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The Jesus Obsession in ‘The Great Divorce’

The Jesus Obsession in ‘The Great Divorce’ October 3, 2021

Hi and welcome back! Of late, we’ve been checking out C.S. Lewis’ 1945 allegory The Great Divorce. (PDF can be found here.) One of the book’s most grating themes is its insistence on Christians focusing entirely and obsessively on Jesus — to the point that nothing whatsoever can exist for them except that. Not even art is allowed to exist in this book’s cosmology unless it completely focuses on Christian themes! As I read, though, I began to understand some things: why the Jesus Movement and similar trends swept through evangelicalism like wildfire, why those flavors seem so joyless and toyless, to borrow a phrase, and even why I almost got sucked into a Waco cult at the height of my own fervor. Today, let me show you where evangelicals’ Jesus obsession may have derived: from The Great Divorce.

leave the cave to find real joy
(Bruno van der Kraan.)

(Previous posts relating to C.S. Lewis and ‘The Great Divorce’: The Strawman Ghosts of ‘The Great Divorce‘; How C.S. Lewis Completed the Hell Puzzle; ‘The Great Divorce’ Horrified MeApologetics from Wishful Thinkers.; The Trilemma and the Gripping Hand; Shane Hayes and the Cult of Before Stories: Totally An Ex-Atheist Edition. Unless stated otherwise, all page numbers quoted come from this PDF edition of the book.)

Jesus and Heaven: Not for Artists, Not for Art.

Good Omens is one of the funniest books out there. In it, the demon Crowley often seeks to rile up his angelic counterpart Aziraphale. And he seems most successful at this task when he reminds the angel that Heaven entirely lacks all the fun stuff they both enjoy on Earth. Here’s a scene from early in the book:

“I can’t disod–disoy–not do what I’m told. ‘M a’nangel.”

“There’s no theaters in Heaven,” said Crowley. “And very few films.” [He launches into a huge — and hugely inebriated — description of eternity, one my tribe often used too.] — “Then you still won’t have finished watching The Sound of Music.”

Aziraphale froze.

“And you’ll enjoy it,” Crowley said relentlessly. “You really will. [. . .] Heaven has no taste.”

“Now–”

“And not one single sushi restaurant.” [Good Omens; p. 49-50 of 2006 hardback edition]

And that reminder alarms the angel so much that he must shake off his drunkenness.

Even an angel knows that life’s about more than just adoring a monomaniacal godling forever and ever. But in The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis wants us to believe that people can be happy doing exactly that. In fact, in his cosmology everything else people enjoy won’t matter to them at all after they die, as long as they decide to be TRUE CHRISTIANS™ till death. Heck, that’s even how Christians know they’re TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at all.

Art for Art’s Sake? Not in Heaven!

Last time we met up, I showed you a scene involving an unnamed ghost who’d been a famous artist in life. I’ll call him “The Artist,” though I don’t think he even merits that much of an identifier in the book. We meet The Artist in the park (a sort of entryway to Heaven). He’s admiring the scenery and wishing he’d been able to bring his art supplies with him so he could capture the view. But George MacDonald, the Narrator’s guide in this strange realm (and a real minister and fantasy writer who died in 1905), soon rains on that parade:

“That sort of thing’s no good here,” he said.

“What do you mean?” said the [Artist] Ghost.

“When you painted on earth-at least in your earlier days-it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came. There is no good telling us about this country, for we see it already. In fact we see it better than you do.”

“Then there’s never going to be any point in painting here?”

“I don’t say that. When you’ve grown into a Person (it’s all right, we all had to do it) there’ll be some things which you’ll see better than anyone else. One of the things you’ll want to do will be to tell us about them. But not yet. At present your business is to see. Come and see. He is endless. Come and feed.” [p. 29]

The Artist persists, however. He asks “how soon” he’ll be able to resume painting. Our guide laughs at him and tells him that if that’s all he thinks about, he’ll never “see the country.”

In other words, he won’t be able to reach Heaven.

In this book, loving art for its own sake will consign an artist to Hell.

The Jesus Obsession At Its Worst.

But things are far worse than that, even. By this book’s reckoning, artistic supplies are downright poisonous to anybody who really wants to reach Heaven.

George MacDonald tells The Artist:

“It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower-become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.” [p.30]

Then, MacDonald informs The Artist that the entire point of painting is to show glimpses of Heaven to other people. Since Spirits are already halfway to Heaven and know what it looks like, they don’t need that anymore.

Heck, earthly deeds aren’t even savored in Heaven. One ultra-famous artist is just like anybody else.

Understandably, The Artist gets frustrated at all this news. He returns to the hellscape city (Hell), where at least he can paint to his heart’s content.

It’s not Heaven to him without art. And the book wants us to see this as a very sad thing.

All Artistic Roads Must Lead to Jesus.

Indeed, we already saw the Jesus obsession in this book at the meeting of the Narrator and George MacDonald.

As I mentioned, MacDonald is a real person who wrote fantasy. According to La Wiki, one of MacDonald’s books, Phantastes, utterly captivated C.S. Lewis during his self-declared atheism phase. When he realizes who his guide is, the Narrator has a similar tale:

[When] I first bought a copy of Phantasies (being then about sixteen years old) had been to me what the first sight of Beatrice had been to Dante: Here begins the New Life. I started to confess how long that Life had delayed in the region of imagination merely: how slowly and reluctantly I had come to admit that his Christendom had more than an accidental connexion with it, how hard I had tried not to see that the true name of the quality which first met me in his books is Holiness. [p. 23]

MacDonald goes on to explain that the Ghosts have been ensnared by their vices precisely because they’ve allowed earthly pleasures to eclipse the only real pleasure in life.

And that one pleasure consists of Jesus-ing with all one’s might.

All Joy Derives from Jesus.

The book refers to Jesus-ing as “joy.” It’s the only real pleasure anyone can have. Anything else is a sorry counterfeit, George MacDonald tells us:

“There is always something they prefer to joy- that is, to reality. Ye see it easily enough in a spoiled child that would sooner miss its play and its supper than say it was sorry and be friends.” [p. 25]

He goes on to describe a real-world explorer and spiritualist, “Sir Archibald” (probably Sir Archibald Geikie; for the psychic stuff, start here). This person died and discovered that there ain’t no more exploring in Heaven:

“Everyone here had ‘survived’ already. Nobody took the least interest in the question. There was nothing more to prove. His occupation was clean gone. Of course if he would only have admitted that he’d mistaken the means for the end and had a good laugh at himself he could have begun all over again like a little child and entered into joy. But he would not do that. He cared nothing about joy.” [p. 26]

Again, “joy” just means Jesus-ing super-hard.

Sir Archibald very understandably didn’t want to do that, so he missed out on rejected Heaven.

Real Love Only Exists Within Christianity.

Later on, we meet a bereaved mother Ghost named “Pam.” She wants to meet her son Michael in Heaven. She’s perfectly willing to song-and-dance her way there, as long as she sees her son. Really, she doesn’t care what she has to do.

And that is not okay in The Great Divorce. Here’s where we learn that Jesus literally straight-up murdered Pam’s young child so she could learn to Jesus correctly:

“Human beings can’t make one another really happy for long. And secondly, for your sake. He wanted your merely instinctive love for your child (tigresses share that, you know!) to turn into something better. He wanted you to love Michael as He understands love. You cannot love a fellow-creature fully till you love God. [p. 34]

Pam correctly assesses this notion as “cruel and wicked nonsense.” But her Spirit friend (her brother, I think) presses the point home:

“Pam, Pam-no natural feelings are high or low, holy or unholy, in themselves. They are all holy when God’s hand is on the rein. They all go bad when they set up on their own and make themselves into false gods.” [p. 35]

Afterward, George MacDonald tells the Narrator:

“There is but one good; that is God. Everything else is good when it looks to Him and bad when it turns from Him.” [p. 37]

We hear a similar sentiment out of Sarah Smith regarding her marriage to Frank:

“There was a little real love in it. But what we called love down there was mostly the craving to be loved. In the main I loved you for my own sake: because I needed you.” [p. 44]

It’s a sickening and pernicious lie to assert that only those who Jesus super-hard know what real love is. But I’ve heard exactly that sentiment countless times from self-declared TRUE CHRISTIANS™. They weaponize this idea to dehumanize those outside the tribe and scare the flocks out of leaving.

In reality, I only learned what love is after deconversion, and I doubt I’m the only one who experienced that bit of unexpected growth.

The Jesus Obsession Becomes a Huge Trend.

C.S. Lewis published The Great Divorce in 1945 — at the height of World War II. It took a while for the ideas within it to catch on, but I am persuaded that the all-or-nothing mindset Lewis describes in the book influenced authoritarian evangelicals across the pond a short decade or so later.

It must have been complete catnip for young authoritarian evangelicals like Billy Graham, who in turn influenced other similar-minded men like Bill Bright. Bright, in particular, seems to have latched onto this mindset by the early 1950s and run with it. In 1951, he launched Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru). In 1959, he published The Four Spiritual Laws, which would prove omnipresent in evangelicalism for years to come. Here they are:

  • God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.
  • Man is sinful and separated from God, thus he cannot know and experience God’s plan for life.
  • Jesus Christ is God’s provision for man’s sin through whom man can know God’s love and plan for his life.
  • We must receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord by personal invitation. [Source]

So evangelicals began to perceive life itself as simply a prelude to Heaven. These “Spiritual Laws” codified that thinking. The mindset behind those laws couldn’t even conceive of life having any meaning outside of Jesus-ing. That was a startlingly new idea for evangelicals — I don’t see it in pre-1950 writings much at all, if at all. Before that, Christians — even evangelical Christians — lived life and went to church and enjoyed stuff just like everyone else.

But it was an idea they embraced very quickly. Afterward, they seemed incapable of enjoying anything on its own terms. Worse, they began to completely demonize anything that wasn’t completely focused on Jesus.

The Jesus Movement Becomes Canon.

By the late 1960s/early 1970s, this mindset had exploded into a huge trend: the Jesus movement. Sometimes its adherents are called Jesus people or even Jesus freaks. (When I first heard the last term in the 1980s as an evangelical, we didn’t consider it pejorative. We thought it was funny and quite descriptive.)

In gaming terms, evangelicals wanted to really live their Happy Pretendy Fun Time Game. They wanted it to be a 24/7 LARP. It couldn’t just be this thing you did on weekends, this thing that generally informed your thinking and hopefully your behavior. No, it had to consume your whole life!

So evangelicals loved the Jesus Movement precisely because it was so immersive and all-or-nothing. They learned to inject Jesus-ification into every single thing they did, thought, bought, and breathed. Nothing could exist outside of Jesus. Remember the funny song “Put a Bird on It” from Portlandia?


“Put a Bird on It!” (2017)

Well, evangelicals decided to “put a Jesus on it.” All of it. If it lacked sufficient Jesus-ification, they didn’t want it. They lived life in an eternal Jesus juke. And that’s just how they liked it.

Luckily for them, tons of evangelical leaders stood by, along with countless hucksters, to help the flocks Jesus-ify their entire lives.

How Much Jesus Can We Add to Water Before It Crystallizes? UNKNOWN; ADD MORE.

By the time I came along into evangelicalism (in the mid-1980s), I learned to feel downright guilty for not injecting enough Jesus-ification into my life. I couldn’t just read a fantasy novel for the sake of it, go to a movie, or enjoy music that didn’t mention Jesus even once.

Here’s a 2012 Blimey Cow video describing the problem:


Blimey Cow, “The Problem With Christian Bands” (2012).

He’s got others where he talks about acceptable music needing to have a certain number of Jesuses-per-minute. Both complaints are still 100% accurate. And they were true back in the 1980s and 1990s as well.

Instead, I had to read Christian books and listen to Christian music.

Evangelical movies didn’t really exist yet that I knew of, so I was down to the weird China Cry and Satanically-panicky Hell’s Bells, if even those. After all, Pentecostal leaders forbade all movies as well as TV.

(Of course, in reality plenty of awful evangelical movies existed. We’ve even reviewed all of the Thief in the Night movies.)

For years, then, I tried hard to ignore just how awful Christian media is compared to the secular sources it imitates so badly.

Even having hobbies was frowned upon if they took too much time away from Jesus-ing as hard as I could. Sewing and cooking were okay if it produced clothes I could wear or meals for my family, but video games were right out and so were any solo hobbies not strictly geared toward what we called “spiritual growth.”

After I got married, even sex had to be considered through this lens. I’m not kidding. It couldn’t be too fun or perverted. Instead, it was supposed to reflect the relationship of Jesus to his church.

Finally, Biff had an excuse for his ineptitude.

Where My Jesus Obsession Finally Got Me.

And slowly, slowly, my world constricted further and further. I was supposed to be enjoying life more because I had the real-deal faith. But instead, I was getting more and more miserable.

I had to gauge everything through the lens of how it’d help or hinder what we called a “Christian walk.” My leaders promised that correct Jesus-ing would result in joy. So naturally, I assumed that The Big Problem Here was that I wasn’t quite where I needed to be, beliefs-wise.

You guessed it. I decided I needed something even more immersive than what I currently had.

That’s how I very nearly ended up in a Waco cult around 1992. The leader of this cult knew exactly how to ensnare young adults like me: he threw around phrases like the cloud has moved, and then implied that if we wanted to stay under the cloud of our god’s favor, we had to join his communal farm. Then, people like me would finally find what we sought.

He just knew it. 

Certainty means everything in movements based on false claims. So conjobs like that guy can win a lot of converts just by pushing as hard as they can on bluster.

… And What Happened After.

I’m just glad I snapped out of this extremist mindset before getting badly hurt by a cult. That’s when I seriously pulled back to critically examine what this thinking had gained me — and all that I’d lost through it.

I ended my evangelical phase at last a year later. Finally, I limped away from Christianity. I escaped with a scorching case of PTSD, a messy divorce from a narcissistic stalker, and an anger-management problem. Even so, I still think I got off lightly. That stuff’s all fixable, or at least manageable.

And it didn’t even take long to discover what real joy was all about — and to learn to enjoy things for their own sakes and on their own terms, not for what they said about any imaginary friends.

(See also: The God-Shaped Wound.)

False beliefs can obscure the truth, sometimes for a long time. But once we shed those beliefs, we become primed to perceive reality at last. We can then finally pursue real joy. In fact, contrary to what C.S. Lewis preaches in The Great Divorce, contrary even to its entire legacy to evangelicalism, reality contains about the only real joy there is.

Christians have it backwards: What their religion offers is actually the sad counterfeit here.

NEXT UP: LSP! Then: Oh, wow, the Southern Baptist Convention just keeps looking worse and worse with their handling of their massive sex-abuse megascandal. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. She lives with an adored and adoring husband named Mr. Captain and a sweet, squawky orange tabby cat named Princess Bother Pretty Toes. At any given time, she's running out of bookcase space. You can read more about the author here.

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