In a recent posting, I discussed the impact of overseas missions on the theology and practice of home churches, and suggested that this was a vast and understudied topic. The theme also gives me an excuse to explore some Christian writings that I consider to be truly important, but which today are gravely under-known and under-appreciated, namely the plays of Charles Williams. Williams himself is celebrated as a close friend of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, and a core member of the Inklings group. Another Williams – Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams – has called him “a deeply serious critic, a poet unafraid of major risks, and a theologian of rare creativity.” But while Charles Williams’s novels have a devoted following, the plays really do not. In their day, though, they were regarded as on a par with the works of T. S. Eliot, to such lauded plays as Murder in the Cathedral. (To its great credit, Regent College Publishing reissued Williams’s Collected Plays a few years ago).
The particular Williams play I had in mind was The House of the Octopus, which is set on a Pacific island during an invasion by the Satanic empire of P’o-l’u. Although the story recalls the Japanese invasion of Western-ruled territories in the Second World War, and the resulting mass slaughter of Christian missionaries, Williams stressed that he did not mean to identify P’o-l’u with any earthly state. This is a spiritual drama, and the leading character is Lingua Coeli, “Heaven’s Tongue,” or the Flame, a representation of the Holy Spirit, who remains invisible to most of the characters throughout the play.
When alien forces occupy the island, they immediately demand the submission of the native people, who have recently become Christian converts. One young woman, Alayu, is so terrified that she agrees to serve P’o-l’u, but even that apostasy does not save her life. And this is where the theological issue becomes complex, far too much so for anything but a brief description here. The Western missionary, Anthony, knows of course that Alayu’s last-minute denial has damned her eternally. The local people, however, know that death constitutes no such rigid barrier, and that salvation is communal as well as individual. Alayu can be – and is – saved after her death, through the support of her people, and the direct intervention of the Flame. Formerly an apostate, the dead Alayu becomes a saint interceding for the living. When Anthony in turn faces his own torment and martyrdom, it is Alayu who will give him strength and bear his fear. Anthony learns that the Spirit’s power is far larger than he has ever dared believe.
Williams was using a non-European setting to push the limits of Christian theology, to suggest how familiar dogmas might be reimagined in other cultures. What gives his work a contemporary feel is that the ideas he was exploring genuinely have become influential in newer churches, especially the emphasis on the power of ancestors, and the strongly communal nature of belief. In such settings, the ancient doctrine of the communion of saints, the chain binding living and dead, acquires a whole new relevance.
I would love to see House of the Octopus gain the reputation it deserves as a twentieth century Christian classic.