C.S. Lewis wrote about grass “as hard as diamonds” that wouldn’t bend when the protagonist of his story walked among the trees in a forest glade. Each blade was like a nail. At the same time a bird pushed the grass aside and was spattered by dew that had been as firm as glass to the man’s feet. The man was a phantom while the bird was as real as a robin in a summer garden.
Lewis’s story, The Great Divorce—which isn’t at all about marriage—is an extended parable about the divide between heaven and earth. He could have titled it The Bus Ride as he set out a picture of earthly travelers being transported to heaven. And once they arrive they find heaven to be utterly uninviting. It’s too real! So they soon re-board the bus and leave heaven behind.
Lewis, when he wrote his intriguing story, was aware of the insights of Augustine and others before him who treated sin as privatio—a privation or dissolution of reality. The point these writers shared is that all sin is “unreal”—existing only as a distortion of God’s good creation.
Their underlying insight is that God created everything as good—so that evil was not a part of God’s original creation. Yet the possibility existed for distorting goodness by twisting it: by turning each goodness into evil. And the ultimate twisted figure, Satan, uses this device—“the Lie”—to pose a distorted counter-reality at every point of God’s reality.
Eating, for instance, is good. So enjoying a meal is part of God’s goodness. But evil violates this reality through gluttony or anorexia. And sexuality within the marriage of a husband and wife is good, but once it’s removed from his designed setting it dissolves the integrity and beauty God intended for it. And so on ad nauseam.
Broadly speaking, then, the world is filled with fantasies that displace the reality of God’s true goodness. The spirit who “is now at work among the sons of disobedience” has spread a cloak of illusions and delusions among his followers. Jesus, in turn, promised his followers—any who would “abide in my word”—a new freedom from Satan’s privations of truth and reality. I’m pointing to Ephesians 2:1-3 & John 8:30-59 here.
What Lewis offered in his vivid story is an application—a way to see the difference between good and evil—by portraying privatio-devoted humans as phantoms. They believe they are real when, in fact, they’re actually becoming more and more ghostly by avoiding God’s ways.
So what of our present world? With new technologies and virtual entertainments we’re more fantasy-based than ever. With more time spent with digital screens than with flowers, birds, and real people. Is it, perhaps, time to start gardening instead? To set aside some of each day for mowing our lawn, or planting some flowers? Or to shut off our devices as we meet with others over coffee? It’s only by way of “real” relations and behaviors that virtual realities start to lose their power. Once we have our compassion reawakened we start to be set free from inauthentic living.
One rich option is to begin each day with thirty minutes of Bible reading and listening—using an audio Bible and underlining verses on a real paper text. Jesus, after all, invited us to “abide” in his words, in his love, and in his self-disclosing realities—and the Bible is as real as it gets. God’s truth in Christ starts to transform us from the phantom figures of Lewis’s story into those who are ready to walk in the heavenly reality God has in store for all who love him.
Try gardening and reading for three or four months—or for a lifetime. And include a verse-sharing meeting with a partner each week. I’m sure those around you—family and friends—will start to see you emerge as a real person with more clarity and presence than ever comes from what the world offers us.
And be reminded that Lewis was right. Walking on real grass will be much more enjoyable than ever before!
Thanks for this rich post, Ron. I’ve been finding this view of sin as privatio so helpful – and practical – recently, it’s on display all around us when we have eyes to see it.
This reminds me that it is high time I re-read “The Great Divorce” again!
Experiencing God through His Word daily provides the ultimate reality in which is found real freedom. I feel lost if I am too rushed to at the beginning of my day to take time to read my Bible and pray. There is something about seeing thru God’s lense that brings anticipation and appreciation as my day unfolds before me which is planned by my Lord.
I read The Great Divorce quite a while ago and your words make me want to take another trip through the pages. Thank you for your thoughs, Judy
Yes to both of you … Lewis is such a good stir on this topic, even today! Especially as we have so much fantasy in play as entertainment and even in our wishful thinking.