David begins his excellent review of Wayne Martindale’s Beyond the Shadowlands: C.S. Lewis on Heaven and Hell by highlighting a conundrum. He wonders whether he should recommend Martindale’s book to “those who have read a lot of Lewis or to those who have never read him.” To that conundrum, I answer a resounding “neither.”
Martindale takes two approaches in his exposition of Lewis’s notions of heaven and hell. In the first approach he uses Lewis’s works to dispell certain myths about heaven and hell, myths that apparently Martindale thinks prevail in much of our thinking. These include ideas such as, “We’ll be ghosts in heaven (or hell),” “Heaven is escapist thinking,” and “All the interesting people will be in hell.” In the second approach, he explicates Lewis’s views on heaven and hell using his fictional works, demonstrating how Lewis uses myth to increase our longing for heaven.
Martindale highlights two currents that run throughout Lewis’s position on the afterlife. The first is that our desire for heaven needs strengthening. Fundamentally, we are more interested in the things of this life than the next, and find evil more attractive than goodness, which is nothing less than a perverted understanding of ‘reality.’ It is in The Screwtape Letters, I believe, that Lewis writes that one of Satan’s biggest coups was getting us all to describe the horrors of war as “real,” while dubbing the joys of watching small children play “strictly sentimental.”
The second current Martindale continues to return to is that for Lewis, we decide where we will spend eternity. Martindale highlights the various dodges Lewis makes on the relationship between freedom and predestination–he seems to suggest in Perelandra that they are two senses of the same referent–“Predestination and freedom were apparently identical.” Regardless, Lewis is clear that our respective eternities are determined by who we are and nothing else. As Martindale writes:
One of the central truths of [The Great Divorce] is that Heaven is the fulfillment of human potential, Hell is the drying up of human potential. “To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter Hell is to be banished from humanity. What is cast (or casts itself) into Hell is not a man: it is ‘remains'”.
Ultimately, Hell is the ‘leaving alone’ of man by God, which ‘unmans’ him.
All of this, Martindale makes clear, but for someone with extensive knowledge of Lewis’s books, the time spent with Martindale is largely unhelpful. Though there were moments of new insight into Lewis’s works (his explication of ‘Til We Have Faces was particularly helpful), Martindale’s book is ultimately an attempt to sythesize ideas that are not very difficult to grasp from their original source. Even for my students (who have a decent amount of Lewis on their reading list) there will be few ideas in Martindale’s book that they will not already be familiar with.
For those who have never read any Lewis, Martindale’s book may be helpful, but I am doubtful. It would be difficult to follow his analyses of Lewis’s fiction without exposure to it. You can gather from Martindale’s book who each character is, but my hunch is that Martindale’s book would lack explanatory power that it otherwise has. Martindale seems to presume that his reader knows who, for instance, Reepicheep is (mentioning only once that “Mice run by instinct” and leaving it to the reader to make the clear inference that Reepicheep is a mouse). Martindale’s book would seem most effective for someone with some exposure to Lewis’s fiction, but who has only given it a cursory reading and not reflected about it at all. This, however, is neither the completely ignorant or the very familiar.
Ultimately, Martindale’s book is the sort of book that points beyond itself, and in this case points toward Lewis. This always makes me wonder whether it is really worth reading, or whether my time would be better spent simply reading Lewis. Martindale would obviously agree with this: Lewis would probably not, since he also points beyond himself to the real masters: Plato, Scripture, Augustine, Aquinas, etc. In this way, Martindale shares the humility of Lewis. Martindale has sat under his teacher, and now we must choose whether to sit under him or to join him as Lewis’s pupils. If you are stretched for time (and who is not?), choose Lewis. The delights there are deeper and richer. If you can not yet comprehend Lewis, then let Martindale be your guide, for he is a faithful student and a clear teacher.