The "Reluctant Convert" in Surprised by Joy and The Great Divorce
Death has been no hindrance to C. S. Lewis's career. His fame continues to a new generation of readers who delight in the Christian apologist's clear, convincing, and moving arguments for Christianity, while adults reread his Chronicles of Narnia to their own children. Imagine the wonder when a reader who can trace to Lewis part of her belief in Christ hears that Lewis was at one time an atheist. Her amazement continues upon reading his biography and learning that at the time of his conversion he was "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England" (Surprised 28-29). Surely, she thinks, with his spiritual insight, Lewis must have been converted willingly. But this is one of the themes of Lewis's writing--the unintentional and unwilling convert. The book The Great Divorce presents several fictional conversions that mirror the conversion Lewis relates in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy. These reluctant conversions share at least five common points: the presence of a mentor to guide the convert, the convert exercising his free will, the presence of supernatural forces which, optimally, drive the convert to submission, pain associated with the conversion process, and a blessing or curse as a consequence of the choice. These common elements reveal Lewis's perception of the essential details of conversion and show that his fiction mirrored his life.
Autobiographical allusions are not hard to find in Lewis's writings. The first comparison of Lewis's experience and his fiction is the presence of mentors to guide the convert into belief. For Lewis, these mentors were both books and friends. He recounts in his autobiography the role Phantastes by George MacDonald played in his conversion. The romantic fantasy book illuminated his perception of Joy and his "imagination was . . . baptized" by the experience (Surprised 180-81). However, Lewis claimed that this experience did not affect his intellectual understanding of religion or his obedience to its precepts. (qtd. in Green 45).
Further reading and other men effected these changes in his intellect and obedience. Perhaps the most life-changing conversation Lewis had was with Hugo Dyson and J. R. R. Tolkien in 1931. Already converted to theism, Lewis was resolving the intellectual barriers to his faith in Christ. One night the three met at Oxford University and discussed myth until the early hours of the morning. Tolkien and Dyson helped Lewis see that he could accept the Christian redemption myth just as he accepted redemption myths in other folklore, with the exception that the Christian version actually happened. After this evening, Lewis wrote to his friend Arthur Greaves confessing, "How deep I am just now beginning to see. I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christâ€”in Christianity" (Dorsett 54). Despite his brilliance and his desire to not be interfered with (Surprised 228), Lewis never would have converted if it had not been for mentors, both friends and books, instructing him and leading him to a faith in Christ. The Great Divorce includes three episodes that have elements of autobiography, including the role of mentors: the Dwarf and the Tragedian, the Ghost with a red lizard on his shoulder, and the ghostly character through which Lewis places himself in the story. Through these loosely autobiographical episodes, many aspects of Lewis's conversion from atheism to belief are represented fictionally.
The role of mentors in the conversion process is especially evident. In the first place, the ghostly character Lewis is met by George MacDonald who explains what is really happening with the other ghosts' conversion opportunities. MacDonald also expounds on doctrines to help Lewis understand Heaven. He teaches about the nature of time, the size of Hell, and the meaning of love. MacDonald's role as a mentor is a composite form of both the books Lewis read and his friends, who also explained conversion and taught him the theology. The mentor role is also evident in the other conversion episodes, showing both the love and power mentors can have. The Dwarf is met by Sarah Smith, someone close to him in mortality, but now a noble Spirit. During the course of her conversation she tries to help Frank, the Dwarf, begin his journey to the mountainous deeper Heaven. She counsels him to rid himself of the Tragedian who is speaking for him with a dramatic yet self-destructive attitude. She pleads, "Look at me. Look at me. What are you doing with this great, ugly doll? Let go of the chain. Send it away. It is you I want. Don't you see what nonsense it is talking?" (Divorce 111, italics in original). Her true love for God and Frank is evident, yet sadly, the Dwarf disregards his mentor and vanishes.
A third example of the role of mentors in The Great Divorce occurs in the episode of the Ghost and the red lizard. Embarrassed by the creature's constant talking and its conspicuous position, the Ghost is leaving Heaven when he encounters a flaming Spirit. The Spirit acts as a mentor with his offer to kill the lizard. This mentor differs, however, from the others. He does not speak of love or theology, he only offers the Ghost a choice and exhibits the power of God to heal. Still, this approach qualifies him as a mentor. When the Ghost tries to rationalize his decision to keep the lizard, the Spirit does not try to persuade him; instead, he rejects the Ghost's self-serving arguments and offers again, "Shall I kill it?" (Divorce 97-99). What the Spirit lacks in eloquence, he makes up for in power; he is the only mentor able to take care of the problem on his own. Unlike the Dwarf, this Ghost listens to his mentor and is freed from his bondage.
Despite the intellect, love, and power of mentors, the necessity of a free choice by the convert is essential. Free will is the second aspect of conversion seen in both Lewis's experience and fiction. In the months leading up to his conversion, Lewis wrote, "I felt myself being . . . given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut. . . . I am . . . inclined to think that this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most that I have ever done" (Surprised 224). Furthermore, in his account of the night he came to belief in God, Lewis shows that conversion was ultimately his choice. After feeling the influence of God in his life, Lewis met "Him whom [he] so earnestly desired not to meet" when he "gave in" and knelt to pray (Surprised 228). It was not until Lewis chose to submit that the conversion was effected.
In all The Great Divorce accounts, conversion is blocked until the potential convert decides that he will allow the redemptive event to happen. All the ghosts in Heaven, including Lewis, can leave anytime by getting back on the bus. The Dwarf must let go of the chain. Sarah cannot, despite her glory and wisdom, let go for him. She can only encourage as a mentor. Similarly, the flaming Spirit cannot kill the lizard without the permission of the Ghost. In the course of their conversation, he asks the man eight times if he might kill the beast, explaining, "I cannot kill it against your will. It is impossible" (Divorce 99). The flaming Spirit teaches an important lesson of free choice that Lewis experiencedâ€”despite his power, God will not or cannot convert a soul against the convert's will. In conjunction with free choice, the third similarity in conversion stories is the influence of a higher force than the convert, such as Lewis's lifelong search for Joy. The convert cannot fully understand this supernatural influence, yet it prods and pushes the him towards God if he will only submit. Although the potential proselyte has the choice, something higher than himself is working on him to make the choice a dichotomy. In dealing with this influence, Lewis learned that "he could not achieve Joy directly and [he] . . . could not produce or control it at all" (Leigh 301). Lewis further conveys this idea of a supernatural influence with his imagery of God winning a cosmic chess game. With the loss of the intellectual beliefs that supported his atheism, Lewis reported, "All over the board my pieces were in the most disadvantageous positions. . . . [Then] my Adversary began to make His final moves" (Surprised 216). In the conversion process, the only optimal choice for Lewis was to submit. He could argue or run, but the reality was that he was, as he described, in checkmate. It was his only intelligent option.
Similarly, the only viable and redeeming choice in the episodes in The Great Divorce is submission to the overarching reality of God's will. The law of Heaven can make the fictional converts happy if they accept God's plan or desirous to leave upon its rejection; however, like Lewis's Joy, they cannot control the law's influence. The convert's position becomes a choice between two options, misery or joy. Because of his delay in going to the mountains, Lewis, the character, realizes the awfulness of not becoming solid as the sun rises. Screaming and crying, he has not submitted to God and realizes he may now lost (Divorce 125). The Dwarf through his pride also stands defiantly against God, rejecting the option for life in the mountains. However, at times he wavers and begins to accept the love shown by Sarah. "The outlines of his face became a little clearer" but the moment passes and he returns to his despair (Divorce 109). Both Lewis and the Dwarf resist the supernatural influence and fail to accept the life-giving option.
On the other hand, the Ghost with the lizard submits to the influence of God and allows his fears and pride to be destroyed. The flaming Spirit does not allow the Ghost to rationalize away the way influence of these higher powers. When the Ghost suggests another time would be more convenient to have the lizard killed, the flaming Spirit corrects, "There is no time." and "There is no other day" (Divorce 98). He teaches the Ghost that ultimately, one cannot avoid God by putting him off; the potential convert must make the choice. To Lewis, conversion was not a thing of ease. The involvement of pain in the conversion process is the fourth aspect in which to compare Lewis's experience with his fiction. Lewis himself was converted "kicking and screaming" (Surprised 229). Some of the pain came because in fixing his faith on God, Lewis also discovered "ludicrous and terrible things about [his] own character" including immense pride (qtd. in Green 105). One of the pains associated with conversion involved the realization that he must repent and change. In another book, Lewis explained why he thought pain is necessary in conversion. He proposes, God [will force a Christian] to a higher level: putting him into situations where he will have to be very much braver, or more patient, or more loving, than he ever dreamed of being before. It seems to us all unnecessary: but that is because we have not yet had the slightest notion of the tremendous thing He means to make of us. (Mere 176) Suffering, for Lewis, can make a saint.
Lewis also conveys the agonies of conversion in his fiction, many times in more detail and intensity. Lewis the character feels the pains of not being prepared for Heaven as his Ghost-body is tortured by even walking on the solid, real grass. In the Dwarf episode, this pain is primarily an emotional one and results from his own twisted concept of love and the desire to solicit pity from Sarah. His pain illustrates that much of the pain we suffer is self-inflicted. Sarah tells Frank that in his attempt to use pity to "blackmail" others: "You made yourself really wretched" (Divorce 115-16). The Dwarf, through his selfishness, caused the problems that Sarah was sent to help him overcome. The pain of conversion comes from the healing of these problems.
This process can be seen clearly with the man with the lizard who feels the pains of conversion on a very physical level. The fear of pain or death causes him to recoil at the proposed surgery. The flaming Spirit corrects, "I never said it wouldn't hurt you. I said it wouldn't kill you." (Divorce 98). At the moment the Ghost finally lets down his pretense of not needing help and agrees to let the Spirit kill his lizard, he ends up "Whimpering, â€˜God help me.' â€˜God help me.'" (Divorce 99). His emotional and physical pain creates in him the humility to acquiesce and accept the "Bleeding Charity" of God (Divorce 35). The pain of conversion is meant only to bring the convert closer to God.
Finally, the consequences of free choice are the fifth comparison suggesting the semi-autobiographical nature of Lewis's fictional conversion stories. As shown above, ultimately, the convert is faced with the decision between life and death. Lewis's fiction shows the final consequences of the redemptive choice, while the experience of Lewis's life after conversion shows the process occurring on a day to day basis. Salvation can be both a daily event and an ultimate destination. Lewis exhibits the life-giving nature of his belief when he writes, "I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I everything else" (qtd. in Kimball 208). His faith became his life.
The Ghost with the red lizard also experiences blessings like Lewis, only in dramatized form. After the lizard is killed, the Ghost materializes and becomes a manâ€”a Spirit. The lizard who held him in bondage becomes a beautiful horse under the Spirit's control. Together, they ride off to the mountains.
Lewis also portrays the choice for death in The Great Divorce. The Dwarf cannot accept Sarah or leave his self-pity. During "the struggle of that Dwarf-Ghost against Joy" (Divorce 113), the dwarf becomes smaller until he at last disappears. This symbolizes the ultimate consequences for the convert's choiceâ€”eternal life or death.
Because of the differences between reality and a representation of heaven, there are several differences between Lewis's own conversion and his fiction. Both the Dwarf and the Ghost have their opportunity for conversion in a moment, while it took Lewis years to finally convert. The fictionalized accounts contain fantastic and symbolic aspects like the lizard, the tragedian spokesman, and the chain. Finally, the fictional conversions do not suggest any further trials of faith. Lewis's conversion was a continual process and his faith continued to be tried, especially when his wife Joy died. Despite these facts, the similarities of the stories help one see more what a conversion process entails and how Lewis viewed his own conversion decision to signify.
And what of the reader who looks to Lewis's writings for understanding of her Christian experience? How will she view her own conversion after reading Surprised by Joy and The Great Divorce? She will see that we are not converted in a vacuum; mentors are always there to play a role in conversion. She will realize that God's influence will be felt in our lives and at those times, we must choose to accept God. If we do not choose God then we choose misery. Despite the choice to serve God, the reader will understand and accept that the conversion process includes painâ€”at times heart-breaking pain. However, the pain is mainly as a cure from personal "red lizards." Finally, she will see that the conversion she went through can be a salvation both daily and eternally. Lewis's fiction teaches the reader real-life lessons that will lead her to further belief. In this sense, even Lewis's fiction is a form of his Christian apologetics. The "reluctant convert" in Surprised by Joy in a sense describes everyone going through the Christian conversion process.