(Note: This article contains spoilers for C. S. Lewis’s “Perelandra.”)
BreakPoint recently released its summer reading list, and a number of books by the prolific and Christian author C.S. Lewis were included. Among them was a set of books known collectively as The Space (or Cosmic) Trilogy, suggested by Shane Morris. (Chuck Colson’s list of favorite books also contains the third book in this trilogy, “That Hideous Strength.”) The second book in this trilogy, “Perelandra,” is one that I have recently read myself. Toward its ending can be found a fascinating description of how the first woman and man in this world appear after they have overcome a time of temptation—a description that, if given due consideration, invites some fascinating lines of theological thought.
First, some background is necessary. “Perelandra” is named for the planet on which it is set, a world we know as Venus. Perelandra is primarily aqueous, and the majority of land is amorphous, constantly conforming to the shape of the water on which it floats. It is on this land that the world’s first man and woman—referred to as the “King” and “Queen,” “Lady,” or “Mother” respectively—must spend their nights, staying away from what is referred to as the “fixed land.”
It is to this world that the novel’s protagonist, Ransom, is sent to wage a war for the heart and mind of the Mother, battling against a Satanic figure in the process. Eventually, and with much turmoil, this figure is overcome, and the Mother succeeds where humanity’s own mother and father failed so long ago, choosing to obey the directives of her Creator.
As the King and the Queen make their way to meet Ransom and angelic representatives on the top of a mountain, something strange occurs. The planet, on which the sun cannot be seen and which is lit evenly, experiences an intensifying of its light:
Ransom's eyes had grown so used to the tinted softness of Perelandrian daylight . . . that he had quite ceased to notice its difference from the daylight of our own world. It was, therefore, with a shock of double amazement that he now suddenly saw the peaks on the far side of the valley showing really dark against what seemed a terrestrial dawn. A moment later sharp, well-defined shadows -- long, like the shadows at early morning -- were streaming back from every beast and every unevenness of the ground and each lily had its light and its dark side. Up and up came the light from the mountain slope. It filled the whole valley. The shadows disappeared again. All was in a pure daylight that seemed to come from nowhere in particular. He knew ever afterwards what is meant by a light “resting on” or “overshadowing” a holy thing, but not emanating from it. For as the light reached its perfection and settled itself, as it were, like a lord upon his throne or like wine in a bowl, and filled the whole flowery cup of the mountain top, every cranny, with its purity, the holy thing, Paradise itself in its two Persons, Paradise walking hand in hand, its two bodies shining in the light like emeralds yet not themselves too bright to look at, came in sight in the cleft between two peaks, and stood a moment with its male right hand lifted in regal and pontifical benediction, and then walked down and stood on the far side of the water.
Ransom’s reaction is also important to note:
There was great silence on the mountain top and Ransom also had fallen down before the human pair. When at last he raised his eyes from the four blessed feet, he found himself involuntarily speaking though his voice was broken and his eyes dimmed. “Do not move away, do not raise me up,” he said. “I have never before seen a man or a woman. I have lived all my life among shadows and broken images. Oh, my Father and my Mother, my Lord and my Lady, do not move, do not answer me yet. My own father and mother I have never seen. Take me for your son. We have been alone in my world for a great time.”
The distinction Lewis uses this scene to make is between what it means to be innocent and what it means to be virtuous. Up until this part of the book, Ransom has been in constant contact with the Queen. She is fully innocent, given but one command—“Do not sleep on the fixed land”—which she has not broken. At no point until the very end, though, has Ransom so strongly reacted to her presence. At no point has she shone like the sun. Why does she now?
The answer is simple: She has chosen the good. Her choice to obey God (Maleldil, as He is known on that world) was not a choice between two once-occurring actions, sleeping on the fixed land or not sleeping on the fixed land, but between two extremes with long-lasting consequences. She will either love Maleldil fully, or she will lovely Him only partially in, as Ransom puts it, a broken and shadowy way. She is innocent of both good and evil before she chooses either. When she chooses good, though, she can no longer be innocent. She must be something more, something greater than innocent. Her choice has led to her being made more than what she could ever be on her own.
We are in the exact opposite position today. Rightly does Ransom call us “shadows and broken images” of what we were meant to be. No longer innocent, we have made the opposite choice; we have joined with the ill instead of with the good, and dire consequences have resulted.
The good news is that we have been given the power by Christ to live virtuous lives while waging a daily war against the internal evil we have embraced. Let us not, though, confuse this with living an innocent life. Living an innocent life is no longer something we can do. Freedom from guilt is not the goal (we will always be guilty in this life); new life in Christ is. Pontius Pilate, when he washed his hands of Christ’s death, was attempting to make himself innocent. In doing so, though, he allowed his soul to take the direction the human soul always takes without a conscious motion toward the good—a path toward evil.
This was certainly a distinction Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood when he worked against the Nazi state. To be “innocent” was to be complicit; to be innocent was to be evil. Martin Luther, too, understood this when he proclaimed that one ought to “be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.” If we as the church obsess over innocence, we will miss what we ought to be doing. If, though, we pursue virtue in the power of Christ, then we can do great things in the world.
It’s like playing soccer or basketball. If you focus only on goal-scoring, your defense will lapse and you will likely give up goals. If you focus only on defense, you will find it very difficult to score at all. However, if you focus on the things that are central to the sport—passing, teamwork, intelligent possessions—it is far more likely that you will do well.
The Christian walk is much the same. If you focus on any one aspect, such as being free from error and therefore guilt, you are far more likely to fall into just such an error. However, if you focus on Christ, there may be games where you give up some goals, there may be games where you find it hard to score, but you will win far more often. To focus on Christ, to work toward the virtuous life, and to obsess over a pursuit of holiness instead of a pursuit of innocence is, as Lewis so eloquently illustrates, what a Christian ought to do.
Ben Taylor is marketing and program assistant for the Colson Center and a student at The College of Wooster.
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