Shadowlands

Written by William Nicholson
Directed by Tim Gregory

At Provision Theater in Chicago

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on Mar. 13, 2011



Shadowlands is a love story, a tragic love story, based on the real-life romance between C.S. Lewis, the Christian Anglo-Irish author of The Chronicles of Narnia, and Joy Gresham, a Jewish-American poetess who converted to Christianity from atheism and became an enthusiast of Lewis' work. The play follows Lewis' personal transformation as he comes to realize that pain, which he'd been lecturing to enraptured audiences is "God's megaphone to rouse a deaf world", is much harder to endure than it is to rationalize.

As a love story, it's predictable but believable. And as a tragic love story, it's quite touching. Although there are those who treat this play as a Christian apologetic, or even as soft evangelism, I believe they're oversimplifying it. This is a chronicle of two professing Christians who, insofar as their faith permits, are also critical thinkers. The play succeeds in showing us how an intellectually esoteric question can harden into an emotionally intimate reality that changes the course of a person's life, especially a person intelligent enough to respect logic and to recognize the limits of his or her own knowledge about the universe.

Brad Armacost, who portrayed Lewis, connected an academic enigma to its emotional ramifications, an achievement that proved to be the single greatest strength in his performance. We expect a man of letters of Lewis' stature to have confidence in his own conclusions, especially those that have come from questions he's been cogitating for many years. Armacost's Lewis was sure that God permitted suffering in order to jolt us out of moral lassitude. He had an air of comfortable certainty tinged with the subtle hesitancy of someone who isn't fully satisfied with his own explanation. This was difficult acting, but Armacost established and maintained a detectable background anxiety for Lewis, an anxiety that arose from the dissatisfaction of a very smart man who couldn't reconcile what he knew to be true with what he wanted to be true.

The esoteric question that lies at the center of our protagonist's struggle is the prima facie contradiction between the notion of a perfectly good god and the existence of suffering in the world. The following two premises summarize that contradiction.

(1) God exists, and he is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good.
(2) People suffer.

Premise 2 seems to negate premise 1, implying that God doesn't, in fact, exist. Therefore, trying to retain his faith (premise 1) while acknowledging an undeniable truth (premise 2), Lewis makes an attempt at harmonization by supplying missing information, in this case, that God uses suffering as a means to wake his children out of complacency. The aporia in this contradiction is what brings our protagonist to his knees later in the story. The thrust of the play, whether or not the author intended it so to be, is less the startling difference between the safety of theory and the vulnerability of reality, than it is Lewis' reaction to that difference. Lewis begins comfortable in his well-ordered life but finishes anxious in a state of confused dismay. The power in this narrative isn't that Lewis fails to solve the puzzle, but that he modifies 1 such that even if the puzzle remains debatable, the apparent contradiction becomes emotionally tolerable for him. But to reach that point, Lewis must trudge through some thick emotional pain that exposes the vulnerability not only in his own soul, but also in his own argument.

Viewing the contradiction of 1 and 2 aporetically, the believer might still insist that God exists and that the premises, though plausible at first glance, are faulty. For example, two debatable assumptions behind 1 and 2 are

(3) that a perfectly good being would always prevent suffering insofar as it could, and
(4) that there are no limits on an omnipotent being's abilities.

Of course, the atheist's argument is rather more simple. At its heart, says he or she, religious belief is inherently irrational; therefore, 1 and 2 are irreconcilable, especially as the conjunct of 2, 3, and 4 render 1 false. But the believer's or the nonbeliever's response notwithstanding, it's possible to argue that 1 and 2 don't explicitly contradict each other, given further rules connecting good, suffering, and omnipotence that would solve the problem. One such reason is this:

(5) A perfectly good being who permits or causes suffering can be perfectly good if and only if there is a morally compelling reason for his action.

Thus, if God has compelling or morally sufficient reasons for permitting suffering, then his perfect goodness stands. To keep the contradiction between 1 and 2, we'd have to maintain that it's impossible for an omniscient, omnipotent being to have a morally compelling reason for permitting suffering; such a reason would be an excuse that lacks plausibility because it implies either ignorance or weakness in the agent in question. And when that agent is the creator of the universe, the theological fallout is rather heavy. So, if God does have a compelling reason to permit suffering, then he's clearly a moral agent whose activities are governed by moral obligations. And if God is perfectly good, he meets his obligations. Nevertheless, to make this claim is to subordinate God to whatever force in the universe imposes those obligations upon him. How, then, could he be omnipotent?

Armacost never imputed to Lewis a contentment around this contradiction by the adoption of 5. His Lewis was not convinced that God bears no responsibility for suffering, and this reservation underscored the principle that sincerity is essential to religious belief. Faith requires sincerity, and sincerity follows from evidence. One doesn't choose to believe something. After all, one doesn't jump from an airplane without being fairly certain that the parachute will open. And one doesn't have faith in God without an a priori reason for doing so. There's a great difference between trusting and gambling. Belief follows from reasoning, be it primitive, maturing, or sophisticated, reasoning that leads to a state of assurance to some degree, even if it doesn't meet the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard. Armacost made this point crisply by showing the kernel of uncertainty in Lewis' mind from the beginning, before he met Joy, and then later by releasing Lewis' despondency after his confrontation with brutal reality where even well-cultivated theories face their toughest test. The Bible says that faith is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen", but it also advises that "ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free". Knowledge precedes freedom.