How Can the Gods Meet Us Face to Face?
It would be easy for someone to gauge how much I’ve enjoyed a book by examining its pages. My favorite books are filthy with brackets and underlines, cluttered with exclamation points and question marks jotted into the margins. I’ve drawn hearts next to bleak and beautiful passages of Hemingway, double underlined paragraphs of Tolstoy’s prose and in bursts of frenzied emotion, furiously scribbled commentary into the margins of the editorial section of The Daily Cal. When I began reading Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, I expected much of the same; a few moments of discovery, an “Aha!” here and there and, if it’s really good, something that might alter the way I see the world. But after finishing Book One of the two-book novel, I realized I hadn’t scribbled a single line. Passages of this story spoke such truth that I had squirmed, tried to turn away and ultimately forgot to breathe as my pen sat idly beside me. It felt as if Lewis had written the story solely for me and to underline those passages would be to acknowledge my union with the jealous and prideful narrator, to recognize the wicked nature that we share. The task of examining my life in such a way was more difficult than writing “No, you’re wrong!” on a copy of the newspaper before throwing it away. But obviously Lewis didn’t write it only for me and I think it will make you squirm a little too. The writer and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterson wrote, “Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity1” and Till We Have Faces is this sort of necessary fiction that doesn’t only alter our perspective but has the power to call into question who we are and what we live for.
I had been familiar with Lewis’ uncanny ability to slice directly into what lies in the human heart from his works Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters, but I was unprepared for the richness of his story of one woman’s misplaced love couched within a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. Though it remains one of his lesser-known works, Lewis considered this complex and multi-layered novel his best.
The story is told from the point-of-view of Orual, Psyche’s ugly older sister who is mounting her case against the gods for the misery they’ve caused in her life. Though its setting is primitive Europe and the characters royal, you should read this book because Orual’s story is our story. The first book ends with Orual questioning the gods, “Why silence?” she asks, but receives no response. While she attempts to cover the ugliness of her face with a veil and the ugliness of her failures with success, glory, and respect, inside she remains the same wretched Orual. She destroys the people she loves and causes the death of a man she believes herself to be in love with because of her selfishness and inability to see beyond herself and notice their more significant needs. Orual’s neglect of personal relationships is poignant, especially in light of recent descriptions criticizing our society as suffering from a “Narcissism Epidemic”2. If we, like Orual, devote endless energy to cultivating images of ourselves as successful and respected individuals, we will quickly disregard the depth of pain those around us suffer.
When Orual questions the gods about the purpose of her anguish and the seeming meaninglessness of life, the reader can’t help but support her in her resentment. Why would the gods make her suffer such loneliness? Why would they tempt her and lead her into destruction? Why would they refuse to give her an answer? But in reality, Orual’s questioning is born of stubbornness and a refusal to bow to anyone’s will but her own. She refuses to recognize the power of anyone above herself, especially a god’s, and her relentless interrogations only serve as weak justification so that she may avoid the truth—that in fact, she is responsible for the tragedies that plague her life and the heartbreak of the people around her. Orual is devastatingly relatable—that certain ugliness which resides within her resides within me too, and I think most have experienced this internal struggle. That’s what makes Lewis’ portrayal so convicting and why it was so difficult for me to acknowledge my union with her by underlining those passages. Lewis has made Orual into the perfect picture of sinful man and she is intimately relatable to each of us because we have all fallen short of righteousness and missed the mark. I would naturally like to ignore Orual, distance myself from this lustful, greedy and prideful character in an attempt to mask my own evil, but I don’t have to. I can recognize my unity with her because I’ve been given a way out.
In Book One during a moment of tragedy, one of the king’s soldiers laments, “I wonder do the gods know what it feels like to be a man.” Though his question doesn’t receive an answer, Christians can say with confidence and joy that God does know what it feels like to be a man. He knows what it is to be born a lowly birth, live a perfect life and die the worst death (2 Corinthians 5:21). He knows how it is to feel forsaken and lonely (Matthew 27:46) and because of Him we need not hide behind our veils, we can remove them without fear of rejection or condemnation (Romans 8:1). He takes our dirty rotten insides—our lust, greed, pride and guilt and makes them pure as snow (Isaiah 1:18). For though all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, through faith in Christ Jesus we have been justified freely by His grace. And when we ask the Lord, “Why silence?” He need not give us an answer because, as Orual finally comes to understand, “Before your face questions die away.”
1 Chesterton, G. K. The Defendant. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1901. Print.
2 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2009. Print.
Micaela is a first-year Comparative Literature major who is diligently completing her quest to visit each library on campus and every coffee shop in Berkeley.Tags: CS Lewis, faith, GK Chesterton, grace, Jesus, joy, literature, loneliness, love, mythology, narcissism, pride, sin, Till We Have Faces