flesh, it is his body and blood, offered in the bread and wine that infect us with this new life. Where every other meal consists of my consuming and metabolizing other bodies to transform them into my own flesh, in the Eucharist, I eat the body of Jesus and it metabolizes me into the body of Christ.
In the same sort of backwards sacramental motion, God enters into death through the death of Jesus and the Trinitarian life of God metabolizes death—not reversing it’s process or doing away with the reality of its destruction, but moving all the way through
death into more complete life.
My hunch is that dystopian narratives have captured our cultural imagination because they tap into our resignation in the face of suffering. They offer, through tragedy, comedy, and irony a way of downplaying sorrow—that is, the inevitability of losing what we desire—they function as an entertaining alternative to hope that would waken us to the vulnerability of grief.
The premise of resurrection takes death seriously. It engages Holy Saturday in a way that suffers death and is buried before moving to constitute life out of the realness of death. The Spirit of God hovers over chaos and God calls substantive life out of the
nothingness of death. My understanding of this is sacramental. I do not believe that the
resurrection is a helpful metaphor for healing and processing the loss and death that marks my narrative.
Instead, the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the grounding reality that constitutes these daily resurrections—I am claiming that these resurrections in my narrative are the work of the Holy Spirit, bringing me into the resurrected body of Jesus Christ.
Eschatology, then, is the long tether of hope by which the Holy Spirit entangles the parts of me where I have consigned myself to death—the places where I am too afraid to be vulnerable and face the grief of not having what I have needed and desired. In these
places, hope lodges itself in the graves where I have buried what I long for, and it breathes life into the bones, calling me out of the dissipation and shadows into solidity of relational community, where I am met with a God who has climbed into the grave with
me, metabolized death, and is taking me back up into life.
I feel strongly that cynicism and resignation to despair are slow concessions to death, turning our desire into a zombie-like obsession to consume or be consumed. But to repent and turn towards the grief that is Good Friday and Holy Saturday opens us
up to the loss of what we needed. It awakens us to the excruciating desire for wholeness—the vulnerable hunger of being alive.
At its root, the grief of Holy Saturday is the gaping wound where Friday’s death has robbed us of love. To grieve that loss requires turning fully towards the face of death. Only by approaching the tomb with the assurance that God is lying in there, can we ever be surprised by its emptiness.This kind of grief requires a tenacious sincerity. In my experience, grief is the work of the Holy Spirit, groaning within us in wordless places in order to draw us into the solidity of resurrected desire.